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Time for talks

Ebbighausen Rodion Kommentarbild App
Rodion Ebbighausen
March 10, 2021

Myanmar's protesters are not backing down despite the military's brutal suppression tactics. Only talks will deescalate the conflict, DW's Rodion Ebbighausen writes.

Protesters in Myanmar
People have taken to Myanmar's streets for over a month since the military coupImage: REUTERS

Myanmar is on the brink of collapse. Ever since the military coup of February 1, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets daily in protest. Myanmar's Civil Disobedience Movement has brought public life to a near standstill. The opposition Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw — an underground parliamentary group opposing the junta — calls the declared military government a terrorist organization.

The military, in turn, is determined to break the protesters' resolve. So far, the military has killed 55 demonstrators. Authorities have blocked internet access at night and ordered the abduction of civilians from their homes.

Ebbighausen, Rodion
DW's Rodion EbbighausenImage: DW

Protesters were outraged when Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi announced that she would travel to Myanmar to meet the military leadership in late February. In protesters' view, the high-level visit would imbue the junta with legitimacy. Thousands of angry demonstrators thus gathered outside Indonesia's Yangon embassy. Eventually, the ambassador canceled her trip.

Politics in Myanmar have long been a zero-sum game. In November, members of the military alleged that the general election had been rigged. As little suggested that the election had been manipulated, civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi refused an investigation into the vote, and Myanmar‘s military launched a coup

Power of force

The military will remain the most powerful institution in Myanmar for the foreseeable future. Loud protest will not scare it away. If most demonstrators continue rejecting direct talks with the generals, tensions will escalate further. Ultimately, the military will deploy brute force to crush all opposition.

Protesters say they will only consider compromises once Myanmar becomes a full-fledged democracy. But they will have more success building democracy by coming to the negotiating table first. This does not mean abandoning protests. But it does mean simultaneously signaling an openness to talks. This may help win over more security officers, too. So far, some 600 police officers have defected.

Civilians say talks would be futile given the precedent. The military certainly is brutal, corrupt and incompetent when it comes to governing the country. Still, it has often honored its plans and announcements, for instance when it cynically insisted on holding the 2008 elections although Cyclone Nargis had just devastated the country, killing at least 140,000 people.  

Protesters must come to understand that talks are the only way forward. "The answer to the current crisis can only be at the negotiations table," Kyaw Zwar Minn, Myanmar‘s ambassador to the United Kingdom, wrote in a statement in which he expressed solidarity with the civilian government. Unfortunately, his call for compromise did not receive as much attention as his demand that the military free Myanmar's elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

This commentary has been translated from German.