Confronting tragic fragmentation
As much as Russia's invasion of Ukraine created a "before and after" reality in western politics, the Feb 1, 2021, coup has also created such a new reality for Myanmar. The coup was a massive miscalculation by the senior general of Myanmar. Almost two years into the conflict, it is clear that the military has lost control of much of the country, and it has lost much, if not all, of the international credibility it had the day before the coup was launched. The coup also triggered the emergence of new forms of resistance with the People's Defence Forces. But new forms of violence have also come to the fore, with retaliatory killings of individuals introducing new levels of fear.
The country is fragmenting into increasingly autonomous sub parts, and it is not clear how the state of Myanmar can ever be put back together again. While it could be argued that forms of governance can be found in the junta's State Administration Council (SAC) controlled areas and very much more so through the administrations of the ethnic armed organisations, more anarchic forms of governance are present in the centre of the country and in many of the urban centres. In the absence of acceptable and effective forms of central governance, communities are becoming increasingly dependent on unaccountable and rogue centres of power.
Myanmar is facing what could be called the classic and tragic political theory of fragmented governance, the Humpty-Dumpty dilemma. The breaking into pieces of a state with no clear sense of how it can be put together again; the SAC opting for full-scale destructive military domination and the democratic opposition lacking sufficient traction on the ground to bring the disparate pieces together.
It is critical for all those involved in Myanmar to change the lens used to look at the situation today. The challenges confronting Myanmar today are dimensionally more complicated than the pre-Feb 1 coup. This fragmentation of the country demands a new willingness to reflect, honestly debate, identify opportunities and develop realistic approaches. In this regard, it is essential that those within the advocacy who have been prone to do so let go of previous tendencies to ruthlessly attack any who challenged or disagreed with them. Space needs to be created for new approaches need to be found.
Key among them is supporting the populations of Myanmar through a multipronged multidimensional approach. It has to be acknowledged that a traditional humanitarian intervention, one adhering to humanitarian principles, will only reach a certain percentage of those in need, possibly no more than 20%. Far greater numbers could be reached through the direct support of ethnic administrations and local community structures. But engaging with civil society, ethnic and local community structures entails the willingness to take on greater political risk in providing support, and more importantly to be willing to move from funding measurable outcomes to supporting local governance processes.
And the United Nations in all of this? The UN has a major role to play in Myanmar, but unfortunately, it continues to fail. Two successive secretary generals commissioned reviews of glaring operational failures of the organisation. The two investigations (Report of the Secretary General's Internal Review Panel on United Nations Actions in Sri Lanka and A Brief and Independent Inquiry into the Involvement of the United Nations in Myanmar from 2010 to 2018) highlighted common dysfunctionalities. Separated by more than 10 years, they both reached exactly the same conclusions. The inability of the UN to come up with a coherent strategy meant that the organisation never operated to its full potential, and as a result, those it was set up to serve were abandoned.
The UN's lack of a coherent strategy for Myanmar has had real implications, its individual actions are not understood and end up being severely criticised.
The UN's in-country presence is seen as complicit to the regime. The absence of confidence in the UN has meant that the UN Special Envoy is criticised for the simple fact of meeting the senior SAC leadership rather than being scrutinised for what she was able to achieve, and the senior leadership in New York seems unable or unwilling to provide any form of overall leadership.
The UN really has to get its act together. The people of Myanmar and the UN's national staff need to get a sense of what the UN stands for.
Charles Petrie is former coordinator of the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative, former UN Assistant Secretary General, UN Resident & Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar (2003–2007) and the author of the internal review of the UN's failure in Sri Lanka.