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As published in Pearls and Irritations – February 2021

America is calling the military take over in Myanmar a coup. Not quite. Myanmar’s fragile democracy always existed at the pleasure of the military and the military became displeased when it appeared the people wanted to strengthen democracy.

The major, but not ruling party, the National League for Democracy, NLP, won a landslide victory in national general election held in November 2020. The NLP won 86% of the vote, up from 79% in 2015, representing 396 seats, the Union, Solidarity and Development Party, USDP, the party of the military, won 6.9% of the vote, representing 33 seats.  No doubt spurred on by Trumps leadership in these matters, the military declared the election rigged, an impossibility considering their control of the country, and on 1 February moved to place under house arrest senior members of the government including State Counsellor (Prime Minister) Aung San Suu Kyi, President, Win Mynt and 24 other ministers.

The military reluctantly moved to elections in 2015 but in so doing made their agreement conditional on holding 25% of seats in Parliament and retaining the ministries of Defence, Border and Home Affairs. In the wake of the take over they have claimed eleven additional ministries including finance, health, interior and foreign affairs. The military moved toward greater democratic freedoms in 2014 as a result of Chinese over reach and US blandishments in response. The US made their generous assistance conditional on the Myanmar military moving down a path to democracy and the elections of 2015 were the result.

Since 2015 much has changed in the region. After Trump became US President in 2016, he progressively undermined America’s standing in South East Asia. He imposed trade sanctions on China at a time when Xi Jinping was increasing and consolidating his power. Trump’s sanctions assisted the process. Where America stood in 2015 and now are two quite different places. America is not as powerful economically and militarily. Covid19 imposes restraints on the US military that did not exist before Trump unleashed it. The US has the defence materiel but it does not have the men and women to man it.

The United States has talked about imposing sanctions on the new military regime in Myanmar but it doesn’t have the volume of trade to make an impact and it doesn’t have the money to bribe the regime back into the barracks.

It is an early test for Biden. But then again, it’s not. The tragedy of the loss of democracy in Myanmar will underline the impotence of America in not being able to affect its restoration. It will also highlight the growing influence and power of China over Myanmar and the region.

America is talking of the restoration of democracy at a time when its democracy is fractured. It does not have the moral authority, after the attack by Trump supporters on the institutions of democracy. America is in no position to lecture dysfunctional regimes and press for change, if ever it was. America is unable to enforce its own rule of law.

Democracy should and must prevail in Myanmar. But the chances are slim. China controls the nominally democratic but chronically corrupt government of Sri Lanka, precisely because it is corrupt. It has significant influence in Communist Cambodia and Laos for the same reason. It has a complex relationship with Communist Viet Nam, which steadfastly maintains its independence. Viet Nam would like to see America remain a balance to China in the region but it is realistic and will do whatever it takes to maintain its sovereignty without compromising its national pride and integrity. Singapore can look after itself with respect to China but Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand will, through greed and weak leadership, gradually be white anted by China.

China does not seek to occupy countries in the region, it seeks, like America before it, influence and through that influence a measure of control. China is playing America’s old game and succeeding. It is the game America learnt to play in South America. China is well placed to do the same in South East Asia. Over time, maybe a short period of time, it will mend its fences with India and Japan, particularly if it looks as if the United States is prepared to come to blows in the South China Sea in an attempt to reassert its role as the worlds leading power.

And all this is being further advanced by the greed and venality of the Myanmar military regime. How ironic. How sad, and how tragic for the beautiful people of Burma.

America is now in the position of the British Empire before the fall of Hong Kong and Singapore in 1942. The British were full of chutzpa after 100 years of being unchallenged in the region, used to bullying, but with little understanding of the decline in their power. And Australia’s wagon was firmly hitched to them just as it is to America, another likely loser in the region.

Despite Fox News, America has few real friends in the region. Its friends are fair weather friends, only as good as the strength of American influence and power. And that is declining. The only reliable friend America has in the region is Australia. We are the only country that lets America do our thinking for us, from economic, foreign and defence policy to religion.

It is a risky relationship because it is based on the presumption that America will always be a winner, which ignores Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan. There is not a successful US model despite the hype from gym bred US army Colonels with medals from failed engagements.

The US will fail to restore a corrupted democracy in Myanmar. It will be lacerated on the sharp shoals of South East Asia; wounded and humiliated will it turn it’s anger on China.

China can work with whoever is in power in Myanmar. It’s objectives in the short term are economic in the longer term it strives for influence. Xi Jinping is a hard man with a vision for China. He wants to develop an economic corridor to the Bay of Bengal. He wants oil and gas pipelines to the port of Kyankpyu which along with the port of Sihanoukville in Cambodia he wants to develop into a deep-water port for Chinese merchant and naval vessels. He wants to resume work on the massive Myitsonne Dam in Myanmar, halted by the NLD, which when completed at a cost of $3.6 billion will produce 6,000 megawatts of power.

America is doing nothing like this in the region. It is out of it. It is howling and seething from the sidelines but it has no influence. As always American diplomacy relies on the threat of the use of military force, but increasingly that looks unreliable.

The Chinese may broker an outcome with the Myanmar military which allows a façade of democracy to return but that is unlikely to include Aung San Suu Kyi in the short term unless she agrees to be a permanent figure head and over time she might.

The Chinese can work with whoever is in power in Myanmar and other neighbouring states, what they want most is stability in order to achieve their economic goals. ASPI and other rabid sabre-rattling lobbyist should note that.

Bruce Haigh