The military junta in Myanmar is not fit to govern. Mounting resistance to its overthrow of Myanmar’s lawfully elected government shows that the public neither supports the military nor is cowed by its brutal and murderous tactics.

The government’s response has been to warn protestors that they could be shot “in the back and the back of the head.” That is not an idle threat: The nationwide death toll has surpassed 500 and more than 2,500 people have been detained. The coup and the junta must be condemned and punished.

Gen. Min Aung Mlaing, head of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military), overthrew the lawfully elected government Feb. 1, charging that the November 2020 national elections were flawed. The landslide win for the National League of Democracy (NLD), which had ruled in partnership with the Tatmadaw, surprised military officials. Min Aung Mlaing concluded that the loss ended his hopes of becoming president, which would end his patronage networks. The military rightly worried that the scale of the win could also allow the NLD to rewrite the constitution, ending protections that had been built in to protect military power and privileges.

Min Aung Mlaing said he launched the coup to protect Myanmar’s democracy and promised another vote without offering a timetable — a pledge that he repeated last weekend at annual celebrations marking Armed Forces Day, a holiday to honor the Tatmadaw. It was the prospect of protests that would mar the festivities that prompted the warning that demonstrators would be shot. Undeterred, pro-democracy activists took to the streets and the government responded with force, reportedly killing more than 100 people, children among them.

Much, but not all, of the world has condemned the coup. Anger and dismay gave way to outrage after the shootings. The U.K. ambassador to Myanmar said the security forces “disgraced themselves by shooting unarmed civilians,” while the U.S. ambassador called the shootings “murder” and “horrifying.” Several democratic nations have imposed sanctions on the government and individuals behind the coup, and the United States and the U.K. put financial sanctions on military-owned conglomerates that control much of the country’s economy.

After initial hesitation, Japan too has condemned the coup. Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi this week reminded the junta that the military should “protect the lives of its people” and that its activities — shooting civilians, inhumane treatment of detainees, and a media crackdown – all contradict its own statements about “the importance of democracy.” Motegi urged the military to “immediately stop resorting to violence,” release detainees and swiftly restore democracy. After the bloodshed last weekend, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato strongly denounced the shootings.

Three other developments are more likely to get the junta’s attention. The first is an unprecedented statement by senior defense officials from 12 different countries, Japan among them. It condemned the use of force by the Myanmar military, noting that “A professional military follows international standards for conduct and is responsible for protecting — not harming — the people it serves.”

This rejection of the coup by the military’s peers goes to the heart of Tatmadaw pride and professionalism. If the original impulse for liberalization a decade ago was a sense of isolation and backwardness in the world’s most dynamic region, then this condemnation will likely hurt more than more routine diplomatic statements.

A second development is the continuing deterioration of the economy. Myanmar was in a precarious situation before the coup as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted fears of a bank run last year. With staff on strike since the coup, many banks have been unable to offer more than ATM services, and even those machines are running out of money. It is not clear if they can provide routine payroll services for businesses. The United Nations World Food Program has warned that rising prices of food and fuel and “near paralysis” of the banking sector are worsening a humanitarian crisis. The government has ordered private banks to reopen and threatened to transfer deposits to government-run institutions if they did not.

The third issue is growing opposition to the coup from the business community. The junta was counting on that group’s acquiescence; instead, there has been a pointed and vocal stand in opposition. More than 200 companies, many of them large international businesses, signed a joint statement calling for “a swift resolution of the current situation based on dialogue and reconciliation in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar.”

To their credit, a number of Japanese companies doing business in Myanmar signed on; to our dismay, all have not. The U.S., European and Japanese chambers of commerce have reportedly turned down invitations to meet with the junta.

Chinese businesses are not among the signatories. Since China is the largest investor in Myanmar, that fuels concern that Beijing is extending its influence as other governments sanction the junta. That worry reflects a geopolitical logic: Countries must engage with morally distasteful governments to prevent rivals from making gains at their expense. That short-sighted thinking overlooks the mounting public hostility toward governments and businesses that enable the anti-democratic forces in Myanmar. It also ignores the nationalism that drives the Tatmadaw.

If the geopolitical logic for support has crumbled, the moral and humanitarian rationale for opposition remains strong. The junta in Myanmar must go.

The Japan Times Editorial Board


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