Why we need to care about Myanmar

Why we need to care about Myanmar

Myanmar is entering its fourth year since the Feb 1, 2021 military coup. Its multiple crises continue -- a mix of economic difficulties and a humanitarian catastrophe -- at a time when armed conflict, including anti-junta resistance, has now spread to most of its regions.

It's also a very different world, even compared to 2021. There is less international media attention on Myanmar. Asean continues to be dismissed by many when it comes to putting pressure on the junta -- called the State Administration Council (SAC) -- even if it has in the last few years used language and taken steps on the Myanmar crisis that it has not done before.

These include restricting the SAC's attendance at high-level summits, which is an "unprecedented" decision, says Moe Thuzar, coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme of the Singapore-based ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

There is value in Asean's role, "warts and all", as well as the need to find and use as many entry points as possible, she explains.

Are there points of hope? She said: "The determination of different, diverse communities and groups to forge a political future together, a recognition that they are all in it together, and the awareness of the need to discuss and find the way forward despite differences, and to break free of the narratives that the Myanmar military has tried to entrench over the past decades."

Reporting Asean's Johanna Son asks Moe Thuzar of the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute if there are points of hope and why we need to bring back the media spotlight to the Myanmar issue.

Q: Myanmar is much lower in the news agenda these days, internationally and even regionally. Part of that is due to the news cycle and how big mainstream media work, but on the third anniversary of the 2021 coup, what are your thoughts on this "fatigue" in interest and attention?

I think it is about how attention or focus gets distracted. For example, just around the coup's one-year mark, Russia's invasion of Ukraine drew much attention and anxiety.

And in October 2023, after the coup had entered a third year in February 2022, attention and interest in Operation 1027 was also distracted by what was happening in the Gaza Strip after the Hamas surprise attack.

For many countries in the West, Russia's invasion of Ukraine presented a more visible threat to regional stability and security there, and that act of aggression -- violating territorial sovereignty -- by a member of the P5 (Permanent Five, or the five permanent members of the UN Security Council), also had geopolitical implications.

By then (the coup's one-year mark) Asean's diplomatic interventions, and the unprecedented decision to limit the SAC regime's participation at high-level Asean meetings like the summits, and later, the Aswan foreign ministers' meetings, linking that decision to the SAC's failure to fully implement the Five-Point Consensus, had probably indicated to the international community at large that there was a regional organisation trying to deal with an internal challenge that has regional spillover impact.

Q: Myanmar's humanitarian needs continue to rise, but the UN has been receiving lower percentages of its fund requests at a time of more conflicts. Myanmar is also on several lists of crises to watch in the year. What does this lesser attention tell you, and what does that mean for those working to keep Myanmar on the agenda?

I think regional media still pay some attention, and what we all can do through our various analyses and commentaries is to keep the attention on why we all still need to care about Myanmar, for the people still caught in conflict situations, for those displaced by conflict, for those fleeing conflict and persecution, and for those in precarious situations facing threats to any or all of the dimensions of human security.

That Myanmar is on several lists of crises to watch this year shows some recognition of the multi-dimensional (and multi-year) nature of the ongoing crisis in Myanmar.

Q: Three years since the coup, how important to daily survival and life are resources coming from aid, humanitarian support -- food, health -- given the collapse of the state functions and the economic challenges in Myanmar? Could you tell us examples of what you hear from inside?

In December, the World Bank issued the second of its twice-yearly Myanmar Economic Monitor reports for 2023.

Just reading the Executive Summary shows a bleak picture -- deteriorating economic conditions exacerbated by the escalation of conflict, placing more pressure on any projected recovery.

There are falling incomes, falling living standards for the bulk of the people, and high inflation as a result of the falling exchange rate of the Myanmar kyat.

Power shortages have affected individuals and businesses (including the manufacturing sector). The FDI has reached a new low.

Q: I read, too, about the attempt to tax Myanmar people overseas. What do you read into the SAC's policy?

The recent decision reviving the requirement to pay tax by non-resident Myanmar nationals working overseas has been very unpopular, as for the past decade Myanmar workers overseas had been exempt from paying income tax.

All this is happening despite the SAC regime's attempts to try and deflect blame or to manipulate market forces to their advantage. So, I don't think there is much confidence in the regime's policy approach.

Q: Asean's Five-point Consensus is not seen as making much of a difference in post-coup Myanmar or in getting a degree of "cooperation" from the SAC, say, on humanitarian issues. Asean has taken steps it hasn't done before, but many have written it off. Your thoughts?

I think we need to think about what Asean -- as an intergovernmental organisation -- can or cannot do, and its usual decades-long practice of (and recourse to) informal regional diplomacy.

Past crisis situations in Myanmar, albeit not at the scale we have seen as a result of the 2021 coup, have inspired or motivated Asean to come up with creative ways of finding workable ways of constructive intervention (2008 Nargis, 2017 Rakhine crisis) and upholding Asean's principles.

The SAC's intransigence to Asean's regional diplomacy moves -- with particular regard to the Five-Point Consensus priority on cessation of violence -- has produced Asean's strongest language used with regard to the ongoing crisis situation in Myanmar.

The non-political representative criterion restricting the SAC leadership's attendance at Asean summits and/ or foreign ministers' meetings is unprecedented.

Q: What is the value of Asean's 5PC and level of engagement at this point?

Without the Five-Point Consensus -- warts and all -- Asean would not have a platform or mechanism to intervene in Myanmar, so we need to look at what other creative ways Asean can consider or come up with, using all channels of communication with different stakeholders, and available forms of diplomacy.

Asean summits in 2022 and 2023 have reviewed and given further recommendations related to Five-Point Consensus implementation, so we also need to see how the past, present and incoming Asean chairs can work to give effect to these recommendations.

Q: What is one issue that you find has been most misunderstood by outsiders about Myanmar, or the post-coup situation?

I think it would be about the complex decades-long civil war situation that has been going on and the aspirations for a more federal system of government.

Q: Looking ahead, what gives you hope?

The determination of different, diverse communities and groups to forge a political future together, a recognition that they are all in it together, and the awareness of the need to discuss and find a way forward despite differences, and to break free of the narratives that the Myanmar military has tried to entrench over the past decades.

The fact that the resistance against military rule has been sustained for the past three years points to that, as well as to a resilience upon which efforts for (and continued commitment to) a new political arrangement should continue to be based despite challenges. ©Reporting ASEAN

Johanna Son is editor-founder of the Reporting Asean series.

Johanna Son

Founder/editor of the Reporting ASEAN series

Johanna Son is founder/editor of the Reporting ASEAN series.


Do you like the content of this article?