Should UN Intervention in Myanmar Be Off the Table? 

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Should UN Intervention in Myanmar Be Off the Table? 

The situation in Myanmar is worsening and the international community, although with good intentions, is standing, slack-jawed, watching events pass it by.

Should UN Intervention in Myanmar Be Off the Table? 

Anti-coup protesters stand beside a burning tire as they fortify their position against the military during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar on Tuesday March 30, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo

On April 1, the United Nations’ special envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, was quoted as saying during a closed-door session that the U.N. Security Council should “consider all available tools to take collective action and do what is right, what the people of Myanmar deserve, and prevent a multidimensional catastrophe in the heart of Asia.” 

Was that a call for intervention? Burgener appealed for the Security Council to consider collective action, yet she also said the international community should be open to dialogue with the military junta. Qualifying this, however, she added: “If we wait only for when they are ready to talk, the ground situation will only worsen. A bloodbath is imminent.” 

Bloodbaths are subjective. One could say the situation is already a bloodbath, with more than 500 people killed, so far, by the junta’s forces. Still, the situation could become much worse. The resolve of the protesters doesn’t appear to be waning, and if Myanmar’s various ethnic militias increase their opposition to the junta, it could become an even bloodier civil war. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd warned this week that “the international community is radically underestimating how this could quickly degenerate into thousands, even tens of thousands, of deaths.” 

The corollary fear, as expressed by Rudd and others, is that the carnage leads to a refugee crisis in Southeast Asia, destabilizing other countries in the process. For these reasons, I’d be tempted to agree with Hervé Lemahieu of the Lowy Institute, who argued this week that “we’re getting progressively closer to that point where we can start conceiving of Myanmar as essentially a failed state.”

As I have pointed out in previous articles, any hope that Myanmar could return to the status quo ante has now passed. Junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing is unwilling to hand back power. The government-in-waiting, the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), made up of politicians in hiding or in exile, stated this week that it now considers invalid the 2008 constitution, which automatically gives the military a quarter of seats in parliament and a constitutional veto. The CRPH also called for a “federal democracy charter” that will fundamentally change the role of the military and also federalize the political system, perhaps a move to gain the support of some ethnic militias that oppose the military but are not yet completely on side with the civilian protests and the anti-junta politicians. 

The military began bombing Karen state this week, targeting the Karen National Union, an ethnic armed group. The creation of a “federal army” of civilian protesters and some ethnic militias would probably be the only way the junta could be ousted domestically — and, perhaps, the one solution to decades of fighting over ethnic autonomy. But the situation could descend into a civil war before that happens. 

There are now two possibilities: The junta remains in power and consolidates its rule through a rigged election, or the junta is overthrown and the military is forced to return to its barracks for good. On the one hand, this simplifies the options. On the other, it complicates things for the international community, parts of which, not least the Southeast Asia bloc (ASEAN), were hoping that a compromise could be found around the negotiation table. Now, the international community must either accept the junta or work toward its downfall. 

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, threatened this week that if the junta is not willing to compromise and end its brutality on the streets, “then we have to look at how we might do more.” The British ambassador, Barbara Woodward, said that “All measures are at our disposal.”  

What more can be done? In all probability, the U.N. Security Council will not agree on armed intervention. Days after the coup, Russia and China blocked the Security Council from condemning it. However, Beijing and Moscow later took the unusual step of backing a condemnation. Still, China’s U.N. ambassador, Zhang Jun, this week even ruled out joint economic sanctions against Myanmar — and his primary concern appeared to be the fate of Chinese-owned businesses in Myanmar. Beijing certainly doesn’t want a civil war on its border, although its instinctual desire for international stability has receded in recent years. But it’s almost impossible to think Beijing would accept foreign intervention in a country that borders it, even if U.N.-led. Neither would Russia likely vote in favor of a U.N.-led intervention.

Suggestions have been made for the Security Council to impose “no-fly zones” to stop the military from bombing ethnic areas. But that would create a “red line” the U.N. would have to uphold (escalating tensions) or ignore (which would show its utter weakness). Maybe the International Criminal Court could seek to prosecute the junta leaders, but that won’t remove them from power. A U.N.-led arms-embargo or trade embargo? Russia and China — the largest providers of arms to Myanmar — would likely vote it down. If trade or targeted sanctions are to work, Beijing, New Delhi, and Tokyo will have to join in, which they don’t want to, at this moment. 

The other question is on what grounds would the U.N. intervene. To prevent a civil war? One could reasonably retort that a civil war has been ongoing for decades. To prevent a refugee crisis? Well, a refugee crisis began in 2016 after the military launched its genocide of the Rohingya but the U.N. didn’t intervene at the time. Or is it about ousting an illegal regime? That is harder to justify under international law. The most probable grounds of intervention are to stop mass human rights violations — or what is referred to as the U.N.’s “R2P,” its “responsibility to protect.” 

Could the United States and democratic allies, perhaps several European states and Australia, take matters into their own hands if the U.N. doesn’t act? There’s no great enthusiasm for this, for now. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in February, albeit before violence escalated in Myanmar, that “We will not promote democracy through costly military interventions or by attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes by force. We have tried these tactics in the past. However well-intentioned, they haven’t worked.” But it’s useful to consider the options. After all, no two interventions are the same. 

The risks of armed intervention are obvious. Beijing and Moscow would vehemently oppose it. Yet it seems unlikely that Beijing would suddenly throw its support behind the military junta, so it may not become a proxy war in the way that some imagine. Retired top U.N. officials, Yanghee Lee and Marzuki Darusman, who formed the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, have intimated that physical intervention would resemble Afghanistan and Iraq, but that analogy appears extreme. It is valid to assume that, as one recent article put it, “some of the ethnic armed groups might lineup behind the interventionists; others, allied with China, might choose a different path.” That risks creating a multipolar, not bipolar, conflict. 

Unless the interventionists could swiftly remove the junta and then with equal speed sort out Myanmar’s other, decades-old problems, not least ethnic tensions, then they could land themselves in a cliched quagmire. An intervening force would need to rapidly install a new legitimate government, perhaps the CRPH, and introduce a federalist system. But imposing these considerable reforms would take years if they were made on the spot. To speed up the process, the international community would need to now gather Myanmar’s civilian politicians and representatives of the ethnic militia groups to hammer out an agreement before intervention, yet that will also take considerable time. 

But the risks of not doing more are also considerable. As Burgener put it: “Failure to prevent further escalation of atrocities will cost the world so much more in the longer term than investing now in prevention, especially by Myanmar’s neighbors and the wider region.” Exactly what she meant by “investing” isn’t clear. What is clear is that the situation in Myanmar is worsening and the international community, although with good intentions, is standing, slack-jawed, watching events pass it by. And sanctions, unless China, Japan, and India are willing to act, aren’t going to cut it.