Economic collapse in Myanmar spells wider regional trouble

Economic collapse in Myanmar spells wider regional trouble

Economic collapse in Myanmar spells wider regional trouble
Protesters march during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon. (AFP/File)
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After the February coup and months of subsequent protest in Myanmar, the World Bank is expecting an 18percent reduction in the country’s economic output, with as many as 1 million jobs lost — 5 percent of the total. With the outlook only growing worse, we may expect another large wave of migration, with severe consequences for the entire region.

With ongoing general strikes and even doctors refusing to work in protest at the military coup; with the more generalised breakdown in social order; with COVID-19 tearing through the country; and with increasing numbers of civilians arming themselves so as to be able to resist the military crackdown on pro-democracy protests, the economy is facing severe and protracted structural disruption.

Of all those factors, only COVID-19 appears to be transient in nature. Otherwise, Myanmar society simply does not consent to the political order that the military leaders are trying to impose on it, and it is not obvious what, if anything, may change that in the near future. This in turns means that the attention and the energies of the country will be directed toward this political confrontation, even as normal economic activity is rendered increasingly difficult by the unstable security environment.

To begin with, the areas of the economy that will be first affected are “nonessential,” just as we have seen during COVID lockdowns in the West. But it will not be long before food supplies are compromised by conflict between the military and pro-democracy militias in the countryside, and food accessibility will become an acute issue for those who will have lost their jobs in the collapsing economy.

That will in turn have two predictable outcomes: People will become violent trying to secure food, in an already violent social context, so societal breakdown will accelerate and make agricultural production even more precarious in the next harvests; and many, especially those who are not inclined to fight in the brewing civil war, will have no choice but to leave the country, though they will probably lack the means to make it any farther than neighboring Bangladesh, India, China or Thailand.

Both ASEAN and China may be able to come together to force some kind of resolution of the domestic political dispute in Myanmar, with Beijing in particular still holding the lever of nominal neutrality between the contesting parties.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim

Another wave of mass migration is likely to further destabilise South East Asia, especially in the context of the COVID pandemic, which should alarm policy-makers in the region. China would be the best able to absorb a refugee influx, but the human rights implications are likely to be frightful. The other countries in the region have less experience building detention camps, but they would be motivated to respond harshly at a time when they are already struggling to cope with the pandemic themselves — none more so than India.

It is therefore of paramount importance that this impending crisis is pre-empted, and all regional neighbours have an acute incentive to do so. In this, both ASEAN and China may be able to come together to force some kind of resolution of the domestic political dispute in Myanmar, with Beijing in particular still holding the lever of nominal neutrality between the contesting parties. Now would be the time for them to put their foot down and impose on the Myanmar military a compromise and an exit strategy that would re-install the democratic government in office.

This would be difficult, with the Myanmar military historically independent-minded and having recently secured the international backing of Russia. Nor does it help that Beijing is reluctant to be seen as getting actively involved in the domestic affairs of other states. But for Beijing, for Delhi, and for the ASEAN countries, this is crunch time: Will they drop pretences for just a moment to do what needs to be done, or will they hold back, hope for the best, and then be left cleaning up an unholy mess for decades to come?

• Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Director at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim​

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