Myanmar’s isolation and functional failure following a military coup and the worsening impact of the COVID-19 pandemic have prompted comparisons with a humanitarian crisis not unlike Syria during the 2021 Myanmar Update at The Australian National University (ANU) last week.
The three-day event, hosted by the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, has been held every two years since 1999, and was extremely timely given the widespread reports of civil unrest as the pandemic worsens daily.
Former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, Professor Yanghee Lee gave the keynote address, while a number of ANU academics presented papers each day.
The newly-appointed Dean of the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, Professor Helen Sullivan, highlighted the importance of the ANU Myanmar Research Centre in bringing academics, policy makers and students together during the seriousness of the current situation in Myanmar.
“In recent weeks, deaths and injuries from armed violence have been accompanied by a growing death toll from the highly contagious COVID-19 Delta variant that is spreading throughout the country, with precious few public health measures to address it,” Professor Sullivan said.
“Many of the people involved in the resistance to military dictatorship are ANU alumni, or partners in Myanmar with whom our academics and students worked productively and enthusiastically in the 2010s, both in research and education.
“Some of them are now in hiding, some have arrest warrants pending against them, and others have fled from their houses and neighbourhoods out of fear for their lives.”
Professor Sullivan expressed solidarity with all those suffering as the country struggles to restore democracy and provide adequate medical supplies following more than 5000 new positive cases of COVID-19 and in excess of 200 deaths each day during July.
PhD candidate from the Crawford School of Public Policy Nicola Williams has been integral in the research of issues facing Myanmar, including the ongoing conflict, coups and federalism.
She said the many realms of contest across Myanmar go to the heart of decades of armed struggles.
“Prior to the coup, Myanmar’s subnational conflicts, which have lasted for up to 70 years, affected more than one-third of the country. With the rising urban armed violence and guerrilla warfare by people’s defence forces, including down the centre of the country, conflict affected areas is much broader,” Williams said.
While public policy and media discourses have spoken of state failure and collapse scenarios in the aftermath of the latest coup in February, she said the country may evade full state collapse, a rare event internationally.
However, some state institutions were collapsing under pressure internally and externally, including pressure by the civil disobedience movement which has taken hold across public and private sectors since the February coup.
“Myanmar could be characterised as having state functional failure while evading full state collapse on different occasions. Some of its institutions have collapsed, but not the state entirely,” she said.
“The legitimacy deficit in the wake of the coup is exacerbating functional state failure with resistance from within and outside of State institutions.”
Another PhD candidate Hunter Marston, from the Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs, presented with Dr Andrea Passeri, a senior lecturer from the Department of International and Strategic Studies at the University of Malaya.
Marston said their research centred on the history of Myanmar’s non-aligned foreign policy since independence in 1948 to the recent military coup in February 2021. This included analysis of the Union Solidarity and Development Party’s reign from 2011-2016 and the National League for Democracy from 2016-2021.
Marston and Passeri highlighted that the military junta now controlling the country is only furthering its isolation.
“The post-coup military junta has deepened Myanmar’s isolation while pursuing the same negative neutralism to preserve the country’s independence, even as it has sought to play multiple external powers off one another for regime security,” Marston said.