Myanmar's twin crises loom
While the rest of the world continues to be preoccupied by Covid-19 and fallout from Russia-Ukraine war, the downward spiral of Myanmar continues. A once-promising frontier market risks slipping into a Sri Lanka-like economic crisis, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis created by the cruelty of its military junta.
The recent execution of four democracy activists has shocked the world and led to the possibility of further international isolation of the regime. Sentenced to death for "terror acts" in secretive trials in January and April, the men were accused of helping a civilian resistance movement that has fought the military since last year's coup.
Among those executed were former lawmaker and hip-hop artist Phyo Zeya Thaw, an ally of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and democracy campaigner Kyaw Min Yu, better known as Jimmy. The two others had been accused of killing a woman they alleged was an informer for the junta.
The hangings took place despite a plea from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen -- his country is this year's Asean chair -- who warned Myanmar authorities that they risked an international backlash otherwise.
Hun Sen's stand was noteworthy given that the Cambodian strongman is not exactly known for indulging dissent in his own country. Up to now his criticism of the junta had been muted, compared with Asean peers such as Malaysia and Singapore, and he even visited the country in January as the first head of government to make such a legitimacy-conferring gesture since the February 2021 coup.
The executions -- the first in Myanmar in more than 30 years -- sparked widespread condemnation globally. United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called them a "cruel and regressive step". Amnesty International declared the executions as "an enormous setback" and warned that the junta is "not going to stop there."
Indeed, the junta might only be getting started. Since the coup, 117 people have been sentenced to death, 76 of whom were in custody and 41 at large, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
Asean has issued a statement accusing the junta of a "gross lack of will" to engage with the 10-country bloc's efforts to facilitate dialogue between the military and its opponents
The United States last Monday vowed to work with regional allies to hold the military accountable for its cruelty. Washington is considering further measures and "all options" are on the table, said State Department spokesman Ned Price, who urged countries to ban sales of military equipment to Myanmar.
The world's harsh response to the executions could further isolate Myanmar, which has faced numerous sanctions since the coup as violence escalated and clashes have spread to more remote areas where ethnic minority insurgent groups are also fighting the military.
Inside Myanmar, economic conditions are dire. Since April, the regime has been cracked down on the use of foreign currencies to shore up dwindling international reserves, while cars and luxury-goods imports have been banned. The kyat lost a third of its value against the dollar last year as the coup triggered a freeze on foreign reserves held in the US and a suspension of multilateral aid -- both key sources of foreign currency supplies.
Last month, the Central Bank of Myanmar ordered firms with outstanding foreign loans to suspend repayments of those debts and adjust repayment schedules with foreign lenders.
The World Bank said in a report last week that Myanmar's economy remains fragile, as dollar shortages limit the availability of key imported products, resulting in price inflation, particularly among commodities.
Malayan Banking Bhd also warned in a report last week that the country is among the frontier-market economies where the likelihood of sovereign defaults is growing, as the ban on payments of private external debt suggests it may choose not to honour its obligations.
The executions will close off any chance of ending the unrest across Myanmar and thus shatter hopes of any peace agreement in a country that had briefly opened the door to partial democracy before its soldiers slammed it shut again.
As Myanmar edges towards civil war and bankruptcy, the immediate hope is for a cessation of violence, the release of all political prisoners and others arbitrarily detained, so that it can first regain its commitment to international norma. That could help the country avert its hardest economic crisis ever.
Acting Asia Focus Editor
Acting Asia Focus Editor