News analysis

Myanmar's anti-coup protesters plead for international support

Anti-coup protesters outside the US embassy in Yangon on Feb 18 holding up signs asking for US army to save Myanmar.PHOTO: KYAW ZA

BANGKOK - Several dozen young people are seated along Yangon's Dhamazedi Road facing the Singapore embassy.

"Singapore embassy! Stand with us! Stand with us!" they shout.

Such scenes have been common in the past week as resistance against Myanmar's Feb 1 military coup grows across the country. While thousands of protesters defy the regime's rules by massing daily in cities like Yangon, Mandalay, Myitkyina and Mawlamyine, smaller groups have rallied outside foreign embassies to demand these countries take a stronger stand against the power grab by commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing.

Their appeals differ according to the perceived stance of each foreign country. Outside the embassy of the United States, where President Joe Biden has demanded the Myanmar military to "relinquish power", protesters have held up signs calling for military intervention. "We need the US army," placards cry.

Outside the embassy of China - which protesters allege are supporting Myanmar's generals - the signs say: "China!!! Please support Myanmar but not junta."

The vigil at foreign embassies is part of an effort by young protesters to sustain international attention as Myanmar's political crisis rapidly descends towards a deadlock. As Asean member states try to convene a meeting on this issue, major powers around the world are struggling to muster appropriate responses for a sanction-hardened military which abruptly ended a five-year-old power sharing arrangement with the civilian National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

The Tatmadaw, as the military is called, alleges massive fraud in the Nov 8 election won resoundingly by the NLD. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has promised to hold fresh elections after a one-year state of emergency, though many expect the interregnum to last longer.

Strikes by civil servants and private sector employees across the nation have disrupted healthcare, banking and rail services, while the regime continues to stage night-time raids against dissidents during the 8pm to 4am curfew hours, and when Internet access is blocked from 1am to 9am.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, about 500 people have been detained in relation to the coup. They include ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, 75, who faces charges of breaching Myanmar's import-export law and natural disaster management law.

While rifle-toting security forces have shown restraint in the biggest city of Yangon, two people were killed in Mandalay on Saturday when security forces opened fire on protesters, local journal Irrawaddy reported. One woman had earlier died from being shot in the head.

There are few signs that the military, which ruled Myanmar for five decades, will cave in. Protesters tell The Straits Times they are hoping international pressure will tip the scales in their favour.

Many agree that blanket sanctions against Myanmar would hurt the common man more than the military. But they want foreign governments to impose sanctions against the Tatmadaw's businesses as well as recognise the elected lawmakers who have now been made fugitives by the regime.

Singapore, being Myanmar's biggest source of foreign investment, has come under particular scrutiny.

Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan this week reiterated Asean's policy of not interfering in the domestic affairs of member states, but said the bloc can play "a discreet, constructive role in facilitating a return to normalcy and stability in Myanmar".

He has stressed that no violence should be used on unarmed civilians, and that live rounds should not be fired on unarmed civilians under any circumstances.

He has also maintained that politics should be kept separate from business and rejected the idea that the Singapore Government should interfere with commercial decisions on political grounds.

His remarks caused a stir in Myanmar and spurred boycotts of Singapore products.

Mr Yan Naung Soe, 35, who was protesting outside the Singapore embassy on Thursday, told ST that he wanted the Singapore Government to put pressure on the Tatmadaw's businesses.

The Tatmadaw has a vast reach in Myanmar's economy through two conglomerates, Myanma Economic Holdings and Myanma Economic Corporation. Both have remained untouched so far by sanctions imposed by the United States, Canada and Britain, which have chosen to largely focus on senior Tatmadaw leaders. The Biden administration has also said it would prevent the regime from "improperly" accessing US$1 billion (S$1.32 billion) in Myanmar government funds held in the US.

With Myanmar once more verging on pariah status, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi visited Brunei and Singapore this week to discuss how Asean might better tackle the crisis. Asean chair Brunei had issued a statement on the day of the coup urging dialogue and reconciliation in accordance with the will of Myanmar people.

Former Thai diplomat Kobsak Chutikul, who used to work closely with the Myanmar government as secretary of an international advisory panel on the Rohingya crisis, warns against making empty, moralistic statements that may inflame the situation.

He said there is a lot that Asean can do behind the scenes instead of simply calling for Ms Suu Kyi to be freed, which may be a lightning rod for confrontation given the personal animosity between her and Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

"The question of face is very important, more important than in any Asean country," he said.

"For (the Tatmadaw) it's very important the manner in which it's done. You can't go in and say hey, look, you undo whatever you did."


Protesters face a line of riot police during a protest against the military coup in Mandalay on Feb 20, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Asean can help Myanmar's ruling generals work out a road map back to elections that would take into account the wishes of more stakeholders like ethnic minorities and civil society, he said. As part of the deal, Asean observers could be involved.

Asean needs to create a "face-saving exit ramp for everybody, not to say who won or who lost, and not to force down an ideological stand."

The starting point should always be "do no harm", he stressed.

"Look carefully for the solution, bearing in mind these Asian sensitivities," he said. "We should be the ones who know better than anybody."

Additional reporting by Kyaw Za and Ei Phyu