In March 2021, the Myanmar Study Group was organized by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in response to the evolving conflict in Myanmar following the military coup of February 1, 2021. To support U.S. policy toward Myanmar, the Institute convened a study group of nine prominent experts on Myanmar and Asian affairs from April through September 2021. The study group held five discussions on topics of critical relevance to the crisis in Myanmar, supplemented by consultations with key stakeholders in the country and the region. Although convened by USIP, the views and recommendations contained in the report are solely those of the Myanmar Study Group, not USIP.
Today’s crisis in Myanmar directly challenges interests and values that are foundations of U.S. foreign policy: democracy, human rights, rule of law, prosperity, and security. It would be an abrogation of those foundations were the United States to ignore or neglect the tragedy unfolding in Myanmar today. The crisis in Myanmar also presents an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate its commitment to diplomatic engagement that promotes a rules-based international order.
The United States and its major Asian and European allies share many geostrategic interests in Myanmar, the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia. For the United States, which is a leading source of foreign development assistance in Southeast Asia and key trade partner to the region, the possibilities offered by a free and prosperous Myanmar—given its strategic location, wealth of resources, and educated and widely pro-American population—are of vital interest.
Under the current circumstances, Myanmar is highly vulnerable to powerful external and internal forces seeking to dominate its territory given the instability, dire poverty, and lack of effective governance and rule of law brought on by the February 1, 2021 military coup. Among the most immediate of these threats—in addition to the Myanmar military and its supporters—are China, Russia, and international criminal networks.
In particular, the United States risks ceding important geostrategic influence to China and others in the region if it fails to take a more active role in the current conflict. Myanmar could also become a haven for criminal groups to operate from unregulated spaces, protected by the corrupt junta, elevating U.S. concerns about the rise of international organized crime in Asia that also targets the United States. Myanmar’s military has already demonstrated a wanton disregard for regional stability by causing serial mass migrations into neighboring countries. A chaotic Myanmar also risks becoming a petri dish for new COVID variants and other deadly diseases in ungoverned or unreachable areas of the country.
The United States is deeply committed to promoting human rights, pursuing accountability and justice for the military’s abuses, and supporting survivors of human rights violations. The United States has allocated more than $1.3 billion for assisting Rohingya refugees who were displaced across the region after the military’s atrocities in 2016 and 2017. These investments have been undermined by the coup, rendering the prospects for the safe return of Rohingya and other refugees impossible in the near future.
The United States cannot afford to treat the grave setback in Myanmar as a distant distraction of little consequence to its larger interests in Asia.
Key Assessments and Findings
The following assessments and findings are based on the deliberations of the Myanmar Study Group over the course of discussions between April and September 2021. The study group’s expertise was supplemented by consultations with key stakeholders in Myanmar and throughout the region to ensure that the perspectives of those most directly affected were taken into account.
1. Myanmar’s February 1, 2021 coup, staged by military leaders to topple the democratically elected government, has reversed ten years of progress and reform, returning governance to autocratic military rule.
2. Perpetrators of the coup seriously misjudged the determination of the majority of the civilian population to refuse to return to military dictatorship and relinquish the freedoms gained under elected government. Led by youth groups and civil servants in the newly formed Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), people took to the streets in mass peaceful protest, later forming several political coalitions to challenge the legitimacy of the coup regime.
3. Soon after the coup, the CDM was joined by a faction of the deposed elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government, which formed the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, to serve as the interim elected legislature. In turn, the National Unity Government (NUG), including several ethnic minority leaders, was formed to serve as the executive branch. While the NUG has strong public support, especially among the Bamar ethnic majority, the diverse anti-coup movement, which includes a range of ethnic and religious minority organizations and armed groups, has failed to fully unify because of residual distrust between the NLD, civil society, and ethnic minority communities. The NUG, civil society, and some ethnic minority representatives, including key political parties, established a negotiation platform, the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), to discuss a political roadmap for a future Myanmar. Through the NUCC, the anti-coup movement has achieved agreement on a range of topics, including the abolition of the 2008 constitution, but negotiations on interethnic power sharing and a future federal democratic governance structure remain fraught.
4. The violence of the military response led some protesters to flee to remote areas under the control of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), where they received refuge and military training to protect their communities from the marauding army. Fanning out across the country, they organized into a multitude of local People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) in villages, towns, and cities in the center of the country to challenge military and police forces, local administrators, and civilians connected with the junta. By October, PDFs were operating in most of the country’s townships but remained highly atomized in their struggle against military rule, lacking unified leadership or common longer-term objectives.
5. Several EAOs, such as the Arakan, Kachin, Karen, Shan, and Wa forces, have used the situation to expand their territorial control in defiance of military domination, gaining significantly greater autonomy over their own administration. PDF fighters have gained battle experience by joining EAOs in fighting the military. All EAOs hold in common a bottom line that the military’s actions have deeply damaged their security and economic prospects but are far from a shared vision of Myanmar’s future.
6. Twelve months on, the violence has descended into full-scale civil war. This fighting has resulted in significant casualties, and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced internally and across borders as the army deploys heavy weapons and air assaults, wiping out entire villages in attempts to dislodge EAOs and PDFs. Yet EAOs are still gaining territory and the PDFs continue to expand in size, capability, and coordination, inflicting significant damage to military forces and local administration.
7. A collapse in governance has sparked a multidimensional crisis. The economy is in free-fall; the COVID-19 pandemic is raging virtually unchecked in the absence of a viable health system; food is scarce to nonexistent in many areas; local administrative and service infrastructure is deteriorating under attack by warring forces; lawlessness has emerged in communities as the army orders the police to take repressive actions, negating their law enforcement role; public education has been decimated; and the telecommunications system is collapsing.
8. The relative freedom and improving quality of life that Myanmar enjoyed for a decade is now a thing of the past. Draconian new laws have been introduced to jail and prosecute senior NLD government officials and punish political protesters, striking civil servants, and civil society activists. Ethnic activists and faith leaders, especially in Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, and northern Shan States, have also been targeted. Journalists have been jailed, and the majority of free media outlets have been banned, even as coup authorities use government media and social media platforms liberally to spread falsehoods about their achievements and to promote hate speech.
9. The international community has reacted to the coup with alarm, but largely failed to mount an effective response:
- The five-point strategy for restoring elected government in Myanmar, put forward by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has been ignored by the coup leaders despite their having agreed to it. ASEAN’s decision to exclude the head of the military regime, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, from the October ASEAN leaders’ summit and the November ASEAN-China dialogue demonstrated a willingness to apply pressure. The bloc remains deeply divided over next steps. With Cambodia assuming the ASEAN presidency in 2022 and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s controversial January visit to Naypyitaw to meet with General Min Aung Hlaing, it remains to be seen how ASEAN will proceed to deal with the junta.
- China has blocked UN efforts to address the crisis, instead pushing for the international response to be managed by ASEAN. Simultaneously, China is trying to hedge its bets on the coup regime by supporting efforts of the most powerful actors, including both the junta and the EAOs, to consolidate power in their areas so that it may eventually rescue its infrastructure investments. China has initiated engagement with the coup regime and met with senior coup figures. It has shunned the NUG and PDFs yet maintains limited ties with the NLD, pressing the coup regime not to dissolve the party. Overall, the junta’s dependence on China’s political and economic support presents Beijing with a golden opportunity to secure one-sided agreements that will harness Myanmar to its southwestern provinces. China may soon discover, however, that the junta lacks all capacity to deliver on any such agreements.
- Russia has stepped in to serve as a key security partner to the junta, sending senior military officials to join key events in Naypyitaw, supporting the junta’s establishment of a new coast guard in October, selling the junta an unspecified number of weapons systems and components since the coup, and even making a port call in Myanmar as the military was launching a scorched-earth campaign in the northwestern part of the country. Russia’s posture has strengthened China’s strategic interests by ensuring that China is not the only major country supporting the junta.
- India’s response to events in Myanmar has been deeply conflicted. On the one hand, India fears the coup offers China an opportunity to gain advantage with the military, leading New Delhi to avoid offending the military leadership by continuing to supply lethal military equipment. On the other, India is a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad)—along with Australia, Japan, and the United States—and its northeastern states have strong cross-border ethnic ties and a deep affinity for Myanmar’s pro-democracy actors. The Indian Defense Ministry has begun to enhance relations with the opposition National Unity Government as PDF strength and activity grows.
- The community of Western democracies, led by the United States, has condemned the coup; lodged a variety of sanctions against military and coup leaders, their supporters, and businesses; provided technical and other forms of nonmilitary support to the NUG and the CDM; and provided humanitarian assistance through nongovernmental organizations and UN agencies. It has also sustained high-level engagement with Asian allies Japan and Korea as well as key Southeast Asian states, including Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand, on the response to the crisis.
- The United Nations has persisted—against junta obstruction—in developing a response to the COVID-19 emergency in Myanmar through the Global Fund, COVAX, and the GAVI Alliance to ensure that the regime allows vaccines and anti-COVID assistance to reach all needy communities. When the UN General Assembly reconvened in September, an agreement between the United States and China made it possible for Myanmar’s Permanent Representative appointed by the NLD government to remain in place; this deal was renewed in early December, with further action to come only later in 2022. This dealt a blow to the junta’s attempt to seat its own representative, but the agreement stipulated that the Permanent Representative would limit public engagements.
What Comes Next?
The prospects are extremely low that the military, having lost the support of the majority of the population, can regain enough control of the country to govern it. Any elections staged by the junta regime will be rejected by the population and international community as illegitimate. The course of events since the coup has ruled out the eventuality of returning Myanmar’s governance to the status quo ante with an NLD government under the 2008 constitution.
Possible outcomes are boundless and unpredictable but include
- continuation over the short to medium term of chaotic and increasingly bloody civil war that could become internecine,
- partial or complete secession from the union by some of the ethnic minority groups as their armies gain ground against the military,
- consolidation of harsh military control over some parts of the country,
- failure of the opposition movement to unite effectively around an agreed future for the country, or
- emergence of an empowered opposition government conceived as an inclusive federal democracy with security forces reconfigured along federal lines, some early signs of which are already emerging in conflict areas where opposition forces and EAOs are increasingly taking over local administration, health services, and security control.
Key Recommendations for U.S. Policy
Because of the persistent domestic anti-coup movement, the Myanmar military is perhaps as weak and vulnerable as it has ever been. Although the United States has few options for influencing Myanmar’s current military leadership to abandon its campaign of violence and oppression against Myanmar’s people, it could support five lines of effort that, in combination with ongoing resistance strategies in Myanmar, might alter the generals’ calculations:
1. Strengthen trust and unity within the opposition.
The opposition movement comprises diverse actors, many of whom were competitors before the coup and remain deeply divided over interests and historical grievances. Although united around a shared revulsion toward the military and a common strategy to make the country ungovernable under the junta, the movement will need to build greater trust and unity if it is to succeed in defeating the military and—more important—in rebuilding a war-torn country. The United States should support dialogue and reconciliation efforts, from the community level to the national level, that help achieve this objective. If successful, these efforts would not only increase the likelihood of the movement prevailing in the near term but could be a first step toward long-term sustainable peace in Myanmar. The United States should also emphasize the need to incorporate civilian protection in opposition strategies to guard against extrajudicial killing and avoid an endless cycle of retribution.
2. Strain the military’s resources and legitimacy with international pressure.
The Myanmar military is severely depleted and, due to popular resentment, faces mounting difficulty recruiting troops and administrative staff for the State Administrative Council (SAC), the caretaker government formed by the junta. The country’s economic deterioration further constrains the resources available to the military to consolidate control. Negotiated efforts to squeeze the generals with an expanded international arms embargo and coordinated sanctions would go a step further. The military’s domestic legitimacy—including among its soldiers—is at an all-time low. Continuing efforts to exclude the coup regime from international forums, such as ASEAN and the United Nations, would weaken its remaining domestic legitimacy as a governing institution and increase the incentives for defections, desertions, and noncompliance.
The U.S. government has already placed a wide range of targeted sanctions on military leaders, senior members of the coup government, military industries, and crony businesses, but the impact of these sanctions is unclear. Targeted unilateral sanctions are unlikely to have a decisive effect, but a coordinated and targeted sanctions regime among U.S. allies and regional partners could deliver a powerful blow to the military, given its diminished circumstances. Conversely, if general sanctions were imposed, the impact would likely fall most heavily on the civilian population.
More broadly, the United States should intensify diplomatic interaction with key neighboring countries, especially India and Thailand; work closely with ASEAN; and explore ways for the Quad to apply pressure and support efforts that marginalize the coup regime and encourage restoration of civilian democratic governance. To avoid misunderstandings and ensure active channels of communication, the United States should stay open to consultations with China, to the extent that China is willing to engage. Sustained high-level engagements, including the possible appointment of a senior U.S. envoy or coordinator, would send a strong signal of U.S. intentions to both the United States’ partners and competitors in the region.
3. Lead an international effort to get humanitarian assistance to civilian populations under siege in Myanmar.
The chaotic conditions in the country and the hostility of the coup regime to foreign “interference” make it difficult, though not impossible, for the United States to channel humanitarian and other forms of assistance through civil society organizations. Given the various constraints and the need to remain adaptive in a highly volatile environment, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department should evaluate their procurement and assistance requirements and procedures to ensure adequate flexibility to support local civil society organizations (which know best how to deliver assistance in conflict areas) and to prioritize partner security. It is also incumbent on the United States in the near term to act in concert with regional allies and international organizations, such as the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, as they respond. Coordinated international action could help remove obstacles to getting material assistance to the country’s beleaguered civilian population, help ensure that the coup regime remains internationally isolated, provide material and moral support to the democratic opposition, and ultimately lay a viable foundation for the country’s stabilization and reconstruction under an elected civilian government.
4. Expand relations with the civilian nonstate authorities that govern significant parts of the country, especially those democratically elected by ethnic minorities.
This would recognize the nascent rapport and practical collaboration that has developed between the minority and majority populations opposing the coup. Several of these authorities and the EAOs with whom they affiliate are collaborating closely with other resistance groups and gaining ground against the Myanmar military. In addition to providing humanitarian assistance to vulnerable minority populations through nonstate authorities, the United States should help the authorities think through how they can best collaborate to achieve an inclusive union for all the country’s residents. The United States should further explore enhanced dialogue with nonstate authorities and encourage them to embrace democracy, respect human rights, and deploy their resources toward ending the coup regime.
5. Develop a transition plan resistant to another military power grab or the explosion of other forms of violence.
The United States should supply technical and other nonmilitary assistance to opposition actors involved in transition planning, including but not limited to the NUG and the NUCC.
To promote democratic values, sustain the development of Myanmar’s leaders, and deepen U.S. relationships with Myanmar’s future leaders, the United States should not only provide protection and support through educational grants and fellowships to preserve Myanmar’s wealth of intellectual talent that has emerged within the younger generation, it should also support civil society organizations in Myanmar and outside the country. This would encourage the emergence of a strong cadre of civilian leaders who can formulate viable future plans for a democratic federal Myanmar and build a prosperous economy. The United States should leverage this moment of relative unity against a shared enemy—the junta—to build interreligious and interethnic trust and pursue reconciliation.
To support transitional justice, the United States should provide robust assistance to local initiatives to document the ongoing atrocities and war crimes being committed by the junta. This support should aim to complement international accountability measures, including by the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, while exploring ways to use documentation to build international pressure on the regime.
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The military’s ill-considered coup has triggered a revolution in Myanmar that promises a successful conclusion to decades of effort by the United States and its international partners to nourish the seeds of democracy and bring an end to one of the world’s oldest military dictatorships. These seeds have clearly taken root in the younger generation willing to pay with their lives to keep democratic progress alive. The United States’ support for them must not fail at this critical moment.
Note: This above text originally stated that Russia sold $2.3 billion of weapons to Myanmar in the months following the coup. That figure, based on reporting by The Irrawaddy in September 2021, was for weapons deals Russia signed with multiple countries, including Myanmar, in August 2021. The total of Russian transfers of and new contracts for weapons and components to the junta in 2021 was likely in the range of $300 million to $1.3 billion.