After weeks of largely peaceful protests against the 1 February military coup in Myanmar, the situation on the ground has done nothing but escalate over the weekend. According to the United Nations Human Rights Office, at least 18 civilians were killed on Sunday in several cities, including Yangon, Dawei, and Mandalay.
The dramatic turn of events began on Friday, when the country’s ambassador to the UN, Kyaw Moe Tun, gave an emotional speech before the organisation’s general assembly urging member states to pressure the military to cede power by using “any means necessary”.
Tun, who accompanied his speech with the three-fingered salute adopted by the anti-coup protesters, was fired the following day by Min Aung Hlaing’s junta, not before winning international praise for his extraordinary rebuke of the coup.
While this happened, police arrests turned violent on Saturday, as security forces started to charge at demonstrators with live bullets, stun grenades, and teargas, in an attempt to suppress a civil disobedience campaign that has shown no sign of ending.
Uncertainty has also grown over Aung San Suu Kyi’s whereabouts, as her own party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), said on Friday that the ousted, elected leader had been moved from house arrest to an undisclosed location.
The NLD now plans to form an “interim government” to rival the junta, for which the party is seeking official recognition from the US, UK, and UN. In response, Myanmar’s military has called on foreign embassies, UN agencies, and other international organisations not to talk to “illegal entities” representing the NLD.
In western countries, condemnation of the coup has been the norm. President Biden imposed sanctions on Burmese generals behind the coup in his first concrete step as US leader earlier this month. In the UK, foreign secretary Dominic Raab announced last week further sanctions on military leaders “for serious human rights violations”, along with a ban on all trade promotion and aid involving the country’s government. Sanctions from the European Union are also in the works.
On the other hand, the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), which includes Myanmar, has proven rather sluggish at responding to what is a regional challenge. Indonesia, Asean’s largest country, is pushing for the 10-member bloc to hold Myanmar’s junta to its promise of holding elections in a year’s time.
However, the proposal falls short of the public demands of protesters and some western countries for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the recognition of her party’s landslide win in last November’s election.
With China yet to reveal its hand in the game, the crisis in Myanmar presents an unusually complex diplomatic challenge.