It’s time ASEAN ‘drains the swamp’ in Myanmar

Thailand is a hot mess, but we look like a cool cucumber when compared to the problems next door.

By | Wed 27 Oct 2021

Several months ago, a Burmese worker told me she had to urgently leave for Myanmar. Why? I asked. “The Tatmadaw is conscripting my 18-year-old son into the army. I’m worried about him.” The tragedy is that her son will be trained to use arms to suppress Burmese populace and the ethnic minorities. Forget about him going to university and build a new life.

The question of Myanmar has been on my mind lately. While driving to Chiang Rai, pondering on the meaning of life, I ask myself “Why does Myanmar have so much bloodshed compared to her ASEAN neighbours? How many more years before Myanmar will find peace?” If only Albert Einstein were alive, I would ask him to help me solve “the Myanmar equation.” To provide a neat and elegant solution to the problems Myanmar has been facing for decades. If Thailand’s history reads like a high school textbook, Myanmar’s reads like a PhD thesis –more complicated, with more players, and more bloodshed. Human rights violations, child soldiers, genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass rape, displaced refugees. You name it.

Let’s get some facts before delving further. Myanmar has a population of approximately 58 million. Between the 1970s-1990s its GDP per capita hovered around $200, rapidly increased to $1,600 in the 2000s, and dipping to $1,400 after this year’s military coup. That’s about $120 per month of income per person, on average. Any wonder why so many seek economic opportunities in their more prosperous neighbour Thailand?

Most crucial is their telling demographics. Over 135 ethnic groups, with over 100 dialects. The largest ethnic group is the majority Burmese (Bamar) comprising 68%; followed by Shan 9%, Karen 7%, Rakhine 4%, Chinese 3%, Indian 2%, Mon 2%, and Others 5%. Put the two together: $120 per month + diverse and oppressed ethnic minorities, you have a recipe for disaster.

Let’s go back in time to appreciate how Myanmar came to be where it is today. The country had been ruled by successive monarchs for centuries – no different from Siam. To gain wealth in the form of land, labour, and natural resources, monarchs would simply conquer her neighbours. Might was right. For 300 years since the 1500s, Burma and Siam were constantly at war, with the Lan Na kingdom under Burma’s control for 200 years. The Toungoo Dynasty invaded Ayutthaya on many occasions, but failed. Then came the Konbaung Dynasty that succeeded in sacking Ayutthaya in 1767. King Taksin of Thonburi Kingdom then helped Siam regain independence, followed by more fighting between the Rattanakosin kingdom and the Konbaung dynasty up until King Rama II.

Overall, I’d say the Burmese army then was stronger and more aggressive than the Siamese army. This was probably a good thing in the sense that Siam was like ancient Athens producing art, culture, and commerce, while the Burmese were akin to Spartans – warmongering, and focusing less on cultural sophistication.

Because of their Spartan-like mentality, the Burmese threw diplomacy out the window, unlike their Thai counterparts. Instead, they fought against Qing China from the north and Siam from the east, believing war was the best way to accomplish their goal. Alas, sipping Earl Grey Tea, waiting for the right moment, the Brits seized Burma like an anaconda swallowing a wild boar. Three Anglo-Burmese wars later, Burma became a British colony from 1885 to 1937. Its last king – King Thibaw of Konbaung dynasty – abdicated and exiled to India. Gone was their identity that had been in existence for at least a thousand years, through successive and competing monarchs.

Then came WWII the nationalist leader Gen Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi’s father) allied with Japan, but after the harsh Japanese occupation, switched allegiance to the Allied forces. Ethnic conflicts were present before the British arrival, but the latter’s “divide and conquer” strategy exacerbated them tenfold. For instance, due to their distrust of local majority Burmese, the Brits recruited Indian, Karen, Gurkhas, Chin, Kachin into the British army to suppress the Burmese. To add salt to injury to the Buddhist majority was the conversion to Christianity amongst ethnic minorities. The hatred between ethnic groups was ready to explode. Post-WWII, when Gen. Aung San, in a way the father of modern Burma, was about to unite most ethnic groups and put the past conflicts behind via the Panglong Agreement, he and his cabinet were assassinated. Unfortunately CCTVs hadn’t been invented. Nor was Zuckerberg’s Ray-Ban smart wearable. A year later the Brits packed their bags, granting Burma independence in 1948 and left them to it.

Alas, Burma’s newly born independence was strangled to death when Gen. Ne Win staged a coup in 1962. Since then, with few exceptions here and there, Myanmar has been under direct military rule or under its shadow and influence.

When the Brits left, the power vacuum was so large that invariably only the Tatmadaw could fill. Crucially, they left their allied ethnic minorities at the mercy of the Tatmadaw. Fighting and civil-wars continued, with many ethnic groups seeking independence from Myanmar’s central and oppressive authority. Since the Tatmadaw didn’t have MBA degrees, they only knew one and only way: violence. And so, violence begets revenge, which begets violence in a never-ending cycle of conflicts as per the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

Me and Former Australian Ambassador to Thailand Paul Robilliard

The Tatmadaw saw it as their destiny and responsibility to curb ethnic conflicts, protect territory, clean up the mess, and accordingly took the driver’s seat.

So, what can we learn from their history? First, nation-building takes a lot of planning and management. It cannot be done through an opportunistic power grab. If you can’t build a nation on your own, other bigger powers will. Second, there is a negative correlation between military government and economic growth. The longer the military runs the country, the smaller will the economic pie be. Throughout world history, the military’s main concern has always been national security, power, and stability. Not on increasing economic wealth for all.
It’s easier to shoot than use brain processing power to create a start-up company. Third, poverty coupled with dozens ethnic groups produce social unrest.

Returning to my original question “How many more years before Myanmar will find peace?” Answer: Not tomorrow. Not until the humongous natural resource sitting underneath the country is either properly managed and owned by all Burmese…or sadly depleted. Not when Gen Min Aung Hlaing is Commander in Chief, sits in National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), and with the Tatmadaw controlling every nook and cranny in Myanmar, armed with a 550,000-strong army, 20,000 navy, 23,000 air-force plus thousands of police force, border guards, and people’s militia units – all designed to suppress people’s democratic aspirations. Unfortunately, the Burmese worker’s son I mentioned will be part of the state’s security apparatus. If ordered to kill, his guilt will be with him for his entire life.

The Shan, Kachin, and Karen have their own army and economies to support their people and fight for autonomy via the sale of drugs, jade, and natural resources. But whenever the Tatmadaw strikes, it produces refugees, which flee across Thailand’s border, creating perverse incentives for Thai authorities to profit from their suffering.

ASEAN can no longer use “non-interference” policy when today’s problems know no nation-state boundaries. Covid’s death rate in Myanmar is almost four times that of Thailand’s. Viruses don’t need passports to enter Thailand, just as smog from agricultural burning along the Burmese border doesn’t magically stop at Thailand’s door. And yes, more smog will be coming to Chiang Mai next year. Transnational crime syndicates will thrive when authorities that share borders with Myanmar (India, China, Laos, Bangladesh, Thailand) turn a blind eye to shady businesses along the borders. When a Burmese sex worker unknowingly infected with Covid19 illegally crosses over to Thailand, she is jeopardising Thailand’s effort to reopen its country.

Simply put, due to the transnational nature of today’s problems, what happens in Myanmar today affects other countries. It’s time the ASEAN community, and indeed, the world’s community, call out Myanmar. I hope to see Singapore and Malaysia playing a larger role, followed by the second groupings Thailand, Philippines, and Indonesia. Peace in Myanmar will mean prosperity to the region and beyond. Granted, no countries score 10/10 on liberal democracy scale. But there MUST be a minimum-standard of what’s acceptable in the region. And right now, Myanmar’s score is lower than zero. Every nation has a responsibility to lift Myanmar up to the universal minimum standard. Reintroducing The Panglong Agreement initiated by Aung San to give peace a chance is one such effort.

It’s time to drain the swamp in Myanmar.