The battle for democracy in Myanmar
The world is horrified by the bloody military coup in Myanmar, with reports of more than 80 people killed in Bago last Friday. We are pursuing a robust diplomatic initiative in close coordination with like-minded partners. However, geopolitical competition in Myanmar makes it difficult to find common ground, to halt the violence and ensure a return to democracy.
Democracy is increasingly challenged these days, but in few places in such a dramatic and brutal fashion as in Myanmar. In the early morning of 1 February, the clock on Myanmar's democratic transition was turned back many years with a 1970s-style military coup. The army claimed that the November 2020 elections, which the National League for Democracy (NLD) had won with a landslide, had somehow been 'fraudulent', without offering any evidence. It declared a state of emergency and put State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint under arrest, together with other democratic leaders.
Civilian resistance to the coup has been so widespread, creative and courageous that, I believe, it caught the military by surprise. They resorted to the only means they know and have used so often in the past: violence and repression. So far, at least 550 unarmed protesters, including 46 children, have been killed. Over 2,800 persons have been detained. The world watches in horror, as the army uses violence against its own people.
Yet, even in the face of such brutality, geopolitics divides the international community and hampers a coordinated response. Myanmar borders the two largest countries in the world by population: China and India. Its location makes it a strategic point for China's Belt and Road Initiative (offering deep-sea access to the Indian Ocean), but also to India's own corridor to the South China Sea. Other countries like Japan, South Korea and Singapore also have strong economic interests in Myanmar. And Russia is the country's second supplier of weapons, after China.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Russia and China are blocking the attempts of the UN Security Council, for example to impose an arms embargo. China is keen to protect its strategic interests in the country and has called the coup 'a major government reshuffle', while Russia insists that it is a purely 'domestic matter'. Last week, Alexander Fomin, Russia's deputy defence minister, was the highest-ranking foreign official to attend Myanmar's Armed Forces Day parade when others including Asian countries had downscaled their level of representation.
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. Myanmar needs a more diversified set of external investors so the type that European companies typically offer is valuable. The need for sustainability is crucial given that Myanmar is one of three countries in the world most at risk from the impact of climate change.
But we have a duty to try. First, to make sure that the will of Myanmar's people, as expressed at the November 2020 elections, is respected. But also to defend the country's experiment in democracy, which - notwithstanding its limitations -- made it an important example, as we are increasingly facing challenges to fundamental freedoms and democracy across the world.