Anti-coup protesters show their support for Myanmar's National Unity Government. Photo: Jose Lopes Amaral / NurPhoto via AFP

CHIANG MAI – China has declared its support for Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s military-coup government in Myanmar. The United States and the European Union have implemented sanctions and declared their support for the people’s power movement agitating against the dictatorship.

India and Japan are keeping quiet because they don’t want to push Myanmar further back into the clutches of China. Thailand is too dependent on natural gas imports from Myanmar to dare to condemn or even criticize the coup.

The rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, has once again demonstrated that it is wholly incapable of resolving regional crises.

That, in a nutshell, is how the main external actors have reacted to the turmoil that Min Aung Hlaing thrust upon Myanmar when he and his henchmen seized power on February 1.

How this Great Game proxy theater plays out remains to be seen, but it is clear that it has pitted China against the US in a conflict that is escalating into a regional crisis.

Beyond the superpower rivalry, Japan, India and other regional actors are not keen to see Chinese influence grow in a desperate Myanmar.  

That desperation is growing. Waves of refugees are beginning to stream to Myanmar’s borders with Thailand and across the frontier into India, representing the front edge of a new humanitarian crisis that could come to rival the country’s earlier Rohinyga exodus.

Economically and financially, the country is on the verge of collapse, driving out many of the Western investors who entered the country in hopes of a democratic transition. But there are growing signs that China sees opportunity in Myanmar’s crisis.

At a regional meeting in Chongqing on June 8, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi assured his Myanmar counterpart Wunna Maung Maung Lwin that bilateral relations have not been affected by what he referred to as “changes in Myanmar’s domestic and external situation.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has expressed Beijing’s support for the coup regime. Photo: AFP

Chinese officials also pledged support for ASEAN’s diplomatic initiatives on Myanmar’s crisis, despite the fact the “five point consensus” agreed between Min Aung Hlaing and ASEAN representative at a one-day meeting in Jakarta on April 24 have been largely dead on arrival.

In essence, the “consensus agreement” put equal blame on the Myanmar military’s gunning down of hundreds of peaceful demonstrators, including children as young as five, and the protesters who at that time were armed with little more than slingshots and homemade devices to defend themselves.

From June 4-5, two Bruneian officials, Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof and ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi, were sent by ASEAN to Myanmar but they apparently did little more than chat with junta representatives.

A press release uploaded on the official website of the ASEAN Secretariat, which was later removed, mentioned the assumed government leadership titles of Myanmar junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing and others who were present at the meeting, giving ASEAN’s de facto official recognition of the coup-makers and their bloody coup.

That prompted Jakarta Post editor Kornelius Purba to write in a June 9 op-ed: “Asean is now becoming the laughing stock in the eyes of the international community not only because it is failing to address the plights of the Myanmar people but also because it has fallen into the trap of Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.”

It is often forgotten that ASEAN is not a Southeast Asian equivalent of the EU; rather it’s a loose gathering of mainly un-democratic regimes guided by two cardinal principles — non-interference and consensus —that make it perennially impotent to resolve regional crises.

Indonesia is the only ASEAN member that has shown some willingness to address Myanmar’s problems and how they are spilling over into the wider region.

After holding talks with EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell in Jakarta on June 2, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said that her country is continuing to communicate with ASEAN’s chair — now Brunei — and other member states to demand an immediate end to killings and the release of over 4,000 political detainees.

Coup leader Min Aung Hlaing attends the Armed Forces Day parade in the capital Naypyidaw in late March. Photo: Myawaddy TV Screengrab / AFP

ASEAN’s inaction is likely to China’s liking. While Beijing may be concerned with Myanmar’s rising internal strife and intensified civil war — which now includes not only traditional ethnic armies but also a multitude of local forces in areas that have not seen fighting for decades — it has shown time and again that it can work together with Myanmar’s generals.

China has big geostrategic interests to protect in Myanmar and Beijing has always sided with the political camp that appears to have the upper hand. For now, that’s Min Aung Hlaing’s unpopular junta.

Myanmar is the only neighboring country that provides China with direct access to the Indian Ocean. That allows Chinese shipments of fuel and other key imports to bypass the disputed waters of the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait chokepoint that Beijing fears could be blocked in any conflict scenario with the US.

The US is on the other side of the political divide in post-coup Myanmar. Starting in June, the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) announced that its two media networks, the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, will launch a new 24-hour video channel for Myanmar.

According to a June 9 USAGM press release, the channel will be available on two different direct-to-home TV satellites covering Myanmar and is being launched in response to the junta’s “shutdown of independent media and its intermittent blocking of mobile phone services since the military’s February 1 coup.”

Civil society organizations inside the country and in exile will also get support from the US. But other than keeping hope alive among the general public, it is hard to see how this will affect the staying power of a military regime that is willing to brutally mow down civilians to survive.

An estimated 861 protesters had been shot dead by the Myanmar military since the coup until June 11, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an independent rights group. AAPP released the names of 21 people who are known to have been tortured to death by the police and military since the coup.

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

Security and other analysts argue that neither civil disobedience nor armed struggle in frontier areas is likely to bring down the military. Only a crack within the military would do that, but there are few signs of any such significant dissent within the officer corps.

Still, it is in Washington’s strategic interest to strengthen the forces that are opposed to Myanmar’s military to avoid the country once again becoming a dependent client of China.

According to internal Myanmar army documents reviewed by Asia Times, it was top brass concern about the nation’s dependence on China and the need to counterbalance that with improved relations with the West that led to their introduction of a more open society in 2011-2012.

Relations with the West improved until the Myanmar army drove hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingyas over the border to Bangladesh in 2017 and pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi refused to condemn the atrocities.

While the US and EU have openly condemned the democratic reversal, Japan’s and even more so India’s responses to the upheaval have been less overtly critical. Japan has not joined the West in imposing new sanctions or even come out to strongly condemn the killings and torture of opponents to Min Aung Hlaing’s regime.

For the same reason, India now faces a huge dilemma and is particularly averse to China making deeper post-coup inroads into Myanmar. New Delhi doesn’t want to antagonize the Myanmar military, with which it has recently improved ties including through a submarine sale, at the same time it is the only country that so far has received a significant number of refugees.

According to local sources, there are now 21,000 refugees in the northeastern state of Mizoram and an unknown number in adjacent areas in Manipur.

Both states border Myanmar and the Mizos are closely related to the Chins across the border so local authorities have ignored appeals from the central government in New Delhi not to accept refugees from Myanmar. Chin state is one of the parts of Myanmar where armed conflict rages between the military and local resistance forces.

Myanmar’s anti-junta protesters have not appreciated ASEAN’s role in the crisis. Photo: Twitter

India and the US — both democracies with common strategic interests vis-à-vis China — should be natural allies in this otherwise unfathomable imbroglio. But that may not happen as China could seek to revive its old support for ethnic insurgents from India’s northeast who have sanctuaries across the border in Myanmar from where they launch occasional raids into India.

In the past, China provided mainly Naga, Manipuri and Assamese resistance groups with assistance. After India signed a trade pact with Taiwan in October last year, Beijing said it could retaliate by revitalizing such support.

Four months after Myanmar’s coup, the resulting crisis is no longer a mere internal affair. But what happens next in Myanmar is a question not even its most famous soothsayers and astrologers — nor Western political and military analysts — dare to predict.

The only certain thing is that Min Aung Hlaing did not anticipate the scale, scope and longevity of resistance to his democracy-suspending coup, a miscalculation that has exposed his country to new great power machinations and interventions that will further fuel the instability he stoked and can’t extinguish.