Bill Hayton, associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific Program at Chatham House, has earned some flak over his argument that the international community should simply accept the Myanmar junta’s coup as legitimate and allow it to prepare for fresh elections, even if, expectantly, that outcome sets back democratic progress by decades.
Writing in early March in Nikkei Asia, he argued: “The time for hard choices is now, before more blood flows in the streets and the country enters another dark decade. The international community must open avenues for dialogue to achieve difficult compromises.”
His claim is encapsulated thusly: “Could something be done now to persuade the military leadership to step back and revert to its still powerful background role? This could only happen if it is reassured that its political position is safe. It is vital that Myanmar’s neighbors and its friends around the world rapidly engage with the military leadership. Some will find the discussions distasteful, but the alternatives are worse.”
Joining him – non-figuratively when they both talked on the Asia Matters Podcast last week – is Bilahari Kausikan, a Singaporean academic and retired diplomat, who treated us to his five apparent “hard truths” about the Myanmar crisis, published in an article on April 2.
Kausikan’s similar argument is that the international community’s goal “should be restoration of some form or semblance of civilian and constitutional rule. This is not the same thing as the restoration of ‘democracy.’”
Like Hayton, Kausikan projects an image as a hard-nosed realist who knows his prescriptions are unsavory but reveal a truth, one that self-interested liberals are purposely ignoring.
I haven’t the space for their entire argument, but – and here is the clinching and obvious point – they believe that the military junta is going to be able to stabilize the country in the long term, and only its authority can prevent a major civil war.
One ought to query that: The Tatmadaw (as the military is known) has reached the point of diminishing returns, badly losing support at both general elections and now only able to install its rule through the most brutal of measures.
Kausikan’s fifth and, apparently, hardest of his “hard truths” is that Western governments need to “muster the political courage to be patient.” His reasoning is that patience is necessary while the ASEAN states work toward a compromise with the junta, after which the West can claim a good fight but end the threat of civil war in the region and put the whole crisis to one side.
He writes: “One never openly acknowledged aspect of ASEAN’s ‘centrality’ is to act as an alibi.”
What’s behind their rush for the international community to accept the junta?
One reason is that the rest of Southeast Asia simply wants the crisis to go away – even if they have to pinch their nose to make a compromise – and get back on with tackling the pandemic and returning to economic growth.
The ASEAN bloc remains distinctly uncomfortable with anything that isn’t to do with positive trade and economic integration. Brunei, the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year, hates holding the position. And those on the ground anticipate that Beijing also seeks rapid stabilization. The sense from regional officialdom – with local civil society naturally objecting – is if there’s a quick fix, why not take it?
Or is it because of an assertion that the Myanmar protesters are fighting an unwinnable battle and are better off ceding defeat to stave off worse bloodshed? If this is their argument, and it is intimated in their articles, they ought to state it explicitly.
And maybe that is the case. But who has the right to say if it is winnable and unwinnable? And what right does the international community have to essentially deny the protesters their decision over this question?
“The situation in Myanmar,” Kausikan wrote, “is a congenial backdrop for poseurs around the world who enjoy striking sanctimonious attitudes – brave because safely beyond the reach of the Tatmadaw. Such people are beyond reason.” (One assumes he means: brave because they are safely beyond …)
Grammar aside, the snarky remark at the apparent arrogance of liberals exposes an equally cynical position from these “realists,” who are imploring foreign powers to throw in the towel on behalf of the Myanmar protesters, for the sake of an easy life for the rest of the world.
“The clear conclusion … is that the Myanmar crisis is far from ripe, and that is at a stage where precipitous action by external parties could be very dangerous,” Kausikan wrote.
Granted, and if his argument is that the US and European Union should be honest with the protesters about how little they are prepared to help, then I am in complete agreement. But that is not the same thing as arguing that Washington ought to now abandon the protesters by tacitly accepting the junta as the new legitimate government.
And how are Hayton and Kausikan (men safely beyond the reach of the Tatmadaw, too) not calling for the intervention of foreign powers in Myanmar’s domestic affairs? To accept the junta as legitimate is to intervene, as the international community would fundamentally change the political dynamics within the country by accepting the one thing the protesters are fighting against.
One hears the faint whiff of something else going on in the arguments, as well. “The restoration of ‘democracy’ – as the West understands that protean term – should therefore not be the goal of Western policies vis-à-vis Myanmar,” Kausikan wrote.
He would be wise to explain what he actually considers democracy to mean, and why he feels the need to write democracy in quotation marks on each occasion. Yet he doesn’t pause to consider what the average Myanmar protester might understand that “protean” word to mean. Perhaps, for the average protester, it means the autonomy to decide when they should fight for their own liberty and when (or if) they should admit defeat.
Hayton is cynical, too. He wrote: “Remarkable as it sounds, this could be a moment for the US and China to find some common ground. Neither wishes to see instability in Myanmar. Both could be happy with an outcome that avoids a lingering international stalemate. Could some kind of joint initiative open a door to an improved relationship between the two superpowers?”
The Myanmar protesters may not find comfort that their bloodshed finally allowed Washington and Beijing to cooperate on something, that being sanctifying the junta and killing dead any hope of democracy in Myanmar for the next few decades. “This is a moment of crisis, but could it also be a moment of opportunity?” Crisis for the Myanmar protesters and opportunity for the superpowers, indeed.
David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the column Free Thoughts. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno.