By Michelle Onello and
Akila Radhakrishnan (*) – The Diplomat
A return to the
pre-coup status quo is not politically sustainable. What Myanmar needs is a
more fundamental shift.
Almost as soon as news spread of the Myanmar military’s
brazen coup on February 1, we began hearing calls
for a “reversal”
of the coup. Now, the international community’s efforts have focused on
restoring the pre-coup status quo, as evidenced by the recent (and failed)
ASEAN emergency summit.
These proposals and initiatives ignore the persistent demands
from protestors and ethnic groups for a radical and fundamental shift in
Myanmar. Perhaps most importantly, they fail to acknowledge that the rapidly
deteriorating situation in Myanmar cannot be resolved with a return to the
precarious pre-coup balance of power because it’s precisely this unsustainable
framework that led to the coup in the first place.
Without a recognition of the need for a complete
restructuring of the underlying political and legal system so that it grants
ethnic groups a meaningful role and assures justice for the military’s past and
present crimes, history will keep repeating itself and the people of Myanmar
will continue to suffer.
It’s clear that a root cause of the putsch was the shaky
foundation of the quasi-civilian government, which had to contend with the
military’s continued iron-clad grip on power, unchecked power to amass financial
resources, and ability to commit horrific human rights violations with
Part of this unsustainable power imbalance stemmed from the bifurcated
sovereignty established by the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, which
allowed the military to continue to control all its own affairs, including by
granting the commander-in-chief authority to make “final and conclusive”
determinations regarding all military matters. It also provided blanket amnesty
for certain actions carried out by military personnel. This impunity allowed
the military to, among other things, continue unchecked its campaigns of
violence and brutality against ethnic groups. Most notably, this included war
crimes and crimes against humanity against ethnic groups in eastern Myanmar and
against the Rohingya in Rakhine State.
The 2008 Constitution also embedded the military into
civilian political affairs, allowing it to exercise control over crucial
ministries and a quarter of all parliamentary seats, which enabled the military
to veto all constitutional amendments. Moreover, parliament was handicapped by
military factions and the notoriously weak judiciary was prevented from
developing fully into a moderating force. While certainly a step forward from
total military rule, without traditional checks and balances the situation as
of January 2021 was far from a true democracy.
As the callous killings of children and peaceful
anti-coup protesters show, the military, despite its rhetoric of protecting
the “national” interest, is motivated solely by a desire to maintain its own
autonomy and serve its own interests. Attempts at constitutional reform were
branded as “discrimination”
by the military, which issued ominous
warnings of “undesirable consequences.” Given its tenuous and limited hold
on power, the civilian government had to tread a delicate balance between
exercising authority and placating the military.
The military’s political autonomy was reinforced by its vast
web of economic
interests, which expanded over the last decade as the military was cloaked
in democratic legitimacy. Foreign direct investment increased
flocked to one of Asia’s last frontier markets, developing business
ties with the military across a variety of industries, including energy,
industrial products, and real estate. The funds generated by military business
entities were used to finance
heinous human rights abuses and purchase arms that are now being used in
the brutal campaign against the people.
Another fundamental shortcoming of the 2008 Constitution was
that it left little room for federalism and input from ethnic minorities, many
of whom have been fighting for greater autonomy for decades. The military
never seriously committed to peace, playing factions off of each other and
convincing international donors to fund a peace process it had no intention of
seeing to fruition. Efforts to decentralize power were also largely rejected by
the National League for Democracy government, which declined to put
forward constitutional amendments proposed by ethnic groups to grant them more
This house of cards collapsed when the military seized
power, and there should be no appetite to reassemble a structure that would be
as susceptible to manipulation as it was on and before February 1. Instead, any
resolution of the current crisis must be premised on jettisoning military
autonomy, ensuring accountability for past and current crimes, and the
inclusion of all ethnic voices.
Moving forward will also require accountability and justice
for the military’s brutal, disproportionate, and indiscriminate violence
against democracy protesters and innocent civilians. According to the
Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, since February 1 the military
has killed more than 780 people and detained 4,800.
Women’s rights groups have documented particularly brutal violence targeting female protesters.
Justice for these crimes can never be served within the scope of the prior
political and legal landscape.
The international community must follow the Myanmar people’s
lead by refusing to allow the military to return to its pre-coup power base and
by securing adequate justice for current crimes as well as decades of unchecked
human rights abuses. The U.N.’s Rosenthal
Report, which dissected the many missteps and miscalculations that failed
to stop the Rohingya genocide, indicates the dangers of turning a blind eye to
the military’s actions and provides a cautionary tale for future engagement.
on returning civilians to power under “the government that was previously
established under the 2008 constitution,” the international community, thus
far, has ignored those lessons and been completely ineffectual in dealing with
the crisis. The U.N. Security Council has been unable
to agree on a formal resolution, issuing weak statements that appeared to
blame “all parties” for violence, deferring
to ASEAN and refusing to take further action, such as an
arms embargo. The ASEAN summit, with only Commander-in-Chief Min Aung
Hlaing representing Myanmar, resulted
in a five point “consensus,” which failed to call for the release of
political prisoners, urged all parties to “exercise utmost restraint,” but
lacked any red lines, enforcement mechanism, or timeframes for achieving
progress, and was subsequently disavowed
by the military.
By meeting Min Aung Hlaing on his terms, and focusing on
“restoring” democracy under the fundamentally-flawed 2008 Constitution, the
international community will never resolve the current crisis and is obscuring
the reality that only fundamental changes will bring peace and stability.
The people of Myanmar realize that now is the time to remove
the cancerous military from power, once and for all. They are laying down their
lives every day for this cause. To ensure that victims’ suffering has not been
in vain, it is imperative for the international community to reject
unequivocally military rule and follow the lead of the Myanmar people. Only
radical reimagining of the legal and political system will move Myanmar forward
as a peaceful, stable, and secure nation.
(*) Guest Author: Michelle Onello, international human rights lawyer and senior
counsel at the Global Justice Center, an international human rights
organization that promotes gender equality through the rule of law. Guest
Author Akila Radhakrishnan: President of the Global Justice Center, an international human-rights
organization that promotes gender equality through the rule of law