Myanmar has collapsed into horrific violence since the military sought to retake full control of the country on February 1. Western governments have watched in distress as soldiers rounded up civilian leaders including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, restricted internet access, rolled back individual freedoms and ultimately employed violence against the people. These domestic effects of the coup have been widely noted. USIP’s Jason Tower examines here the less discussed international security repercussions, the response of regional actors and options for preventing mass atrocities in the coming weeks.

Police and military forces stand by, as tens of thousands of people gather on University Avenue Road to protest against the military's seizure of power, Feb. 9, 2021, in Yangon, Myanmar. (The New York Times)
Police and military forces stand by, as tens of thousands of people gather on University Avenue Road to protest against the military's seizure of power, Feb. 9, 2021, in Yangon, Myanmar. (The New York Times)

What are the security implications of the coup for Myanmar’s border states?

Myanmar’s neighbors will experience shocks from the coup that range from refugee flows to violence along their borders to an upsurge in transnational crime. China, India, Bangladesh and Thailand are likely to end up shouldering the bulk of the negative effects.

A regional refugee crisis seems inevitable as the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, scales up its oppression of the population. Fleeing Burmese will land in all of Myanmar’s neighbors but especially Thailand and Bangladesh, which currently host the majority of refugees from the country, and China and India, which are traditionally more reluctant hosts of displaced persons.

Already the military’s power grab has caused significant shifts in alliances involving key ethnic armed organizations, sparking renewed fighting across Myanmar’s frontiers. Just days after the coup, clashes surged along the Thai and Chinese borders. Along the Thai border, the two largest participants in the now defunct peace process have denounced the coup, saying it nulls the 2015 National Ceasefire Agreement, which all 10 signatories have now agreed to suspend. In Kayin State and Southern Shan State new clashes in recent weeks have displaced  thousands of people.

Meanwhile, the China border region is spiraling toward the greatest explosion of violence in more than a decade — a development that could send tens of thousands more refugees into China’s Yunnan Province. This new conflict started immediately after the coup when one of the northern armed groups, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), launched a lethal attack on the leadership of the Kokang Border Guard Force (BGF), an ethnic Chinese militia group that reports to the Tatmadaw. Following this attack, the army initiated clearance operations against the MNDAA and two of its allies, the Kachin Independence Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army. On March 8, the Kachin group, which is one of the country’s largest ethnic militias, went directly on the offensive against the Myanmar army after a brutal crackdown by the coup government’s security forces on anti-coup protesters in the Kachin capital left three civilians dead. 

China faces additional security challenges due to its public position that the coup is a matter of “internal affairs” for Myanmar. That has whipped up widespread anti-China sentiment. Initially, online rumors claimed that China is equipping the Burmese army, lending technical support to internet censorship, and even sending Chinese troops to supplement the Tatmadaw’s dwindling forces. More recently, protesters have threatened to blow up the multi-billion-dollar Sino-Myanmar pipeline and destroy other Chinese assets. Violence targeted directly at Chinese economic interests exploded on March 14 with a coordinated attack against Chinese-owned factories. Official Chinese sources estimated damages at more than $30 million.  

What about security in the region at large?

The coup also presents significant challenges to ASEAN states, both for the organization as a whole and in terms of security challenges to individual countries. Three states in particular — Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore — have pushed for direct ASEAN involvement to address the situation. Meanwhile, Cambodia and Laos have largely followed China’s lead, signaling a higher level of tolerance for the Myanmar junta. ASEAN’s inability to act, and Myanmar’s return to pariah state status will certainly challenge the organization’s relations vis-à-vis the European Union, United States, United Kingdom and Japan — each of which will be hard pressed to separate the Myanmar issue from broader relations with ASEAN.

A further security threat is arising from criminal activity spurred by the Tatmadaw’s moves. Just days after the coup, the generals released more than 23,000 criminals into the streets in an effort to create turmoil among protesters. Meanwhile, the autonomous cities dedicated to gambling and controlled by Chinese transnational crime groups, are now back online with a vengeance after drawing scrutiny from the government in recent months. On the day of the coup, posts on Facebook and WeChat announced the re-opening of the gambling zones, and relevant Facebook groups sought recruits for new jobs. Posts advertising the sales of illegal arms, wildlife and illegal cross-border transportation services have also increased exponentially. Recent progress in checking criminal activity has already been undone — with reverberations across the region.

How are regional actors responding politically to events in Myanmar and what is their likely engagement going forward?

China was probably the one regional actor not surprised by the coup. During a visit by the Chinese state councilor to Myanmar in January, the head of the armed forces made a point of briefing China’s top diplomat on the army’s alleged grievances over the November 2020 elections, thereby signaling the generals’ intentions to the Chinese. Immediately after the coup, China took a wait and see approach; state media described the detention and replacement of the country’s political leadership as a “reshuffling of the cabinet.” This approach cost China dearly with the Myanmar public, with the National League for Democracy (NLD), by far the biggest party, and with many of the ethnic armed organizations. Throughout February, anti-China sentiment escalated dramatically as online activists called for targeting Chinese-owned infrastructure and assets, even violently, if China failed to change its position.

By early March, as the scale of domestic protests, lethal violence and attacks on Chinese businesses increased, China started to shift its position, recognizing that the Tatmadaw had failed to gain control of basic governance functions. The Chinese state councilor on March 8 emphasized the importance of China’s relationship with the NLD as well as its willingness to play a “constructive role.” Stakeholders in Myanmar likely read this as insincere, especially as China has refused all contact with the NLD since February 1. This shift in position does open the possibility of what Chinese state media referred to as “more drastic action,” but China is still focused squarely on its economic interests.    

The response from elsewhere in the region has been relatively muted compared to the drama in Beijing and condemnations from the West. While Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have spoken out sharply against the military’s use of violence and Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has tried to galvanize action within ASEAN, they have refrained from adopting punitive measures. Thailand, considering its own fragile domestic situation, has kept its distance, but recognizes that it will need to tread carefully as the number of refugees seeking entry on the border grows.

Other significant actors that might play a role include India, Japan and Korea, all of which have substantial investments and influence in Myanmar. India has welcomed a small number of refugees across the border, but has been reluctant to pressure the Tatmadaw. Meanwhile, Japan ended significant cooperation with the military junta, while South Korea has severed all defense exchanges.

In sum, the response at the regional level continues to be cautious, ad hoc and uncoordinated, largely as key states lack strategic trust and are deeply divided on approach.

Is further escalation likely, and what else can the international community do to prevent atrocities?

The Tatmadaw drastically underestimated the strength of popular resistance to its power grab, and probably could not have imagined it would trigger a strike by large segments of the civilian bureaucracy. Meanwhile, two looming deadlines at the end of March mean that a dramatic escalation of oppression and violence is likely. First, the Tatmadaw is looking to “win” its war against the Myanmar people before Armed Forces Day on March 27, hoping to show off its prowess in a military parade. Second, it faces a remarkable challenge from the 300-plus elected members of the legitimate Parliament who have evaded capture by security forces. The bloc’s leaders plan to form an interim government in cooperation with key ethnic armed groups and ethnic parties before March 31, the legal cutoff for Parliament to establish a government. At the same time, the Tatmadaw is under tremendous pressure from China to protect its people and property in Myanmar and agnostic about the methods — a stance the generals could take as a Chinese green light for more violence. With the countdown underway, the military is likely to continue a crackdown that  has already left about 100 people dead.

Prevention of further atrocities may depend on the outcome of the March 18-19 meeting of top American and Chinese diplomats in Alaska. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has already made clear the U.S. concerns that Beijing’s behavior is “challenging the security, prosperity and the values” of America and its partners and allies. Myanmar may present a unique opportunity for the two powers — at odds on so much — to address in unison the growing international crisis radiating out of Myanmar. For its part, China has an interest in stability to protect the more than $100 billion it has invested in infrastructure and industry that depends on an economic corridor through Myanmar. It might take steps to reign in the military and use leverage with powerful ethnic armed groups to open the way for a return to civilian government. Meanwhile, the United States could see this as a chance to evaluate China’s willingness to act as a responsible member of the international community.

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