Webinar on “Myanmar After the Coup, In the World”

In this webinar, Ms Priscilla Clapp and Dr Morten B Pedersen shared their perspectives on how different external interlocutors are navigating their interactions with Myanmar, and the bilateral and multilateral implications of Myanmar’s engagement with major powers and regional actors, whether by the SAC or the NUG.


Thursday, 23 September 2021 – The Myanmar Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute continued its monthly webinar discussion on Myanmar after the February 1 military coup, turning the focus of conversation to how the international community viewed Myanmar after the coup, and the various concerns of Myanmar’s external interlocutors in their policies towards engaging with Myanmar.

The webinar, which attracted the interest of 145 attendees, heard insights from Ms Priscilla Clapp, Senior Advisor at the United States Institute of Peace, and former Charge d’Affaires of the United States (US) Embassy in Yangon (1999-2002), and Dr Morten Pedersen, Senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales Canberra and former Senior Analyst for the International Crisis Group in Myanmar (2001-2008). Ms Moe Thuzar, Co-coordinator of the ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme, moderated the webinar.

Speakers Ms Priscilla Clapp and Dr Morten B Pedersen, two seasoned experts on Myanmar’s external relations, joined moderator Ms Moe Thuzar for a discussion. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The view from the US, China, and Russia

The US and China both recognised that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s miscalculation led to the February 1 coup, and that what ensued from this miscalculation was a tragedy. However, these two powers approached the Myanmar crisis from different perspectives.

The US view was not to recognise the State Administration Council (SAC) nor accord it any legitimacy. Beyond this, however, the US’ current strategy was mainly focused on delivering humanitarian assistance to the Myanmar people through the United Nations (UN) agencies and non-governmental partners. The US had also imposed targeted sanctions against individuals and enterprises linked to the military. A new Burma Act 2021 – recently introduced in Congress – would provide the framework for US policy towards Myanmar in the near future.

In the immediate term, the US’ humanitarian assistance efforts focused on assisting the Myanmar people overcome Covid-19 challenges. Many members of the anti-coup movement had sought refuge in areas under control by ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) and were in need of vaccination. A longer-term concern for the US would be to assist Myanmar recover: – restoring economic stability and returning civility to politics. These challenges, particularly the latter, would intensify the longer the crisis in Myanmar continued.

Sharing a border with Myanmar, China was more directly affected by the Myanmar crisis. Beijing had semi-recognised the SAC, at times treating it as a government and at times treating it at arms’ length, but China’s engagement with the SAC was not entirely smooth. China did not limit its engagement to the SAC alone; it had provided Covid-19 vaccines and medical care to several EAO-controlled areas. China’s view of or attitudes towards the Myanmar crisis thus had a practical perspective from Yunnan due to the shared border, and a more strategic perspective from Beijing which viewed with concern the impact of the military coup to Myanmar’s political stability.

Russia’s interests in Myanmar tended more towards supporting the destructive, as the Myanmar military (the Tatmadaw) was currently purchasing arms from Russia. Any potential political impact of Russia’s moves at the UN-level would be balanced by Russia’s calculations of its bilateral relations with China, in light of the recent improvement in Sino-Russia relations.

Middle powers and the broader international view

The current Myanmar crisis seemed to divide views and attitudes among Western and Asian countries, similar to when Myanmar was under the State Law and Order Restoration Council/State Peace and Development Council (SLORC/SPDC) military regime. However, there were three broad differences from that earlier period:

  1. A large majority of countries were now more reluctant to recognise the SAC junta. Instead, the practice seemed to be about engagement without formal recognition; China and ASEAN had made this nuance in their interactions with the SAC.
  2. Several regional middle powers, including  ASEAN members Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore were staking out a middle ground. These three countries were more pragmatic than the West, but more principled than China in their Myanmar response.
  3. There was recognition that broad-based sanctions do not work. Even governments with “hard-line” views remained committed to continuing and stepping up humanitarian aid, although largely avoiding engagement with the SAC.

Implications of US and China agreeing to defer decision on Myanmar’s UN credentials

The deferral of the UN Credential Committee’s decision on Myanmar UN seat to November allowed the incumbent Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun to remain in Myanmar’s seat, though without speaking power. This ‘agreement’ reached by the US and China on maintaining status quo reflected Beijing’s ambivalence about the SAC, even as Beijing’s unease continued over the anti-coup resistance in Myanmar or engaging with the parallel National Unity Government (NUG). Washington on the other hand, was engaging with the NUG at various tracks.

Whatever decision the UN Credentials Committee may reach on Myanmar’s UN seat in November, the possibility of a military representative in Myanmar’s seat would clearly be an undesirable outcome. The Credentials Committee could draw from past precedents, either to maintain status quo or leave the seat vacant. Some UN agencies were currently keeping the Myanmar seat vacant.  A likely scenario might be a further deferral, as the current status quo seemed to suit most UN member states’ interests. Many did not wish to expend much political capital on the Myanmar issue. Several were ambivalent about openly recognising the NUG, partly due to its lack of control on the ground, but also in light of the NUG’s declaration of the people’s defensive war in response to the military’s continued violence against the civilian population.

President Biden’s China policy should also not be equated with the Myanmar issue alone. However, the ASEAN Summits scheduled for late October might likely see the emergence of a more explicit Biden administration policy towards Myanmar, in response to whether Min Aung Hlaing would attend the ASEAN Summits as the leader of Myanmar.

Other interests?

After the February 1 coup, the rise in criminal networks in Myanmar’s border areas, with some protection from the military, presented both the US and China with a common concern. To the extent that this criminal activity was re-emerging as a network, there was a shared interest to prevent it.

The situation affected China more directly, in addition to concerns over cross-border Covid-19 infections. The National League for Democracy (NLD) government had requested China’s cooperation on policing cross-border crime and criminal networks operating in areas beyond government control. Taking the form of cross-border gambling, the criminal networks had formed alliances with the ethnic ‘Border Guard Forces’ (BGF) under Tatmadaw control. Too, the Tatmadaw was reliant on the BGF to protect overland trade routes between Myanmar and China from being attacked by EAOs opposing the military coup.

Is a human rights approach still applicable to the current Myanmar crisis?

Myanmar was in the midst of a grave human rights crisis, rooted in a political crisis, and accompanied by a serious humanitarian crisis. A human rights approach focusing on punishing the perpetrators (i.e. the SAC) could potentially affect strategic responses to the political and humanitarian challenges.

Present on-the-ground realities in Myanmar were not conducive for any effort at dialogue or mediation. Even so, a future political solution would require some negotiation and compromise among the key stakeholders. A similar element of dialogue would also be required from the international community, in the context of humanitarian access as well as in gauging the SAC’s responses or reactions. Myanmar’s interlocutors should emphasise that engagement of the SAC to this end does not equate recognition of the junta or giving it legitimacy.

Additionally, while targeted sanctions had affected the SAC, the Tatmadaw, and its associates, the military’s hold on Myanmar’s political economy indicated that further targeted sanctions might simply compel the SAC to find (illegal) sources of revenue elsewhere.

Concluding thoughts

Comparing with Myanmar under military rule two decades ago, the military regime then seemed more accessible and amenable to suggestions, even as external perceptions of military intractability persisted. However, the SAC should not be compared to the SLORC/SPDC, in terms of legitimacy or interest in transition. The SLORC/SPDC had scoped the transition process to suit the military’s strategic interests, and the transfer of power in 2010 was accepted as part of that process. In 2021, a far less acquiescent population viewed the SAC as having undone the gains of the past decade.

The SAC’s continued violent responses had caused further instability in Myanmar. This had affected ASEAN’s gravitas, and also further polarised attitudes within the country towards potential dialogue. The NUG’s recent progressive policy towards the Rohingya notwithstanding, the Rohingya issue did not seem to be discussed much in Myanmar. Too, the many different stakeholders in Myanmar hold different visions of the future, and some of the major ethnic groups such as the Kachin, Rakhine, and Kayin seemed to be desirous of more autonomy as they gain more control over their territories. The Arakan Army had now gained complete control of Rakhine (and remained detached from the current conflict against military rule). EAOs in areas with some autonomy such as the Wa were also moving for more autonomy. The February 1 coup has thus thrown the vision for a federal union into more salience.