GENEVA — In May 2016, Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general, received an unexpected request from a fellow Nobel peace laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s civilian leader and state counselor. She asked him to lead a commission to advise the government on the stability and development of Rakhine State, a region in the northwest of the country long troubled by sectarian strife.
Daw Suu, as she is colloquially known, told Annan, who was living in Geneva, that the situation in Rakhine was among the most serious challenges facing the civilian government, which had been recently installed after decades of military rule. The rights and protection of communities, the high levels of poverty and the need to address insecurity and the fears of both the Buddhist and Muslim communities were problems requiring immediate attention.
Shortly afterward, Annan sent me to Myanmar to finalize the terms of reference for what was to become the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. I met with Aung San Suu Kyi, who was disarmingly candid about the daunting challenges she faced, especially dealing with the military. But I left our meetings in no doubt that underneath the bonhomie she was a person of strength and determination.
Annan wanted assurances that the commission could work without any interference by the government. He insisted that the commission’s report and recommendations should go directly to Aung San Suu Kyi without government censorship. He also requested that most of the commission members be Myanmar citizens and include some Muslims. And, well aware of the power of the military, Annan asked Aung San Suu Kyi to brief the army commander in chief of her intentions. I received assurances on all these points.
The civil servants on her staff were more reticent when I discussed the conditions with them. But once they knew that the state counselor would go along with Annan’s requests, there was no further discussion. It was clear to me who was in charge.
The commission aided by the Kofi Annan Foundation (which I directed at the time) began its work in September 2016. Aung San Suu Kyi inaugurated the first meeting with strong words of encouragement, calling on the commission to be “bold” and to cast off the “shackles of the past.”
A year later, in August 2017, Annan delivered the final report of the commission to Aung San Suu Kyi. It made a candid assessment of the situation in Rakhine. It condemned the denial of basic rights to the Rohingya community and urged the government to move quickly to remedy their plight. But the report also addressed governmental failings, which were fueling bitter resentment among the Rakhine ethnic group, who felt disdained and treated unfairly by the Burmese (the Bamah) majority, who dominate Myanmar’s political and security elites.
The report laid out a detailed plan for redressing the key concerns of all communities in the Rakhine, which Annan asked the government to adopt and act on without delay.
The state counselor accepted the report’s recommendations, although she cautioned that they could not all be carried out instantly.
Then the roof fell in.
As the report was being released, Rohingya insurgents attacked government outposts in areas bordering Bangladesh. The Burmese military responded ferociously, unleashing a campaign of indiscriminate violence against Rohingya civilians, driving hundreds of thousands of them into Bangladesh and displacing many others inside Myanmar.
To the surprise and disappointment of many well-wishers around the world, Aung San Suu Kyi did not forcefully condemn the military campaign. Indeed, she traveled to The Hague to defend the military against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice.
Although her former supporters in the international community were aghast, her policy was not disavowed by most people in Myanmar. In fact, her mandate was renewed with an increased vote for her party in the general elections held in November 2020.
Those elections have now been nullified by the very military that Aung San Suu Kyi defended.
This untoward turn of events is a doleful reminder that Myanmar has not yet escaped the shackles of the past. In some respects, the earlier crisis in Rakhine state typified the divides — political, social and ethnic — that have long haunted Myanmar (some of them amplified during the period of British colonization).
The foremost divide lies in the country’s governance. The Feb. 1 coup is the latest episode in the struggle between the civilian and the military establishments that has characterized Myanmar’s politics since the country’s independence in 1948. The current constitution, drafted by the military, enshrines and perpetuates its power and is incompatible with a truly democratic state.
The November elections confirmed, however, that most people want civilian leadership. Unfortunately, the coup demonstrates that the military is not yet prepared to cede its privileged and unaccountable position in Myanmar society.
The second challenge arises from the repeated failure of successive governments to resolve the conflicts that underlie the long-running ethnic and regional insurgencies. The violence in Rakhine, for example, is not simply sectarian in origin; there is also a separatist armed insurrection of Rakhine nationalists contesting the central government.
The military has used these and other insurgencies to project itself as the defender of national unity and territorial integrity and to justify its unique status within the state. It exercises a de facto veto over peace initiatives aimed at resolving the conflicts. While Aung San Suu Kyi sought to reinvigorate the peace process, there has been no significant progress overall, partly because of the military’s obstinacy.
The coup is a major setback both for democratic governance and for greater national cohesion in Myanmar. The uncertainty created by the coup will further undermine the economy, which has slowed because of the Covid-19 crisis that has hit Myanmar harder than most of its neighbors. It also sets an unfortunate example for other countries in the region that are wrestling with the legitimacy of national governance.
The military has proposed elections in one year’s time. But its arbitrary rejection of the November election, which was considered acceptable if not perfect by national and international observers, does not bode well. There is no guarantee that the military will accept the results next year if it does not like the outcome.
So what can be done?
First, do no harm. Imposing broad sanctions will make life even more difficult for the people of Myanmar; targeted sanctions against the military leadership (and its close business associates) are a better option.
Second, encourage the Asian democracies, especially those in the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (Asean), to push for the return of civilian government. Asean usually keeps silent to avoid charges of interference in the internal affairs of another member state. But this time, Asean democracies have a common interest in discouraging military adventures that break with democratic norms.
The Feb.1 statement from the Asean chairman calling for “adherence to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms” is a step in the right direction.
Third, work with China. The Chinese government followed the Rakhine Advisory Commission closely and even dispatched its special envoy for Asia to meet with Annan in Geneva. From that discussion it was evident that China, for strategic and commercial reasons, prized stability in the Rakhine. Even though China grumbled over a Security Council press statement on Myanmar, released Feb. 4 and indeed a tepid response to the situation, China has a direct interest in sustaining national stability in the country, which the coup has clearly risked.
Finally, take heart. The genie is out of the bottle. The people of Myanmar have tasted freedom and will not easily go back to the days of military autocracy.
Nevertheless, until there is a settled national consensus on how the country should be run and by whom, the fetters imposed by Myanmar’s past will continue to imprison the country’s future.
As Annan observed, the people of Myanmar rightly take great pride in the richness of their history and the potential of the future, but “in order to move forward together the past must give way to a renewed vision for a dynamic future.”
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