Myanmar’s wicked tragedy
20 Jun 2022|

Myanmar is both tragedy and wicked problem.

For theorists, a ‘wicked problem’ is a complex dilemma with no single solution or natural end point. For Myanmar, ‘wicked’ also means evil.

In both senses of wicked, Myanmar is human heartbreak.

Myanmar’s policy fissures go in many directions. The human crisis and the crisis of democracy crash against a disastrous military regime. The junta’s furious flailing demonstrates its own lack of understanding and imagination, and its lack of feeling for its own people.

ASEAN’s failed response goes to another dimension of the wicked problem. ‘ASEAN centrality’ is usually a discussion of the association’s capacity to shape the region, deliver peace and drive norms. Yet ASEAN hasn’t been able to grab a central place in the thinking of Myanmar, one of its own members, posing questions about its relevance and utility (see ASPI’s Myanmar’s coup, ASEAN’s crisis).

For Australia (and even more for the United States) the dilemma is how close to stand to ASEAN policy while abhorring Myanmar’s regime. The judgement calls will become acute if the junta conducts its promised election in August 2023.

The wicked problem was the subject of a special session at Singapore’s Shangri-La Dialogue, convened by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The UN special envoy on Myanmar, Noeleen Heyzer, said the country’s situation had worsened during the past six months: ‘Both sides think that they can prevail through the use of violence and their positions have hardened. There’s no desire to have talks, to engage in talks about talks, to find a political way out of this crisis.’

Heyzer said the collapse of Myanmar’s state institutions had ‘a tragic human face of deep human suffering’: half of the population lived in poverty, 7.8 million children were out of school, and the food sector had collapsed as agriculture was devastated. In the first two weeks of May, 6,000 homes in the central region had been burned.

Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said the crisis was unprecedented in Myanmar’s modern history, descending rapidly into civil war. He described the regime as a ‘junta’ using ‘violence and brutality’. Yet he said ASEAN had not considered expelling Myanmar from the association.

Saifuddin conceded problems with ASEAN’s stalled approach, built on the ‘five-point consensus’ that ASEAN leaders agreed with Myanmar’s Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in April 2021.

‘We have to look for new and creative ways that are inclusive and comprehensive,’ Saifuddin said. ‘We must go back to the drawing board to develop a more detailed road map.’

A new map, he said, would set out the time frame (‘When do we get certain things done?’) and the stakeholders (‘Whom do we meet with?’).

Saifuddin said those at the table must include ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, former president Win Myint, and representatives from Myanmar’s shadow government, the National Unity Government.

Thailand’s special representative on Myanmar, Pornpimol Kanchanalak, said the aim must be a path forward, and that meant dealing with Myanmar’s military: ‘We cannot undo February 1, 2021 [the date of the coup]. We must not get stuck in cancel rhetoric, condemnation, sanction, ostracisation; punitive measures have reached diminishing return.’

She said that for the sake of peace, the promise of elections in 2023 must be taken at face value.

UN envoy Heyzer cautioned against that face-value approach:

As far as the people are concerned, unless an election is inclusive and there is no fear in the expression of their political will, there’s not going to be the legitimacy that will allow the government to go back to civilian rule. In other words, it will be the trigger for further violence.

US State Department counsellor Derek Chollet was scathing about the election promised by the junta:

We think that prospect is a farce. We don’t believe that we should endorse such elections. We don’t see how they can have any chance of being free and fair, given that the regime has imprisoned or intimidated nearly all credible political contenders. In fact, it’s threatening that it might execute some in the coming days.

The US called for increased pressure on a weak regime that was completely unwilling to negotiate, Chollet said:

It’s attempting to consolidate power and really just ramp up its assault. Yet beneath this horrific brutality we see a very insecure and isolated regime, one that is facing a growing and resilient popular resistance movement. And while the military claims that it can control the country, in reality political–economic control remains contested and the military regime has shown that it is fundamentally incapable of creating stability. And we’re seeing increasing fissures within the military itself.

The hardening of positions in Myanmar caused UN envoy Heyzer to lament the ‘missing middle’ in the country’s politics.

See that missing middle as the place where the military no longer stands. One of those attending the Shangri-La session remarked that Myanmar’s military had gone from revered institution to reviled institution.

The military still sees itself as the glue that holds Myanmar together. But that history is tarnished by brutality. The junta has caused Myanmar to splinter, not cohere. This wicked problem is defined by its wickedness.