Myanmar’s fragile democracy came to a screeching halt in February 2021, when a military coup dismantled the country’s democratically elected government. In July, the junta executed four political prisoners, adding to the anguish and desperation felt by those fighting for democracy. NHK spoke to the former US ambassador to Myanmar, who condemned the military’s actions and warned that the situation there was no longer business as usual.
Activists who fought for democracy alongside Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi are now in hiding or behind bars. The army cracks down on opposition groups. By mid-August, the number of civilian detainees had risen to more than 12,000, according to the Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell is now president of the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit organization that works to strengthen democratic institutions around the world. He says the executions were “absolute horror” which underscores the fragility of senior army leaders.
“There’s definitely a feeling of insecurity,” Mitchell says. “The fact that they felt they needed to do these things, that they don’t control the country, that the coup didn’t go as they planned, that the people are fighting back with everything he has to defend his democracy and defend their human rights.”
Mitchell says the actions of the military also reveal a sense of entitlement built into their thinking.
“(What we still see is) the feeling that they are above the law, that they tell themselves that they must preserve their privilege and their power in all circumstances.”
He adds: “This sense of entitlement, that they were born to govern and must impose their will, otherwise the country will collapse, it is arrogance, but it is not based on anything other than what they say to themselves. The only thing they did for six decades, except for the last 10 years, was to drive what should be the rice bowl of Asia, the hopeful part of the Asia, in a basket.”
period of hope
From 2011 to 2012, Mitchell served as the first U.S. special representative and policy coordinator for Burma, and then from 2012 to 2016, the first U.S. ambassador to the country in 22 years. He witnessed firsthand the transition from the former pariah state to democracy.
In 2011, former military general Thein Sein took office as president after the country’s first election in two decades. He launched a process of reform, which involved releasing hundreds of political prisoners, opening talks with Aung San Suu Kyi, brokering peace deals with ethnic minority groups and easing media censorship. .
Recognizing the change in Myanmar, Mitchell arranged for a 2011 visit by then-US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. The following year, he helped bring US President Barack Obama to talks with military leaders and Aung San Suu Kyi on further reforms.
During his visit, Obama promised to a packed house at the University of Yangon that “America will help rebuild an economy that can provide opportunity for its people and serve as an engine of growth for the world.” The pledge was part of his foreign policy platform of “rebalancing towards Asia” and marked the beginning of a change from the old approach of sanctioning and isolating the country.
Major economies including Britain, France and Japan quickly followed suit and government ministers and trade officials soon flocked to “Asia’s last frontier”. International hotels and high-end shopping malls have replaced old hostels and food stalls in Yangon, the country’s largest city.
“Our job is to stand with the people of Myanmar.”
But today, the situation in Myanmar is a far cry from that brief period of reform. Mitchell calls on the international community to stand with the people of the country by engaging with the National Unity Government – the government in exile formed by lawmakers and parliamentarians ousted in the 2021 coup.
“There is a chosen one here,” he said. “There was an election, and there are people who generally represent the will of the people of Myanmar. And our job is to stand with the people of Myanmar.”
Mitchell also says countries like the United States and Japan need to change their approach to the junta.
“We have to get out of our comfort zone, if we all go back and do what we’ve always done – America imposes sanctions, Japan invests and engages, India engages to try to balancing China – it’s not going to get results.”
But Mitchell realizes that’s easier said than done. Myanmar is located at a convergence point of competing geopolitical interests, strategically important both to the US pursuit of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and to China’s mega-infrastructure project. , the “Belt and Road Initiative”. Washington does not want to antagonize the junta and risk Myanmar getting closer to Beijing’s orbit. This is complicated by the fact that the United States had to allocate national security resources to deal with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Mitchell says the United States can no longer be counted on to act as the world’s only policeman.
Quad and ASEAN
Instead, he believes it is up to the Quad security cadre, of which Japan is a part, to work together and stand up to the junta.
“I think the Quad is essential,” says Mitchell. “If we can find a way to squeeze the junta through the Quad, it demonstrates that it won’t be business as usual. We have to make sure the junta doesn’t get any money. We still have to get the help through. humanitarian through legal channels, but through civic channels and not through governmental channels.”
Mitchell notes that Japan has a particularly important role to play because of its close historical and cultural ties to Myanmar. He says one way to apply pressure is for the Japanese Defense Ministry to stop accepting senior Myanmar military officers as foreign students.
“Until they demonstrate their commitment to military values, they shouldn’t have access to them,” Mitchell said. “They shouldn’t have the respect to engage with genuine military professionals at a time when they are murdering their own people with impunity.”
Mitchell believes Myanmar’s other ASEAN members also have an important role to play. Since its founding, the bloc has historically adopted a policy of non-interference, where nations stay out of other members’ internal affairs. But Mitchell says that by remaining silent, ASEAN is strengthening Myanmar’s military.
“I hope ASEAN, when talking about sovereignty and non-interference, recognizes that you are interfering in internal affairs by empowering the military, empowering the junta, because sovereignty comes from the people,” he said.
Mitchell admits there is no silver bullet to restoring democracy to Myanmar. He points to the diplomatic response to the previous junta, which was equally divided – uncompromising policy of isolation or soft-line engagement. But what is radically different today is that its people have had a glimpse of democracy over the past decade, only to see their hopes dashed. Overthrowing democracy in Myanmar is not just about geopolitical and economic concerns, but about crushing the future of the country.