The People vs. the Crocodile, or Why Myanmar Matters

In an age when all pro-democracy battles are global, 2021’s first fight has begun.

Protesters on the streets of Yangon, Feb. 15, 2021/Reuters

Lisa Van Dusen

February 15, 2021

When the late chef, writer, roaming cultural anthropologist and accidental foreign correspondent Anthony Bourdain launched his CNN series Parts Unknown in 2013, the first place he went was Myanmar. “Everyone I’ve met in this country so far has been to prison,” Bourdain observed during a friendly chat in Yangon with a previously incarcerated democracy activist over a salad of fermented tea leaves.

Months earlier, Barack Obama had made the first visit to Myanmar by a sitting US president. The trip was made in November, 2012, just weeks after Obama’s re-election, during the most hopeful phase of Myanmar’s epic struggle between freedom and tyranny since its independence from Britain in 1948.

“Today, you are showing the world that fear does not have to be the natural state of life in this country, Obama said in his “Why I came to Rangoon” speech. “That’s why I came to Rangoon. And that’s why what happens here is so important — not only to this region, but to the world. Because you’re taking a journey that has the potential to inspire so many people. This is a test of whether a country can transition to a better place.”

On February 1st, the Tatmadaw, or Myanmar military, expressed its dissatisfaction with that transition to a better place by staging a coup against the newly re-elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The democracy activists — including Aung San Suu Kyi, on a ludicrous charge of possessing walkie-talkies without a permit — are in prison again following what China has called a “major cabinet reshuffle.”

The generals have moved tanks into the streets, troops have fired on protesters, midnight arrests are de rigueur again, but neighbours have crowded police away in some cases and, at this writing, protests and strikes continue. On Sunday,  ambassadors in Myanmar from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the EU and other democracies condemned the coup, denouncing the arrests of political leaders, the harassment of journalists and the military’s interruption of communications.

“We support the people of Myanmar in their quest for democracy, freedom, peace and prosperity. The world is watching,” the statement said.

The military junta announced on February 16 that it will hold an election and “hand power to the winning party.” Given that multiple observer bodies, including the Carter Center, deemed the November election to have been largely free and fair, that move is clearly a time-buying, narrative-changing gambit.

Myanmar is one of the world’s democratic transition narratives that took a decidedly southward turn during the Trump presidency, starting in late 2016 with the classic crackdown/ethnic cleansing/forced displacement/genocide trajectory of the Rohingya people, who became the benighted protagonists of the 21st century’s first social media-incited genocide — a horrifying technological upgrade on the Rwanda radio-based model of 1994.

That humanitarian catastrophe catalyzed the precipitous devaluation on the global stage of Aung San Suu Kyi’s currency as a flag bearer for freedom and advocate for democracy by making her, through her unsavoury compromises with the Tatmadaw, the personification of the Winston Churchill definition of an appeaser as “one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”

The crocodile, in this case, is both the democracy-averse military and China, which has a strategic interest in outcomes in Myanmar and is even more democracy-averse than the Tatmadaw’s generals. Beijing has spent the years since Obama made his declaration of US interests energetically undermining democracy not just regionally but internationally, through the economic leverage of its Belt & Road initiative as well as — most recently confirmed in a speech by CSIS Director David Vigneault on February 9 — more covert methods.

In Myanmar, China’s footprint includes, among other elements, a raft of Belt & Road investments signed last year, and assistance in constructing the engineered city of Naypyidaw, declared capital in 2005, as an isolated fortress for the Tatmadaw 230 miles north of Yangon. China is also funding Egypt’s new purpose-built capital, 30 miles east of Cairo. (Post-internet surveillance states don’t need to be among the people to control them, and they do like their distance from resistance). The bilateral relationship has been as fraught as crocodile dances elsewhere in the past decade, with Myanmar attempting to fend off a Faustian debt trap, and dealing with China’s backing of rebels along their border. As the New York Times’ Steven Lee Myers and Hannah Beech reported Feb. 12, “China has sought to make [Myanmar] a pliant neighbor, while the United States has searched for the right mixture of pressure and encouragement to nurture a transition to democratic rule.”

Which makes this coup much more than a local matter or even a predictable return to brutal form. Because Aug San Suu Kyi remains immensely popular domestically, her National League for Democracy won an 83 percent landslide in November’s elections – echoing the 81 percent the NLD won in the 1989 election ahead of which she was first, pre-emptively detained, remaining under house arrest for 15 of the 21 subsequent years. The people of Myanmar better understand and therefore more easily forgive the political accommodations she has made. In the age of narrative warfare, lose-lose scenarios are a tactical weapon and saints are high-value, easy targets. But her sweeping victory apparently shocked the generals, perhaps into a more decisive rejection of democracy. A hasty visit to Myanmar by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi weeks before the coup generated the same questions about China’s involvement as were raised in the wake of the military coup in Zimbabwe in 2017.

In his speech to virtual Davos on January 25, President Xi Jinping championed multilateralism as “the torch that will illuminate humanity’s way forward.” As former International Monetary Fund Deputy Director Hung Tran pointed out in a piece for the Atlantic Council, “Xi characterized the charter of the United Nations (UN) as containing ‘the basic and universally recognized norms governing state-to-state relations,’ but failed to mention that the same charter also ‘reaffirm(s) faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person.’”

A hasty visit to Myanmar by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi weeks before the coup generated the same questions about China’s involvement as were raised in the wake of the military coup in Zimbabwe in 2017.

By positioning itself as an advocate for multilateralism, China is downplaying the degree to which what has been widely interpreted for the past five years as a battle for a new world order not as a war on democracy, but as a friendly reiteration of the status quo. But by decoupling multilateralism from democracy, Xi is promoting a worldview that misleadingly equates the Chinese Communist Party Politburo — as well as the Tatmadaw Defence and Security Council, entrenched autocrats, illiberal thugs and the increasingly ubiquitous, borderless security and intelligence apparatuses that keep them all in place — with democratically elected governments. Democracies negotiate, out of political necessity, based not on the power consolidation agendas of their leaders but on the interests of the people they represent.

At the United Nations, multilateralism, as Hung Tran points out, is supposed to serve the interests of human beings, not regimes. Otherwise, the UN would simply become an extension of a world order in which power is determined not by democratic legitimacy, moral authority or even economic might but by ruthlessness, coercion, state capture and hypercorruption. What happens in Myanmar in 2021 isn’t just about Myanmar any more than what happens in Hong Kong is just about what happens in Hong Kong.

“The global trend line on the resolution of conflicts, especially intra-national conflicts involving asymmetrical minority/majority or other human rights and recognition dynamics — in Kashmir, in Myanmar, in northern Syria — has moved drastically away from diplomacy and negotiation to sometimes brutal, shock-and-awe coups de théâtre that dramatically alter the facts on the ground in favour of the more powerful party,” I wrote in a January 2020 Policy column. I’m really not in the habit of quoting my own columns, but I think we can now add Hong Kong to that list.

Every dateline where democracy is defeated is another victory for those who would subjugate human freedom, equality, dignity and self-governance to entrench their own power. The people of Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi once again represent that battle.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor and deputy publisher of Policy Magazine. She was Washington columnist for the Ottawa Citizen and Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP National in New York and UPI in Washington.