In June, the diplomacy turned surreal with the visit of Min Aung Hlaing to Moscow, where he was feted and kept furnished with arms in Vladimir Putin’s latest attempt to sow confusion and destabilize the American order. Even mighty China, which supposedly had the clout and influence with the Myanmar generals, has not moved the needle much.
Yet, despite the lack of progress, is there a reasonable pathway for the international community to influence the political outcome in Myanmar?
The “harsh reality” is that there is no appropriate diplomatic tool that can resolve the situation, retired senior Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, now chairman of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, argued in a July 24, 2021, opinion piece in The Straits Times newspaper. ASEAN, he advised, should take care not to “take on actions that are not in its interests or are beyond its capabilities”.
At a United Nations Security Council meeting on Myanmar on July 29, 2021, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, senior advisor for special political affairs at the US Mission to the UN, was scathing about the 15-nation panel’s failure to act. “This council is failing in our collective responsibility to safeguard international peace and security,” he concluded. “And it is failing the people of Burma. We must do more, and we must do more now”.
The two diplomats are right in suggesting that the international and regional architecture for resolving a domestic political crisis such as Myanmar’s is broken. For the last three years, the US and its regional partners, including the 15-member Lima Group, have attempted to displace Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela with little to show for their efforts. As a major oil producer located near the continental United States, Maduro would surely have been crushed during an earlier period when Washington was wont to take aggressive action in its neighborhood. Consider the cases of American covert and overt intervention in its hemisphere since the 1950s – Guatemala, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Nicaragua, Grenada and Panama.
Located thousands of miles away from the White House, resource-rich Myanmar does not have the same caché in foreign policy circles in Washington. And Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s saintly status has been much diminished by her handling of the Rohingya humanitarian crisis, which resulted in a major refugee emergency, mainly in next-door Bangladesh.
Individual and institutional sanctions imposed by the US Treasury will not have the same impact in Myanmar in the same way as it has in Venezuela’s heavily dollarized economy. Learning lessons from previous sanctions, the Myanmar Armed Forces, known as the Tatmadaw, has diversified its foreign exchange strategy and reduced its dependence on the dollar, with the Russian ruble and Chinese yuan being their preferred currencies. The military rulers are also astute in using barter to access foreign goods and services in exchange for natural resources. This stands in stark contrast to the streets of Yangon or Mandalay, where the dollar reigns. Further sanctions could drive greenback transactions underground, trigger a liquidity crunch, and hurt only Myanmar citizens who have resolutely protested the coup.
Global diplomatic disarray and further international isolation and sanctions may actually play to Min Aung Hlaing and the other generals’ favor, providing conditions that could cement their hold on power. The Tatmadaw have seen it all before. Between General Ne Win’s coup in 1962 and the pro-democracy protests of 1988 (which toppled the strongman from power), Myanmar shut itself from the rest of the world to implement the brutal “Burmese Way to Socialism”.