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When Autocrats Get it Wrong, What is the Moral Response?

09 Jun 2022
By Dr Matt Killingsworth and Professor Nicholas Farrelly
Min Aung Hlaing In June 2017.
Source:Vadim Savitsky, Wikimedia,

Russia and Myanmar are both run by strongmen who have judged that overwhelming violence can beat their opponents into submission. Responding to their aggression, and supporting democratic voices to prevail, requires careful attention to the values we hold.

In February 2021 Myanmar’s top military brass dusted off their old play book for an old-fashioned coup d’état, rolling out the tanks and commando squads. They sought to decapitate the democratically elected leadership and re-install themselves as supreme leaders. Within hours, the generals, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, were back in-charge.

Over the months that followed, the world watched in horror as conditions deteriorated, with thousands locked up, and countless more displaced or forced into hiding. The battle against this reinvigorated authoritarianism also ramped up quickly.

Outgunned by one of Southeast Asia’s largest military forces, opposition groups needed to get their hands on weapons and other supplies if they were to stand a chance. Myanmar’s anti-coup fighters have limited access to better weapons, relying, mostly, on what circulates in the region’s black markets.

By contrast, the Myanmar army, navy and air force benefit from deep connections with foreign suppliers of sophisticated military equipment. At the top of the list of valued partners is Russia, under President Putin, which has offered formidable weapons systems, including planes, helicopters, artillery, and rockets to Myanmar’s military elite.

Those same models of Russian equipment are now battling it out in the torrid war unfolding in Ukraine, where President Putin has demonstrated his contempt for the prevailing international order.

In the Ukraine war, western democracies have been much more energetic in their supply of weapons, intelligence, and training. President Zelensky, with a full democratic mandate to beat back the Russian invasion, faces none of the prickly questions of legitimacy facing Myanmar’s opposition forces – only some of which have ever stood for election.

What the situations have in common, however, is a profound miscalculation – in both cases a mistake made by strongmen convinced that, through force of will, and overwhelming violence, they will beat their opponents into submission.

Diplomatic contrasts

Further points of comparison are also illuminating. We can consider, for instance, the institutional responses of NATO and the EU, for the Ukraine crisis, and ASEAN, for Myanmar. The contrast is stark.

For NATO, and for the EU, the situation has, somewhat counterintuitively, served to strengthen both institutions. The European Union was deeply divided after Brexit, and facing internal crises generated by recalcitrant member states such as Poland and Hungary.

The EU was also, to differing degrees, still suffering from expansion fatigue. Yet since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU has offered to fast-track Ukraine’s membership, with only muted opposition from Austria, Germany, and Hungary.

A united Europe has also been able to pressure Germany, which had a historically-informed policy of never sending weapons to conflict zones, to reverse that policy, with Germany now promising to send anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft defence systems. Similar pressure has also lead Germany, who has a deep (and often criticised) reliance on Russian energy, to announce that it will cease its import of Russian gas and oil by the end of the year.

NATO, reeling and on the brink of collapse after four years of the Trump presidency, now appears stronger than at any time since its post-Cold war enlargement. The most visible sign of NATO’s new-found strength, however, is the decision by Finland and Sweden, to apply for membership, both citing Russia’s belligerence as the core rationale for their applications.

Russia claimed Ukraine’s move toward EU and NATO membership justified its invasion. Now, in what appears to be a disastrous miscalculation by Putin, the EU and NATO will be on Russia’s doorstep anyway.

Whereas, for ASEAN, there is much less to say about the diplomatic manoeuvring. While in April 2021, ASEAN agreed a 5-Polint Consensus to manage the Myanmar crisis, there has been little progress over the past year, and further deterioration of conditions on the ground.

Sadly, the Myanmar conundrum simply spotlights a deeper institutional weakness. The regional body struggles whenever internal conflicts, like in Myanmar, test its commitment to non-interference in domestic affairs. Some ASEAN leaders are clearly uncomfortable with the grouping’s inability to bring peace and stability to Myanmar. But they probably have few tools at their disposal.

How should we respond?

Both situations involve humanitarian catastrophes, which would seemingly make it possible for a Responsibility to Protect (R2P) intervention. R2P, although established with great fanfare in 2005, will almost always struggle against Security Council vetoes. In both Ukraine and Myanmar, it is a non-starter.

Similarly, the International Criminal Court, set-up specifically to hold perpetrators accountable for “crimes of concern to the international community as a whole,” has limited prospects. Neither Myanmar nor Russia are signatories to the Rome Statute, and efforts to refer Myanmar to the Court via the Security Council have been stymied by China.

While the Court has been able to investigate crimes in Myanmar via an investigation in Bangladesh, and open an investigation in Ukraine, both investigations will be hampered by lack of cooperation from Russian and Myanmar officials respectively.

So, we may need to ask, as Anne Applebaum did, whether the “Bad guys are winning?” In the cases of Myanmar and Russia, it appears so. But how can these autocrats be managed by the “good guys?” Existing diplomatic or judicial mechanisms are limited in their effectiveness.

Indeed, the rise of illiberalism in parts of the EU, the events of 6 January 2021 in the United States, and the British government’s “constitutional crisis” are all celebrated by autocrats as inherent weaknesses within the liberal democracies. So, what is our best response?

The moral response—in the face of our own institutional shortcomings—is for our democracies, wherever they are, to be better democracies and to make sure that our friends, whether in Ukraine or Myanmar or elsewhere, know that we won’t leave them to fight on alone.

Dr Matt Killingsworth is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Tasmania. He is co-editor of Violence and the State (Manchester University Press, 2015) and the forthcoming Civility, Barbarism and the Evolution of International Humanitarian Law: Who Do the Laws of War Protect? (Cambridge University Press). His current research focuses on the laws of war, international criminal justice and international order, and he’s a regular contributor to local and national media. He tweets at @mevanworth

Nicholas Farrelly is Professor and Head of Social Science at the University of Tasmania. He was previously Associate Dean of the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University where, from 2015-2018, he was founding Director of the ANU Myanmar Research Centre. In 2013 he co-edited a special issue of the Australian Journal of International Affairs on military coups in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.