21 Dec 2021 — I feel that the US is set on a collision course with China and Russia. And it is unwise, unnecessary, extremely dangerous. But certainly, this is not an escalating tension engineered by President Biden.
Both China and Russia share the burden of responsibility in this escalation of tension, each separately acting out of their own legitimate concerns and calculations.
The deployment of over 100,000 Russian troops near Russia/Ukraine borders and China increasingly daring incursions closer to Taiwan seem to be timed on purpose, joint pressure on US, testing American readiness and willingness to confront two tactical allies in far off theaters.
Biden should retain serenity, be cold-headed, prudent but firm. It is a situation Biden should handle very intelligently by understanding better both China and Russia’s concerns and objectives, and their objectives are not necessarily to harm US legitimate interests.
For Russia, its primary concern is NATO’s encroachment on what Moscow perceives to be areas of vital security interest, Ukraine.
It is not an exaggeration to compare Moscow’s paranoia about Ukraine membership in NATO with Washington’s indignation at Soviet-era placing of offensive nuclear-capable missiles on Cuban soil in the ’60s.
Rather than both sides opting for dangerous tit for tat escalation of troop movement, a wiser move would be for the two rival permanent members of UN Security Council to look into another option, a neutrality treaty for Ukraine supported by Moscow and Washington which would preclude the former USSR satellite from joining any military treaty arrangement.
Under President Biden the US seems to be perfecting Donald Trump’s anti-China rhetoric about protecting freedoms in Hong Kong and Taiwan, punishing China for its obvious huge economic and technological advantages like 5G and Artificial Intelligence for which Beijing invested heavily over the past 30 years.
Who would have imagined that an inefficient agrarian economy that caused catastrophic famines in the sixties would overtake or at least outperform all G7 economies except for the US?
My first trip to China was in early 1976, the much-admired Premier Zhou Enlay had died on 8th January, Mao Zedong followed in September the same year. I was 26 years old.
I was lodged in Beijing Hotel, the only five-star in the country. It was ice cold outside but I would go to the balcony to look down to the wide street below where Chinese made black sedans would speed away ferrying officials. There were also tens of thousands of pedestrians and cyclists in drab black and grey uniforms.
The US is obviously rehearsing the old “China containment” strategy dusted off from the archives of the ’60s, an obvious huge fiasco.
As a superpower the US enjoys geostrategic advantages, being in the middle of two great oceans, the Pacific and Atlantic, with unimpeded projection towards either direction far beyond its shores.
To the South and North, it has two compliant neighbors, Mexico and Canada. Earlier American politicians were incredibly farsighted when they purchased Alaska from the Russian Czar and unceremoniously annexed Hawaii.
China is far more constrained by unfavorable geography and an unfriendly neighborhood. Even its few friends in the region are minor players, unstable and untrustworthy. Understandably Beijing seeks an extended maritime area well beyond the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a provision in the 1982 UN Convention of the Law of the Sea.
However, China’s claims go five times beyond where the outer limits of its claims overlap with those of other claimant States. Adding insult to injury its “renegade province” Taiwan audaciously declares its own EEZ which overlaps with PRC claims.
To make matters worse the US enlisted the U.K. and Australia in a new treaty meant to deter Chinese “aggression” and further exacerbates big power tensions in the region.
As the Myanmar army continues on a rampage of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the world’s only collective security treaty organization, the UN Security Council, is shamelessly paralyzed | Image from Wall Street International.
It is in this context of big power games for a balance of power and supremacy that the tragedy of Myanmar unfolds and exposes the consequential weakening of the only world security mechanism, the UN Security Council.
As the Myanmar army continues on a rampage of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the world’s only collective security treaty organization is shamelessly paralyzed.
The years ahead promise to be rough for democracy across the globe. The big powers of different political systems and values should make every effort to focus on resolving the Myanmar quagmire and thus help preserve the credibility of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a very important regional organization with a combined population of almost 700 million people and a GDP of $3 trillion.
The Tatmadaw is a combination of the notorious triads of China and the Yamaguchi-Gumi of Japan amplified many times over. It is this vast organized crime that is determined to subvert democracy and imprison Daw Aung Suu Kyi indefinitely.
Generations of Myanmar military, scumbags who shamelessly enrich themselves by siphoning off billions of dollars and stash them away in China, Singapore and Thailand, carry out illegal logging and precious stones extraction, and claim have immense stakes in any business of significance in the country, are now accusing the revered popular leader of corruption.
Myanmar’s NLD (National League for Democracy) party has been a thorn in the side of the country’s military junta since the party’s founding in 1988. When NLD won 81% of the seats in Parliament in 1990, the junta quickly nullified the results and placed NLD’s founder, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest, where she would spend 15 of the next 21 years.
When released in 2015, her party again swept the elections. This time she was appointed to a post that is akin to being de facto Prime Minister. However, neither she nor the elected President had any authority over the military.
In November 2020 just a few days after the US election which ended Donald Trump’s tumultuous one term in the White House, the people of Myanmar gave Aung San Suu Kyi an even bigger landslide clean victory than in 2015.
On December 6, a court in Myanmar found Aung San Suu Kyi guilty of “incitement” and breaching coronavirus restrictions and sentenced her to four years in prison | Image from Wall Street International.
In February of this year, the junta leaders – the Tatmadaw – decided they had had enough of this experiment with democracy. The day before the Parliament was scheduled to swear in its new members, they declared the State of Emergency, nullified the election, and deposed the newly elected and re-elected officials.
Aung San Suu Kyi was taken back into custody, this time for “illegally importing and using radio and communication devices,” including the walkie-talkies used by her security team. (For those who missed it, this is the military coup that former Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn said in May “should happen” in the US).
On December 6, a court in Myanmar found Aung San Suu Kyi guilty of “incitement” and breaching coronavirus restrictions. It sentenced her to four years in prison.
The Tatmadaw can also be found behind the eruption of violence in 2016 by members of Myanmar’s Buddhist communities against the Rohingya, the Muslim minority that had lived in relative peace in Myanmar since the 15th century.
The violence, which began with clashes in the streets, culminated in a military crackdown against the Rohingya in 2017; troops backed by Buddhist mobs, burned villages, killing at least 7,000 Rohingya, and causing more than 600,000 to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.
The agitation of the violence was fueled on Facebook, led by members of the Department of Defense disguising themselves as fans of celebrities and using other fake identities.
The secretive operation, with over 700 staff operating in shifts near the capital, posted false and doctored photos claiming to be Rohingya atrocities and false stories of sexual abuse by the Rohingya.
They harassed and overwhelmed critics online and issued calls to violence, claiming that Islam was a global threat to Buddhism and Myanmar. In a nation with 20 million Facebook accounts, it was the perfect brewing pot.
While Facebook claims to have removed dozens of accounts and pages engineered by the Tatmadaw, there are credible reports of the activity continuing as recently as last month:
A Reuters review of thousands of social media posts in 2021 found that about 200 military personnel, using their personal accounts on platforms including Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and Telegram, regularly posted messages or videos alleging fraud at the election and denouncing anti-coup protesters as traitors.
In over 100 cases, the messages or videos were duplicated across dozens of copycat accounts within minutes, as well as on online groups, purported fan channels for Myanmar celebrities and sports teams and purported news outlets, data from Facebook-owned online tracking tool Crowdtangle showed.
Posts often referred to people who opposed the junta as “enemies of the state” and ‘terrorists’, and variously said they wanted to destroy the army, the country and the Buddhist religion.
And why wouldn’t they? The same tactic has been used widely and effectively by forces inside and outside the US to influence the 2016 election, to claim fraud on the 2020 election, and to incite civil conflict in the US, with little consequence and virtually no accountability.
The Myanmar citizenry, however, has had a taste of democracy and will not let it go easily. The peaceful protests in response to the military coup in February were met with the murder of more than 1000 protesters and arrests of more than 6000.
In the last seven months, more than a quarter of a million citizens have been driven from their homes. Sadly, this appears destined to lead to civil conflict, with more deaths and arrests. With little to no support from outside, the democracy activists have nowhere else to go.
The Biden Administration could push for comprehensive sanctions by the UN Security Council on the country’s oil and gas sector, the main source of funding for the military, and insisting on a global ban on arms sales to Myanmar.
However, chances of this happening are slim at best in view of the very deteriorated relationship between the major powers, particularly the US and China.
It is not obligatory that countries rely upon the UN to mediate every regional or local crisis. In fact, most local or regional tensions and conflicts have been resolved by local actors at the community level or by a regional organization or a trusted small faraway country like Norway.
The Myanmar crisis offers ASEAN, China, India and the US an opportunity to work together, identify areas of common interest, namely alleviate human suffering, prevent genocide and war crimes, free prisoners, end killings and arbitrary arrests.
This should be the first step. Myanmar would be rewarded with the limited lifting of sanctions for every positive small or major step taken by Tatmadaw.
A second step would be to work towards achieving the retreat of the military from the streets back to the barracks, and handover political authority to a caretaker civilian government comprising a majority from the party that won the 2020 elections and which would include a number of elements from the party supported by the military. If the military agrees to this, additional lifting of sanctions would occur.
New elections administered and supervised by ASEAN, the EU, and the UN would take place in November 2022 exactly two years after the last election won by the New League for Democracy.
The military would be assured of non-retribution of any sort. Myanmar military leaders would clearly see that it would be in their own interests to agree to a gradual retreat back to barracks following the script of the democratic transition in Indonesia, which included reform of the all too powerful and politicized TNI, the Armed Forces of Indonesia.
This is the best possible example to be emulated by the Myanmar army if it wishes to prevent a complete collapse of the country into a failed State and end their days in a morgue or age away in prison.
If the Tatmadaw fails to seize the olive branch seriously and incrementally disengage from meddling in politics and unblock the road back to democracy, the most comprehensive sanctions ever should be enforced against the Myanmar military, families, cronies.
Pro-regime diplomats should be given 24 hrs to leave their posts wherever they may be, and the international community would fully recognize the interim government led by the NLD, welcome its diplomatic envoys.
Every single dollar possessed by the military, military-owned companies and those of their cronies should be confiscated and managed jointly by a UN Trust Fund and high officials of the Myanmar interim government.
Similar to the British navy blockade of the then minority Government of Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) in the ’60s and boarding every vessel entering the Beira port of Mozambique, the main route for goods to reach Zimbabwe, the US and other navies should jointly enforce a blockade of Myanmar.
In addition, the International Criminal Court should initiate an investigation and charge the military and their civilian cohorts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Interpol would issue arrest warrants.
As the UN Security Council is again showing itself to be an empty shell, members forfeit their right to claim entitlement as Permanent Members. After all, which major regional conflict have they resolved? None. Myanmar was their golden opportunity.
As much as Myanmar is a significant regional entity, it is not comparable in geopolitical terms to the far more complex cases of North Korea and Ukraine.
But if not resolved soon Myanmar crisis could undermine and seriously erode ASEAN reputation as an effective regional organization. China, India and the US surely want a united, stabilizing and moderate regional bloc.
ASEAN leaders should explore with China, India and the US the chances of such a joint strategy as sketched above. By working together on a conflict that does not directly affect the three powers’ strategic interests, ongoing high tensions between China and US could cool down, and pave the way for additional small building blocks of cooperation and partnership.
It is not farfetched to imagine China and US (and possibly India) actively engaged in joint initiatives on regional and global health, on combating malaria, dengue, TB, poverty, child malnutrition, on providing clean water, sanitation, rural roads, renewable energy and education for all in poor urban and rural communities across the world.
This is what global leadership is all about, being pragmatic, displaying wise and compassionate leadership, doing our duty to fellow human beings, closing the centuries-old gap between the extremely rich and the poor, create prosperity for all and plant the seeds of lasting peace, a better world.
José Ramos-Horta was the President of East Timor from 2007 to 2012. Previously he was Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2002 to 2006 and Prime Minister 2006/2007. He is a co-recipient of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize.