Growing numbers of right-wing leaders have embraced an authoritarian version of cancel culture. Their approach seems to consist of the following: ‘If I don’t win the election, you must cancel the result.’ Weeks after President Donald Trump’s attempt to inspire an insurrection against Congress to cancel the legitimate election he lost, the generals in Myanmar sought to emulate the same method, dismissing as a fraud the crippling electoral blow dealt to the military-backed party by the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD). Tatmadaw, as the country’s military is known, as the self-proclaimed guardians of Myanmar’s integrity and stability, have responded brutally to street protests against their overthrow of civilian government. The world has reacted predictably.
The United States, now under Democratic management, has denounced the coup and worked with European nations to impose sanctions. Asean has called for restraint and flexibility by all sides. Some members like Singapore and the Philippines have called for release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders and expressed revulsion at the ‘appalling’ violence, while rejecting American calls to sanction the generals. Indonesia’s attempts to mollify the military by organising another election has been rejected by NLD supporters, who claim their party won in a landslide. Awkward silence of pro-Chinese members like Cambodia and Laos only underlines the organisation’s difficulty in being a central player.
Leaders like Singaporean Premier Lee Hsien Loong have wrung their hands, lamenting that sanctions would have no effect on generals who have previously survived such punishment unscathed. “You can ostracise them, condemn them, and pass resolutions or not, but it really has very little influence,” he told the BBC. Besides, isolating the generals with sanctions would only open the door to greater Chinese influence on the country. India, sharing similar concerns about Beijing tightening its grip over Myanmar, has similarly stopped at expressing its concern. India would hate to forfeit Tatmadaw’s goodwill earned just months ago when it gave Myanmar its first-ever submarine. (The refurbished submarine is planned to be used for training ahead of the delivery of Russian-made subs.)
China appears to be a little more embarrassed than normal because it doesn’t want to be seen as backing the Myanmar junta engaging in another Tiananmen Square-style crackdown. The Chinese foreign ministry has called for restraints by “all sides” – meaning unarmed protesters and the military – and the resolution of electoral “discrepancies under the framework of the law and constitution”. China also warned outside powers – meaning the US and Europe – from pouring oil on the fire. The fact that Burmese demonstrators have been protesting against Chinese support for the junta outside the Chinese embassy in Myanmar embarrasses and angers Beijing. The claim of China’s support for the junta, a Chinese commentator accused, was “aimed at inciting hatred towards China within Myanmar and hurting China-Myanmar ties”.
The ties are not just diplomatic hyperbole. The Chinese oil and gas pipeline linking a port on the Bay of Bengal to Yunnan, along with a multi-billion dollar project to build a deepwater port in Kyaukphyu to be also connected by road and railway to China, give Beijing an important strategic stake in Myanmar.
The country’s strategic location as China’s gateway to Indian Ocean, as a bridge to Southeast Asia in India’s Act East policy, as an arena for US-China competition and a key factor in Asean’s diplomatic credibility, often lead to its description as an important piece on the regional chessboard. Myanmar’s growing middle class, aspiring to build a modern democratic state, has run into an immovable and brutal Tatmadaw determined to maintain its dominance over the political scene at any cost. By all accounts, the Tatmadaw seems prepared to shoot its way through to another election after a year that it has promised would ensure a return to a military-led coalition government. Until the military wins, elections remain cancelled.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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