Myanmar’s top general Min Aung Hlaing is strangling a democracy. What will the west do about it?

The Guardian
The Guardian
Min Aung Hlaing Photograph: Reuters

Promoting democracy worldwide is an admirable ambition, unless of course you are a bloody-minded dictator and serial human rights abuser like Myanmar’s top general, Min Aung Hlaing. This coup leader and junta boss prefers brute force to ballot boxes.

While the US president, Joe Biden, hosts more than 100 countries at a virtual “summit for democracy” this week, Min Aung Hlaing and his Tatmadaw troops will be busy killing civilians for demanding democratic rights, launching merciless attacks on villagers they call “terrorists” .

The contrast between what the US state department says the summit aims to do – counter authoritarianism, fight corruption, promote human rights – and the international community’s inability to do any of that in Myanmar could not be starker. Hong Kong, Sudan, Iran, Nicaragua – there are numerous examples of countries where democracy has been subverted or extinguished. Yet Myanmar stands out.

After decades of repression, a democratic transition began in 2011. Progress was slow and imperfect. But there were elections and reforms. Political prisoners were released, free speech flourished.

Then up popped Min Aung Hlaing, a thuggish throwback in a neatly pressed uniform, determined to protect the military’s power base and corrupt business interests.

February’s coup , and the detention of elected leaders, led to huge street protests and increasing army violence. More than 1,100 people have since been killed and tens of thousands jailed or forced to flee. Armed resistance is growing, creating a many-fronted, Syria-like civil war .

Myanmar is a textbook case of an aspiring democracy crushed underfoot by a tyrant. It symbolises the global struggle for political pluralism, progressive values, and supposedly universal rights that the democracy summit hopes to advance. It is also a litmus test. Will Biden’s well-intentioned waffle-fest, as critics characterise it , make any real difference? If democracy’s champions cannot resolve an open-and-shut case such as Myanmar, they may as well abandon their Zoom session and switch to PlayStation.

Myanmar’s plight has exposed chronic weaknesses in an international, United Nations-based system that should, in theory, provide remedies.

In June, for example, 119 countries backed a resolution in the UN general assembly strongly condemning the junta’s violence against civilians, demanding the release of political prisoners, including the National League for Democracy’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi , and calling for an international arms embargo.

More recently, the UN refused official recognition to Min Aung Hlaing’s regime, effectively denying its legitimacy. And more than 500 civil rights groups urged the security council to act to halt escalating violence in Chin state, a centre of resistance.

Despite punitive media restrictions, resourceful local groups continue to report unfolding atrocities. Last week it emerged that thousands of civilians had fled deadly helicopter-led attacks in the Sagaing region , where villages have been set ablaze.

Sagaing is another rallying point for groups loosely allied to the multi-ethnic, anti-regime People’s Defence Force. Pro-democracy opposition politicians (and British MPs ) back an alternative national unity government (NUG).

According to international investigators, recorded “ widespread and systematic ” junta assaults on civilians amount to crimes against humanity. UN special rapporteur Tom Andrews warns more “mass atrocity crimes” are likely.

Growing chaos under military rule has also brought an economic slump, deepening poverty , and high Covid-19 infection rates. In an echo of the Rohingya genocide of 2017 – also Min Aung Hlaing’s handiwork – many Burmese have fled to India, Bangladesh and Thailand , where they often suffer hardship.

And yet despite all that is known about the criminal nature of Min Aung Hlaing’s dictatorship, despite multiple accounts of murder, rape, torture and mass displacement, Myanmar’s agony goes unchecked.

If the west cannot bring itself to guarantee Ukraine’s sovereign democracy, struggling for air on its doorstep, what hope has Myanmar?

The US and EU have imposed limited sanctions. Jake Sullivan , Biden’s national security adviser, pledged support for the NUG. The habitually timid Association of Southeast Asian Nations took the unusual step of excluding Min Aung Hlaing from its latest leaders’ meeting.

And a joint statement last week by the US, UK and others expressed “grave concern over reports of ongoing human rights violations... including sexual violence and torture”. But all this justified outrage will signify little or nothing unless Min Aung Hlaing and his henchmen are stopped in their tracks. Of that, sadly, there is precious little sign.

As analyst Annabelle Heugas of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation notes , the explanation lies close to hand. China, Myanmar’s self-styled “big brother”, has a strategic interest in keeping a lid on a country where it has invested heavily and which falls within its notional “sphere of influence”.

While not necessarily approving Min Aung Hlaing’s behaviour, Beijing’s provision of diplomatic cover and military hardware stems from pragmatic political and commercial calculations, Heugas wrote.

Myanmar’s other big neighbour, India, worries that ostracising the junta would be a gift to its Chinese rival, so bites its tongue. Russia just wants to sell guns to the generals – and still does, because the UN’s arms embargo proposal is non-binding.

Biden’s summit, and a face-to-face follow-up next year, will examine ways to boost democracy in places such as Myanmar. One rather limp suggestion is an international alliance to counter online disinformation.

Evidently, there’s no magic wand. No amount of talking, or Asia-Pacific “pivots”, can alter geopolitical realities. In the post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan, post-intervention age, western democracies instinctively reject risky hard-power options – such as arming Myanmar’s opposition – especially where China or Russia are concerned.

If the west cannot bring itself to guarantee Ukraine’s sovereign democracy, struggling for air on its doorstep, what hope has Myanmar?

Min Aung Hlaing surely understands this. On Monday , a military-directed court is expected to sentence Aung San Suu Kyi , Myanmar’s elected leader, to jail on trumped-up charges.

This smirking defiance, this gross injustice – this affront to democracy – is dismaying and disgusting. Yet like countless other crimes committed daily in Myanmar, it will almost certainly go unpunished.

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