U.K. Sees Myanmar Coup as Irreversible, Risk of Violence Rising

The military coup in Myanmar has gone past the point of no return, according to a confidential U.K. foreign office assessment, in a sign that major democracies expect to have limited ability to influence the events unfolding inside the country.

The bleak view last week from a senior British diplomat concludes the coup is irreversible, and that army chief Min Aung Hlaing will seek to crush ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party in order to install himself as president. The assessment, the broad outlines of which were shared with Bloomberg News, also cites the risk that anti-coup protests -- with tens of thousands subsequently demonstrating on the weekend -- could turn bloody.

U.K. Sees Myanmar Coup as Irreversible, Risk of Violence Rising

With Suu Kyi and former President Win Myint in detention and facing criminal charges, the British conclusion is that a leaderless National League for Democracy will likely start to fracture. That will allow the military, which seized power on Feb. 1, to dominate in an election it has promised to hold following a one-year state of emergency.

Nations including the U.K., the U.S. and Australia have condemned the coup, which followed Suu Kyi’s landslide win in an election in November that outside observers deem to have been largely free and fair. Some countries have raised the prospect of renewed sanctions on Myanmar, which has made only tentative efforts in recent years to open up its economy to outside investment.

The perspective from the British diplomat, however, suggests that external intervention in Myanmar beyond potential sanctions is highly unlikely.

The regime may also turn to China -- by far Myanmar’s biggest trading partner -- for further support. Beijing did sign up to a United Nations Security Council statement emphasizing the need for “continued support of the democratic transition” in the Southeast Asian nation, but also issued a separate missive noting that China is a “friendly neighbor.”

The U.K. government declined to comment in detail on the confidential assessment. In a statement, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said it condemned the coup and renewed calls for the military to respect the rule of law and human rights.

“We need to see the peaceful reconvening of the National Assembly, and respect for the results of the November 2020 general election and the expressed wishes of the people of Myanmar,” the Foreign Office said.

Massive Protests

Myanmar declared martial law in its biggest cities on Monday following a third day of anti-coup demonstrations, imposing an overnight curfew and banning gatherings of more than five people. Ahead of the announcement, the regime showed signs of cracking down on protesters, using a water cannon on crowds in the capital Naypyidaw before later issuing the threat of using live ammunition.

U.K. Sees Myanmar Coup as Irreversible, Risk of Violence Rising

Worries of a crackdown have grown in a country with a history of violent suppression of dissent. An unsigned statement broadcast Monday by state-owned Myanmar Radio and Television said “democracy and human rights” was being exploited by certain groups and any act that hurts the stability of the country would be prosecuted.

“We urge all people who want justice, freedom, equality and peace not only to reject the perpetrators but also to work together for the good of the nation and the people,” the statement said.

The U.K. assessment warned the situation could deteriorate. There’s been limited information from Myanmar as the military-run government periodically cuts internet access and orders service providers to block social media networks. Some access was restored on Sunday, allowing footage of the demonstrations to flood social media.

Still, the military -- also called the Tatmadaw -- has tried to convey an air of stability, moving quickly to fill top positions in the government and the courts. It claims, without presenting evidence, that Suu Kyi’s election win was tainted with fraud.

The Tatmadaw will now turn to shoring up support ahead of elections, which it can do by negotiating deals with ethnic parties and using its Union Solidarity and Development Party to align with pro-military factions, according to the U.K. assessment. The regime will also seek to mobilize the vote by appealing to Buddhist nationalist sentiment, it said.

U.K. Foreign Minister Dominic Raab has publicly condemned the detention of Suu Kyi and other officials, calling for their immediate release in a Tweet on Feb. 4. He said the U.K., which ruled what was previously known as Burma for more than a century until its independence in 1948, is consulting with international partners on next steps.

The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, has called on the agency’s Human Rights Council to convene a special session on the “unfolding crisis” in the country. He urged nations to “exert maximum pressure on the military dictators who have seized power, including through the imposition of targeted sanctions.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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