Myanmar suffered rough relations with foreign nations for centuries.

British colonialists conquered the country in 1824, causing traumas
that continued into the 20th century.


© Copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Myanmar's coup leader may be lucky his Southeast Asian country is wedged among authoritarian regimes which are interested in making money by accessing its natural resources and strategic geography, instead of condemning the destruction of its fledgling democracy.

Nearby key investors, including China and Thailand, muted their responses to the coup in Myanmar, a France-sized nation also known as Burma.

But the U.S., Europe, Australia and several other more distant lands denounced Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung's bloodless coup at dawn on February 1.

"We call upon the military to immediately end the State of Emergency, restore power to the democratically-elected government, to release all those unjustly detained, and to respect human rights and the rule of law," the Group of Seven major economic powers said after the coup.

The G7 comprises the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the U.K.

In contrast, China did not support a UN Security Council's effort on February 2 to produce a joint statement condemning the putsch.

Beijing is one of five permanent members of the council and wields veto power.

If Western nations do curb diplomatic, financial or military links with Myanmar, then China may seek to fill the resulting vacuum, analysts warn.

Publicly, Beijing insists sanctions and other international intervention would wreck Myanmar and impoverish its people even more than the military's harsh rule.

For decades, Beijing has barged deeper south across their border, tapping Myanmar's abundant natural resources, establishing Chinese-populated towns, and gaining access through its southern coast to the Bay of Bengal, Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean.

When Western nations clamped crippling economic sanctions on Myanmar during the 1990s, hoping to push it toward democracy, China offered military deals, infrastructure, and investment.

China's reach into Myanmar was so deep, it began to rattle the military regime during those years.

"We knew we had to diversify our relationships, open up, and that meant releasing Aung San Suu Kyi," Myanmar's then-President Thein Sein told Japan-based Nikkei Asia in 2012.

Myanmar's generals created a unique position for Ms. Suu Kyi as de facto civilian leader, sharing some powers with the military.

They expected her freedom from 15 years of house arrest would convince Western nations to do business with the country, analysts said.

But the military recently began to worry she was cozying up to Beijing too closely.

"Nothing better illustrated the dissatisfaction than his [Thein Sein's] abrupt suspension of China's $1.4 billion Myitsone dam project in northern Kachin state, which remains on hold," Nikkei reported.

In Beijing's latest move to woo both sides, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min and Ms. Suu Kyi on January 12 during his Southeast Asian tour.

After the coup, Beijing may be disappointed with having to deal solely with Myanmar's reluctant military, analysts said.

"We hope that all sides in Myanmar can appropriately resolve their differences, and uphold political and social stability,” China's Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin said.

In Buddhist-majority Thailand meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said hours after the coup, "It’s their own business, it’s their internal affair."

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha even warned journalists how to report the coup.

"I want news reports to be presented carefully, to avoid any impacts on the economic benefits," Mr. Prayuth said February 2.

"I don't want any conflict to escalate, particularly in Thailand," where some Bangkok street protests urged democracy be restored in Myanmar.

Mr. Prayuth seized power in a bloodless military coup in 2014, and maintains tight control even after winning a 2019 election.

Further east, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman echoed that indifference to Myanmar's coup and said, "This is an internal matter."

Those countries belong to a diplomatic group widely perceived as rhetorical and moribund, known as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

It also includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, and Vietnam.

ASEAN's foundation is "non-interference" in members' domestic affairs.

Most of their governments meander between allowing some democratic freedoms while committing human rights abuses.

"Political stability in ASEAN member states is essential to achieving a peaceful, stable and prosperous ASEAN community," the group said in response to the coup.

"We encourage the pursuance of dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar."

Malaysia and Indonesia -- both with Muslim majorities -- expressed the strongest support within ASEAN for a return to democracy in Myanmar.

On Myanmar's western frontier, Muslim-majority Bangladesh also called for peace and stability.

More than 750,000 minority ethnic Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar in 2017 after Myanmar's Buddhist-majority military unleashed what UN investigators described as "genocide" against them.

Today, they languish in wretched refugee camps in Bangladesh unable or unwilling to return home.

Beyond Myanmar's western border meanwhile, India is locked in hostile relations with China, and competes in Myanmar for investments and influence.

"We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld," India's foreign ministry said in response to the coup.

While governments decide what to do next, international corporations are already reacting to Myanmar's downturn.

"Is Your Business Funding Myanmar Military Abuses?" New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) titled a report on February 3.

"The human rights, reputational, and legal risks of continuing to do business with Myanmar’s military are immense," wrote Aruna Kashyap, a HRW senior counsel.

The military "has been accused of genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya Muslims, and war crimes against other ethnic minorities. And now it has overthrown a civilian government that won a massive re-election, with over 80 percent of the vote, in November 2020," Ms. Kashyap said.

In Thailand, Amata temporarily halted its $1 billion industrial estate development work in Myanmar amid concerns that international sanctions could make the project taboo for international investors.

"We and our clients are concerned about a possible trade boycott by Western countries," Amata's Chief Marketing Officer Viboon Kromadit said on February 2.

Suzuki Motor stopped its two car-making factories in Myanmar until the post-coup situation stabilizes.

Myanmar has had rough relations with foreign nations for centuries.

British colonialists conquered the country in 1824, causing traumas that continued into the 20th century.

Japan's invasion during World War II gave way independence in 1948, which led to a doomed Chinese-backed Communist insurgency.

That scattered fighting morphed into decades of guerrilla wars which are still being fought by minority ethnic groups for autonomy or independence.

Ms. Suu Kyi was cursed by the military for much of her political career as an "axe handle" for British and other foreign governments who wanted to exploit the country.

She was barred from becoming president because she married a British citizen.

Ms. Suu Kyi was warned if she went to visit him in England or attend his funeral, she would not be allowed to return to Myanmar.




Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his new nonfiction book, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" are available at