Myanmar, the future after the coup

On February 1, 2022, 365 days will have passed since the coup that brought Naypyidaw back under the control of the military junta. The outlook for the country that represents a dilemma for Southeast Asia. From the China Files mini e-book "In China and Asia 2022", realized in collaboration with Associazione Italia-ASEAN

It's any day in December 2021. Typing "Myanmar 2022" on the search bar, three of the results concern a possible reopening for tourism, while three others take up the UN alarm on the escalation of the humanitarian crisis. This schizophrenia of images reinforces the uncertainty about the future of Myanmar, which almost a year after the coup is crystallized in a social (and armed) conflict that seems destined to continue. On February 1, 2022, exactly 365 days will have passed since the deposition of the elected government by the Tatmadaw, the national army.

Humanitarian crisis

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has noted a sharp decline in the living conditions of Burmese citizens since the arrival of General Min Aung Hlaing in government. According to its survey, nearly half of Burmese citizens (46.3%) could end up below the poverty line by the end of next year. For the urban population, it would mean a spike in poor residents three times the 2019 figures (37.2% vs. the previous 11.3%). Of 1,200 households surveyed, nearly half say they are running out of savings. 68% are tightening their belts on food consumption, 65.5% have borrowed from loved ones, others from loan sharks or lenders. In a nutshell: the double Covid19-golpe emergency is taking the country back to 2005, wiping out the political and socio-economic achievements of the last 16 years.

Added to this situation is the serious situation of the health sector, which already before 2021 was not in good health. To date, the interests of the military leadership are far removed from services for the citizenry, with the result that many medical facilities remain unstaffed - a factor also due to the civil disobedience movement, which refuses to work for a government it does not recognize. To date, 74% of medical costs are still borne by the individual: Myanmar is the Asean country with the highest private spending on treatment per capita.

Finally, the continuity of internal violence between ethnic groups and the armed forces is no less worrying. On the one hand, youth have joined the civil disobedience movement; others have joined ethnic armies to receive military training. The Tatmadaw, in turn, has resurrected compulsory training for children of soldiers aged 14 and over, despite treaties signed with the UN to hinder the enlistment of child soldiers. Participation in training is now also extended to the wives of military personnel.

Economic and political stagnation

The economic situation is not good at the national level, although there were those who hoped for an initial phase of chaos followed by a slow reestablishment of business. GDP per capita is falling back to the levels before the first free elections in 2015. The local currency, the kyat, has lost more than 60% of its value against the US dollar. Meanwhile, prices are rising and gasoline shortages have already led to the temporary closure of many stations. The International Food Policy Research Institute predicts a drop in fertilizer purchases during the monsoon season, with serious consequences for agricultural production. Trade is slowing, and restrictions along the borders due to the health emergency are only contributing to the halt in activity. The junta has already restricted imports of goods considered "non-essential," while other goods such as pharmaceuticals are becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to source.

In a climate of serious lack of governance, economic power is likely to be concentrated in the hands of the Tatmadaw and ethnic militias in their areas of influence. The specter of illicit trafficking linked to the smuggling of drugs, precious stones, wood and metals returns. And of human trafficking: according to the Global Slavery Index in 2018 at least 575 thousand Burmese citizens were living in conditions of slavery, a figure that could rise again due to growing personal debts.

International relations

Myanmar today seems an increasingly isolated country, an image that resonates familiarly with that of just a few years ago. Foreign companies are slowly leaving the country, as in the case of Norwegian telecommunications giant Telenor, German wholesaler Metro, and British American Tobacco. Not all of the economy is frozen. Despite sanctions against individuals and organizations linked to the Tatmadaw, some large capital flows continue to bring weapons and funding to the Burmese military. As reported by the group Justice for Myanmar, there are still many companies that sell weapons and surveillance systems to the Burmese army (including Italy).

While the response of Western powers - especially the U.S., EU, Australia and Canada - remains on the ropes of economic restrictions, Asean is still struggling to find its position. Or rather, it remains open to negotiations. After an initial phase of dialogue with General Min Aung Hlaing, the group has also broken off contact: the junta has not kept its promise to adhere to the five points requested by the Association, and is therefore isolated even among its neighbors (including "immediately cease violence in the country"). Cambodia's arrival in the presidency, however, could normalize relations by increasing engagement with the military junta. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen came out in defense of Naypyidaw: "According to the ASEAN charter, no one has the right to expel another member." More attempts at dialogue could follow after the early January visit. In the same days as Hun Sen's declarations came the official condemnation of Aung San Suu-Kyi to four years in prison. The road back to democracy, once again, is far away.

The not so easy exodus of foreign companies from Myanmar

Foreign companies operating in Myanmar are struggling to continue their operations given the political and economic situation. But they are also reluctant to leave: let's see why.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic and the political and economic crisis triggered by the military coup last February, foreign companies present in Myanmar are in a very critical situation, as confirmed by the collapse of investments that these companies have made in the country, at their lowest since eight years. 

The Burmese economy, according to the Asian Development Bank, has contracted by 18.4% in the last year and the situation does not look set to improve in the near future, so much so that the International Monetary Fund has recently revised downwards its forecasts for the rate of economic growth in 2022. At the root of this, there is the collapse of the local currency, the kyat, and the significant increase in food prices, all factors contributing to the growing unease of the population.

Political uncertainty, slumping local demand and currency volatility have prompted many foreign companies to close or downsize local operations. Liquidity shortages and banking sector dysfunctions have also limited the ability of businesses to pay employees and suppliers. Internet access was also severely restricted in the three months following the coup. These shocks weakened consumption, investment and trade and also limited the operations of companies in the supply of labor and other inputs.

Already in the first months after the coup of the regime, large companies such as the energy giants EDF and Petronas, but also the Thai group Amata and the Singaporean engineering company Sembcorp ceased or suspended operations in Myanmar. In addition, British American Tobacco (BAT) announced last October that it would leave the Burmese market at the end of 2021, although its departure was officially motivated by purely commercial decisions. In fact, having started operations there in 2013 with an initial investment of $50 million, BAT's exit from Myanmar after less than a decade reflects the critical situation the country has plunged into. Also in the same month, the Kempinski Hotel, in the capital Naypyidaw, which had also hosted President Barack Obama during his state visit in 2014 and was an important symbol of the country's openness, ceased operations. 

But exiting Myanmar is not an easy step for all companies. Many, in fact, have invested in multi-year infrastructure, and an immediate exit strategy is impractical. This is the case, for example, of Australian natural gas giant Woodside Energy, which merely states that "all business decisions in Myanmar are under review."

Another company that is struggling to leave the country, albeit for other reasons, is Norwegian telecommunications giant Telenor. The latter is strongly motivated to cease operations in Myanmar not only because of the serious deterioration of the business environment, which has resulted in a loss of over 782 million US dollars, but also in order not to give up to government attempts to control the company's activities. More specifically, the military junta has tried several times, although in vain, to force Telenor to limit web traffic and intercept users in order to allow the authorities to spy on calls and messages.

However, the company is still waiting to obtain the approval for the sale of the activities to the Lebanese company M1. This comes in the wake of a confidential order, issued last June, requiring senior executives of both foreign and Burmese telecommunications companies to leave Naypyidaw only with special permission, which does not seem to be forthcoming. 

Moreover, it should not be underestimated that the problematic financial situation only complicates the possible exit of the companies. The banks, which were stormed by long queues at ATMs at the beginning of this year, are still under pressure and liquidity is scarce, making repatriation of the remaining capital extremely difficult. As if that were not enough, the pandemic has also arrived, imposing travel restrictions and onerous quarantine requirements for those crossing borders.

There remains a profound unpredictability about the political situation in the medium and long term, which increases the margin of uncertainty for foreign companies as to whether or not they should remain in the country. These companies, which have been investing in Myanmar since 2011, when it was hoped that the process of democratic transition would be irreversible, are now in doubt whether to pack their bags or ride out the storm. 

The dilemma for foreign companies in Myanmar

The products’ boycott, the opinion of the international community and the economic crisis are shaking the international companies in the country.

The coup in Myanmar has inflicted a severe blow to the country's economy, already weakened last year by the emergency of COVID-19. The massive protests of the last five months, the workers’ strikes and the violent actions perpetrated by the Burmese army have led workers to leave the major cities and their jobs, seeking refuge in small villages and forests.

With the interruption of public and banking services and with daily internet shutdowns, the economic crisis has expanded dramatically, and the data of the latest report drawn up by the World Bank are clear: Burma's industrial sector has suffered a contraction of 11 percentage points compared to 2020, while services sector lost over 13 points. Over the years both sectors have made an important contribution to the country's economic growth: from 2014 to 2019, 6% of Burmese annual GDP growth came from the secondary and tertiary sectors, but these numbers dropped to 1% in 2020, and with 2021 forecasting even more negative figures.

These signs had already been perceived at the beginning of March when, due to the coup, 13% of companies in Myanmar had had to close their offices, waiting for a return to normality. The instability of the banking system and the inability of making online payments has inflicted a notable blow to companies: according to research involving 372 firms operating in Myanmar, 77% said that it is precisely the fragile banking system that has led to a drop in turnover.

Furthermore, as there is not much liquid money, citizens have been forced in recent months to make essential purchases with the few kyats that could be withdrawn from Burmese banks.

Five months after the military coup, international companies have now two alternatives: close their offices or bite the bullet while waiting for a stable situation in Myanmar. Foodpanda, a leading company in the food-delivery sector owned by the German Delivery Hero, has decided to continue operating in Myanmar despite the difficulties encountered in recent months with the blocking of internet and online purchases. A different choice was taken by Telenor, the Norwegian telecommunications giant which was forced to cancel contracts and all operations in the country for an estimated loss of around 780 million dollars. With regard to companies, the Burmese Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) is also playing an important role in boycotting those companies that collaborate and fund the military government of General Ming Aung Hlaing: in recent months has been created the application "Way Way Nay ” which allows people to know if a company is directly connected to the military junta, so you can boycott it and decide to not buy its products. This has led to the boycott of products created by Chinese companies, as retaliation against Beijing, which until now has never taken a clear stance and which has repeatedly voted against the economic sanctions provided by the United Nations against the military regime.

For the CDM boycotting companies linked to the military junta may be the best solution to undermine the military and their finances: an interesting case is the sale of Burmese beer, whose companies belong to the military junta, which have seen a decrease in sales of 90%. To further hit the finances of the military junta, last March the members of the National League for Democracy asked international investors in the field of oil and gas extraction not to pay taxes to the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, the main oil and gas extraction company controlled by the Burmese army.

Finally, the influence of the international community should not be underestimated: some international brands have decided to interrupt contacts with the military government driven by the fear of episodes that could damage the brand’s name (this is the case of international brands such as Nike and Adidas which recently announced that they no longer want to use the cotton produced in the Xinjiang region). In Myanmar, H&M - the leading company in the clothing sector - announced last March that it has for the time being interrupted the relationship with its suppliers in Myanmar due to the dramatic events regarding the violation of human rights by the Burmese army. Like H&M, other international companies such as McKinsey, Coca Cola and media agency Reuters have abandoned their offices in Sule Square, a giant shopping complex in Yangon owned by the Burmese army, so as not to fund the military junta.

Min Aung Hlaing: The general who thought he understood "his" people (but he didn’t)

On 8th November, a day of semi-free elections in Myanmar’s ‘disciplined democracy’, Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of the Burmese Army, pledged to accept the will of the people and the results of the vote. However, less than three months later, a military coup led to the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the party that won the elections, the declaration of a state of emergency, and the appointment of the Commander as President of the newly formed State Administration Council. Nevertheless, the 64-year-old general is not someone who changes his mind easily.

Min Aung Hlaing was born in 1956 in Tavoy, now Dawei, the capital of Tenasserim, a region in the far south of the country, bordering on Thailand, formerly disputed by the Burmese and Siamese regimes. As Le Monde writes, the general is not homme du sérail (a courtier) but a provincial man, who moved to Yangon to follow his father’s job and with the dream of pursuing a military career. Thus, Min Aung Hlaing enrolled in law school at the University of Rangoon (now Yangon) while preparing for the entrance exam to the prestigious Defense Services Academy, where he eventually entered in 1974, on his third attempt.

His former classmates remember the young cadet as a “man of few words” who would always prefer to keep a low profile. Gradually, the future general started climbing up the hierarchy of the Tatmadaw. The year 2002 marked a turning point when he was promoted to Commander of the Triangle Region Command in Eastern Shan State, where 82% of Burmese opium is produced. There Min Aung Hlaing learned how to negotiate with the local ethnic groups and guerrillas which have been fighting each other and the Burmese army for decades. A 2009 offensive against the Burmese-Chinese rebels in Kokang, a self-administered region on the border with the People's Republic, earned him the trust of Than Shwe, the strongman of Myanmar from 1992 to 2011.

In that same year, somewhat surprisingly, the ‘old’ leader left the command of the army to the ‘young’ Min Aung Hlaing – "battle-hardened warrior of brutal Burmese Army" as well as a "serious scholar and gentleman" – at a time when Myanmar was preparing for a democratic transition. With the 2008 constitution, the Tatmadaw had secured its role as the guardian of national unity and the Commander-in-Chief was quite possibly "the most powerful man in Myanmar". As a matter of fact, Min Aung Hlaing was able to select the ministers of defence, interior, and border affairs ministers, appoint a quarter of parliamentarians, and prevent any attempt to curb his power.

Unsurprisingly, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won the 2015 elections – the first ‘free’ elections since 1990 – had to reach an agreement with the general. In the years following, Min Aung Hlaing participates in official events alongside Aung San Suu Kyi and established personal relationships with foreign dignitaries. The violent repression of the Muslim Rohingya minority in 2016-2017, which the UN Human Rights Council dubbed as ‘genocide’, only increased his popularity among the country’s Buddhist majority. Before being blocked by Facebook Inc., his profile was attracting hundreds of thousands of likes and by then the General was persuaded that “If the people get the right information about the army they will understand" that the army was in fact defending their interests.

When the general elections in November 2019 resulted in a landslide victory for the League, despite several allegations of fraud mainly coming from the army, there was some speculation of a possible agreement that would lead Min Aung Hlaing to the presidency. When this outcome did not materialize and the NLD decided to shun all compromises, the General, who strongly believed that "the history of the country cannot be separated from the history of the Tatmadaw," decided to use his “right to take over and exercise State sovereign power”. During an interview with a Hong Kong-based Chinese language broadcaster, the first one after the coup, Min Aung Hlaing admitted that he was a little surprised by the resistance of the people: "I didn't think it would be so much."

Myanmar, l’UE impone nuove sanzioni ai golpisti

Terzo ciclo di sanzioni imposto dal Consiglio Europeo a 8 individui, 3 entità economiche e un’organizzazione per il golpe e la repressione delle proteste


L’Unione Europea batte un nuovo colpo in risposta al golpe militare birmano e alla successiva repressione violenta delle proteste. Il Consiglio Europeo ha infatti imposto nuove sanzioni a 8 persone, 3 entità economiche e all’Organizzazione dei veterani di guerra. Tra gli 8 individui sono inclusi ministri, viceministri e la procuratrice generale, che l’Ue ritiene responsabili di aver “compromesso la democrazia e lo Stato di diritto e commesso gravi violazioni dei diritti umani nel Paese”. Le quattro entità colpite sono invece di proprietà dello Stato o sono comunque controllate dalle forze armate e contribuiscono in maniera più o meno diretta alle attività del Tatmadaw.

Lo scopo delle misure, che si concentrano sui settori delle pietre preziose e del legname, è quello di limitare la capacità della giunta militare di trarre profitto dalle risorse naturali birmane e sono concepite in modo da “evitare danni indebiti alla popolazione”. Si aggiungono alle precedenti misure restrittive imposte dall’UE, che includono un embargo sulle armi e sulle attrezzature che possono essere utilizzate per reprimere le proteste, un divieto di esportazione di beni a duplice uso destinati ai militari e alla polizia di frontiera, restrizioni all’esportazione di apparecchi per il monitoraggio delle comunicazioni e un divieto di addestramento e cooperazione militare col Tatmadaw.

Allo stesso tempo, l’UE continua a fornire assistenza umanitaria alla popolazione birmana, nel 2021 ha stanziato 20,5 milioni di euro in aiuti per far fronte alle necessità immediate delle comunità sfollate e colpite dal conflitto in corso. Bruxelles, che si dice pronta a cooperare con il centro di coordinamento ASEAN per l’assistenza umanitaria, si contraddistingue per le azioni messe in atto in riferimento al golpe. Mentre, nel frattempo, il Giappone continua a non applicare sanzioni e il generale Min Aung Hlaing viene ricevuto in Russia.

Leggi il provvedimento integrale


Latest update from Myanmar

The death toll continues to rise and EU and US sanctions are not enough to stop the escalation of violence in Myanmar.

For the past two months Myanmar has been the scene of terrible violence. On February 1st, the armed forces carried out a coup, arresting de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and some leaders of the National League for Democracy, the majority government and winner of the the last election in November 2020. Power is now in the hands of General Min Aung Hlaing, while Suu Kyi is accused of fraud and irregularities. 

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said that since the start of the coup in Myanmar, at least 521 civilians have been killed during the protests, including 141 people only on Saturday 29 March, the most tragic day so far. The situation is getting worse and the use of lethal force against civilians by the army and security forces shows no sign of stopping.

The National Armed Forces Day became another bloodbath with over 100 deaths, including several children. The army continued to crack down on civilians with gunfire, while military parades were held in Naypyidaw to commemorate resistance against Japanese occupation during World War II. The unprecedented violence of the “day of shame” for the Myanmar rmy has in fact triggered various reactions from the international community. Tom Andrews, UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, called for the urgency of an international summit if the Security Council could not act. As member states, Russia and China could have the right of veto over any proposed intervention aimed at restoring democracy. Both nations featured in the military celebration, along with military representatives from Bangladesh, India, Laos, Pakistan, Thailand and Vietnam; Moscow was the only country which sent the Deputy Minister of Defense. The response of the Defence Chiefs from 12 countries, including Italy, was also timely. They signed a joint declaration condemning the use of lethal force by the Burmese army against unarmed people, urging an end to the attacks and the compliance with international standards of conduct.

In recent weeks heavy disapproval had already arrived from the Western front. On February 10, President Biden announced the imposition of sanctions to prevent Burmese generals from accessing the fund they hold in the United States, including freezing US assets that benefit the Burmese government, while maintaining support for health care and civil society groups. In coordination with the US, on March 22 the EU imposed sanctions on 11 people linked to the coup. The Council of Europe enacted a travel ban and an asset freeze, along with previous restrictions relating to the arms embargo and the export of communications monitoring equipment. EU sanctions hit Burmese junta chief Min Aung Hlain, nine other senior military officers and the head of the electoral commission. This was the most concrete and broadest act of Europe in underlining its unshakable support for the democratic transition in Myanmar. After the horrific violence of the last weekend, the US considered additional measures and ordered the suspension of trade agreements with Myanmar, as well as the withdrawal of non-essential embassy staff. The new actions target the personal assets of Min Aung Hlaing's family, including state-owned enterprises or their subsidiaries, and military-related conglomerates.

In relation to the economic sphere, many analysts believe that Myanmar may be able to face Western economic sanctions, given that most of the investments come from Asia, with Singapore, China and Hong Kong in the lead. However, a significant decline in FDI is expected over the next two years due to social unrest and political uncertainty and the impact of sanctions, but for now the impact on trade and exports may remain modest given the likely amortization from other markets, especially Thailand and China.

Il Vicepresidente Pipan conversa con l’Inviata Speciale ONU in Myanmar

In data 26 marzo 2021, il Vicepresidente esecutivo dell’Associazione Italia-ASEAN, Ambasciatore Michelangelo Pipan ha svolto una conversazione con l’Ambasciatrice Christine Schraner Burgener, Inviata speciale delle Nazioni Unite in Myanmar, sugli sviluppi del recente colpo di Stato birmano. Durante la discussione, sono stati toccati diversi temi quali l’impatto del golpe sulla società civile, la reazione della comunità internazionale, l’impatto sulla popolazione di eventuali sanzioni e il futuro degli investimenti esteri nel Paese.


Richiamando gli spiacevoli accadimenti del 2018 con il genocidio dei Rohingya, il Vicepresidente Pipan ha posto l’accento su come il recente colpo di Stato rappresenti il culmine di una situazione di instabilità politica, notevolmente alimentata nel corso degli anni. I recenti sviluppi in Myanmar, infatti, riportano dati allarmanti ed è stato chiesto all’Ambasciatrice Schraner Burgener, Inviata speciale delle Nazioni Unite in Myanmar, un parere sull’impatto che l’attuale situazione politica avrà sulla popolazione. In tal senso, l’Ambasciatrice ha sottolineato come l’avvento al governo delle forze armate, i Tatmadaw, abbia rallentato drasticamente il processo di democratizzazione nel Paese e nonostante essi abbiano previsto la realizzazione di una roadmap istituzionale prima di svolgere nuove elezioni, il percorso non sarà affatto semplice. Le forze armate intendono, in primo luogo, procedere all’identificazione e all’arresto dei soggetti legati al governo democraticamente eletto lo scorso novembre e, in secondo luogo, dimostrarne l’illegittimità. In questo contesto, la popolazione è impossibilitata a lavorare e la chiusura delle banche ostacola i cittadini nel poter gestire i propri risparmi, incentivando spostamenti e migrazioni e mettendo a rischio la delicata situazione sanitaria nella regione.

In riferimento a quanto detto, il Vicepresidente Pipan ha rivolto una domanda sulla reazione da parte della comunità internazionale, interrogandosi, inoltre, sulla possibilità di un eventuale rallentamento delle proteste da parte della società civile, come nel caso della Thailandia, che ha assistito a diverse manifestazioni durante lo scorso anno, rallentate poi verso la fine del 2020. Per quanto concerne il primo quesito, l’Amb. Schraner Burgener ha analizzato la reazione delle grandi super potenze, Stati Uniti e Cina, che hanno condannato i recenti sviluppi, invitando tramite dichiarazioni ufficiali a un ritorno allo status quo. In relazione al secondo punto, l’Ambasciatrice ha espresso ottimismo e fiducia sul futuro delle relazioni tra la popolazione locale e le minoranze etniche. In seguito all’esperienza dei Rohingya, infatti, la popolazione birmana ha mostrato maggiore vicinanza e comprensione nei confronti del variegato tessuto etnico del Paese, creando relazioni più solide con altri gruppi armati etnici. Il contesto attuale ha, quindi, promosso un dialogo più aperto sull’adozione di una strategia comune.

Un ulteriore punto di discussione è stato fornito ponendo l’accento sul ruolo assunto dall’ASEAN durante l’attuale emergenza in Myanmar. In tal senso, l’Amb. Schraner Burgerner ha confermato come l’Association stia reagendo in modo inedito rispetto agli schemi del passato, maggiormente improntati invece sul principio di non-interferenza. È stato, infatti, menzionato l’appello fatto dal Presidente indonesiano Joko Widodo a svolgere un vertice dedicato alla risoluzione della crisi in Myanmar e parallelamente sono stati elogiati lo spirito d’iniziativa da parte dei Ministri degli Affari Esteri di alcuni Paesi Membri, quali Indonesia e Singapore. Nonostante, infatti, alcuni Paesi ASEAN siano ancora restii alla possibilità di interferire direttamente a livello istituzionale, come nel caso del Laos e della Thailandia, c’è un forte interesse a mantenere la stabilità socioeconomica, nonché politica, della regione e ad interessarsi direttamente alla grave fase storica vissuta dal Myanmar.

L’ultima domanda del Vicepresidente Pipan, infine, ha evidenziato il ruolo delle sanzioni nella risoluzione delle crisi internazionali e come queste possano impattare l’afflusso di investimenti esteri nel Paese. In tal senso, l’Amb. Schraner Burgener ha osservato che il tipo di sanzioni da applicare dovranno essere mirate e volte ad intaccare i mezzi di sostentamento delle forze armate. La stessa popolazione locale, stando alle parole dell’Inviata speciale, fa appello alla comunità internazionale, richiedendo che i Tatmadaw vengano isolati e privati dei mezzi finanziari dei conglomerati dell’industria mineraria e del settore alberghiero (Myanma Economic Holdings Limited e Myanmar Economic Corporation). L’Amb. Schraner Burgener ha evidenziato, infatti, la necessità di imporre sanzioni che non abbiano ricadute gravi sulla società e che possano promuovere il ritorno in carica del precedente governo di Aung San Suu Kyi. Per quanto concerne, infine, il futuro del commercio, l’Inviata Speciale delle Nazioni Unite auspica un aumento degli investimenti nel Paese, soprattutto per progetti rivolti al potenziamento delle infrastrutture, che si pongano come obiettivo primario il netto miglioramento delle condizioni sociali dei cittadini birmani.


Aung San Suu Kyi

Portrait of a controversial woman in a country torn by conflicts

Half of the world hates her. Half of the world loves her. Drawing up a portrait of the Lady is not easy. One can get caught in a consistent grey area, which returns a blurred and mysterious image of her. 

Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of Myanmar, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Minister of the President's Office. Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Rafto Memorial Prize for Human Rights winner, Sakharov Prize for the Freedom of thought recipient, US Congressional Gold Medal overcomer. Woman, wife, daughter. She was placed under house arrest on and off from 1988 to 2010, while her husband in England died of cancer. She nearly escaped a firefight that was plotted explicitly against her and her supporters. She was then condemned by the international critics for legitimizing, or at least denying, the Rohingya Muslim minority genocide in Myanmar. 

Myanmar which has been recently put in the spotlight by the international press due to the coup d’état of Burmese military forces, the Tatmadaw. Leaders of the majority party NLD (National League for Democracy) led by Aung San Suu Kyi were arrested, a state of emergency was declared, and all means of communication were cut. For the present being, allegations include “violation of the import-export law”, because she was illegally detaining four walkie-talkies. The news caused a sensation worldwide. But it was no surprise for those that have been following developments in Myanmar for a long time. The coup d’état fits into a context where frictions between military forces and the Lady lasted for decades. Along with the junta’s strict control over the country's political, social, and religious life.

Burmese military junta has been closely tied with Myanmar’s political life since 1962, 14 years after the country’s independence from Great Britain and a short period of democratic transition. First, by supporting the Socialist Party, then, by invalidating the party’s election victory, the pretext of electoral fraud has always been used by the junta to keep control and suppress all the pro-democratic movements that followed 1962. The most famous one, which turned into the “8888 Uprising” (a national insurrection whose aim was a more democratic government), began on the 8th of August 1988. It lasted one month and went down in history as it ended in bloodshed. Thousands of monks and civilians, mainly students, were killed by the Tatmadaw. Due to riots, the State Peace and Development Council was founded, led by the military junta. It was in this context that Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a national icon. She lived abroad for a consistent part of her life, but that year was back in Myanmar, to look after her sick mother.

Her father, Aung San, was a Burmese General and a politician. He negotiated Burma's independence from the United Kingdom and became Counsellor for Defence. However, he was assassinated at the height of his success, leaving a heavy burden on his two-year-old daughter, his two sons, and his wife, wife, who became Myanmar Ambassador to India some years later. Suu Kyi attended the best Western universities and started working at the United Nations in New York. She lived there until the 1988 Uprising. After the tragedy, she decided to remain in Myanmar and found the NLD. One year later, she was under house arrest.

After 1988, up and downs followed. Probation and house arrest, the overwhelming victory of her party in the elections (cancelled once again by a military coup), the Nobel Peace Prize, the calls of the international community for her release, from Kofi Annan to Pope Giovanni Paolo II. She survived a gunfight, but her husband died of cancer in England, thousands of miles away from her. Her children grew and became adults without being allowed to see her.

She was finally released in 2010, and in 2015 the first free elections since the coup of 1962 were held. According to the 2008 Constitution, drafted by the junta, Aung San Suu Kyi could not be elected as the President: citizens having foreign relatives (British children, in her case) cannot have access to the highest state office. Suspects are that the law was specifically created to prevent her to assume the role. To get by the rule, a new ad hoc position was created just for her, the “State Counsellor”: a de facto Prime Minister.

After some years, the international community’s excitement for her success suddenly turned off, replaced by indignation. The champion of democracy and human rights denied the Rohingya ethnic cleansing carried out by the junta in the Rakhine state. When called to witness by the International Court in The Hague, she talked about “misleading and incomplete picture of the situation in Rakhine State”, defending her country by the accusation of genocide. Despite that the crisis demolished her public image abroad, she gained a broader consensus among the Burmese population thanks to her speech. A consensus that increased even more, thanks to the well-management of the COVID-19 crisis in the country.

The public opinion around her figure splits in two. From one side, some point the finger at her silence and claims that prizes must be rescinded. From the other side, some know well how delicate her position is. And how it is not easy to counteract the enormous political influence of the junta and the Sangha, the Buddhist monastic order that legitimates the country’s ruler’s political power. Those who are approved by the Sangha, whether politicians or generals, are approved by the population too. Its most radical and nationalist fringe is well known for acting violent and spreading hate speech against Rohingyas. The Sangha might well have some weight in influencing Suu Kyi’s actions and choices to keep the country together.

Influence or not, Suu Kyi delivered in January a New Year address to the Nation. She promised a new approach towards the peace negotiation process and to fix the numerous civil conflicts in the country. She paved the way for a plan, the “New Peace Architecture”, to gather more participation from diverse political forces, civil society organizers, and citizens. The coup casts a dark shadow on these projects, and it is not sure whether these will be pursued anymore.

Intervista all’On. Fassino sul recente golpe in Myanmar

Piero Fassino, già inviato UE in Myanmar nel 2007 e Presidente della Commissione Esteri della Camera dei Deputati, ci spiega il perché del golpe e delinea alcune tendenze del Paese per capire la situazione locale e quali i possibili sviluppi

Che ruolo giocano i militari nel Paese? Ci si poteva aspettare un loro ritorno al potere? Davvero si pensava avrebbero lasciato il potere definitivamente ai civili? Davvero i militari lasceranno il potere fra un anno?

Per rispondere a queste domande bisogna andare alle radici dell’indipendenza birmana e della guerra di liberazione contro l’occupazione giapponese nella Seconda Guerra Mondiale guidata con successo proprio dal generale Aung San, il padre di Aung San Suu Kyi. Intorno ad Aung San si formò un gruppo dirigente costituito da ufficiali, alcuni dei quali ordirono il complotto che portò all’uccisione dello stesso Aung San alla vigilia dell’indipendenza.

Da allora l’esercito è parte integrante della storia e dell’identità nazionale. Non bisogna dimenticare poi che, sebbene la stragrande maggioranza della popolazione sia di fede buddista, la Birmania è uno stato non solo multireligioso, ma anche multietnico e plurilinguistico, con assetto federale, con spinte autonomistiche – e anche secessionistiche – che hanno consentito alle forze armate di presentarsi come i garanti dell’unità nazionale.

Altro punto di analisi da non trascurare è che la transizione alla democrazia non è avvenuta per una sconfitta della giunta militare, ma con un processo octroye’ dalle autorità militari che hanno accettato la formazione di un governo civile e l’avvio di una transizione democratica in cambio di una riserva del 25% dei seggi parlamentari e del mantenimento di tre ministeri chiave: difesa, interni e appunto coesione nazionale. Processo che sia la comunità internazionale, sia Aung San Suu Kyi hanno accettato scommettendo sul fatto che la gradualità della transizione avrebbe via via ridotto il peso dei militari e favorito una completa e compiuta democratizzazione del Paese. I fatti di queste settimane hanno spezzato quel disegno. Ed è difficile credere che al termine dello stato d’emergenza, ovvero tra un anno, si ritorni ad una dinamica democratica.

Aung San Suu Kyi governa dal 2015 e ha dovuto affrontare il problema dei Rohingya. Su quest’ultimo tema è stata molto criticata dalla comunità internazionale e ha perso credibilità (anche alla luce del suo essere stata un campione dei diritti per il quale aveva vinto il Nobel). Può aver messo da parte i principi per agire in modo realista? Ovvero sacrificare qualcosa per mostrarsi in grado di governare il Paese e quindi essere un attore politico responsabile agli occhi dei militari? Alla fine si può dire che la sua azione non abbia pagato e ne sia uscita screditata?

Aung San Suu Kyi, liberata a fine 2010, è entrata in Parlamento con le elezioni suppletive del 2012 in cui si rinnovarono 42 seggi, la gran parte conquistati dall’NLD. Successo replicato alle elezioni del 2015 che diedero alla Lega Nazionale per la Democrazia una larga maggioranza assoluta che le consenti di formare il primo governo democratico e avviare una transizione che ha liberato tutti i detenuti per ragioni politiche, abolire ogni forma di censura, aprire il Paese a investimenti stranieri, modernizzare il Paese e concludere accordi di pacificazione e autonomia con le minoranze etniche. La repressione dei Rohingya è stata una iniziativa dei generali che, sfruttando la generale ostilità della popolazione birmana verso i Rohiynga, ha fatto fare ad Aung San Suu Kyi la parte del carnefice quando invece l’azione dei militari è stata da lei totalmente subita. Come abbiamo visto, secondo la Costituzione birmana i ministeri della difesa e degli interni, non rispondono al Parlamento ma alle gerarchie militari. Contrastare apertamente i generali voleva dire opporsi a un sentimento diffuso di ostilità verso i Rohingya presente nell’opinione pubblica nazionale; non contrastare i generali ha voluto dire opporsi a un sentimento diffuso nell’opinione pubblica internazionale giustamente sensibile alla tutela delle minoranze e dei diritti umani. La prudenza manifestata da Aung San Suu Kyi in quel frangente non è frutto di cinismo o insensibilità, ma della consapevolezza di stare dentro a un processo difficile e incompiuto che come tale conosce dei rallentamenti, ma del quale non si può abbandonare la guida. Questa complessità è stata del tutto sottovalutata in Occidente che ha assunto posizioni che hanno avuto l’unico effetto di indebolire Aung San Suu Kyi.

E quindi la severità dell’Occidente è stata controproducente?

Sì. La scelta del Parlamento Europeo di ritirare il Premio Sacharov all’esponente politica birmana è stata una decisione moralistica e profondamente impolitica, assunta senza valutarne le conseguenze. Max Weber ci aveva ammonito da questo rischio. La politica non può essere guidata soltanto dall’etica della testimonianza, che valuta solo la mera coerenza dei principi. In politica vale l’etica della responsabilità che non si ferma alla coincidenza tra scelte e valori, ma si interroga sulle conseguenze di quelle scelte. Ora non vi è dubbio che aver voluto “punire” la prudenza di Aung San Suu Kyi è stata letta dai generali come una forma di isolamento internazionale della Lady, contro la quale dunque si poteva agire. E se il colpo di stato ha una connessione con la vicenda Rohingya, non è per la “prudenza” di Aung San Suu Kyi, ma per il fatto che il generale a capo del golpe sia sotto inchiesta da parte del tribunale penale internazionale per i diritti umani proprio perché ritenuto responsabile della repressione dei Rohingya.

Dalla sua esperienza di inviato in Myanmar cosa ha capito della politica e società locale? Ritiene che il Paese sia pronto per una democratizzazione? Ci sono le basi e se si quanto sono solide per una democrazia?

I militari hanno tenuto per 60 anni la popolazione in uno stato di oppressione politica e di arretratezza economica e culturale. Ad esempio il sentimento ostile nei confronti dei Rohingya, su cui come abbiamo visto hanno speculato i generali, è un segno di arretratezza. Ma non ci si può fermare solo al dato negativo. Le conquiste democratiche e civili avvengono per tappe e dentro un processo. La mia esperienza mi dice che il Paese è pronto all’apertura al mondo e alla democratizzazione. E ha dato ampiamente prova di questa maturazione democratica alle ultime elezioni, quelle dell’8 novembre quando il percorso intrapreso dalla Lega Democratica di Aung San Suu Kyi è stato fortemente confermato da una grande maggioranza della popolazione e le manifestazioni di piazza di questi giorni che sfidano il regime militare dicono bene di questa maturazione e di questa consapevolezza acquisita.

 Che influenza può avere l’ASEAN? Sappiamo che uno dei principi dell’ASEAN è proprio quello di non interferenza negli affari degli Stati membri, ma è una politica che potrebbe cambiare? Potrebbe l’ASEAN “suggerire” un ritorno al processo democratico? In fondo il Paese era stato criticato per l’affare Rohingya e molti Stati (Indonesia in primis) si erano spesi per la democratizzazione in passato.

Il principio della non interferenza negli affari degli altri Stati in Asia è una regola applicata da tutti i governi. Nonostante ciò, agire sui Paesi asiatici è indispensabile, puntando sia sui vicini della Birmania, sia sull’ASEAN, l’istituzione multilaterale nel Sud-Est asiatico. E l’Associazione di amicizia Italia-ASEAN può avere un ruolo importante da svolgere. La Birmania si trova a un bivio. Essere attratta nell’orbita cinese con un ruolo di sparring partner sostanzialmente subalterno, oppure tuffarsi convintamente nel partenariato dell’Indo-Pacifico, dove sarebbe un soggetto alla pari con tutti gli altri. L’ASEAN è un esempio di multilateralismo economico che vuol dire pace e apertura. Certo abbiamo visto che cooperazione economica non porta immediatamente alla democrazia e allo stato di diritto. Ma i mercati aperti, se non sono una condizione sufficiente, sono comunque una condizione necessaria e propedeutica a qualsiasi sviluppo in senso dell’ampliamento delle libertà civili e politiche delle popolazioni di tutti i Paesi del mondo. Compresa ovviamente quella del Myanmar.  

Che ruolo possono giocare l’UE, gli USA con il nuovo Presidente Biden e la comunità internazionale in generale per favorire la democrazia e fare pressione sui militari?

Dobbiamo considerare che l’80 % degli scambi del Myanmar avvengono con i Paesi vicini, in gran parte con la Cina e l’ASEAN. Mentre con l’Europa e gli USA l’interscambio rappresenta meno del 20%. Ergo una classica risposta occidentale come le sanzioni avrebbe un’incidenza limitata e peraltro in Asia nessun Paese adotta misure sanzionatorie. Anche qui ritorna la distinzione weberiana tra etica della testimonianza e etica delle responsabilità. La storia ci insegna che le conseguenze di comportamenti sanzionatori da parte della comunità internazionale hanno spesso come conseguenza il consolidamento dei regimi autoritari e repressivi e non il loro indebolimento. Per questo ciò che possono fare l’Unione Europea e gli USA è intraprendere una diplomazia triangolare che agisca sia su organismi multilaterali come l’ASEAN, sia sull’influenza della Cina e di alcuni Paesi della regione. Ricordo bene che nel 2010-11 nello smuovere i militari birmani ad accettare la transizione ebbe un ruolo importante l’Indonesia. 

Where China meets India: quanto pesa la geopolitica nei destini del Myanmar? 

Come si evince da questa sua citazione, che è il titolo di una importante pubblicazione del politologo Thant Myint-U uscita proprio 10 anni fa, la Birmania è l’unico Stato del Sud-Est asiatico che confina e per un lungo tratto, sia con la Cina che con l’India. Questo conferisce al Paese un’importanza geopolitica e geoeconomica fondamentale. Se pensiamo alle tensioni geopolitiche che attraversano il Mar Cinese Meridionale e che contrappongono la Cina ora a Taiwan, ora alle Filippine, ora all’Indonesia, è facile vedere come la Birmania abbia per la Cina un interesse strategico essendo la via più diretta per accedere all’Oceano Indiano, senza dover passare attraverso il Mar Cinese Meridionale e soprattutto lo stretto di Malacca. Non solo, ma la Cina è il principale partner commerciale della Birmania e ha programmato grandi investimenti infrastrutturali nel Paese. E la Birmania è inserita nei percorsi della nuova Via della Seta. Del resto non è certo passata inosservata la visita del Ministro degli Esteri cinese Wang Yi in Birmania pochi giorni prima del golpe, segno di un’attenzione speciale che Pechino ha dimostrato e continua a dimostrare per i destini del Myanmar. È proprio perché la Cina ha interesse a una Birmania stabile, bisogna convincere Pechino che una Birmania sotto il tallone dei generali rischia di essere assai meno stabile di una Birmania democratica. Così come in questi anni di apertura è cresciuta la presenza dell’India. Non va mai dimenticato che la Birmania è ricca di risorse naturali: è seduta su una gigantesca nuvola di gas; gode di consistenti risorse idriche che gli consentirebbero un’agricoltura fiorente; è leader nelle gemme preziose; beneficia del miglior tek per le costruzioni navali; è ricco di molte materie prime.  È importante che anche l’Occidente mostri un’attenzione all’altezza della situazione e usi la leva degli investimenti per impedire una involuzione autoritaria della Birmania.

Intervista a cura di Niccolò Camponi 

The reactions of the European Institutions to the coup in Myanmar

The reactions of the European Institutions were not long in coming to the news of the coup d'état in Myanmar in which the Tatmadaw, the country's armed forces, arrested President Win Myint, State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of the civilian government invoking article 418 of the 2008 Constitution, for alleged fraud during the last elections in November 2020, and declaring a state of emergency for a year.

Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, has taken a tough position, calling for the immediate restoration of the legitimate civilian government in Myanmar and the rapid opening of parliament with the participation of all elected representatives, as required by the Constitution.

The same condemnation also came from the President of the European Commission, the President of the European Council and the President of the European Parliament, as well as some members of European Parliament.


Colpo di Stato in Myanmar

Dopo giorni di crescente tensione tra il governo civile e le forze armate, la leader Aung San Suu Kyi, vincitrice delle ultime elezioni, e altri alti esponenti del partito al governo, sono stati arrestati. I militari hanno dichiarato lo stato di emergenza per un anno e hanno annunciato che l’ex generale Myint Swe sarà presidente ad interim per tutta la durata dello stato d’emergenza. 

I militari hanno giustificato il colpo di stato sostenendo “enormi irregolarità” nelle elezioni di novembre che la commissione elettorale non era riuscita a risolvere.

Il Presidente dell’Associazione Italia-ASEAN Enrico Letta, condannando fortemente la mossa dei militari, ha dichiarato che “ogni transizione democratica è fatta di tappe e di prassi che si affermano. Oggi il Myanmar fa un grave e inaccettabile passo indietro arrestando i leader che dovevano guidare questa transizione”.

La premio Nobel per la Pace Aung San Suu Kyi ha lanciato un appello al popolo affinché si opponga ai militari. “Esorto la popolazione a non accettarlo, a rispondere e a protestare con tutto il cuore contro il colpo di stato”. Fonti Reuters riportano anche un appello a non fare uso di violenza e ad agire secondo la legge.

Le reazioni internazionali non si sono fatte attendere e vanno tutte nella stessa direzione. La portavoce della Casa Bianca Jen Psaki  ha riferito che “Gli Stati Uniti si oppongono a qualsiasi tentativo di alterare l’esito delle recenti elezioni o di impedire la transizione democratica del Myanmar, e prenderanno provvedimenti contro i responsabili se questi passi non saranno invertiti”.

Il segretario generale delle Nazioni Unite Guterres, condannando il golpe, ha affermato che “Questi sviluppi sono un duro colpo alle riforme democratiche. Le elezioni generali dell’8 novembre 2020 davano un forte mandato alla Lega nazionale per la democrazia, riflettendo la chiara volontà del popolo birmano di continuare sulla strada conquistata a fatica della riforma democratica”.

Il Myanmar dal 1997 ha aderito all’ASEAN, l’Associazione delle Nazioni del Sud-est asiatico, un’organizzazione politica, economica e culturale, fondata nel 1967 con lo scopo di promuovere la cooperazione e l’assistenza reciproca fra gli stati membri per accelerare il progresso economico e aumentare la stabilità della regione. Il Myanmar, indipendente dalla Gran Bretagna dal 1948 e guidato da una giunta militare dal 1962, nel 2010 ha avviato una transizione verso la democrazia con una serie di graduali riforme politiche, instaurando un governo civile, scarcerando gli oppositori politici tra cui Aung San Suu Kyi, leader della Lega Nazionale per la Democrazia, e convocando libere elezioni parlamentari.

Ad oggi il Myanmar resta uno dei paesi più poveri e meno sviluppati del pianeta e dopo decenni di stagnazione, embargo internazionale e isolamento economico, dal 2011 il paese sta registrando un forte sviluppo economico in tutti i settori. Il colpo di stato di oggi mette a rischio la transizione democratica e mina quella stabilità politica indispensabile alla crescita economica.

Elections in Myanmar, Suu Kyi proclaims the victory

The National League for Democracy wins and welcomes new challenges for the country’s renovation 

General elections were held in Myanmar on November the 8th and, as the counting of votes ended, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by the popular leader and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has secured more than 80% of the available parliament seats.

Myanmar is still a country in its infancy when it comes to electoral democracy, indeed it is just the second time that citizens attend the polls, after fifty years of military dictatorship. November 8th vote aimed to renew 500 of the 664 seats in the two Houses of Parliament and the NLD, the ruling party in the previous legislature, was expected to get even more votes than those won in the 2015 elections. Expectations were confirmed by the counts, which have given to Suu Kyi 396 out of the 498 seats assigned. It is a landslide victory for the majority, which however will still have to deal with the veto power of the military forces, that according to the constitutional provisions hold 25% of the seats.

Elections came following a resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Myanmar, which since mid-August has documented more than 60.000 infections and 1.390 deaths. Due to the exponential increase of positive cases the opposing parties have asked for a postponement of the elections, nonetheless the NLD and the Electoral Commission insisted on bringing citizens to the polls. Elderly voters were allowed to vote early and the government provided adequate provisions, individual protection tools for the workers and measures guaranteeing social distancing in each polling station. 

The health emergency and security reasons related to ethnic tensions have made it difficult to access the vote in 51 electoral districts, corresponding to about 1.5 million people, according to the estimates calculated by the Electoral Commission. The most affected population by the voting restrictions is located in the Rakhine region, where currently there are hostilities between the minorities and the military forces. The western part of the country is also populated by the Rohingya minority group, who is not considered part of the national population as they are immigrants from Bangladesh, consequently they were unable to go to the polls.

The Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) supported by the military forces was the main opponent of the NLD in the last elections. Myanmar’s commander-in-chief, High General Min Aung Hlaing, at first place refused to honour the general elections results, criticizing the controversial handling of electoral procedures. However, on Sunday, after casting his vote, the General declared that “he must accept the result, as an expression of the people’s will”.

Despite widespread criticism to the management of the elections, defined as "fundamentally imperfect", the feedback on the national level is absolutely favourable to Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. The general elections were seen as a real referendum on the work of the NLD in the previous legislature and the interviews outside the polling booths confirmed that most citizens were satisfied with the results of the party, thanks to which Myanmar seems to head towards a future of freedom. In the last pre-election rally, Suu Kyi promised to strengthen the country’s democratic structures if re-elected. Recognizing the complaints arising from the management of the vote, she said that "the important thing is to solve these problems by peaceful means within the limits of the law" and advised the voters to remain calm and preserve stability.

In conclusion, such a favourable result for the NLD could offer Suu Kyi's party the opportunity to emancipate itself to a greater extent from the military junta and even attempt to rewrite the constitutional provisions that give the army control over three key ministries: Interior, Defence and Foreign Affairs. On the other hand, the Burmese leader has already highlighted the priorities of her second term. First of all, the fight against the pandemic, which hit Myanmar with a second wave during the election period, but also the implementation of measures oriented to face the economic crisis and accelerate the peace process between the various ethnic minorities in disagreement with the central government.

By Emilia Leban