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Tea Leaves

Yangon's shuttered British Club sends a message

Drawing on long but troubled ties, London could yet play a role in ending Myanmar's nightmare

A sign on the British Club gate in Yangon reads "closed until further notice." (Photo by Rory Wallace)

On a recent walk through downtown Yangon, I passed by the shuttered British Club, once a favorite watering hole for diplomats, journalists and businesspeople, who affectionately knew it as the Irrawaddy Arms, after Myanmar's famous river.

The club opened its current location next to the British ambassador's residence in 1988, coincidentally just after a failed uprising against the then-junta that ended in bloodshed and mass arrests. Now the club itself is a victim of another military regime, its nondescript gate permanently closed in the wake of the Feb. 1 coup that ousted Aung San Suu Kyi's elected government.

Located in a narrow alley beside Alan Pya Pagoda Street, the club was temporarily closed to customers last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then much of Yangon's foreign diplomatic and business community has left the country, while many journalists have fled or been jailed. Few potential customers remain, forcing the club's management to call it a day.

Myanmar's relationship with the U.K. has passed through many turbulent periods since the colonial wars of the 1800s -- notably Japan's wartime occupation, decades of military rule and isolation after independence in 1948, and a short-lived period of relatively happy alignment, with Oxford-educated Suu Kyi at the helm.

Then came the coup. Alongside the U.S., the U.K. was among the first countries to react with targeted sanctions. Departing British Ambassador Dan Chugg strongly criticized the junta's seizure of power, its violence against civilians and ethnic minorities, and its crackdown on media freedom. Although London is in the process of sending a new ambassador to Myanmar, the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also been supportive of the parallel National Unity Government, which opposes the regime, with continuous engagement between the two sides.

With China and Russia steadfastly defending the new regime in the United Nations Security Council, the military, or Tatmadaw, may feel it has little to lose from Western criticism. But the regime's poor relationship with the U.K. is anomalous in Southeast Asia, which is increasingly supportive of British diplomatic, commercial and military involvement in the region -- an international priority for London since the U.K.'s exit from the European Union.

A small lane next to the British ambassador's residence, site of the now-shuttered British Club. (Photo by Rory Wallace)

For example, the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations recently upgraded the U.K. to the status of "dialogue partner," giving it privileged access to the bloc. Myanmar is an ASEAN member state, and the regime's chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, could have vetoed Britain's application. He chose not to, perhaps to avoid a challenge to his country's continuing involvement in ASEAN affairs.

For the British government, Myanmar's crisis is dwarfed by bigger challenges in Asia, including turmoil in Hong Kong and security worries in the South China Sea, to which London recently dispatched an aircraft carrier group for a "freedom of navigation" cruise. Since Brexit, the U.K. has struck trade deals with Singapore, Japan and Vietnam, among others, and is also navigating a difficult but important relationship with China.

Boris Johnson, center, visits the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon in January 2017 while serving as Britain's foreign secretary. Now prime minister, Johnson has been supportive of Myanmar's parallel National Unity Government.    © Reuters

Myanmar's anti-coup leaders are concerned that the country's crisis will fade from the international radar as headlines disappear from global media. But London's links with Myanmar are deep and long-standing, and were significantly strengthened when the country began opening up under military-backed President Thein Sein in 2011.

In 2014, a year ahead of Myanmar's first free election in decades, the then-chairman of Jardine Matheson Holdings, Sir Henry Keswick, and Lord Sassoon, a director, made separate visits to the country, meeting Thein Sein and Suu Kyi, then opposition leader, among other figures.

Jardines, a Hong Kong-based British conglomerate, joined British-owned BG Group, Prudential insurance and Standard Chartered Bank as founding patrons of a new British Chamber of Commerce, the first international business group to set up shop since Thein Sein ended Myanmar's isolation. The chamber grew from 86 members in 2014 to considerably more than 200 before the coup.

British colonial structures line the road in this photograph of Merchant Street in Rangoon (now Yangon) taken in 1900. London's links with Myanmar are deep and long-standing.   © Getty Images

British education organizations, notably London-based Dulwich College International -- which closed after the coup -- also established schools in the country. Yet, a planned visit to Myanmar by Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, was canceled in 2017 because of the military's brutal expulsion of the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, while Suu Kyi's subsequent defense of the military's actions severely damaged her relationship with Britain.

Shortly after the Rohingya crackdown, the British government stopped all engagement with the Myanmar military, following up after the coup with targeted sanctions, including against two key military-owned conglomerates.

In the turbulent aftermath of the coup, the closure of the British Club is a powerful symbol of the poor state of relations between the two countries. But the U.K.'s deep involvement in Myanmar, and its growing interest in deepening links with Southeast Asia, suggest it could yet play an important role in helping Myanmar to escape its military nightmare.

Rory Wallace is a Myanmar-based writer.

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