The Illiberal Tide
Why the International Order Is Tilting Toward Autocracy
Hundreds of people have died in Myanmar since its military, also known as the Tatmadaw, conducted a coup on February 1, seizing control of the government and detaining civilian political leaders. The Tatmadaw continues to kill unarmed citizens (nearly 800, according to press reports), including children, in cities and towns across the country. Gruesome images of the escalating violence flood the global media, and the world watches as Myanmar’s once hopeful future grows ever darker.
Governments, including those of Myanmar’s neighbors, do not seem to appreciate the full extent of the crisis. Instead, too many outside observers, including some in Foreign Affairs, appear jaded and fatalistic. They minimize humanitarian considerations, ignore massive popular opposition to the coup, discount the potential of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to influence the situation in one of its member states, and assume that the logic of great-power competition makes coordinated policy in Myanmar impossible.
Beyond being morally suspect, this supposedly realistic understanding of events in Myanmar is dangerously misguided and shortsighted for the security of the region. The country is not witnessing just another brutal setback to democracy but the creation in slow motion of a failed state in the vital heart of Asia. What is required is not complacency but urgency. Major powers must set aside their instinctive geopolitical competition, and ASEAN should lead the international community to develop a coordinated policy that both appeals to and pressures the Tatmadaw to end the carnage and help put Myanmar back on the democratic track its people demand.
Myanmar has experienced a half century of degradation under military rule. The cycle began with a coup in 1962 and was reprised for a new generation in 1988. As a result, Myanmar descended into extended periods of brutal political repression, economic decline, deepening internal divisions, and mass exodus.
The impact of the current coup will be even more severe than those of the past. A vast civil disobedience movement has emerged since the beginning of February, effectively shutting down the economy, much of the government and public services, and many aspects of everyday life. The people of Myanmar have taken to the streets daily and at great cost, putting their lives and livelihoods on the line to demonstrate they will not accept their fate quietly. They have learned from terrible experience what another round of military rule will mean for their future. They are deeply opposed to a return to any political system that enshrines military involvement in the country’s politics. With each act of military violence, such persistent resistance grows more widespread by the day.
Most of the protesters on the streets of Myanmar are young. They have had a taste of freedom in the decade since the country’s democratic thaw in 2011. They harbor expectations that were once only aspirations for older generations. Even in the face of ruthless repression, their resistance will continue in a variety of forms. Many young people, for instance, are quietly training to establish a “federal army” to fight back against the Tatmadaw. Their chances against the well-equipped military are slim. But resistance throughout the country will continue indefinitely.
The military shows no sign of backing down.
For its part, the military also shows no sign of backing down. It has indoctrinated or intimidated its members into believing in their own privileged status within Myanmar’s society; the armed forces appear impervious to reason and persuasion. Co-opting the military may have allowed popular movements to prevail against autocratic regimes in other countries. But the Tatmadaw’s historically strong internal discipline makes a split within its ranks highly unlikely.
Faced with widespread opposition, the Tatmadaw leadership will fall back on the only strategy it knows: the use of violence with impunity. For decades, it has meted out destruction on ethnic minority areas in the borderlands of the country in what constitutes the world’s longest-running civil war. The result of this carnage is plain: economic and social devastation, deepening internal fractures, vast human suffering, and flows of refugees out of the country.
The current conflagration in Myanmar will lead to even more desolation. The military will continue to kill and imprison scores of citizens. Basic services, including banking, health care, and government functions, will atrophy. Myanmar’s economy, already battered by COVID-19, will collapse. Major foreign investors, facing serious reputational and financial risks, will flee or avoid the country. China, India, Thailand, and other neighboring countries will feel the pressure once again to accept droves of migrants and refugees and reckon with growing lawlessness, violence, and desperation along their porous borders with Myanmar. The region as a whole will become less stable. The institutional credibility of ASEAN, which has so far made little serious attempt to check the new junta, will be shattered.
The coup raises the prospect of Myanmar not becoming another autocratic state, such as Cambodia under Hun Sen or Thailand after the 2014 coup, but another Syria: a place of unrestrained destruction and irreconcilable division between a ruling clique and the broad mass of the citizenry. Mutual alienation is worsening by the day. The generals are isolated, consumed by a combination of greed, ignorance, fear, and ambition, and probably surprised by the sustained resistance they have provoked. Like Bashar al-Assad and his allies in Syria, the leaders of the Tatmadaw may realize they are in too deep to waver from their current course, even if that means destroying the country in order to save themselves.
In these circumstances, demands for an indefinitely patient approach do not constitute realism but rather strategic and moral blindness. Surrounding countries do not have the luxury of patience while one of their neighbors implodes, destabilizing the whole region. They instead must find the will to arrest the disaster before it gets worse. That will require reassessing traditional calculations of interest, transcending policy comfort zones, and jettisoning tired nostrums of noninterference. And major powers that often frame policy toward Myanmar in terms of strategic competition with one another must adjust their thinking and find ways to cooperate for the greater good of the country and the region.
ASEAN must lead the way. The group should make clear it will not grant Myanmar’s junta legitimacy through a seat at its table except to discuss a resolution of the current impasse. It should sponsor a broad-based dialogue—involving Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, the United States, and others—to forge a united front that delivers a clear and forceful message to the Tatmadaw and makes credible threats to shut off the military’s access to banks, schools, hospitals, and other sources of support should the Tatmadaw fail to end the violence and agree to open discussions with Myanmar’s elected representatives on a path forward.
Absent that, outside powers should strongly consider targeted sanctions on military-run businesses to cut off the junta’s money supply, and they should enforce an international arms embargo on the country. Critically, they must offer unwavering support to the people of Myanmar. The military prevented elected members of the national parliament from taking their seats on February 1. Those politicians have established a shadow government whose legitimacy as the true representatives of Myanmar’s people should be recognized by the United States and Indo-Pacific countries.
On its own, the United States has limited leverage over the junta. But the Biden administration must continue to exercise international leadership by imposing targeted sanctions on the Tatmadaw, supporting political and civic actors facing oppression, and corralling the international community, including allies, to follow suit. The administration can also underline the urgency and importance of the crisis in Myanmar by assigning a special envoy to coordinate policy with Indo-Pacific capitals. There is no substitute for the symbolic and practical impact of assigning a special U.S. diplomat to such a specific, labor-intensive task.
It may seem like magical thinking to hope for ASEAN to transcend its traditional limitations and address the current crisis in Myanmar. If ASEAN as a whole will not act, then individual ASEAN states should. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, along with the current ASEAN chair, Brunei, all of whom have registered public concern about developments in Myanmar, should coordinate among themselves and with others to take independent action. These governments may feel uncomfortable taking public stances on Myanmar, but their actions will speak for themselves.
Those who call for patience and inaction argue that Myanmar has already reached a point of no return, that the destruction is so great and the divisions between the army and the people so vast that nothing can bridge them. But the foundations of a new, more hopeful Myanmar are already evident in the popular rejection of the coup. Through its current wanton brutality, the Tatmadaw has awakened the majority Bamar ethnic group to the violence and the injustices inflicted on Myanmar’s minority ethnic groups for decades. This cross-ethnic solidarity offers the foundation of lasting peace and reconciliation in Myanmar and remains the defining challenge facing the country. The international community should seize this moment of opportunity by making extra efforts to get the military to relent and to create space for more robust interethnic dialogue about the country’s future.
There are no easy or obvious answers to the current impasse. Returning to the status quo that prevailed before the coup—the tenuous collaboration between the civilian National League for Democracy and the Tatmadaw—is impossible at this point. To be sure, the military will almost certainly have to be part of any future political settlement, given how entrenched it is within Myanmar.
But observers should not accept the military’s claim that Myanmar will fall apart without it. In truth, the Tatmadaw has inflamed divisions within the country, for decades inflicting the same brutality on the peripheries of Myanmar that it is unleashing on heartland cities and towns today. In the past ten years, the military’s constitutional prerogative to operate beyond civilian control had regularly obstructed a delicate nationwide peace initiative among a welter of groups. Even when it did reach peace agreements, the Tatmadaw failed to uphold its end. As a result, many armed insurgent groups were quick to resume hostilities with the military after the coup in an apparent alliance with the civilian shadow government. Any solution to Myanmar’s crisis will require the military to recognize the demand of the country’s citizens for civilian control over national security affairs and for representative governance without military interference.
Fatalism is not a strategy. The international community must find the will, deploy the appropriate resources, and take the necessary action to curb the bloodshed and help midwife an end to the current crisis. The brave people of Myanmar are putting all they have on the line in order to return to the path of democratic reform that the country had tentatively embraced a decade ago. Actors with power and influence inside and outside governments should summon similar courage in support of these remarkable people. The alternative will be not only a humanitarian debacle that will shame the world but a failed state at the heart of a critical region.
For the United States, Patience Is the Least Bad Option