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Opinion

Myanmar's monthlong 'phony war' is over

International community must rapidly engage with the country's military leadership

| Myanmar
Demonstrators hold up posters next to soldiers in a military vehicle in Yangon on Feb. 15: the military is not about to give up just because noisy urban crowds want it to do so.   © Reuters

Bill Hayton is an associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific Program at Chatham House. In 2013-2014 he advised Myanmar's state-owned broadcaster MRTV on media reform.

Myanmar's military leadership has reverted to type and started killing large numbers of people.

The generals have spent decades preparing for this moment and they are ready. Hidden in their military cantonments and protected by soldiers, police and plainclothes thugs, they are suffering only the mildest inconvenience while the cities ring to the sound of protest. Why should they worry about angry crowds with witty placards when their side has live ammunition?

In the city streets, the people demand democracy, but the military, known as the Tatmadaw, is not about to back down because of some disruptions in Yangon and Mandalay. It built itself a new capital in Naypyidaw precisely to escape the risk of disorder in the old one of Yangon.

Its bank accounts are full, its jade mines are still operating, and international sanctions and disinvestment will not affect its finances for some time to come. This is an organization that sees itself as the guardian of the nation, the only force standing between national unity and disintegration. It is not about to give up just because noisy urban crowds want it to do so.

Myanmar is at the tipping point. The time for hard choices is now, before more blood flows in the streets and the country enters another dark decade. The international community must open avenues for dialogue to achieve difficult compromises.

In justifying its Feb. 1 coup, the military leadership claimed to be acting in line with the constitution. It seems committed to this document, which it drafted more than a decade ago, to guide what it calls "a discipline-flourishing democracy." What then will it do next?

Once it has crushed the protests with as much force as it feels necessary, banned the National League for Democracy and imprisoned its leadership on trumped-up charges, it will announce a rerun of last November's election, originally won handsomely by Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD.

With the NLD banned, supporters of civilian rule in Myanmar will refuse to participate in a military-run election. The election will go ahead regardless. The country will return to its position in 2010, when a nominally civilian government, backed by the military, was installed in power.

This will pose major problems for democratic countries. Which foreign democratic leader would want to concede the principle that the military can rerun an election if it does not like the outcome? Sanctions will be reimposed, but Myanmar's military leadership is used to surviving such measures. The country will suffer, but its vast military-run conglomerates will ensure that the top leadership continues to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle.

The world has a choice: to resign itself to confronting the military's decision to return to 2010 or to try to preserve the admittedly modest gains of the past decade in the hope of preventing a further decline. Confrontation is politically easier for the international community. But there will be a price to pay, with at least five years of rancor, arguments over sanctions, divisions within the democratic camp, and distractions from resolving the many problems facing Myanmar.

Could something be done now to persuade the military leadership to step back and revert to its still powerful background role? This could only happen if it is reassured that its political position is safe. It is vital that Myanmar's neighbors and its friends around the world rapidly engage with the military leadership. Some will find the discussions distasteful, but the alternatives are worse.

Talk of reducing the military's role in politics should be suspended. Some face-saving compromises on claims of irregularities in the election results could be agreed upon, which would modestly improve the parliamentary representation of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.

Military Members of Parliament arrive at the Lower House in Naypyitaw in July 2012: talk of reducing the military's role in politics should be suspended.   © Reuters

As a price for restoring the gains of the past 10 years, the pro-democracy parties might even be persuaded to accept a military figure as president in a power-sharing arrangement while maintaining the overall integrity of the 2020 election result. According to the constitution, the president does not have to be an elected member of parliament.

The military would have to end its repression of Suu Kyi and the NLD, and free the hundreds of members of parliament and activists currently in detention. Beyond that, though, there would have to be some detailed and difficult discussions about the nature of power-sharing. Whoever controls the presidency chairs the powerful National Defense and Security Council. What would happen to Suu Kyi's position as state counselor, the platform from which she led the NLD government?

Remarkable as it sounds, this could be a moment for the U.S. and China to find some common ground. Neither wishes to see instability in Myanmar. Both could be happy with an outcome that avoids a lingering international stalemate.

Could some kind of joint initiative open a door to an improved relationship between the two superpowers? Could Japan, India and the Association of Southeast Asia Nations come on board? Myanmar is a member of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the governments of the nine other member states must already know that if they do not act quickly, they will spend future ASEAN summits fending off questions about its continuing relevance.

There is a refreshing clarity in condemnation as opposed to much thankless labor involved in engineering compromise. This is a moment of crisis, but could it also be a moment of opportunity?

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