Dark cloud over Myanmar

Dark cloud over Myanmar

My first feeling after waking up last Monday and hearing about the military takeover in Myanmar is hard to explain, but it was certainly disappointing to see such a setback for Thailand's next-door neighbour.

For many people, disappointment turned to anger in the afternoon of the same day. Myanmar expatriates who gathered outside their country's embassy in Bangkok were joined by Thai pro-democracy activists who clashed with police.

Certainly, what is happening in Myanmar is a shame for its citizens, who had grown more hopeful about a transition to democracy. But we should not let events in other countries, regardless of how close a relationship Thailand has with them, lead to conflict on our own soil. I'm sure many Thais agree with this.

Senior figures across Southeast Asia were predictably cautious in their initial response to the coup. Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon said it was Myanmar's "domestic issue". That sentiment was echoed by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. "Cambodia does not comment on the internal affairs of any country at all, either within the Asean framework or any other country," said the strongman who deposed his elected coalition partner in 1997 and has been in power ever since.

In the Philippines, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the events in Myanmar were "an internal matter that we will not meddle with". Singapore urged all parties involved to show restraint, adhere to democratic principles and work toward a peaceful solution.

Malaysia and Indonesia on Friday called for a special meeting of Asean to deal with the issue, but don't hold your breath for that to happen. Brunei, the current Asean chair, realised that saying nothing could damage the credibility of the bloc, so it called for dialogue, reconciliation and the "return to normalcy" in Myanmar.

But what is happening in Myanmar is a bitter blow to the wider region, where democratic progress has faltered recently. Some even say Asean values economic benefits more than democracy and human rights.

In Thailand, the youth-led reform movement is struggling to expand its base, with many of its leaders now facing the prospect of long prison terms if they are convicted under the lese majeste law. Malaysian reformers, meanwhile, have been sidelined by the return of old-style coalition politics. The 2018 election that toppled the long-entrenched regime seems like a distant memory.

Vietnam has gone from a system of limited power sharing at the top to increased concentration under newly reappointed Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, while Indonesia is viewed as becoming increasingly illiberal under President Joko Widodo.

Certainly, the economy and the people of Myanmar will have to bear the brunt of the fallout, which could come in the form of trade sanctions, boycotts and cuts in international aid. But the Tatmadaw, which is fiercely nationalist, does not care what anyone thinks. That even applies to China, which had built bridges with Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) in recent years.

But investors in the country do care and will be voting with their wallets. Amata Corp Plc, Thailand's largest industrial estate developer, has suspended work on its US$1-billion industrial complex outside Yangon, as it fears possible sanctions will drive investors away.

Japan's Suzuki Motor, the largest automaker in the country, halted operations at its two plants for two days to evaluate the situation, as did the Japanese auto parts maker Denso. Toyota Motor was planning to start production in Myanmar this month, but now it is monitoring the impact of the coup on its business, a company spokesman said. Australia's Woodside Petroleum said it would put some activities in Myanmar on hold, awaiting "further clarity".

Now everyone awaits to see how the US, under new President Joe Biden, responds, as a first test of his policies toward Asia. The White House and State Department initially expressed strong disapproval of the Tatmadaw's action and solidarity with the Myanmar people; however, there was no knee-jerk threat of sanctions or reducing the level of diplomatic representation.

It remains to be seen how strong the international backlash -- or the domestic resistance -- will become. One can only hope that Myanmar's most powerful institution can be persuaded to reverse the course it is now on, which will only push the country backward and destroy hope.

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