- - Wednesday, February 10, 2021

BANGKOK — The general who engineered Myanmar’s recent coup should count himself lucky that his Southeast Asian country is wedged among authoritarian regimes interested in making money by accessing its natural resources and strategic geography instead of condemning the destruction of its fledgling democracy.

The U.S., Europe, Australia and several other distant lands may have denounced the bloodless coup at dawn on Feb. 1 by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hliang, Myanmar’s commander in chief. President Biden stepped up the pressure Wednesday by announcing plans to sanction top coup leaders and their families from suppressing civilian rule in the strategically located country.

But Myanmar’s nearest neighbors and top trading partners, including China and Thailand, have been far more muted in their responses to recent events in Myanmar, a France-sized nation also known as Burma.

The silence has become more striking as Myanmar’s security forces struggle to contain daily protests in Yangon and Mandalay, the two largest cities, and in the usually locked-down capital of Naypyitaw in support of ousted political leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“We call upon the military to immediately end the state of emergency, restore power to the democratically-elected government, to release all those unjustly detained, and to respect human rights and the rule of law,” the Group of Seven leading industrial nations said after the coup.

By contrast, China did not support the U.N. Security Council’s effort the day after the military takeover to produce a joint statement condemning the putsch. Beijing is one of five permanent members of the council and wields veto power.

The U.N. Human Rights Council, the 47-member-state body based in Geneva, announced plans to hold a special session Friday to consider “the human rights implications of the crisis in Myanmar.”

If Western nations do curb diplomatic, financial or military links with Myanmar, then China may seek to fill the resulting vacuum, analysts warn.

Publicly, Beijing insists sanctions and other international intervention would wreck Myanmar and impoverish its people even more than the military’s harsh rule. China has called for all sides in the political crisis to work toward a resolution — without outside interference.

Beijing has expanded its influence and interests deeper south across its border for decades. It has tapped Myanmar’s abundant natural resources, established Chinese-populated towns and gained access through its southern coast to the Bay of Bengal, Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean.

When Western nations clamped crippling economic sanctions on Myanmar during the 1990s, hoping to push it toward democracy, China offered military deals, infrastructure and investment. China’s reach into Myanmar was so deep that it began to rattle the military regime.

“We knew we had to diversify our relationships, open up, and that meant releasing Aung San Suu Kyi,” Thein Sein, Myanmar’s president at the time, told Japan-based Nikkei Asia in 2012.

Myanmar’s generals created a unique position for Ms. Suu Kyi as de facto civilian leader, sharing some powers with the military. They expected her freedom after 14 years of house arrest would entice Western nations to do business with the country, analysts said.

But the military recently began to worry that she was cozying up too closely to Beijing.

“Nothing better illustrated the dissatisfaction than [Mr. Thein Sein’s] abrupt suspension of China’s $1.4 billion Myitsone dam project in northern Kachin state, which remains on hold,” Nikkei reported.

In Beijing’s latest move to woo both sides, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief, and Ms. Suu Kyi on Jan. 12 during his Southeast Asian tour.

After the coup, Beijing may be disappointed with having to deal solely with Myanmar’s reluctant military, analysts said.

“We hope that all sides in Myanmar can appropriately resolve their differences and uphold political and social stability,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin.

An ‘internal affair’

In Buddhist-majority Thailand, meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said hours after the coup, “It’s their own business. It’s their internal affair.”

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha even warned journalists how to report the coup.

“I want news reports to be presented carefully, to avoid any impacts on the economic benefits,” Mr. Prayuth said last week. “I don’t want any conflict to escalate, particularly in Thailand,” where some Bangkok street protesters demanded that democracy be restored in Myanmar.

Mr. Prayuth seized power in a bloodless military coup in 2014 and maintains tight control even after winning a 2019 election.

Farther east, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman echoed indifference to the coup in Myanmar and said, “This is an internal matter.”

Those countries belong to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional grouping that historically has been loath to interfere in other members’ internal difficulties. Other ASEAN members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.

ASEAN’s foundation is “noninterference” in members’ domestic affairs.

“Political stability in ASEAN member states is essential to achieving a peaceful, stable and prosperous ASEAN community,” the group said Feb. 2 in response to the coup. “We encourage the pursuance of dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar.”

Malaysia and Indonesia, both with Muslim majorities, expressed the strongest support within ASEAN for a return to democracy in Myanmar.

On Myanmar’s western border, Muslim-majority Bangladesh also called for peace and stability.

More than 750,000 minority ethnic Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar in 2017 after the country’s Buddhist-majority military unleashed what U.N. investigators described as “genocide” against them. The reputation of Ms. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, plummeted because she was seen as unable or unwilling to stop the harsh treatment of the Muslim minority.

Today, the Rohingya languish in wretched refugee camps in Bangladesh unable or unwilling to return home.

Beyond Myanmar’s western border, India is locked in hostile relations with China and competes in Myanmar for investments and influence.

“We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld,” the Indian Foreign Ministry said in response to the coup.

While governments decide their next moves, international corporations are reacting to Myanmar’s downturn. It may be private markets more than regional governments that determine the course of events.

“The human rights, reputational, and legal risks of continuing to do business with Myanmar’s military are immense,” wrote Aruna Kashyap, a senior counsel for the rights group Human Rights Watch.

The military “has been accused of genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya Muslims, and war crimes against other ethnic minorities. And now it has overthrown a civilian government that won a massive re-election, with over 80% of the vote, in November 2020,” Ms. Kashyap said.

Thai commercial building giant Amata temporarily halted its $1 billion industrial estate development work in Myanmar because of concerns that international sanctions could make the project taboo for international investors. Japanese multinational corporation Suzuki Motor stopped its two automaking factories in Myanmar until the post-coup situation stabilizes.

“We and our clients are concerned about a possible trade boycott by Western countries,” Amata Chief Marketing Officer Viboon Kromadit told reporters.

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