Benedict Rogers: It seems plausible that this brazen assault on democracy in Myanmar is driven by one man’s ambition

1 Feb

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is Senior Analyst for East Asia at CSW, co-founder and deputy chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, author of three books on Myanmar (Burma), including “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads”, and a former parliamentary candidate.

Today’s coup in Myanmar (Burma) is a devastating blow to a decade of fragile democratization, and a major setback for a beautiful but benighted country that has already suffered decades of war, poverty and repression.

Although Myanmar has a long history of military rule, this latest move comes as a surprise. Despite a transition to a civilian-led democratic government under Aung San Suu Kyi five years ago, the military has in any case retained real power.

Under the constitution which it wrote, Myanmar’s military has direct control of three key government ministries – Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defence – as well as a quarter of parliamentary seats reserved for the armed forces. It controls its budget, and many enterprises. Aung San Suu Kyi has bent over backwards to compromise with the military, even defending them in The Hague on charges of genocide. So why would the army move against her now?

One theory is that the military is driven by power and is incapable of relinquishing it. Ever since General Ne Win’s first takeover in 1958, the military has been the dominant political force in Myanmar. His caretaker regime handed over to a democratically elected government in 1960, only to seize power in a coup in 1962.

For over 50 years the army ruled Myanmar directly, rejected Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD)’s first election victory in 1990 and transitioned to a ‘civilian’ government led by former generals dressed in suits rather than military uniforms in 2010. Only after the NLD’s overwhelming win in 2015 did the military move from centre stage to the wings of politics, but even then it continued to exercise overwhelming influence. But perhaps it wasn’t satisfied with that, and wanted to play a starring role again.

Another theory, however, is more plausible, and it is that this coup is not so much driven by the military as a whole, but by the personal ambitions of one man – the Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing.

He wants to be President and was dissatisfied that the military-backed party, the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), did not do well in last November’s election. Knowing that he has to retire from his current post in June this year, he appears to have decided that if he can’t be President using legitimate, constitutional means, he would seize power anyway.

The pretext for the coup – the army’s claim of voter fraud in last year’s election – is risible. An institution that for decades has defrauded the electorate has no right to make such an allegation. While there are concerns that some of the country’s ethnic minorities were disenfranchised in the election, there is no evidence of voter fraud at the ballot box and no legitimate reason to doubt the NLD’s victory.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the President Win Myint, government ministers, regional chief ministers and a number of pro-democracy activists have been arrested, and a state of emergency imposed for a year. This is truly an outrage, and the international community must not stand for it. Britain, the United States, the European Union and others invested significantly in the reform period that began a decade ago, and so cannot allow this coup to pass without consequences.

Reaction has been swift – but so far only rhetorical. Anthony Blinken, the new US Secretary of State, called on the military to reverse their actions “immediately” and “to release all government officials and civil society leaders and respect the will of the people of Burma as expressed in democratic elections on November 8.”

The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, issued a statement in which he described the developments as “a serious blow to democratic reforms in Myanmar.”

The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, condemned the coup in a tweet, calling for the military to release all those who have been detained unlawfully and for the restoration of the democratic process.

And Boris Johnson condemned the coup and the unlawful imprisonment of civilians.

Now the free world must set out what it will do if the military do not back down – and the United Kingdom should take a lead. We should impose co-ordinated, targeted sanctions – not broad-based sanctions against the country, which would hurt the people, but sanctions specifically against the military’s enterprises and assets.

In July 2020, the United Kingdom announced sanctions against two high ranking members of the Burmese military under the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime – otherwise known as “Magnitsky” sanctions – for human rights violations, but what is needed now is measures against military companies and the economic interests of the military as a whole.

The United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, the European Union, Japan and other allies must work together on this, though if a unified approach cannot be reached, those that are willing to go down the sanctions path should do so anyway, and work with allies on other measures they can agree on.

If it is the case that this coup is more about Min Aung Hlaing’s personal ambitions, then it may be possible to cause a split in the military if international pressure is perceived to hit its economic interests. If that happens, perhaps wiser, cooler heads in the military may prevail and force the Commander-in-Chief to back down.

Certainly one thing is clear: if the Myanmar army is allowed to get away with this brazen assault on a fragile democracy, not only will Myanmar’s development and progress be set back, but it will send an unwelcome green light to others in South-East Asia and beyond, that unconstitutional seizures of power will be allowed to go unchecked. And that – in a world where the cause of freedom and democracy is already on the back foot – would be devastating.

Biden’s top team takes shape. Diversity is required in principle though not always in practice.

2 Dec

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Where were you at the precise moment when Joe Biden was announced as the President-elect of the United States?

Flashbulb memories, a phrase coined by Brown and Kulik in 1977, are moments defined as if people had taken a photograph of themselves while learning of a public, emotionally charged event. The long delay prior to the first news network’s projection of Biden’s victory meant that any sense of sudden excitement had somewhat dissipated.

Days of staring at ‘Election Update’ beaming across the screen on CNN had become numbing. We were all waiting for Wolf Blitzer to put us out of our misery. The lack of one single election authority in the United States complicated matters further. Similarly, the knowledge that, if he were declared the runner up, Donald Trump would refuse to accept the result.

The delay and subsequent litigation meant tht the ‘moment’ Joe Biden was announced as president-elect was hardly momentous at all. Trump eventually tweeted through gritted teeth that he had instructed the General Services Administration to begin the customary transition process. The Biden/Harris transition website went from buildbackbetter.com to buildbackbetter.gov. Neither were exactly flashbulb memories. The change happened not with a bang, but a whimper.

Trump clings on, but not for long

Trump is not going down without a fight. The president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has resorted to claims of voter fraud entirely bereft of legal substance or evidence.

An electoral overturn was always borderline impossible given the magnitude of the president’s defeat in the swing states he required to retain the White House. Watching Giuliani peddle the President’s latest conspiracy theories, it is easy to forget that the man was formerly such an immense political figure first in New York and then around the world that he was given an honorary knighthood by the Queen. First as tragedy, then as farce.

A top team that holds up a mirror to modern America

Meanwhile, as the Trump show prepares to pack its bags and leave town, Biden has been quietly preparing for office. It has become clear that two guiding principles are motivating his choices: experience and diversity.

The President-elect has announced a list of senior appointmeints to the White House and prospective Cabinet nominees, the latter requiring Senate confirmation. Cognisant of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and the fact that he hardly embodies diversity or youth himself, Biden has consistently expressed the need to build a team that reflected modern America in its range of background.

Glass ceilings are being broken, subject to Congressional approval. Janet Yellen would become the first female Treasury Secretary in its 231-year history. Those who refer to her gender as the primary motivation for her appointment overlook the fact that she could become the first person to have served as Treasury Secretary, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, and Chair of the Federal Reserve.

On the world stage, President-elect Biden’s primary motivation will be to announce that America is back – to leading from the front and bringing allies with her. He will not be able to shed the skin of Trump’s ‘America First’ mantra entirely – the Rust Belt has been scarred by a skills deficit and the offshoring of jobs for decades, culminating in  Trump’s victory in 2016 and an aggressively hawkish national stance towards China ever since.

But on the world stage, Biden has entrusted Anthony Blinken as prospective Secretary of State to take America back to the epicentre of global affairs and international cooperation. As Deputy Secretary of State under Barack Obama, Blinken helped with the rebalance to Asia. He spent his most formative years as a student in Paris and speaks fluent French. In 2019, he said in relation to Brexit: “This is not just the dog that caught the car, this is the dog that caught the car and the car goes into reverse and runs over the dog.”

Whilst Dominic Raab has his work cut out, commentators are too quick to dismiss the UK-US relationship purely on the anecdotal grounds of one personal view on Brexit. Assuming a deal is done between the UK and EU, the decision taken in 2016 will become an afterthought in American minds.

It is only if no deal is reached and the knock-on effects are seen adversely to impact the Good Friday Agreement and peace process that Blinken’s forethoughts become relevant. Brexit aside, the incoming administration has plenty to agree with Downing Street on – namely, promoting democracy around the world, combatting the rise of China and misinformation spread by Russia, and using diplomacy once again to cool Iranian nuclear ambitions.

In John Kerry, the former Secretary of State, the Biden White House will benefit from one of the foremost global leaders on climate change. Climate science will once again be trusted and not contested in the White House.  Biden and Kerry will look to old allies like the UK to pursue equally radical climate ambitions, addressing climate change with the required level of urgency. COP26 in Glasgow provides the perfect platform to push for global change.

In the White House, Biden will be advised by experienced heads whom he has trusted for decades. It is here where experience seems to have trumped diversity. Ron Klain served as Joe Biden’s Chief of Staff from 2009-11 and will perform the same role again. He also worked as an advisor on Biden’s 1988 and 2008 Presidential campaigns; his experience is undeniable.

The fringes of the Oval Office will be dominated by Steve Ricchetti (Counselor to the President) and Mike Donilon (Senior Advisor to the President). The President-elect’s closest circle of advisers certainly fail to fulfil his ambitions of diversity and representation. Instead, their selection looks to be based on trust and experience.

Ironically, it is the British system of Cabinet appointments which is positively presidential. The Commons or Lords have no say over whom the Prime Minister ascends to the Cabinet table. President-elect Biden has made his Cabinet picks with the Senate majority leader and Republicans in mind, who will inevitably select and handful of nominees to oppose.

Republicans might have lost the White House, but their supporters will thrive off a fight in the Senate. That would limit the President-elect’s ambitions and ability to surround himself with the voices and views he desires to deliver the change his campaign promised. As in so many years previous, huge power huge power lies in the hands of Senator Mitch McConnell.