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Paul Vallely: Myanmar situation could deteriorate

12 February 2021

Aung San Suu Kyi needs support, says Paul Vallely


Supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi take part in protests in Yangon, Myanmar, on Monday

Supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi take part in protests in Yangon, Myanmar, on Monday

IT IS not easy to understand what’s going on in Myanmar. Why have the military turned against Aung San Suu Kyi? After all, she was prepared to tarnish her reputation as an international human-rights champion by appearing at the International Court of Justice last year and downplaying the army’s murderous campaign against Burma’s Rohingya Muslims.

The relationship between Burma’s army and its democracy is delicate and complex. The contrast between Ms Suu Kyi and the generals is not so complete as might be supposed. Her father was the general who did much to shape the army that overthrew Burma’s multi-party democracy in 1962. She has a steely military demeanour, which enabled her to survive 15 years in detention between 1989 and 2010, when democracy was restored.

Over the past six decades, the tentacles of the military have extended throughout the national economy. More than 100 companies — including the giant conglomerates MEC and MEHL — are controlled by Mynamar’s generals and their relatives and cronies. They have amassed huge monopolies in manufacturing, construction, landholdings, finance, insurance, telecoms, and mining.

The head of the military, General Min Aung Hlaing, has accrued vast wealth. But he was due to retire in the summer and feared that, without his status as top general, he might be unable to protect his family’s sweetheart deals — and might find himself prosecuted at The Hague on accusations of Rohingya genocide. He would have immunity, he reckoned, if he became President. But Ms Suu Kyi, who liked that post to go to one of her loyal lieutenants, would not countenance the idea.

When she was returned to power recently with an increased majority, General Hlaing decided that his only option was a military coup, which he launched as Ms Suu Kyi’s new administration was about to be sworn in (News, 5 February).

The Nobel Peace Prizewinner now finds herself in a difficult position. Internationally, her moral authority has been squandered by her defence of an army that, she has conceded, may have used “disproportionate force” against the Rohingya. But her stance, whether inspired by Burmese nationalism or political pragmatism, has lost her little popularity inside Burma, where even the Buddhist monks are hostile to the Rohingya. The trouble with democracy is that sometimes people endorse positions of which we may not approve.

Things could yet get much worse. The military killed thousands in a previous popular uprising. Burma’s biggest trading partner, China, has blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the coup. Other neighbours, including Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines, have described the upheaval as merely an “internal matter”.

But, during the decade of democracy, internet use has expanded hugely. Some 80 per cent of the population have smartphones. That perhaps explains why people have taken to the streets in their tens of thousands in protest.

International companies — such as the Japanese brewer Kirin, which has $1 billion invested in Burma — have cut their links with the generals’ companies. Other big investors, such as Suzuki, Total, and Amata, are considering something similar. The British banks HSBC and Standard Chartered must now follow suit. More outside pressure must be brought to bear. And Ms Suu Kyi, whatever compromises she has made in the past, needs our wholehearted support.

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