The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
On February 1, the world woke up to find that the Tatmadaw—as Myanmar’s military is called—had launched a coup against the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. A decade-long experiment in constitutional democracy and civilian rule had come to an end. The coup has since sparked daily demonstrations and a growing casualty list, as the military shoots civilians in the streets. These events have recalled the 1988 student demonstrations against military rule, which precipitated a bloody crackdown that killed an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people.
Then, as now, Western governments felt compelled to punish the Tatmadaw to force it to mend its ways. But the sanctions that the United States and its allies imposed on Myanmar through the 1990s up to the end of the first decade of the 2000s, did nothing to change the junta’s behavior. They conjured up the illusion of principled action but failed to advance any strategic agenda.
In the wake of the February coup, Western powers must not return to the old script. They should give up any fanciful notion of a quick return to democracy. Instead, they must accept a slow transition back to civilian rule and cooperate with the Tatmadaw, which for all its bloody excesses remains an indispensable institution in Myanmar. The only peaceful way to guarantee a return to some form of civilian rule may well be to concede to the military’s main goal: the sidelining of the powerful and popular Aung San Suu Kyi. Should Western governments take an aggressive approach to the Tatmadaw, they risk losing the support of key partners, strengthening the stubborn resolve of the military, and causing more bloodshed and instability in the region.
After the February coup, Western governments immediately imposed further sanctions on Myanmar. But sanctions have proved to be a rather blunt instrument. Two decades of sanctions after 1988 achieved very little. Myanmar cannot be isolated because it will always have a backdoor to China, a side door to India, and the support of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which will not shun a neighbor and a member state. Moreover, the military has built a state within a state, largely impervious to both foreign and domestic pressures.
After 1988, ASEAN consistently told Western powers that blanket sanctions of the sort the West deployed against Myanmar would hurt only civilians, not the Tatmadaw, and that isolating Myanmar would erode Western influence in the country. But Western governments felt obliged to respond in some way to the 1988 massacre. The sanctions served primarily to maintain Western dignity and as a sop to domestic political pressures. A friend of mine, who was advising the foreign minister of a major Western power at the time, told me he had once asked his boss why the government had not heeded ASEAN’s advice. The cynical reply revealed tremendous indifference: “We’ll give this one to the NGOs.”
That insouciant attitude is no longer tenable. Again, the West needs to do something, and again, it has reached for sanctions. But new sanctions on the Tatmadaw serve little practical purpose: the military was already under sanctions over its treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority, and it can live with more of the same.
A dangerous impasse looms. As the military kills more protesters, the United States and its allies will face growing domestic demands to do more to force the military to change its behavior. The Tatmadaw has clearly miscalculated the extent of popular defiance to the coup. But it will not bow to foreign pressure. If outside powers resort to additional sanctions, they will succeed only in making it more difficult for the Tatmadaw to implement its own plan for the restoration of civilian rule and prolonging the crisis.
Southeast Asia is the epicenter of the U.S.-Chinese rivalry, making both Washington and Beijing wary of taking sweeping actions in Myanmar. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the United States and its European allies considered Myanmar to be strategically irrelevant and pursued policies that pushed the Tatmadaw toward China. But there is no natural affinity between the Tatmadaw and China.
Since Myanmar won independence in 1948, the Tatmadaw has continually fought insurgencies that were directly or indirectly supported by Beijing. The Tatmadaw distrusts China and has sought to broaden its strategic options by experimenting with constitutional civilian rule and courting democratic countries.
China was as surprised as any other country by the coup. Its attitude toward the State Administration Council—as the military junta calls itself—has been cool. China values stability and predictability, and the situation in Myanmar is now unstable and dangerously unpredictable. Moreover, Beijing had spent a great deal of effort cultivating the now deposed civilian government. Nevertheless, Chinese leaders are coldly pragmatic. They will go further than the West to accommodate the SAC in order to protect Chinese interests and seek strategic advantage.
Neither China nor the United States wants to inadvertently give the other an advantage in Myanmar. With that in mind, the restoration of “democracy,” as the United States and its European allies understand that protean term, will be strongly resisted by the Tatmadaw and should not be a policy goal. ASEAN will be ambivalent about such an approach because two of its members have communist systems and a third, Thailand, has itself recently undergone a coup. Even the United States’ Indo-Pacific allies and partners in the so-called Quad grouping—Australia, India, and Japan—will be unenthusiastic about an approach that could push the Tatmadaw closer to China.
Instead, the goal should be new elections and a return to some semblance of civilian rule under the military-drafted constitution in which the Tatmadaw had a privileged position.
The restoration of democracy can be retained as a distant ideal. But to stabilize the situation and minimize bloodshed, outside powers should pursue more limited and practical objectives.
The Tatmadaw has said that it will hold new elections after a year and hand over power to whoever wins. That deadline will probably not be kept, and elections will not be as “free and fair” as many would like them to be. There are no good options, but the least bad option for outside powers is to encourage the setting of a date for new elections and the return to some version of civilian rule. This course holds out the possibility of Western goals intersecting with those of the Tatmadaw. And this approach will win the support of ASEAN, the United States’ Indo-Pacific allies and partners, and even China.
But the price of holding new elections will be high: the jettisoning of a popular and iconic leader. Outside powers and the people of Myanmar must recognize that the Tatmadaw will not work with Aung San Suu Kyi. The military will not allow a civilian government in which she plays any role. Instead, outside powers should focus on guaranteeing her personal safety under any future political arrangement.
To many in the West, Aung San Suu Kyi was an icon of democracy, rising to fame during the antimilitary protests that flared in 1988. The ushering in of civilian rule after 2011 seemed a vindication of her long struggle against the junta. But her saintly image began to darken soon thereafter. She led her party, the National League for Democracy, imperiously. Her espousal of human rights and democracy never included the Rohingya, the minority group that faced pogroms and ethnic cleansing in 2017. Her attitude toward the Rohingya was no different from that of the Tatmadaw. Her 2019 defense of the Tatmadaw against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice was immensely popular in Myanmar but only stoked the Tatmadaw’s jealousy and distrust of her.
An expert on Myanmar once quipped that the problem with Myanmar is that it is ruled by a queen and a king, but they are not married to each other. Aung San Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw are too much alike to make working together comfortable for either of them. Both have a strong sense of entitlement to rule: Aung San Suu Kyi because of her family lineage (she is the daughter of Aung San, widely considered to be the father of modern-day Myanmar) and her personal sacrifices in her long campaign for democracy; the Tatmadaw because it has preserved Myanmar’s territorial integrity in the face of numerous armed insurgencies. That both their claims contain elements of truth makes compromise all the more difficult.
Aung San Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw are too much alike to make working together comfortable for either of them.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s father founded the Tatmadaw, and she has long understood the military’s central role in the country; she once said that when she was a little girl, she wanted to be a general like her father. But after entering government, she was reluctant to convene the National Defense and Security Council, which is constitutionally the highest executive authority in Myanmar and the formal means through which the Tatmadaw participates in the government, and she tried to amend the constitution so that she could become president. These actions alarmed the generals. They were convinced that she sought to diminish the role of the Tatmadaw and enhance her own power at its expense. As State Counsellor of Myanmar (a position she held for nearly five years until the coup), Aung San Suu Kyi in effect, if not name, already wielded the authority of the head of state; ultimately, the differences between her and the Tatmadaw were more about power than principle.
Now, the Tatmadaw wants to remove Aung San Suu Kyi from Myanmar’s politics. The criminal charges brought against her after the coup are intended to bar her from holding any office in the future. And they suggest that the Tatmadaw will not accept any solution that entails a return to the status quo before the November 2020 elections.
Herein lies a dilemma. ASEAN and perhaps even some Western governments that now understand that Aung San Suu Kyi, despite her popularity, is no saint might be willing to sideline her. But will the people of Myanmar accept that? They very well may not, and their refusal could prolong the dangerous impasse.
The Tatmadaw is brutal. It has reportedly killed hundreds of people during the current protests. But Western governments must understand that the military is indispensable. Myanmar was under military rule from 1962 to 2011, a long period that saw civilian institutions atrophy and decay. The processes of rebuilding civilian institutions had only just begun under the pre-coup government, but the new institutions were ineffective and corrupt. Aung San Suu Kyi never paid much attention to the details of governance. If the economy grew, it did so as much despite her government as due to its efforts. Regardless of numerous failings, the Tatmadaw was and remains the best functioning institution in the country. For the foreseeable future, governing Myanmar without some participation from the Tatmadaw is simply not a practical proposition.
Myanmar officially recognizes 135 ethnic minorities. Since independence in 1948, the country has been continually beset by ethnic insurgencies. Cease-fires in these conflicts have never held for very long. The Tatmadaw’s claim to a political role in Myanmar rests on its record of holding an otherwise fissiparous postcolonial country together. If the Tatmadaw splits or is rendered ineffective, the country will probably fragment. Instability will spill over its borders. Iraq, Libya, and Syria are sobering examples of what could happen in Myanmar and Southeast Asia without the stabilizing force of the Tatmadaw.
Sadly, encouraging protesters to take to the streets against the military will result in more civilian casualties. The Tatmadaw has been in continuous combat for more than 70 years. In that time, it has become a state within the state. Even ordinary soldiers and their families live lives far removed from civilians. The military has also instilled a culture of absolute obedience and extreme brutality. If ordered to shoot civilians, soldiers will shoot—as they have done in recent weeks to deadly effect. Horrifying though its behavior may be to others, the Tatmadaw, by its own standards, has so far been relatively restrained in how it has dealt with the protests. It can be far more ruthless; in 1988, after all, it killed thousands of people. Outside powers can help minimize casualties by not misleading the demonstrators into hoping that their cause will win anything more than gestures of support. Nobody will intervene to fight the Tatmadaw to protect them. A realistic view of the situation in Myanmar will help cool passions and curb the bloodshed.
For Western democratic governments to be patient is politically difficult, particularly in the age of social media, when the pressures of public opinion are immediate and constant, fed by real-time accounts of an unfolding crisis. But no crisis is ever resolved before it is ripe for resolution. The Myanmar crisis is far from ripe. Rather, precipitate or imprudent action could make an eventual return to at least a fig leaf of constitutional rule in Myanmar even more difficult. Encouraging demonstrators to hold out the false hope of an intervention in their favor will lead only to more bloodshed.
In this respect, ASEAN can play a constructive role. The day after the coup in February, Brunei, which currently chairs the association, consulted other foreign ministers and put together a statement in record time. A month later, Brunei convened an informal, virtual ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting and put out another statement. Both statements broadly called for a return to constitutional rule in Myanmar. Indonesia has proposed a special leaders’ meeting on Myanmar, which even the junta has reportedly said it will attend if the high-level meeting goes forward.
Realistically, there is not very much that ASEAN—or any country—can do to influence events in Myanmar at present. But ASEAN could prevent things from getting worse. As long as ASEAN gives the appearance of activity and remains engaged with the junta, other countries can let ASEAN take the lead in the name of its centrality in the region. That activity, however insubstantial, could help stave off the domestic pressures that might compel Western powers to take imprudent actions.
ASEAN must maintain a delicate balance and play the long game. Whatever the body says or does should be strong enough to maintain its credibility as a regional arbiter but not so tough as to alienate the Tatmadaw and so foreclose the possibility of ASEAN serving a substantive role in the future when the Tatmadaw feels secure enough to relax its grip and needs a ladder to climb down. Events in Myanmar seem to demand an immediate response, but action for the sake of action will only make a bad situation worse. ASEAN needs its friends and partners in the West to understand the complexity of the situation, resist the temptation to make unrealistic demands on the association, and muster the political courage to be patient.