Protesters take part in a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on February 22, 2021. Photo: Ye Aung Thu / AFP

On February 1, Myanmar’s military launched a coup and regained control after detaining democratically elected leaders including State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint and transferring power to the commander-in-chief of defense services, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

Suu Kyi subsequently urged her supporters to “protest against the coup,” and since then, nationwide protests have been escalating across the country, resulting in dozens of civilian casualties and hundreds of arrests.

The coup has drawn international condemnation and concern. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres expressed his “full support to the people of Myanmar” and emphasized that “coups have no place in our modern world.”

It is still uncertain how the situation will evolve, but there are three critical aspects that may contribute to a peaceful solution.


First, promoting dialogue may be more effective than imposing sanctions. After the coup, the United States quickly announced sanctions on Myanmar’s military, and the European Union agreed to follow. Whether the West will impose large-scale economic sanctions on Myanmar in the future is of particular concern, because the effectiveness of such sanctions is doubtful.

In an article titled “Rethinking sanctions” published in 2016, the late UN secretary general Kofi Annan and former Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani said that imposing sanctions might feel good, but academic studies suggest that sanctions have had limited success.

Therefore, Singapore Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh appealed to the US and the EU not to impose economic sanctions on Myanmar, because the historical record shows that such sanctions hurt the people but not their rulers.

Professor Koh also suggested that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations can play the role of a mediator to bring the Myanmar’s military and the National League for Democracy (NLD) back to the negotiating table and help them to arrive at a new compact for power-sharing.

ASEAN’s role

Second, ASEAN should play a key constructive role. ASEAN has the principles of non-interference and consensus, but unfortunately, a formal consensus on how to deal with the Myanmar coup among its member states has not been formed so far, while Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have displayed relatively strong stances.

Singapore’s former foreign minister George Yeo highlighted in 2011, “While ASEAN may work on the principle of consensus, ASEAN also works on the principle of peer pressure, and peer pressure can be very effective. And it is not easy for an ASEAN member country to take a rigid position when all the other nine countries are in opposition.”

Moreover, ASEAN also has other guiding principles, including adherence to democracy, the rule of law, good governance, and respect for human rights. In fact, ASEAN has always played a vital role in promoting the democratization of Myanmar.

In 2005, ASEAN successfully forced the Myanmar’s military government to give up its 2006 ASEAN chairmanship so as to focus on advancing Myanmar’s national reconciliation and democratization.

This Tuesday, an informal online meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers was convened to discuss the coup crisis in Myanmar. In its concluding statement, ASEAN called for all parties in Myanmar to “exercise utmost restraint as well as flexibility” and expressed “ASEAN’s readiness to assist Myanmar in a positive, peaceful and constructive manner.”

This is a positive step forward, but not enough.

China’s role

Finally, China can play a special constructive role. As we know, China and Myanmar have a long-standing and special “pauk-phaw” (“fraternal” in the Burmese language) friendship.

In a recent interview, Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar Chen Hai emphasized that Beijing had not been informed in advance of the political change in Myanmar and strongly rebutted rumors about a Chinese aircraft transporting technicians to Myanmar, China helping Myanmar building an Internet firewall, and Chinese soldiers appearing on the streets of Myanmar. However, he did frankly admit that both the NLD and the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) maintain friendly relations with China.

At present, Myanmar’s military has been largely condemned and isolated by the international community, so China’s attitude will have a special influence on it.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that “China supports ASEAN in championing the principle of non-interference in internal affairs and consensus building, playing an active role in the ASEAN Way, and having engagement and communication with Myanmar as early as possible.”

ASEAN is the most important regional organization that Myanmar participates in, and China is Myanmar’s most important neighbor. If ASEAN and China can work together with Myanmar resolutely and wisely to solve the current coup dispute, it is possible for the chaos to be cooled down peacefully soon, although ultimately the long-term viable and sustainable solution lies within Myanmar itself.

Sun Xi, a China-born alumnus of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, is an independent commentary writer based in Singapore. He is also founder and CEO of ESGuru, a Singapore-based consultancy firm specializing in environmental, social and governance issues.