A soldier stands next to a detained man during a demonstration against the military coup in Mandalay on March 3, 2021. Photo: AFP / Stringer

“In light of Myanmar’s tense domestic climate, it is critical to avoid any course of action that could further aggravate the situation, which may lead to more bloodshed,” Hui Ying Lee, of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, wrote on March 22.

This short sentence does a lot of heavy lifting so let’s break it down. Bear in mind the comment is a typical argument of commentators who I have termed “realists”, who in recent weeks have called on the international community to simply accept the military junta as legitimate in order to prevent the crisis from worsening. 

The apparent meaning of this sentence that foreign governments should avoid actions that aggravate the junta, by which “aggravation” means pressuring the military junta to give up power, sanctioning it or siding with the democracy movement. The insinuation being that it is opposition to the coup that needs to stop, and it’s this opposition that is escalating the violence.

The second argument being made is that the situation could soon descend into civil war, even though Myanmar has been in civil war for seven decades — and the military’s heavy-handed tactics haven’t stopped it for 70 years. 

All of this commentary, however, rests upon the idea that if the junta is accepted internationally and the pro-democracy protesters sense the battle is lost and give up, then peace and stability will immediately return to Myanmar — thereby preventing more bloodshed. 

For starters, this argument puts an enormous amount of trust in a military that has executed over 700 people since February 1, including women and children, according to the advocacy and monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Then there are the thousands who have been arrested, tortured and beaten by military authorities. And, of course, that is on top of the military’s genocide against the Rohingya minority since 2017, if not before. 

For the “realists”, the bloodshed will apparently end once the military junta’s legitimacy has been accepted internationally. At the same time, they argue that the military’s power is already secure domestically — since the military controls the guns and the protesters don’t, they say — so the democracy movement is fighting a losing battle and ought to throw in the towel now so they can avoid more bloodshed. 

Mourners touch the face of Kyaw Win Maung, who was shot dead during a crackdown by security forces, during his funeral in Mandalay on March 28. Photo: AFP

But notice the “logic” being applied here. Either the military is fearful of losing the power it took — which would deny the “realists” their claim that its authority is already secure — and has assassinated over 700 people because it is fearful.

Or its power is already secure – as the “realists” say – and it has therefore assassinated more than 700 people simply because it can – and, indeed, because it is hardwired to stamp out any dissent through the most brutal of means, as it was trained to do during its decades of totalitarian rule. 

One cannot have it both ways. If the military’s authority isn’t secure, then why argue for an illegal regime to be conferred legitimacy so quickly? If the military’s coup is now a fait accompli, then what reason is there to think the military junta won’t continue its tyranny even after its “legitimacy” has been accepted internationally? 

Reports from Myanmar do not point to a regime that genuinely believes it’s fighting for national security. Instead, they point to a regime that is intoxicated with power by its sheer ability to decide who lives and who dies. We’ve seen reports of people being burned alive; of doctors and nurses being brutalized; of injured protestors being finished off with a shot to the head.

There are now reports that the military is charging families US$85 to retrieve the bodies of relatives killed by security forces after 82 people were killed Friday in Bago. None of this suggests a regime that is eager to temper its brutality for the sake of how it appears globally.    

More to the point, I have yet to see any of the “realist” commentators even consider the situation in which the junta is recognized by the international community but the pro-democracy movement doesn’t stop its protests.

What happens in such a scenario, when the bloodshed continues yet the junta’s representatives are welcomed to sit next to US or European leaders at international conferences? And, indeed, when the junta no longer has to worry about its international reputation?

A protester holds a banner with the image of Myanmar military chief General Min Aung Hlaing and a dinosaur as they take part in a demonstration condemning the military coup outside the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok on February 4, 2021, Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha

Moreover, what evidence is there that the military — which deems protests to be “riots” — won’t unleash its tyranny if demonstrations erupt again around the time of another election if the junta is allowed to engage in a rigged ballot, which would actually be a mere plebiscite on its rule?

Those I describe as “realists” ascribe quite a lot of misplaced good faith in the junta, which has not shown the slightest sign that it wants to deescalate the crisis. It is folly to think that once the junta is accepted internationally and the protests stop, then Myanmar straightaway gets back onto a path towards democracy — as the regime has claimed it intends to do. 

Even the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, intimated this misconception in his latest blog published on Sunday, in which he intoned: “We cannot accept that a democratically-elected government is overthrown and replaced by military rule.”

However, he then wrote that the EU “has an interest in promoting regionally-led attempts to mediate and address the crisis and we should support all forces inside ASEAN that make this case as well.” Supporting ASEAN, which will likely accept the junta as legitimate on the condition it sets out a timetable for another election that will be rigged in the military’s favor, would effectively mean passing the buck on the crisis. 

Borrell also noted, “We could reinforce this diplomatic track by offering to increase our economic ties if Myanmar returns to the path of democracy: in addition to more trade, we could offer good quality investments that could help the country with a sustainable development path through state-of-the-art technologies and sustainable business principles.”

The road-path lid out here is too straight and too convenient — and too trusting of an illegal junta that has shown zero willingness to constrain itself and clearly wants to escalate, not deescalate, tensions despite international condemnation and opposition. Thinking its savagery will suddenly dissipate isn’t realism: it’s cynicism and credulity.