The international community can be divided into three camps in dealing with Myanmar’s brutal coup regime. One consists of a shameless group that includes Russia, China and India that supports the junta and, in the case of Russia and China, supplies weapons to further their own narrow national interests. A second is a divided ASEAN that cobbled together and continues to promote the so-called “five-point consensus,” an incoherent initiative that was dead on arrival more than a year ago. The third is the West, which has imposed sanctions, offered humanitarian aid and taken a strong rhetorical position opposing the coup, yet criticizes armed resistance and avoids bold action, favoring instead the cautious, ineffectual path of supporting ASEAN’s failed plan.

A poster of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who led the coup, on the street during a protest in Yangon, Myanmar. February 19, 2021. (The New York Times)
A poster of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who led the coup, on the street during a protest in Yangon, Myanmar. February 19, 2021. (The New York Times)

Such is the international picture as Myanmar’s junta wages unrestrained warfare on its own public in a desperate attempt to hold onto power. The people of Myanmar ask with growing frustration why the international community isn’t doing more to help them. It’s an appalling situation, with the military’s brutality, hunger for power and economic incompetence responsible for thousands of deaths and arrests and widespread destruction — not to mention massive instability, an economy on the precipice and a horrific humanitarian crisis.

There is no end in sight.

Myanmar’s future will be determined largely by what happens inside the country, but the international response matters and could be critical in the runup to rigged elections next year that the junta hopes will legitimize its rule. During that period, one can expect the Myanmar military to continue trying to cow the population into submission with indiscriminate violence and terror while it prosecutes — if not murders — its political opponents. The National Unity Government (NUG) and the diverse Myanmar resistance, in turn, will no doubt continue their struggle, hoping to win more international support and sufficiently weaken the junta so that it looks for an exit.

On balance, the net impact of the international community’s efforts to date has been neutral.  The substance of China, India and Russia’s support for the junta, including arms, has balanced the rhetoric, moral outrage toward the junta and public support of much of the rest of the world for the Myanmar people. If this trend continues, it is possible, if not probable, that the regime will succeed in using next year’s sham elections to gain some international legitimacy, likely extending its reign of brutality. Either way, the Myanmar people will continue to suffer and ask why the world — particularly the West — is so willing to help Ukraine but not assist them against a force that is every bit as brutal and evil as Putin’s invading army.

The Need to Back a National Uprising

It is time for the West, led by the United States and ideally joined by at least a few ASEAN members disgusted by the junta’s behavior, to step up its contribution with the express goal of helping the resistance movement prevail.

The effort needs to start with a clear analysis and understanding of the situation inside the country. This is not a typical power struggle between two rival political communities. It is a national uprising against a hated, corrupt and bloodthirsty military that has waged war against ethnic minority communities for decades, committed genocide against the Rohingya population, and is now operating with a brutality and cruelty not seen in Southeast Asia since the Khmer Rouge. 

ASEAN’s five-point consensus to promote dialogue and end the violence was doomed because it failed to reflect this reality. There was never any chance that the military would stop committing violence against the people, nor was there ever any hope that the ASEAN special envoy (or anyone else) would persuade General Min Aung Hlaing and his compatriots to be reasonable. It was impossible even to imagine a dialogue producing a political compromise that would be acceptable to the Myanmar people, until and unless the military felt under such duress that it was compelled to make dramatic concessions. The junta’s decision to execute four opposition actors on July 25 — explicitly rejecting ASEAN’s pleas — should make it crystal clear to all concerned that after 15 months of failure, the ASEAN five-point consensus is dead and should be given a proper burial

The only way for Myanmar to emerge from this crisis with any hope of peace and stability is for the military to be forced out of power, or at least forced into a position of such weakness that it seeks a face-saving departure from power to preserve itself. There is no other path. The military’s bogus elections planned for 2023 aim only to transform Myanmar into a single-party state, or what the junta refers to as “disciplined democracy.”

Bolder Policies Could Help the Resistance

Those members of the international community who care about the Myanmar people — or at least want to see the country return to stability and the hope of progress — need to step back, rethink their approach and pursue much bolder policies that increase the resistance’s chance of success. Specifically, they should consider the following:

  • As suggested by Malaysia, formally scrap the ASEAN five-point consensus, which at this point is doing more harm than good by perpetuating the illusion that a viable political process exists, which confers a degree of legitimacy on the junta.
  • Sharply increase public and private engagement with the NUG and other key actors who are active against the junta, including the critically important ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and leaders of the civil disobedience movement.
  • At least double the amount of assistance to civil society organizations supporting core resistance groups, including the NUG, National Unity Consultative Council, state-level consultative councils, local governance actors, civilian wings of ethnic armed groups, strike committees, and civil disobedience movement groups, among others.
  • Find creative ways to provide funding for the NUG and allied groups, including funds aimed at encouraging defections from the military.
  • Significantly expand fellowship or other opportunities for resistance actors in the United States, and bolster funding for education of Myanmar students in-country (either online or via NUG or EAO-supported schools), in Thailand and India, and elsewhere.
  • Coordinate targeted sanctions by coup-opposing governments and devote the resources needed to identify and, where possible, block or freeze the flow of funds to the junta.
  • The United States should reconsider joining EU sanctions on Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, which accounts for much of the junta’s revenue. Such sanctions pose a supply problem for U.S. ally Thailand, but a dedicated team should be seeking creative ways to address the issue. 
  • Stop all humanitarian assistance that goes through the junta. Instead, the U.N. secretary-general should lead an international campaign to create humanitarian assistance corridors via Thailand and India.
  • Redouble efforts to pursue international legal action against the junta, including by joining Gambia’s case at the International Court of Justice, which accuses Myanmar of genocide against Rohingya.
  • Finally, countries that host NUG offices should step up coordination and cooperation, as former U.K. Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Tonkin has suggested.

In pursuing these steps, the international community should recognize that while the urgent task is helping the resistance push the military out of power, even that will not be sufficient. Myanmar will still face a monumental struggle to rebuild from the devastation of the past 18 months, to obtain accountability for current and past abuses, and perhaps more importantly, to build trust between the country’s many ethnic minority groups — including the Rohingya — and the majority people.

There is no guarantee that such a program supporting resistance and rebuilding will work. Lots could go wrong. But it offers at least the possibility of success. So long as the military remains in power, there is simply no hope for Myanmar.

Scot Marciel served as U.S. ambassador to Myanmar from 2016-2020. He is the Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow at Stanford University's Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center and a senior advisor at BowerGroupAsia.

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