The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Myanmar’s military has spent the year since the coup searching for international legitimacy. It has not found it.

Myanmar's military commander in chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, salutes during a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the country's Union Day in Naypyidaw on Feb. 12. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

In the weeks following the Myanmar military’s seizure of power through a coup, the United Nations special envoy for the country warned a top general that there would be international consequences. He responded defiantly that his military had “learned to walk with few friends.”

The generals underestimated just how few there would be.

More than a year into their power grab, Myanmar’s military remains on a quest for international legitimacy. It has been hard to come by. Generals who hoped to don suits and sit at international forums have been largely blocked — even regionally by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

With new sanctions slapped on Myanmar’s state-owned oil and gas entity and representatives of the junta hauled before the International Court of Justice to defend against allegations of genocide, Myanmar is finding itself overextended, fighting battles on multiple fronts internally and externally.

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“There is an element of bravado when they say they can live with it,” said Moe Thuzar, co-coordinator of the Myanmar studies program at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, who said the junta’s struggle to assert legitimacy internationally is adding to the stress of troops already strained on the ground by a growing resistance and acute revenue challenges. “They miscalculated.”

Myanmar is cementing its pariah status by turning to the very few friends it has left — notably Russia, a main source of arms for the junta since the coup. Russia has been the junta’s closest diplomatic ally since the coup, abstaining from voting to condemn the coup or from backing an arms embargo against the Myanmar military.

A report last week from the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Myanmar found that Russia continues to pledge more arms to Myanmar’s military since the coup, and Russian pilots visited counterparts in Myanmar amid the junta’s increased airstrikes on civilian population.

The junta has, in turn, fully backed Russia in its invasion against Ukraine. Military spokesman Zaw Min Tun said in an interview that Russia’s actions were about “protecting its own sovereignty” and showing rightly that it is a “superpower” maintaining peace in the world.

This month, ASEAN — a regional bloc known for its principle of noninterference in its neighbors affairs no matter how egregious the situation — barred Myanmar’s military-appointed foreign minister from attending an upcoming meeting. The bloc argued that Myanmar failed to make progress on a plan toward peace, which includes restarting dialogue with the ousted democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi remains in detention, slapped with more than a dozen charges ranging from corruption to sedition. She has already been sentenced to six years in prison but faces the possibility of over 100 years more. The military appears to be intent on completely removing the Nobel laureate, 76, from politics and public life.

Barring Myanmar’s junta from representing the nation at its meetings, including the biannual leaders summit last year, was an unprecedented step for the international organization — the harshest and most public sanction toward a member country in decades. Even with Cambodia as the organization’s chair this year, a country known for fraudulent elections and with an authoritarian leader, ASEAN has remained firm on its position.

Following the regional foreign ministers’ meeting, ASEAN requested Myanmar facilitate a visit from the bloc’s special envoy to the country, hoping he could “engage with all parties concerned.” Some members of the bloc have gone further, insisting that talks begin with the National Unity Government, a group made up of members of the former elected government and junta opponents that claims legitimate leadership of the country.

Myanmar has rejected the calls from its neighbors, branding the NUG a terrorist group — eroding prospects of a peaceful diplomatic solution and ensuring the country’s further exclusion from regional meetings.

The bloc’s approach has been “swifter and firmer” than expected, said Aaron Connelly, a senior fellow for Southeast Asian politics at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore. He noted that Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s commander in chief who drove the coup, desired the “pageantry” of occasions like formal state visits, craving the treatment offered to a head of state rather than just a military commander.

“Min Aung Hlaing uses international recognition as a way to tell his people to stop resisting the coup,” Connell said. “If he’s not able to do that, and if it is known in Myanmar that he’s not welcome in these forums, it affects how people in the country see the viability of their fight against dictatorship.”

The coup has also exposed Myanmar’s military at the International Court of Justice, where the junta is defending itself against allegations of genocide. The case, brought by the Gambia, alleges that Myanmar violated the genocide convention in committing atrocities against Rohingya Muslims, more than a million of whom remain in squalid camps in Bangladesh after they were driven from their homes in a scorched earth operation back in 2017. Hearings restarted last week after a long hiatus, and Myanmar put forth its preliminary objections against the case.

Suu Kyi represented Myanmar in the initial hearings in 2019 before the coup, stunning her Western allies by standing with the military and offering a stoic defense of the charges.

With Suu Kyi incommunicado, Myanmar is represented instead by senior junta ministers including the minister of foreign affairs and the minister of international cooperation. They appeared at The Hague, defending their country using the same arguments that Suu Kyi had put forth in 2019: that the Gambia has no authority to bring the case and that the government is working to repatriate the Rohingya. After the hearings end on Monday, the ICJ judges have to decide if the court will take up the case — a process that could take months.

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Lawyers for the Gambia argued this week that “now, even more than before, justice within Myanmar is impossible,” using the coup to argue that there cannot and will not be any resolution or accountability for the Rohingya inside the country. The risks that the Rohingya face, the lawyers added, have only intensified since the coup with armed conflicts raging all over the country.

The hearings — only the third genocide case the court has ever heard — show the military “that they will get hauled into court to respond to their actions,” said Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Center.

“This is a military that has for decades committed crimes, and has intensified their crimes, toward the population at large,” she said. She and others believe the case is very likely to go ahead, particularly without the civilian government led by Suu Kyi to protect and shelter the military, though a resolution could take years.

Cape Diamond contributed to this report.