Smoke rises over Thaketa township in Yangon on March 27, 2021, as security forces continue to crack down on protests against the military coup. Photo: STR / AFP

Reaction to the Myanmar coup thus far reflects a stark divide between the East and the West and between countries that neighbor Myanmar and those that do not. Further descent into violence will estrange Myanmar’s ties with the West, relegating the burden of dealing with the military regime to its neighbors.

Compared with the swift condemnation of the coup and imposition of sanctions by the West, neighboring Asian countries offered more subdued and measured statements. Fellow members in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), for instance, called for restraint and dialogue, with some avoiding making official commentaries on a matter they deemed internal to Myanmar.

For the most part, Asian neighbors believe that engagement and a political solution are still the way to go and that signing on to isolating Myanmar would result in a loss of leverage over Naypyidaw. For instance, given the regional rivalry between China and India, neither wants to excoriate the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) lest it loses a hand in shaping developments in a strategic neighbor. 

Hence, despite the increasing violence, representatives from China, India, Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand sent representatives to attend the 76th Myanmar Armed Forces Day on Saturday, the same day that saw the bloodiest crackdown on anti-coup protests thus far, with more than 100 reported deaths. In contrast, 12 defense chiefs mainly from Western countries – but also Japan and South Korea – issued a joint statement denouncing the use of lethal force against civilian protesters. 

The coup reversed a decade of gradual gains in democratization and economic liberalization that created openings for Western countries to penetrate Myanmar, thus allowing it  to diversify its foreign policy. But if the coup regime persists and the country regains pariah status, Western influence can be expected to diminish while the role of Myanmar’s key neighbors will grow.

Targeted sanctions on the junta’s businesses are unlikely to move Naypyidaw unless its Asian neighbors decide to close ranks and work with the West to nudge the regime. 

Sanctions and diplomatic isolation may push Myanmar further into China’s embrace despite the Tatmadaw’s unease and long-standing desire to wean the country away from its big northern neighbor.

Deprived of access to Western markets and capital, Naypyidaw will rely more on Beijing for trade, investment and financing for its infrastructure needs. This would deepen Myanmar’s entanglement in the Belt and Road Initiative, notably in the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. 

China, alongside Russia, would not mind absorbing reputational costs for shielding the junta from United Nations censure or Western diplomatic and economic pressure. Beijing would likely double down in reinforcing its historical pauk-phaw or brotherly relations with Myanmar that described bilateral ties in its formative years.

Myanmar is crucial for providing China access to the Indian Ocean, and Beijing will certainly capitalize on any opportunity to intensify its peripheral diplomacy.

But while China may endear itself with the Tatmadaw, it may alienate itself from the larger population, which resents the restoration of military rule.

Rumors that China helped the military use digital technologies to suppress dissent and that Beijing was informed beforehand of the coup – allegations China quickly dismissed – have already produced a strong public backlash. Protests in front of the Chinese Embassy in Yangon and burning of some Chinese factories attest to this. 

If the junta weathers the protests and holds on to power indefinitely, China’s position will be strengthened. Myanmar will try to keep Beijing at arm’s length, but its latitude will be constrained by diplomatic isolation unless other major powers can step in to offer a balance.

India and Japan could provide counterweights to China but they too have baggage to manage. If India can step up its economic game and Japan serve as a bridge between Myanmar and the West, both could enhance their appeal. New Delhi’s vaccine donations and Tokyo’s aid, investment and move last year to mediate in Rakhine state reveal some levers the two Asian titans could pull to influence the regime. 

For ASEAN, the pressure to act mounts. Failure to play a robust role in easing tensions and fostering a climate for a political settlement will erode its credibility. If it loses its relevance within its own neighborhood, its much aspired centrality will be undermined and exposed as hollow, and the bloc may not be able to prevent Myanmar from sliding into a new theater for great-power rivalry. 

Hence, informal leader Indonesia is shuttling around regional capitals to bring about talks. But a cleavage is apparent. Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines sense urgency but getting Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam on board may prove difficult.

As Myanmar’s largest investor, Singapore’s participation is crucial. And as a close neighbor, host to thousands of Myanmar refugees and migrant workers and most importantly having the same historical involvement of the military in politics, Thailand will be indispensable.

But any action in Myanmar may set a precedent unwanted by member countries. It might be a slippery slope toward intervention in their own domestic affairs in the future.

Because of varying political and governance systems and different state-society configurations, non-interference has been an integral regional pillar. ASEAN breaking this tradition to act on Myanmar might thus require a big leap of faith for the 53-year old organization. Whether the desire to play a role and the pressure to act prevail over anxieties about future ramifications only later developments can tell. 

Lucio B Pitlo III

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation. He writes on Asian security and connectivity issues.