We cannot turn away from the crisis unfolding in Myanmar
A year later, the Feb. 1, 2021, military coup in Myanmar against the popularly elected civilian government has turned into an unmitigated disaster. The increasingly brutal military response to unarmed civilian resistance has triggered mounting waves of violence, engulfing almost every township across the country in civil war. The expanding conflict has claimed thousands of lives and internally displaced over 320,000 civilians. The junta’s forces have burned entire villages, massacred aid workers, and taken the lives of nearly 1,500 civilians.
The military’s ill-considered coup has triggered a revolution in Myanmar that could bring an end to one of the world’s longest military dictatorships and set the country on the path to a democratic future under elected civilian governance — but not before the country is left in tatters. Already, the economy is in free fall, deaths from COVID-19 are raging, food is scarce, and local administrative and service infrastructure has deteriorated. The prospects for the near term are grim.
Returning to the status quo ante will not be possible, because most people no longer will accept the 2008 military constitution. By the sheer inhumane, murderous assault on unarmed civilians, the army has irretrievably squandered whatever support it had outside its ultranationalist base and the illicit networks that profit from its endemic corruption. If the conflict continues its current trajectory, more than half of the country’s townships could fall under the control of local defense forces or ethnic armed groups, the latter becoming virtually autonomous. In the absence of a responsible central state authority, lawlessness will expand and Myanmar likely will become a regional center for drug and human trafficking, money laundering and other organized criminal activity.
A negotiated solution to this conflict is off the table, because neither the army nor the population opposing it will consider dialogue. Several international envoys who have traveled to the country to encourage dialogue have learned this lesson the hard way. Requests to meet with the detained political leadership have been summarily rejected, and they have become the object of popular scorn for engaging with an illegitimate regime. States have attempted to look for a solution to the crisis, but their efforts have failed to coalesce into a common approach.
The Myanmar issue now threatens the long-term durability of key regional institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). While concerned states such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines have pushed for a robust response, China has backed a small number of corrupt, authoritarian states who have attempted to legitimize the military junta.
All hope is not lost for the role of the international community. The opposition forces represent elected officials, civil society, majority and minority ethnic groups, and several important armed ethnic groups. Their leaders and negotiators are struggling to overcome the deep differences that have divided them in the past, in an effort to build unity around plans for a future diverse federal democracy. Under the pressure of sheer existential necessity, these nascent efforts at coalition building could mature over time into a more advanced consensus on federal governance and security.
The U.S. Institute of Peace convened the Myanmar Study Group and published the group’s report, “Anatomy of the Military Coup and Recommendations for the US Response” identifying a full agenda of options for the U.S. and international responses to this tragedy.
It recommends that the United States lead a wide-ranging international mobilization to deliver humanitarian assistance, to support the civilian opposition forces, and to help the opposition groups negotiate among themselves to develop a shared vision for the country to advance. The U.S. should do what it can to speed the process of the military’s collapse by isolating and squeezing its resources and documenting its atrocities and war crimes for international prosecution.
Above all, it is essential for the international community to coordinate a robust effort to deliver humanitarian and food aid to the civilian population. Although the junta is blocking major means of access to the country, medical supplies and other aid can be delivered through unconventional means, especially through local non-governmental organizations.
The report also recommends several measures to isolate the military and its junta regime and to strain their resources and legitimacy. For example, efforts to expand the arms embargo must intensify, despite Chinese and Russian resistance in the U.N. Security Council. The expansion of safe zones inside and outside the country should be encouraged, potentially through creation of a no-fly zone along Myanmar’s borders.
To promote democratic values and sustain the development of Myanmar’s civilian leaders, the report recommends that the United States should provide not only protection and support but also more funding for educational opportunities to preserve the intellectual talent that has emerged within the younger generation. And it should continue providing strong support to civil society organizations inside Myanmar that serve communities under siege.
International support for these brave people must not fail them at this critical moment.
Priscilla Clapp, a senior adviser with the United States Institute of Peace, served as chief of mission and permanent charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Burma (1999-2002) and has authored many publications on the democracy movement in Myanmar.