On September 22, the Council on Southeast Asia Studies at the MacMillan Center hosted a panel discussion on events since the February 2021 coup in Myanmar. Featuring four speakers, the panel was moderated by Sterling Professor of Political Science and Professor of Anthropology James Scott, who also codirects Yale’s Agrarian Studies Program. (view discussion)
The panel began with a presentation by Ma Thida, a Burmese human rights activist and writer who currently serves as a Visiting Scholar at the Council on Southeast Asia Studies. In a brief presentation, Thida laid out how the situation in Myanmar has unfolded in the eight months since the coup. Thida argued that the military has definitively proven itself completely unqualified to govern the country. “Killing, arbitrary arrest, looting, asking for ransoms for arrested people or dead bodies, arsons and burning villages, bombing, this is all going on from the military side,” Thida said. Thida added that in response to the coup, resistance and resilience is “not just [coming] from the people, but we’re learning more and more that soldiers are defecting” from the Burmese military.
Next to speak was Tun Myint, Associate Professor of Political Science at Carleton College and a founder of Mutual Aid Myanmar. Myint began his presentation by offering some deep historical context that he argued was essential to grasping the contours of the present conflict. Going back three centuries to the Sino-Burmese War, which ended in 1769, Myint argued that the emperor of the Chinese Qing dynasty wanted to produce a situation in which there would be “permanent war in Burma, where no peace could be settled.” A year after the conflict ended, the emperor imposed an economic embargo on Burma, which was arguably the first economic sanction imposed by one country onto another in world history. “The goal [China] had was that Burma should never get rich and never have peace: that is Chinese foreign policy rooted in 1770, and it is continuing today,” Mying said. These historical facts, he argued, are “very important to understanding the coup and to understanding why Min Aung Hlaing”—the Burmese army general—“and other military leaders are totally reliant on China at the UN Security Council.”
Following his historical arguments, Myint ended his presentation with a brief philosophical reflection on the scale of violence the country is currently experiencing. “The crimes against humanity and the scale of the violence by the Myanmar military is stunning,” Myint said. “The world is experiencing it and seeing it happen every day in Burma.” Myint argued that the scale of violence should prompt both academics as well as international lawyers to consider the “proper role for violence in politics,” suggesting that such a role might potentially be found in just war theory and Hindu philosophy.
David Moe, a PhD candidate in theological and religious studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky whose research focuses on Buddhist religious nationalism and ethnic identity conflict in Southeast Asia, was the next to speak. He argued that “it’s not possible to ignore Buddhist nationalism and ethnic ideological conflict” when it comes to the current political situation in Myanmar. “Buddhist nationalism is nothing new in Myanmar,” Moe added, tracing its roots to the British colonial period in the 19th century, when Buddhist nationalism emerged as an “anti-Western” movement. In the decades following the end of British colonial rule in the 20th century, Buddhist nationalism turned into an “anti-non-Buddhist movement,” characterized by political domination, religious discrimination, and a pressure for ethnic minorities to assimilate to the dominant Buddhist culture. Now, following the coup, things have changed again, as the country is experiencing “not just a conflict between the majority Burma Buddhists and ethnic minority groups, but among Buddhists,” Moe said. Moe suggested that “the coup creates the opportunity for interreligious and interethnic solidarity for democracy among protestors,” but the question ultimately is “how deep that unity is.” Moe ended his presentation by asking whether Myanmar has a democratic future. “In my view, the answer is yes,” he concluded, “but we need not only an internal movement in Myanmar, but also external movement and the international community’s cooperation.”
The final speaker of the day was Scott Marciel, a U.S. foreign service officer who spent most of his career in Southeast Asia and served as U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia, Burma, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Marciel argued that during the decade of reform between the end of military rule and this year’s coup, “there was near consensus on one thing: the country had an opportunity to move forward…and everybody was adamant that the one thing they did not want to see was a return to the bad old days of military rule.” Echoing Moe’s arguments about interreligious and interethnic solidarity, Marciel argued that this consensus has meant that the coup “met instant opposition from almost the entire country,” as “people saw their hope and their opportunity for a better future being taken away.” This has generated a “national resistance against a military rule that is…an occupying force, in the sense that they have no legitimacy, no popular support, and no real interest in helping people live better lives,” Marciel said.
The strength of this resistance means that, according to Marciel, it will only grow more intense in the coming months. And since the military is unlikely to give up either, he argued that we are likely to see significantly more violence and suffering in the immediate future. While he voiced his hope that there will come a time “for some kind of discussions to hopefully find a way out of this,” he concluded that “the conditions now are not ripe for that.” What that means, Marciel said, is that the only way forward is for the international community to aid the Burmese resistance in putting more and more pressure on the military junta “so that more and more military officers realize they have no hope of winning.”
Written by Jack McCordick, a senior in Yale College majoring in Humanities.