Activists in Daejeon Station on Sunday call for the return of democracy to Myanmar. Photo: Tom Coyner

SEOUL/DAEJEON – Should a government led by ex-pro-democracy activists support pro-democracy activists overseas? Or should it bow to real-politicks/real-economicks and keep its head below the parapets?

This is the dilemma facing South Korea at a time when pro-democracy forces in Myanmar are being suppressed with deadly force. The dilemma is especially pointed for the incumbent Moon Jae-in administration.

Moon himself is a former human rights lawyer and many of his cabinet members, aides and advisors are former activists who cut their political teeth battling South Korea’s authoritarian regime in the 1980s. As is the case in Myanmar today, that regime – led by a former general, Chun Do-hwan – had seized power via coup.

Given this history, one might expect the administration to take a strong stance toward Myanmar’s junta. However, Seoul has customarily been reticent about criticizing authoritarian governments overseas, notably leading trade partner China and problematic neighbor North Korea.

As protesters are gunned down in Myanmar, Moon has raised his voice against Yangon. But expatriate Myanmars – some of whom are newly politically active inside South Korea – and even leading figures in Moon’s own party want a stronger line.

Where is the support?

On February 1, Myanmar citizens working and studying abroad awoke to discover that there had been a military coup in their homeland.

Ousted de facto head of state Aung San Suu Kyi had long lost the rosy glow that had made her a beacon of democracy and won her a Nobel Peace Prize during an earlier era of military rule. That fall from grace was due to her acquiescence in the Myanmar military’s brutal suppression of the Rohingya Muslim minority.

Even so, there is no question that Myanmar’s democracy had been snuffed out by a military junta once more.

Civil unrest was spontaneous and widespread. The response was been brutal. At time of writing, according to reports, an estimated 2,000 demonstrators are being indefinitely detained, over 60 have been killed, and hundreds have been injured.

While international revulsion toward the February 1 coup has been near universal, tangible responses have been meager and sporadic.  

Some Western countries, most notably the United States, have acted. Washington has frozen US$1 billion of assets in the US, canceled the visas of the military elite’s family members and halted non-humanitarian aid.  

Some multinationals have also moved. Japan’s Kirin is terminating its joint venture, Myanmar Brewery, with the military-owned Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL). The JV has an 80% market share in the country, with Kirin’s stake being valued at US$1.7 billion.

But these reactions are exceptions, not norms.

Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbors have typically been unwilling to act, or even speak, forcefully. ASEAN’s 10 countries, two are run by military men who staged coups, two have had ruling parties in power for more than two decades, two are Communist regimes with no elections and one is an absolute monarchy. 

South Korea, however, is a vibrant democracy. And the situation in Myanmar today is in many ways analogous to Korea’s struggle for democracy in the 1980s.

Expatriates from Myanmar, many in national dress, demonstrate outside Daejeon Station on Sunday against the military junta that has seized power in their home country. Photo: Tom Coyner

Vested interests, raised voices, no actions

Customarily, Seoul has been reticent about critiquing regimes for human rights abuses. Some critics assert that South Korea has a trade policy but not a foreign policy – and indeed, trade is not handled by the country’s foreign ministry. Economic relations with Myanmar are significant.

According to The Diplomat in 2020, Korea was the sixth-largest foreign investor in Myanmar, with especially heavy outlays in the labor-intensive textiles industry. According to the Myanmar Times, South Korea is the country’s eighth-largest trade partner.

The newspaper reported on December 20, 2020, that 135 Korean companies are investing in the “Korea-Myanmar Industrial Complex” in the Yangon Region. The project has official backing from both Myanmar’s Ministry of Construction and South Korea’s state-owned Land and Housing Corporation.

Even so, South Korea has responded with more oomph than ASEAN.

On February 22, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement asserting “…freedom of assembly and freedom of expression must be fully respected,” and hoping that “democracy and constitutional order would be restored in Myanmar in a peaceful manner.”

On March 3, MOFA went further, expressing “grave concern at the appalling reports of numerous civilian casualties,” and stating that it “condemns use of violence by the military and police forces of Myanmar against civilians who demand democracy.”

On March 6 Moon himself tweeted, “Use of violence against the people of Myanmar must stop now.” Calling for the release of Suu Kyi, he hash tagged his posts “JusticeForMyanmar” and “StandWithMyanmar.”

Then, on March 10, parliamentarians of Moon’s Democratic Party visited the Myanmar Embassy, met activists and held a press conference that condemned the Myanmar military and requested action by the UN Security Council.

But beyond the rhetoric, no actual action appears forthcoming. The latest MOFA statement concluded that Seoul, “….will closely watch the situation in Myanmar and consider measures to take in response to developments.”

Myanmar expats make moves in Korea

Meanwhile, unusual currents are stirring within the Korean body politic – a space where expatriate political activism is uncommon.

Amid China’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s liberties, clashes were reported on South Korean campuses between Korean and Chinese students. Now, a nascent movement of Myanmar expatriates may be coalescing.

There are some 30,000 Myanmar citizens resident in South Korea; their numbers include students as well as blue- and white-collar migrant workers. On March 7, approximately 100 members of the Myanmar Youth Organization in Korea staged a protest in front of the railway station in the city of Daejeon, a center for both industry and education.  

The Korean Writers Association staged a solidarity protest and made a donation to the group. The featured speaker was Daejeon Mayor Heo Tae-jeong, a member of Moon’s Democratic Party. 

After offering encouragement and solidarity, the mayor told Asia Times that he strongly empathized with the young Myanmars. When he was a 22-year-old, Heo had been an activist in Korea’s student movement, which spearheaded the struggle against authoritarian rule that finally won democracy in 1987.

For that reason, Heo said, it was important for him to publicly support the protest. But he admitted that, as a regional politician, there was little he could do beyond offering moral support. Tangible action, he said, resided at the presidential level.

Meanwhile in Seoul, some power players are meeting pro-democracy Myanmar activists.

Daejeon Mayor Heo Tae-jeong meets Myanmar pro-democracy protesters. Photo: Tom Coyner

Big plans

On March 8, representatives of both the Myanmar Youth Organization in Korea and a sibling organization, Spring Revolution  –  both groups were formed after the February coup – met National Assemblyman Kim Young-ho of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea. 

During their meeting, the group told Asia Times, they requested five actions:  1) That South Korea recognize the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CPRH), a group of legislators who won seats in the November election and who are aligned with Suu Kyi; 2) Proclaim the Myanmar military a terrorist organization; 3) Cease commercial relations with Myanmar until democracy is restored; 4) Follow the US example by canceling visas held by coup family members; and 5) Assist the growing Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) in meaningful ways.

The activists also hoped the situation would motivate South Korea’s ally the United States to recognize that under Myanmar’s military junta, Chinese designs on the country through the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) and the Belt and Road Initiative could be strengthened.   

Beijing, which is aggressively staking out turf in the South China Sea, also seeks access to the Bay of Bengal. With Washington wedded to an Indo-Pacific doctrine, a strategic angle is added to the broader chessboard.

These factors imply economic and geopolitical pressure points. But Seoul has customarily been reluctant to impose unilateral sanctions, and – wary of irking Beijing – has declined to join the Indo-Pacific “Quad” alliance.

What can Korea do?

Still, there exists a vulnerability that could be targeted by Seoul and South Korean businesses, one that would not require wider changes to strategic policy or to overall bilateral economic ties.

That vulnerability, leaders of the youth group opined, is the jealously guarded wealth of the military elite and their family members. They suggest two initiatives could be aimed at that wealth.

In Myanmar, one initiative would be assisting pro-democracy forces to bring the economy to a halt. Activists urged Korean companies in Myanmar not to penalize employees who abandon workplaces to protest.

In Korea, another initiative would be freezing the assets of persons related to the junta, and refusing them visas. (Asia Times has been unable to discover the number of junta-linked assets or persons in Korea.)

Will these limited steps be taken? Previous practice is not encouraging.

A noted Korea watcher pinpointed two reasons for Seoul’s historical reluctance to take action on global human rights issues.

“Korea has not had a long history of calling out bad behavior,” said Michael Breen, author of The New Koreans. He noted that until the early 1990s, Seoul’s global diplomatic relations were limited to the Western bloc and were centered almost entirely around North Korea-related issues.

“Secondly the government is pragmatic, it sees its main mission as economic-delivering growth,” Breen continued. “So it sees no upside, and often a downside, in calling out bad behavior.”

By contrast, Western governments do apply economic sanctions against authoritarian regimes, but not simply out of altruism. “They are under domestic pressure to do so,” Breen said. “That pressure is very weak in Korea.”

Seoul’s diplomatic stance toward countries on matters of human rights is grounded in principle, argues Moon Chung-in, a former advisor to the Moon Jae-in Blue House who recently took over the headship of think tank the Sejong Institute.

“President Moon criticized Myanmar because there, there was democratic progress and that was set back by military intervention,” the academic told Asia Times. “North Korea and China are different cases, they have their own systems – so it is apples and oranges.”

He hinted that Seoul may take actual, tangible action against Myanmar following US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s upcoming visit to the region.

“Our government may examine it, and when Blinken comes to Korea, they may discuss it,” Moon said. “There is not outright avoidance of these issues.”

Blinken’s visit to Seoul and Tokyo is expected next week.

The Myanmar flag is raised in Daejeon on Sunday. Photo: Tom Coyner

A full gallery of photos related to the Myanmar pro-democracy movement can be viewed here.