Normal life has been disrupted in Myanmar by a military coup earlier this year.Chris Beckett | Flickr

Myanmar officially transitioned away from absolute military government in August 2010 as it implemented the system of military and civilian power-sharing enshrined in the 2008 Constitution. Subsequent elections have not been indicative of a nation traversing the natural course of progress to ever greater liberty, embodied in the Whig interpretation of history. Rather, while allowing for limited democratic expression that could be easily controlled, elections were useful to the military, the Tatmadaw, as a mechanism that would facilitate foreign investment and ease sanctions by demonstrating the nation’s economic viability and political stability.

The party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy, claimed a resounding electoral majority in late 2020. The victory served as a stark warning to the Tatmadaw that the elections central to the power-sharing arrangement were helping to ferment uncontrollable popular democratic tendencies. Consequently, in February and March 2021, that compromise came to an unceremonious end as the Tatmadaw staged a coup and crackdown to regain complete power.

“Foreigners cannot save this south-east Asian people, only they can do so.”

The democratic sentiment pervasive among the people of Myanmar was deemed to necessitate the coup and subsequent anti-Tatmadaw protests have served to embolden pro-democracy campaigners. Unfortunately for warmongering westerners, the ubiquity of this sentiment and the complexity of the situation negate the necessity for direct intervention. Foreigners cannot save this south-east Asian people, only they can do so.

In September 2017, Boris Johnson took a whistle stop tour of the erstwhile colony. While marvelling at the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Johnson could not help but deliver a fragmented rendition of Rudyard Kipling’s poem Mandalay. The Singu Min bell situated on the site brought to flower a seed of colonial melancholy already growing in Johnson’s mind: ‘The temple bells they say: Come you back you English soldier [sic].’ Boris’ pro-colonial ramblings were audible to Britain’s ambassador to Myanmar, Andrew Patrick. Perturbed and aware of the insensitivity, Patrick reminded Boris that Mandalay was ‘probably not a good idea,’ in the setting.

If only someone with the tact of Andrew Patrick had been present at the offices of this publication on March 9th when an article gleefully titled Come you back to Mandalay”: the Myanmar Coup and the west was published in the Opinion section.

As a stand-alone analysis, one could appreciate and criticise Mandalay. And admittedly, the article made sure to highlight the abusive and destabilising effects of British rule in present day Myanmar. Somewhat amazingly, however, the conclusion drawn was that more, not less, direct British meddling is required to save a people who apparently cannot help themselves.

There is only one mildly redeeming feature in this argument for intervention in Myanmar: the aforementioned Aung San Suu Kyi. Numerous western interventions in the 20th and 21st centuries have failed due to the inability of the intervening foreigners to find an allied national figurehead behind whom to rally the people.

“In Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar has a ready-made figurehead with a track-record of fighting for democracy.”

Prior to and during the Vietnam War, Vietnam’s most popular national figure was Ho Chi Minh and despite his appeals to America in 1919 and post-WWII, ‘Uncle Ho’ became the paragon of north Vietnamese communism. In South Vietnam, America’s proxy in the War, only corrupt tinpot dictators like Ngô Đình Diệm and Nguyễn Văn Thiệu could be mustered. In 1975, Vietnam was reunified under the communist rule for which Ho had been the symbol as North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon, defeating America’s now abandoned ally. Yet, in Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar has a ready-made figurehead with a track-record of fighting for democracy.

However, to employ the language of foreign policy expert – and let’s not forget top golfer  – former US president George W. Bush: is Myanmar ’ripe for regime change’, specifically of the foreign aided sort?

In spite of the allure of Aung San Suu Kyi, the resounding answer is no.


Mountain View

“Come you back to Mandalay”: the Myanmar Coup and the west

The Tatmadaw had the 17th largest global defence spend in 2012 and since then, eagerly aided by China and Russia, it has continued to modernise. Additionally, it has developed its own frigates and increased its manpower to approximately 300,000-350,000. Moreover, the Tatmadaw has its fingers in almost all of Myanmar’s economic pie through the conglomerates it controls – Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. and the Myanmar Economic Corporation. These corporations oversee the extensive military pension fund; hold interests in the banking sector; and own mineral mines and consumer goods companies. Even the entertainment industry is not safe from the Tatmadaw’s grasp; it runs an indoor skydiving centre.

A military force whose shibboleth is violence will not be brought to reason through more violence. Military intervention by any nation will only harden the Tatmadaw’s resolve and weaken the position of figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi through likely association with the foreigners. Only a fool would tackle the Tatmadaw head on and that’s before one even considers the implications of fighting a war in a nation with as diverse a climate, culture and geography as Myanmar. But an already damaging war would only be worsened were the British to go back and reopen colonial wounds.

For Britain, the only option conducive to the life and liberty of the people of Myanmar is participation in a sustained multilateral economic and diplomatic strangling of the junta. Britain, Canada, the United States, and others have already signalled their willingness to follow this strategy. Nonetheless, the implementation of such an approach will be fraught with challenges, foremost among which Chinese and Russian obstinance, with concern to avoid harming the lives of the people of Myanmar through strict sanctions while also punishing the military a close second. However, to dogmatically pursue the implementation of liberal democratic governments around a world as messy as ours is to condemn oneself to much the same existence as Sisyphus, particularly if one does so based on the ill-conceived justification of righting one’s imperial sins.