By Renuka Naj
Myanmar has oscillated wildly from being an American darling to an outcast. The country’s wobbly road to democratization has been repeatedly blocked by authoritarian rulers. The on-and-off again game played by military generals is being rejected by people who have savored greater freedom during periods of democratic process. As the civil strife grinds on, Myanmar’s Buddhist majority and most ethnic minorities remain united against the junta. This is quite remarkable given their historical animus. Most would welcome help from the West in crushing the repressive military regime that has the support of China and Russia. Washington must muster enthusiasm to bolster pro-democracy forces in Myanmar to sustain influence and leadership in Southeast Asia.
Since the coup in February 2021 that ousted the democratically elected government, the US has deprived the junta of funds and resources by imposing sanctions, but it has done little to rein in its excesses. The US has called for halting arms sales to the military, but it has done little to stop offensives against civilians, given China, Russia, and other nations continue to sell it arms. The US has opposed the thuggish military regime that has unleashed a deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protests, but it has done little to formally recognize the rival civilian government. The US has provided generous humanitarian aid, but it has done little to ensure the unimpeded access of life-sustaining supplies to all in need. This hesitancy has frustrated many who want Washington to be more forceful on democracy and human rights agenda.
Myanmar, which was one of the richest countries in Asia on the eve of de-colonization, is mired in a deadly conflict that has spread across multiple fronts, including places deep into villages as ordinary people rise up against the junta. Young, urban men and women tired of repression and poor job prospects are on the frontlines of the protests. Horrific human rights abuses have been recorded, some of which amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, warns the United Nations. One million of the 55 million people have been displaced internally, while at least 2,300 civilians have been killed and nearly 16,000 arrested, according to a rights group. Inflation is soaring and the financial system is on the brink. The conflict has undone all the progress of the past decade. Millions are at risk of going hungry, and tens of thousands have fled their homes or across borders to India and Thailand.
The conflict touches on important points of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy agenda. Specifically, it’s a setback for stated commitment to promoting democracy, human rights, and rule of law abroad. The chronic cycles of military rule and experiments in hybrid democracy have hobbled US engagement. Until China’s expanding imprint on the country, the US and Myanmar shared robust ties for several years. The people of Myanmar trust the US and share a common interest in seeing the restoration of democracy under civilian rule and providing crucial counterbalance to China’s heft. A peaceful resolution of the crisis is a matter of urgency.
Pushing for Regional Resolution
President Biden is pushing and prodding a regionally led diplomacy to end the hostilities. Washington is supporting ASEAN, the region’s pre-eminent organization, and empowering the UN special envoy for Myanmar to keep the crisis on the international agenda. The ASEAN serves as a bridge institution between the global community and the Myanmar military regime. Many grumble the pace of progress is sluggish in the Five-Point Consensus or peace plan drawn up in April 2021. The Five-Point Consensus includes initiating dialogue with all parties, ending violence and allowing an ASEAN special envoy access to the country. So far, the junta has shown no signs of heeding the plan. The US and the European Union, preoccupied by Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine, have put little pressure on the junta to keep its commitment. The ASEAN has held meetings to express its disappointment, and has gone as far as disinviting the Myanmar military to key summits. A bold move by ASEAN norms, but a feeble one when set against what is urgently needed to end the bloodshed.
Spanning a variety of political systems, from city-state to absolute monarchy, the ASEAN is struggling to develop a unified approach to defuse the situation. Some suggest suspending Myanmar’s membership, but ASEAN is unlikely to do it. Yet, the West continues to hold hope for ASEAN to bring a peaceful solution. Arguably, this is a minimalist US policy of managing the South East Asian crisis, and is low commitment in terms of the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe. Perhaps, the U.S. ambassador to ASEAN who assumed his post recently will empower the group as it pulls its weight in regional affairs. The new appointment is a signal that US is intent to step up diplomacy in the region. More so now than before, ASEAN matters to the West.
Inside Myanmar, the forces for and against democracy are shaping the narrative. China and Russia have backed the military regime in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, and filled the financial gaps left by cuts in Western aid and military assistance. Both countries, two of five permanent members of the UN Security Council, have opposed punitive measures against the junta. China has criticized US and EU sanctions on military generals, and the companies they control. But neither China nor Russia has offered the Myanmar people much by way of practical support or solution. Every day countless lives are tragically lost in the desperate fight for freedom.
More Engagement with Opposition Government
For its part, the US has deprived the military, or Tatmadaw, of the legitimacy it needs to suppress democratic aspirations of the people. The conflict is unequal between the heavily-armed military with aerial firepower and naval guns, and the civilian groups that started the resistance with catapults, but since have made their own muskets and bombs. The loose network of civilian militia groups across the nation, the People’s Defense Force (PDF), comprises farmers, housewives, doctors, engineers, and others, who are ill-equipped and trained, but are determined to force the military out. They are supported by some ethnic-armed organizations that have decades of experience fighting the military.
For all its best efforts, the junta is unlikely to defeat the opposition, and affiliated groups, and impose its rule on the people. Because never before in Myanmar’s recent history has the military faced such resistance from the Buddhist majority in the central plains and cities along with those of other ethnicities in the nation’s fringes. And the ruthless junta is making no distinction among civilians—even its own people–in unleashing tyranny. As a result of fighting across multiple fronts, the military is facing rising defections in its ranks and depleting resources. If defections continue, it could imperil the military leadership. Fearing a loss of control, the junta has increased air raids to attack civilians with jets sold by Russians, who have also supplied aviation training, and aircraft maintenance. The junta recently massacred 60 innocent civilians at a music concert, the deadliest single airstrike since the coup. The U.N. special envoy for Myanmar has warned the crisis could degenerate into a long civil war, with implications for local and regional stability.
To appease the international community, the military regime has promised to hold elections in August 2023, but there is little reason to trust its words. Even if it does, the prospects for free and fair elections are uncertain at best. The elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention since the coup and the execution of pro-democracy activists belie the military’s commitment to democracy. The junta claims that it had to seize power because of voting fraud in the November 2020 general election that Suu Kyi’s party won, but election monitoring groups have found no evidence of mass fraud. Meanwhile, the regime has been amending electoral laws to fashion a system that would overwhelmingly favor the self-serving interests of the junta.
By contrast, the National Unity Government (NUG), made up of deposed lawmakers, the National League for Democracy, and civilian and ethnic militia groups is gaining ground and popularity among the public. The NUG ardently believes in the moral order of the West and has promised to forge a federal state and grant the stateless Rohingyas citizenship. This inclusive approach, in line with the US thinking, marks a shift away from conventional politics. The European Parliament has said that it “supports the NUG and the Committee Representing Pyidungsu Hluttaw—Union Parliament, CRPH, as the only legitimate representatives of the democratic wishes of the people of Myanmar.” US National Security Adviser and other high-level American government officials have engaged with the NUG and discussed ways to step up assistance to the people, and promote a path to the restoration of democracy. As for formal recognition of the NUG, the US may be treading cautiously lest it gets drawn into a flare up in the form of a proxy war with China and Russia that support the military regime. Echoes of history in Syria and Afghanistan ring loud.
Roughly 190,000-200,000 people from Myanmar live in the U.S.; many of them remain closely connected with family and friends in their homeland. The diaspora has raised substantial amounts of dollars for the civilian government, NUG. Young protesters across the US have held dozens of protests, and raised placards to express their anger at the military generals, while pleading America to intervene and stop the carnage. The diaspora wants U.S. Congress to sign into law the BURMA Act of 2021, passed a year ago, that calls for support to the pro-democracy movement, sanctions, humanitarian aid, assistance for refugees, and justice mechanisms to prosecute those who have committed past atrocities, among other issues.
As the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) is an economic interest of the military junta, the bill calls for a feasibility report within 60 days of assessing the pros and cons of MOGE sanctions and determining whether they would advance U.S. interests in Myanmar. Sanctions on MOGE will likely cut off an estimated 70% of the junta’s revenue stream that finances violence. The country earns close to US $1 billion a year from natural gas sales. The EU has already imposed sanctions on MOGE. If Washington were to sanction MOGE, it would be a severe financial blow to the junta since the coup.
Dealing with Allies and Adversaries
Forging peace in Myanmar will require new political arrangements that strike a workable regional power balance. China has expressed its displeasure with the political instability and uncertainty. Beijing wants to protect its massive infrastructure investments and citizens, and implement the multibillion-dollar China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. While it favors status quo, and has openly backed the junta, it is thought to be quietly pressing the NUG to restrain attacks on Chinese investments. Myanmar military remains suspicious of China and has grumbled about armed insurgents along its border getting financial and military aid from Beijing. However, China’s interest to end the conflict, if mainly for economic reasons, is aligned with the West.
As a leading voice for democracy and human rights, the US should back up words with action and play a critical role in checking the military’s chokehold on the country and bolstering a new political reality. It should intensify efforts to support the CPRH and NUG with technical support and capacity-building resources, and by ensuring its members are involved in political dialogues, creating a pathway for the fledgling democratic movement to grow. The US should also broaden and strengthen NUG’s coalition, redouble efforts to support civil-society institutions and non-governmental organizations, and Myanmar’s media to amplify independent voices. Wider media coverage of the gross violations of human rights is likely to elicit urgent global reaction. Also, equipping and training the pro-democracy forces will empower them to better resist the military. As such, it is inconceivable for Myanmar’s pro-democracy groups, who have put up a brave fight over the past 20 months, to negotiate a power-sharing pact with the military that has blood on its hands of scores of innocent civilians. They not only want justice and accountability, but also oust the junta from power once and for all.
In advance of the next ASEAN summit from 11-13 November in Cambodia, many foreign ministers from the group met in Jakarta and agreed to press hard on the five-point consensus through “concrete, practical and time-bound actions.” But any immediate change in the attitude of Myanmar junta is unlikely, given the support of China and Russia. The US should reach a common position on imposing targeted sanctions on oil and gas revenue flows to the abusive junta. President Biden in a 2021 speech acknowledged leading with diplomacy means engaging with allies and “our adversaries and our competitors diplomatically, where it’s in our interest.” Washington should explore how India, the democratic neighbor of Myanmar, ASEAN, the UN, Europe, and China might join an orchestrated effort to back a diplomatic push for a sustained settlement of the conflict. Gross violations of human rights in Myanmar are human responsibility, not solely an internal or regional responsibility. They require the concerted efforts by everyone to stop the bloodshed. Allowing China or Russia to deter US response would be immoral in the face of crimes against humanity. The crisis is about to turn two years in February, the people of Myanmar have sacrificed too many lives while waiting for an Asian solution for Asian people. It’s time to end the injustice and restore democracy in Myanmar.
Renuka Naj worked previously with the United Nations and the U.S Agency for International Development. She has experience in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.