The international community must get real about Myanmar
Less than two years ago, on Feb. 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup d’etat. Since then, international headlines might have faded, but the situation in the country has only become more desperate. The junta has killed and arrested thousands, while pushing the country to the brink of humanitarian catastrophe, all with the outright support of China and Russia.
Meanwhile, the U.S., the European Union, and other supporters of Myanmar’s democratic resistance have thus far mainly issued statements of concern. As lawmakers from different countries, we are deeply frustrated by the lack of action by governments around the world. The international community can and must do more, before Myanmar is pushed over an edge it cannot come back from.
The coup in 2021 ended a decade-long power sharing agreement between the military and civilian leaders, although one heavily tilted in the army’s favor. Even so, the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, soon felt too threatened by the electoral success of the National League for Democracy (NLD), and decided to seize power outright. The aftermath of the coup has been as brutal as it has been chaotic.
The junta has killed more than 2,000 people, many of them peaceful protesters. More than 15,000 people have been arrested, among them Aung San Suu Kyi, NLD’s leader, and scores of prominent democracy and human rights activists. Myanmar is also facing a humanitarian crisis, with government services and the economy collapsing, and more than 1.2 million people internally displaced from the army’s brutal crackdown across the country.
The people of Myanmar have, however, continued to fight back against military rule. Across the country, a Civil Disobedience Movement has organized itself, including unions, doctors, teachers, students and other citizens from all walks of life. A National Unity Government (NUG), composed of civil society and political representatives, has led the political struggle from exile. Meanwhile, in Myanmar’s border areas, Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) have continued to resist the junta. They function as de facto states within the state, providing services and governance, as well as safe havens for pro-democracy activists fleeing from other parts of the country.
It is this bravery from ordinary Myanmar people that has made the international reactions since the coup so disappointing.
The junta has been actively and openly supported by both China and Russia, including through financial investments, arms sales, and official visits offering legitimacy to the regime. China has also shielded Myanmar from scrutiny at the UN Security Council.
On the other hand, the United States, the European Union and other democratic countries have offered lip service to the Myanmar resistance, but not much more. The sanctions that have been imposed have had little impact on the junta, and regular statements of concern are no substitute for real action. Many Western countries have also left the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on its own to resolve the crisis. However, ASEAN’s “Five Points Consensus” approach with the junta, launched more than a year ago, is now all but dead, having had almost no real impact.
The international community must change course, and do so quickly. In June this year, we joined lawmakers from seven countries in Africa, Asia and Europe to launch an International Parliamentary Inquiry into the failed response to the crisis. Together with democracy and human rights leaders from Myanmar, we developed a set of recommendations that we believe should be acted on immediately.
A first step is to address the immediate humanitarian crisis. As much as possible, international donors must channel aid and resources through Myanmar civil society and EAOs who are already providing services in border areas. At the same time, the UN must step up efforts to convince Myanmar’s neighbors — India and Thailand — to open their borders to refugees and aid flows, and not seek to push back those who are fleeing from the junta.
We should also implement limited sanctions that target the junta’s leaders, without punishing the entire Burmese population. This includes imposing sanctions on junta-owned companies, such as the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which remain some of the military’s most important sources of funding. To its credit, the EU sanctioned MOGE in February, and the U.S. should follow its example.
The international community must also make it unequivocally clear that the NUG and its partners are the true representatives of the people of Myanmar. The junta must never be afforded the legitimacy it so desperately craves. Governments should afford formal recognition to the NUG, take all possible steps to facilitate its work, and open dialogues with both the NUG and EAOs to chart the course for a future federal democratic Myanmar. Only such kind of dialogue can solve the long-standing problem of inter-ethnic conflicts in the country.
Myanmar faces a long and protracted conflict between the military and most of its population that will not be easily resolved. But amid the darkness, there are real signs of hope, as brave people from across the country are resisting the junta’s brutal rule. We in the international community have failed them so far, but it is not too late for us to do better. The future of a whole country depends on it.
Heidi Hautala is vice-president of the European Parliament and chair of the International Parliamentary Inquiry (IPI) into the global response to the crisis in Myanmar. Ilhan Omar represents the 5th District in Minnesota and is a committee member of the IPI. Charles Santiago is a Malaysian member of parliament and committee member of the IPI.
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