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Myanmar generals were under sanctions. They launched a coup anyway

Hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protesters continued to take to the streets across Myanmar despite the military crackdown. Earlier this week, the Biden administration approved sanctions against the country’s top ranking military generals. Francis Wade, journalist and author of “Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’” joins for more.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For perspective on the coup and the protest movement in Myanmar, I spoke with journalist Francis Wade who joined us from London.

    He is the author of "Myanmar's Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim 'Other.'" I started by asking him about the U.S. threat of sanctions on leaders of the military coup.

    The Biden administration has said they are going to take a stance against what's happening in Myanmar, that we are going to be sanctioning generals. Does that matter?

  • Francis Wade:

    I'm slightly pessimistic about the fact that sanctions are going to have.

    Let's remember the senior general Min Aung Hlaing, who's the of the army and who essentially engineered the coup, is being under U.S. sanctions since late 2019 in response to the cleansing of the Rohingya minority. And, you know, if sanctions are supposed to be a tool to rein in the excesses of any individual or institution, then the coup shows that, of course, they haven't been effective. The military is still pursuing its intention to control the country using whatever means possible. It's been ruthless in his execution of the coup.

    And my fear is now that it's going to start cracking down on protesters. It doesn't seem to be too concerned about international pressure, whether that comes in the form of diplomatic pressure or financial sanctions.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What is the role that China plays in this? Is this something where the Biden administration said that one of the first things that they discussed in the phone call to the Chinese leader was the situation in Myanmar. If the Chinese condemned it, would it make a difference? Do the Chinese care?

  • Francis Wade:

    The Chinese are only interested in stability and they have huge economic investments in Myanmar. All they want is for those investments to remain stable. And whether that's done under a civilian democratic government, whether that's done under a military government, I don't think it particularly matters to them.

    And so, you know, they may issue vocal or soft vocal condemnation of what's happened and they may implore stability in Myanmar. But all that really means is let's try and calm the situation and ensure its interests are secure and for Myanmar to continue to rule under whatever form of government secures those interests.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So what happens to Aung San Suu Kyi in this? In a way, it seemed that the West projected everything that we wish that she would be a few years ago when she got out of house arrest, didn't turn out that way. Where is she? I mean, it's she and her party were the ones that won the landslide victory in the recent election. But at this point, she's detained in an unknown location?

  • Francis Wade:

    That's right. Well, I think she's now in her house in Naypyidaw, but that's not confirmed. I mean, her broader place in this is that she did win, her party did win a landslide victory in November, it took, I think, 397 of 496 seats. The military party only won 33.

    The military has been humiliated by the results and the protesters have united in their calls for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi for the military to cede power to the civilian government. And there is, I think, hope that, you know, doing so will kick start the process of democratization, the military coup, has stalled. And I think we need to really interrogate the quality of the democratization process that was ongoing under Suu Kyi.

    And, you know, the military was in power, even though it held only 25 percent of parliamentary seats as part of this very delicate power sharing agreement. And it was essentially empowered, it controlled key institutions. Suu Kyi was sidelined. She had some influence over foreign relations, over economic investment in the country. She stood as this very sort of influential figure, but she was sidelined. And what power she did have, she essentially centralized and didn't really allow other leaders or political figures to rise.

    So I think there are two issues here, the quality of the democratization process that was underway and end point and the quality of Suu Kyi as the democratic leader. And I think both are very much in question at the moment.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But what are you concerned about in the coming weeks? I mean, because in a way, even trying to shut down the Internet has not slowed the amount of demonstrators that have taken to the streets.

  • Francis Wade:

    No, I mean, the protests have spread from Yangon, from Naypyidaw, the capital, out to far flung regions in the northeast and the north near the China border. And they've brought in communities of all stripes, ethnic, religious, political orientations. And it's been a very spirited, I suppose, display of pure democracy, seeing these protests.

    The fear now is that the military knows no other way of bargaining apart from violence. And that's been proven time and again over the decades and what it will seek to do, I suppose, is to condition Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy into returning to Parliament in a year's time once the state of emergency is over, a more timid, less assertive political force. And she's not going to capitulate to that, at least that I don't think so. And the protesters aren't going to stand down unless forced to. And so I think there's a huge risk.

    Now, with the protests only growing, the military is going to step up its threats of violence and ultimately its use of violence.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, Francis Wade, author of the book "Myanmar's Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim 'Other'." Thanks so much for joining us.

  • Francis Wade:

    Thank you, Hari

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