The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, visited Myanmar in mid-January and praised the military there for its work in the ‘national revitalisation’ of the country. One expert on regional politics and Chinese expansionism, Sebastian Strangio, also suggests that the military in Myanmar were emboldened by recent events in the western world including the US General Election debacle.

An Australian economics lecturer with Macquarie University in New South Wales has become the first foreigner in Myanmar to be detained by an increasingly oppressive military as opposition to Monday’s coup mounts worldwide. Foreign policy experts see the event as a challenge for new US President Joe Biden and have noted the close ties between the Myanmar military and communist China.

Australian Sean Turnell, on Saturday, was reported safe in a statement to Reuters after he was arrested, this week, by the Myanmar military following Monday’s early morning coup. The Macquarie University economics expert has been a close advisor to Myanmar’s State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi.

On Saturday, as protests took place in Melbourne, Victoria against last Monday’s coup in Myanmar, it emerged that Australian, Sean Turnell, an economics expert at Macquarie University in Sydney New South Wales, has become the first foreigner to be arrested there by the Myanmar military.

It follows growing alarm over detentions in the country which is increasingly being cut off from the world by social media restrictions. 

Protests and online opposition to the coup grow

Earlier in the week, Facebook was blocked in the Southeast Asian country, Thailand’s neighbour to the west. On Friday, authorities cut off access to both Twitter and Instagram as protests and online opposition to the coup appeared to be growing in momentum.

Mr Turnell is known to be a key advisor to Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi who was detained on Monday morning at the onset of the coup and is believed to be being held at her own home by the military in Nay Pyi Taw, the country’s capital, not at her official residence according to a senior lawyer who works on her behalf.

Australian is safe according to Reuters

In a message delivered to Reuters on Saturday, the Australian man revealed that he had been arrested and was facing charges.

‘I guess you will soon hear of it, but I am being detained,’ he explained. ‘Being charged with something, but not sure what. I am fine and strong, and not guilty of anything.’

Test for US President Joe Biden and new Secretary of State Antony Blinken on how they react to the coup

The latest developments come as the coup in Myanmar is increasingly seen as a test of the leadership of the new US President Joe Biden and his recently installed Secretary of State, Antony Blinken.

Speaking during a high profile visit to the State Department in Washington DC on Thursday, President Biden made his attitude clear but did not go further. The new US administration will be judged here not on what it says but how it acts and this will be watched very carefully.

‘There can be no doubt in a democracy force should never seek to overrule the will of the people or attempt to erase the outcome of a credible election,’ President Biden declared. ‘The Burmese military should relinquish the power they have seized and release the advocates and activists and officials they have detained, lift the restrictions on telecommunications and refrain from violence.’

Sanctions on Myanmar previously turned it into a pariah state and emboldened a repressive military

However, the situation is more complicated than that. No sanctions have been imposed on Myanmar yet and many experts believe that the military, led by strongman General Min Aung Hlaing, will have factored the possibility of punitive trade restrictions in.

From 1962 up until the beginning of the democratic process in November 2010 with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country had become a pariah state and its military had developed a reputation for oppression and the use of brutal force against its people.

Concern that China was part of the military’s equation as it took its decision to let the tanks roll

There is also concern that China may be part of the equation as the military made its calculations before deciding on its move on Monday, ostensibly claiming fraud in the November 8th General Election which saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party sweep the board with 476 seats out of 664 in the country’s bicameral assembly.

The party backing the military only achieved 33 seats.

Less than 3 weeks before the tanks rolled in last Mondays’ early morning coup, on January 12th, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar. While he met Aung San Suu Kyi and other ministers, he also met armed forces leader Min Aung Hlaing and praised the military for its ‘national revitalisation’ of the country.

Expert author of a book detailing Chinese expansionism in Southeast Asia sees the situation in western countries also emboldening the generals

Author of the bestselling book, Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century, Sebastian Strangio assesses that the military and General Min Aung Hlaing had gauged their move carefully as the news from western countries over the past few months, have not exactly reinforced democratic principles.

‘Recent events in Southeast Asia have shown that with China’s growing power, and democratic backsliding in the West, the US and other Western countries no longer have the moral authority or economic and political means to set the normative agenda in the region,’ Mr Strangio asserted.

Protest and common cause between Bangkok and Yangon on the streets among student protesters

During the week, in Bangkok, there were fierce protests, at times, with riot police having to be deployed resulting in arrests as democracy activists in the kingdom showed solidarity with their counterparts in Myanmar.

On Friday, in Yangon, on the streets and at Dagon University, students and protesters flashed the three-fingered salute borrowed from their counterparts in Thailand.

One protester vented his frustration to the AFP News Agency. ‘As a citizen, I cannot accept this military coup at all,’ he said. ‘We have to resist this dictatorship.’

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit – the Myanmar coup is an ‘internal matter’ for the neighbouring country as Thai army chief says it is a political one

In Bangkok, on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan was the first senior minister in the Thai government to comment stating clearly that the coup in Myanmar was purely an ‘internal matter’ for that country.

On Thursday, the Thai Army Commander-in-chief, General Narongphan Jitkaewtae was also circumspect and highlighted that Thailand would be taking its cue from the ASEAN community which this week, mildly, called for dialogue, calm and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.

General Narongphan emphasised that what had occurred in Myanmar was a political incident and not a military matter saying he enjoyed good relations with his counterparts across the border on a professional basis.

When pressed again by reports about how he felt about the coup, he replied: ‘I have no feelings about that. And, like I said, this word has not crossed my mind for a long time.’

Prayut urges caution in press reporting of the coup

Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha was more concerned about how the events in Myanmar were reported by the media in Thailand pointing out the danger of a potentially negative impact on the kingdom’s trade.

‘I want news reports to be presented carefully to avoid any impacts on the economic benefits,’ he explained. ‘We are neighbouring countries. We also need to listen to ASEAN. I don’t want any conflict to escalate, particularly in Thailand.’

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Further reading:

Military coup in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi held with scores of leading political figures arrested by troops

Call from Washington hints at a bigger role in US foreign policy plans in the Asia Pacific region

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