Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The West Must Hit Myanmar’s Generals Where It Hurts: Their Pockets

This assault on democracy cannot be allowed to stand, whatever Aung San Suu Kyi’s failings.

A military armored vehicle is seen on a street in Myitkyina, Kachin state, Myanmar, on Feb. 2.
A military armored vehicle is seen on a street in Myitkyina, Kachin state, Myanmar, on Feb. 2. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Myanmar has a history of coups—but the one that took place on Monday is like no other. It is a coup by the military against its own constitution, its own reputation, and its own authority, as well as against the people of Myanmar and the fragile democratic process that had been underway over the past decade. The military may have shot itself in the foot, but it has shot democracy in the head.

The clash between the goals of the commander in chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and Myanmar’s de facto political head of government, Aung San Suu Kyi, is a clash of values, certainly, but also a clash of egos, a battle between two ambitious people who both want to be head of state. Yet at a much deeper level, this is not about personalities but principles, institutions, and structures. It is about democracy.

That’s why, whatever the well-founded criticisms of Aung San Suu Kyi’s failings over recent years—especially her apparent defense of the military on charges of genocide in The Hague in December 2019—the international community should respond robustly to this coup. It is perfectly possible to hold in tandem a profound disappointment with her record over the past six years or so and an outrage at the attempt to oust her and return her to house arrest despite an overwhelming election victory last November. It is totally consistent to critique both her record in office and her unlawful removal from it.

The variety of activists who have been arrested this week illustrates that this coup is a comprehensive assault on democracy, not just an attack on Aung San Suu Kyi or her government. They include leaders of the 88 Generation such as Min Ko Naing and Mya Aye; Buddhist monks who have been critics of the military such as Myawaddy Sayadaw, Shwe Nya War Sayadaw, and Ashin Sobitha; and civil society activists, writers, a musician, and a filmmaker. Many journalists and activists have gone into hiding.

In 1958, Gen. Ne Win assumed power in Myanmar, temporarily, at the tail end of a haggard democratic government. He returned power two years later, only then to seize power in 1962 in a bloody coup that resulted in more than half a century of military rule in various forms. The results of the election in 1990—the first in decades—were ignored, protesters were brutally crushed, and Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) were jailed, exiled, or denied office. It took more than 15 years of house arrest on her part, and prison terms for her colleagues, to reach a point—10 years or more ago—for the army to compromise, prisoners to be released, and some reforms to be made.

A decade ago, as a long-term activist for democracy and human rights in Myanmar, I was one of the earliest promoters of the generals’ reformist rhetoric and of Aung San Suu Kyi’s agreement to dialogue with them. I took the view that when a bad regime finally offers some reforms, we should welcome and encourage it further. That process saw the release of political prisoners, the negotiation of cease-fires with ethnic armed groups, and the relaxation of restrictions on civil society and media. The past decade has seen a teetering, stumbling, faltering, fragile opening up, despite the giant obstacles in the road. It has seen two democratic elections conducted not perfectly but certainly without evidence of extensive wrongdoing and the efforts of a civilian democratic government to balance its human rights obligations and compromises with the military. It failed cataclysmically in the first and was all too eager to bend on the second. Yet, even after all this, Min Aung Hlaing chucked his toys out of his crib and threw away the keys.

That’s the essence. A decade in which the free world was duped. A decade of false, fragile democracy. A decade of hopes built and then dashed in the early hours of Feb. 1.

And so in response there cannot be a shadow of doubt. There’s a need to move swift and robustly.

Sanctions on Myanmar were lifted due to the prospect of reform. Arguably, they were lifted prematurely, too quickly, and before results were secured. Nevertheless, the United States and United Kingdom sought an easy win—and secured it.

So the first response to the military’s coup—as U.S. President Joe Biden has already suggested—must be strong. This time it mustn’t be tough talk but the toughest, most targeted, most robust sanctions ever—to hit not Myanmar’s people but Myanmar’s military, its enterprises, assets, and profits. The military, or Tatmadaw, maintains a vast business empire of its own, particularly in timber, tourism, banking, construction, jade mining, and gas—and large parts of this are illicit. Only when its budget is hit and its pockets are emptied will the military in Myanmar stop and think.

The United States under Biden, together with the U.K., European Union, Japan, Canada, Australia, and others, must make it clear that unless Min Aung Hlaing backs down from this coup, releases those arrested, reinstates ministers ousted, relinquishes power, and restores full authority to the elected representatives of the people, there will be dire consequences: direct, targeted, robust, and devastating sanctions against the army’s own enterprises and their affiliates.

There must also be an enhanced effort at the United Nations to get its organs—such as the Security Council, the General Assembly, and the Human Rights Council—to come down like a ton of bricks on Myanmar. That should include a justice and accountability mechanism—including enhanced support for the International Court of Justice case already initiated by Gambia and calls for an International Criminal Court referral. China and Russia would doubtless veto such a move, as they may well frustrate other efforts to get the U.N. to act, but even the attempt helps send a signal.

If the U.N. cannot act, developed democracies must do so. Failure to do more than issue strongly worded statements will not only embolden the generals in Myanmar but send a signal to other tyrants around the world that when a constitutional, democratic process is overturned, the free world will do nothing. That would have dire consequences for democracy everywhere.

When the mobs stormed the U.S. Congress on Jan. 6, it was a shock to American democracy. But the U.S. Constitution and the country’s institutions stood firm and prevailed, and the result of America’s November presidential election was upheld. The results of Myanmar’s November election should be respected too, and it is in everyone’s interests to make it clear that the coup cannot be allowed to stand.

Benedict Rogers is the co-founder and CEO of Hong Kong Watch, a senior analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organization CSW, and the co-founder and deputy chair of the U.K. Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.