Nearly 300 days have passed since the outbreak of the February coup in Myanmar. Since then, more than 1,250 citizens have been killed and 10,100 arrested while fighting in resistance against the military, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). In response, the international community including the United Nations Security Council, has publicly denounced the military’s brutality, calling for an “immediate cessation of violence.” South Korea has also taken its own initiatives to deliver large sums of humanitarian assistance to Myanmar. Despite such developments, South Korea is still in need of a coherent strategy that overarches both the public and private sectors to deliver not just assistance, but aid that counts.
Since the coup, South Korea has taken various measures to condemn the Myanmar military and support innocent civilians. Beginning with President Moon Jae-in’s statement in March, South Korea called for Myanmar’s “swift return to democracy” in its joint statement with the United States in May. In addition to governmental statements, South Korea halted its defense exchanges with Myanmar while continuing development and humanitarian assistance projects that are linked to the livelihood of citizens. Latest developments followed suit in highlighting humanitarian concerns as Seoul offered Covid-19 diagnostic kits and face masks and the delivery of assistance worth 3 million USD to help counter the rise of Covid-19 cases in Myanmar.
There is no doubt of the importance of Myanmar’s financial stability in sustaining its citizens and the democratic movement. Naypyidaw has taken an especially heavy economic toll in 2021 as a result of the coup and the pandemic. In fact, a report by the UN Development Programme suggested that Myanmar was on the verge of “a collapse,” with 25 million people expected to live below the national poverty line by 2022. The World Bank also forecasted an 18 percent decline in Myanmar’s economy for the current fiscal year. South Korea’s humanitarian aid has hence largely targeted alleviating Myanmar’s heightened financial, health and food security risks.
With respect to business and commerce, however, there is an ongoing debate surrounding South Korea’s continued involvement in development projects based in Myanmar. On the one hand, NGO groups continue to exert pressure on South Korean companies to sever ties with the Myanmar military. Yet some experts contend that these demands are naïve since both South Korean businesses and the Myanmar military are mutually interdependent. For instance, the Shwe Natural Gas Project—for which Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) contributes as a shareholder—accounts for around 80 percent of POSCO International’s revenue . And while POSCO’s affiliate—POSCO Coated & Color Steel Co Ltd (POSCO C&C)—has announced its termination of the joint venture with Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), it does not plan on withdrawing from the project. Instead, it plans to continue the venture but do so singlehandedly after purchasing MEHL’s stake. The unwillingness of South Korean companies to pull out completely from existing development projects portrays the high stakes invested in Myanmar by South Korea.
However, pursuing a decoupled measure between the public and private sectors in dealing with Myanmar signals a lack of top-down coordination by the South Korean government. For example, one of the main drawbacks that South Korea faced was when the Korea Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar (KoCham) allegedly participated in an in-person business meeting hosted by the Myanmar military, which was unattended by representatives from other democratic-leaning countries including the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom. According to the same article, those that attended were seen to have “more explicit government connections” with the Myanmar military, and it was considered “a particular source of embarrassment” that South Korea’s KoCham had partaken in the event.
In considering how to formulate a coherent strategy towards Myanmar, Seoul needs to be reminded of its key advantages and capabilities. South Korea is, in fact, the only country in Asia to date—in addition to the U.S., the U.K, France, Czech Republic and Australia—that houses a representative office for the pro-democracy National Unity Government (NUG). To explain why the civilian government selected South Korea as its Asian base, NUG representative Yan Naing Tun presented a clear-cut rationale: the shared experience that South Korea has with Myanmar extending back to its own democratization movements pertaining to the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. The South Korean government, too, has been making such explicit connection between the Gwangju movement and “Myanmar’s spring,” voicing hope for successful democratization in Myanmar.
As such, there is a heart-to-heart connection that lies at the foundation of the bilateral relations which provides greater value to South Korea’s assistance towards Myanmar. At the civil society level, South Korean citizens have relentlessly continued domestic protests in support of Myanmar’s democratization. For example, regular Sunday protests calling for a “Myanmar Spring Revolution” were held for the 37th time on November 14 after being launched in February. South Koreans also took the initiative to translate and publish a book of poetry by Myanmar poet Khet Thi and other revolutionists after Myanmar’s democratic movement gained heightened public traction.
Overall, South Korea has an opportunity to play a more influential role in furthering democratization in Myanmar by serving as a regional basis for coordinated efforts. In particular, it could help facilitate coalesced measures against the Myanmar military with the U.S. and other allies in enforcing sanctions and delivering necessary humanitarian aid. However, in order to build an effective coalition strong enough to pressure the Myanmar military, South Korea needs to maintain a coherent strategy—which extends to its private sector. Therefore, while it may be difficult to withdraw from major projects from Myanmar, public and private enterprises should refrain from tacitly supporting the military vis-à-vis informal meetings that have not been coordinated in advance.
As South Korea sees “yesterday’s Gwangju in today’s Myanmar,” government-led efforts to assist Myanmar’s democratic movement should follow a coherent strategy for increased impact—and for aid that counts.
Sea Young (Sarah) Kim is a Contributing Author at the Korea Economic Institute and visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Washington for the East-West Center-Korea Foundation U.S.-ROK Cooperation in Southeast Asia program. The views expressed here are her own.
Photo from Brian Kelley’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.