Pro-democracy supporters take part in a protest in New Delhi on 22 February 2022, against the military rule in Myanmar. (Photo: Money Sharma / AFP)

The State of Southeast Asia Survey

The State of Southeast Asia Survey: An Outlet for Myanmar Aspirations

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In the 2022 State of Southeast Asia Survey, Myanmar respondents are markedly negative towards the State Administration Council. This has coloured their assessment of ASEAN's effectiveness in handing the country's ensuing political crisis.

The people in Myanmar are a frustrated lot when it comes to their views about the military coup that occurred on 1 February 2021. In the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s State of Southeast Asia Survey 2022, they have found an outlet to express their frustrations, albeit anonymously.

Since its launch in 2019, Myanmar responses to this annual survey have served as a barometer of how those in a position to influence policy in the country view the region and Myanmar’s place in it. 

About half of the survey’s respondents hailed from the research and civil society arena. Another 45.1 per cent identified as being from government — lower than the previous year (59 per cent). Apparently, the survey’s assured anonymity has emboldened government officials to voice views that may or may not agree with official positions. Anonymity also means it is impossible to tell if the respondents are all civil servants currently under the State Administration Council (SAC) ‘caretaker government’. 

Regardless, the country’s internal situation has clearly influenced Myanmar respondents’ view of what matters most for Southeast Asia and ASEAN. The number of Myanmar respondents to the 2022 survey was the second highest after the Philippines, at 20.9 per cent of the 1,677 responses (compared to previous years, the 2022 poll assigned a 10 per cent weight to responses from each of the 10 ASEAN states). This probably indicates their eagerness to make their views about the state of the country known, albeit indirectly.

Apart from Myanmar, respondents from the other nine ASEAN countries see the Covid-19 pandemic as the region’s main challenge. But about the same percentage of Myanmar respondents put domestic political stability and the pandemic as the more pressing challenges (58.0 per cent and 58.3 per cent, respectively). By far, Myanmar respondents’ overriding concern was over deteriorating human rights conditions, with the percentage increasing ten-fold, from 7.1 per cent in 2021 to 76.6 per cent in 2022. This is probably indicative of their resentment towards the SAC’s hardline approach to resistors of its rule.

Myanmar rankings on terrorism as a challenge showed another dramatic increase, from 9.6 per cent in 2021 to 35.1 per cent in 2022. Here, the Myanmar respondents may be applying their views contextually. It is important to note that both the SAC and the NUG have accused each other of being terrorists. The SAC has extended the definition of terrorism under the 2014 counter-terrorism law, applied initially to ethnic armed organisations, to the various People’s Defence Force (PDF) groups carrying out guerrilla-style attacks. The NUG, in declaring its ‘people’s defensive war’ against the SAC, refers to the Myanmar military as ‘..terrorists led by [Commander-in-Chief] Min Aung Hlaing’. 

Myanmar respondents show much dissatisfaction over the SAC’s performance in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. More than 90 per cent in the 2022 survey rated the SAC’s performance as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’. This may be due to the SAC’s politicisation of vaccination. For example, the SAC has ambushed medical workers assisting Covid-19 patients. The workers are part of the Civil Disobedience Movement.

Granted, the deposed National League for Democracy (NLD) government did not have a sterling response to the pandemic response. But it fared better than the SAC. In the 2021 survey, 43 per cent of Myanmar respondents approved of the NLD government’s pandemic response, with 32.1 per cent disapproving. The high social trust in the NLD government helped it contain a second Covid wave in 2020. 

Myanmar respondents’ views about the SAC also colour their assessments of which ASEAN Dialogue Partner can be trusted to ‘do the right thing’ to contribute to ‘global peace, security, prosperity, and governance’.

Myanmar attitudes towards ASEAN’s response also appear to be shifting, given the shift in focus from the Rakhine/ Rohingya problem to Myanmar’s political crisis. Myanmar respondents in 2019 and 2020 approved of ASEAN’s response to the Rakhine/ Rohingya crisis, preferring mediation among stakeholders. They held similar views to other Southeast Asian respondents on ASEAN, having done its best to achieve a constructive outcome within the constraints of non-interference, and ‘without jeopardising its relationship with the NLD government’. 

While important, the Rakhine/ Rohingya issue is not in the same category as Myanmar’s current political crisis. In the 2022 survey, Myanmar respondents’ attitudes to ASEAN’s management of the political crisis is markedly more negative than the ASEAN average. Myanmar respondents (78.8 per cent) are largely dissatisfied with ASEAN’s response to the current crisis in Myanmar. This is far higher than the 33.1 per cent disapproval rating for all ASEAN respondents. Compared to their ASEAN peers, more Myanmar respondents (39.9 per cent) want ASEAN to employ ‘harder methods’ such as targeted sanctions and suspension to ‘curtail the SAC’. This is higher than the ASEAN average of 26.4 per cent. The Myanmar sentiment reflects their frustration towards ASEAN’s management of the political crisis, and the SAC.

Myanmar respondents’ views about the SAC also colour their assessments of which ASEAN Dialogue Partner can be trusted to ‘do the right thing’ to contribute to ‘global peace, security, prosperity, and governance’. China’s large footprint in Myanmar, and China’s apparent tendency to accept and work with the SAC, has deepened resentment towards what respondents identify as China’s interference in the country’s domestic affairs, and heightened the level of distrust (88.8 per cent). Conversely, 74.6 per cent of Myanmar respondents are confident that the United States will ‘do the right thing’. The European Union (EU) and Japan also did fairly well in the rankings, at 58.5 per cent and 58 per cent respectively. The US’ stronger showing indicate Myanmar positive perceptions of Washington’s global leadership and military power, which has gained some traction under the Biden administration. Similarly, respondents appreciate the EU’s stance on human rights and Japan’s ‘responsible stakeholder’ position respecting international law. The reservoir of goodwill towards Japan still outweighs any disappointment over its ‘cautious diplomatic approach’ on Myanmar.  

The Myanmar responses to the 2022 survey reveal the deep-seated bias, if not resentment against the SAC. It also underscores Myanmars’ preference for values-based leadership centred on respect for human rights and international law. As voices speaking out from a place of enforced silence, they are all the more resonant.  

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Moe Thuzar is Fellow and Coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.