Earlier this week, the United Nations Special Envoy on Myanmar called for a New Year’s ceasefire, following months of escalating violence between the country’s military junta and the many groups resisting its repressive rule. In a statement on December 27, Noeleen Heyzer, who took up her post earlier this month, said she was “deeply concerned by the continued escalation of violence in Kayin State and other parts of Myanmar, which have displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians, including women and children.”
“The Special Envoy urges all parties to act in the greater interest of the nation and to fully respect their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law to protect civilians, ensure free movement towards safety when needed, and allow humanitarian assistance to be provided to those in need, including those forced to flee the violence,” Heyzer’s statement added. “To this end, she appeals for a New Year’s ceasefire throughout Myanmar.”
As mentioned above, the call follows a steady increase in violent resistance to the junta’s rule. In September, the opposition National Unity Government (NUG) formally called for a nationwide a “people’s defensive war” to oust the “military terrorists” that seized power in February, overthrowing the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. This was followed by intensifying attacks on military personnel and facilities by dozens of local civilian militias known as People’s Defense Forces (PDFs). As the defense analyst Anthony Davis noted in a recent article,
Daily targeted killings of military-appointed officials and suspected collaborators by PDF gunmen that have escalated to drive-by attacks on military bases and police stations have crippled local government in many parts of the country. The ubiquitous use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that initially targeted government offices and troop convoys has meanwhile broadened to hit infrastructure targets such as railways, bridges, and Tatmadaw-owned mobile phone transmission towers.
These attacks have been followed invariably by reprisals – increasingly large scale and savage – from the Myanmar security forces, which culminated in the killing and incineration of 35 people in Kayah State on December 24. The fighting is also displacing increasing numbers of civilians, particularly in Kayin State, where several thousand people have fled across the border into Thailand.
The Myanmar opposition’s embrace of a strategy of armed struggle has understandably been met with ambivalence by many foreign governments and international observers. In September, when the NUG issued its call for a “nationwide uprising” against the military junta, it was met by similar international calls for all sides to remain peaceful. The Special Advisory Council on Myanmar (SAC-M), a panel of international experts, described the escalation as “unfortunate” and a U.S. State Department spokesperson said that the United States “does not condone violence as a solution to the current crisis.”
In her statement, Heyzer implied that the resort to armed resistance was deepening the country’s spiral of violence. As an alternative, the special rapporteur said that she “has been actively consulting all stakeholders with a view to supporting a Myanmar-led process” of dialogue.
However, while outsiders can regret the decision of anti-coup forces to resort to armed struggle, this cannot be abstracted from the ultimate political – indeed, revolutionary – goals of the resistance: the construction of a genuinely inclusive federal system in which the military is shackled by effective civilian control.
Neither can it be seen apart from the broader context of international paralysis and inaction since the coup. Despite their claims to be “standing with the people” of Myanmar (a familiar formulation in U.S. government statements of concern), Western governments have done little aside from impose sanctions on individuals and entities with little exposure to the U.S.-centered financial system.
The U.N. Security Council has mustered statements of concern, including, most recently, a condemnation of last week’s horrific massacre in Kayah State, but remains divided on whether to impose stricter measures – such as an arms embargo – on Myanmar’s junta. (No surprise, given that China and Russia remain Myanmar’s two largest suppliers of arms.) The absence of substantial outside support has left those resisting the coup with few other options, a point that has been made repeatedly by the NUG and its leaders.
It is also unlikely that the opposition can or will put much hope in the sort of needle-threading mediated “Myanmar-led process” that the special rapporteur advocates. The military junta refused even to meet with Heyzer’s predecessor Christine Schraner Burgener, and continues to treat its opponents as “terrorists.” As shown by the efforts of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to push forward a process of negotiation between the junta and its enemies, the Myanmar junta will engage only so far as it can derive any benefit. Any such process will only play to the Tatmadaw’s advantage.
To be sure, there are serious practical obstacles to Western governments providing the NUG and its affiliated armed groups with more substantial recognition and backing, let alone lethal support. Not the least of these is the risk of fusing Myanmar’s struggle to the growing strategic competition between China and the democracies of the West. It also remains unclear whether the anti-coup forces have the ability ultimately to prevail against the Tatmadaw, and if the latter were to collapse, what would follow in its wake.
But they should not expect the NUG and its supporters to take a similarly cautious view. Given the imbalance of forces on the ground, the life-or-death stakes for the resistance, and the scant chance that the military will unilaterally down its own weapons, eschewing violence would be tantamount to a surrender to Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s February fait accompli. This would in turn solidify a new status quo that promises an indefinite period of brutal military rule, which would generate a continuing stream of human rights violations and humanitarian emergencies.
As Angshuman Choudhury, a senior researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, tweeted yesterday, “A nationwide ceasefire would be great in an ideal situation where the battlefield is symmetric. But, that’s not the case in Myanmar. Here, national ceasefires almost always end up bolstering the military’s position.”
On a short-term utilitarian calculus – the least harm for the greatest number – calls for the opposition to forswear armed resistance make sense, and it is hard to expect the U.N. and its personnel to say anything else (certainly not to trumpet armed revolution). But that also demonstrates the limitations of the liberal model of peace-building, one in which all conflicts can always in principle be resolved through dialogue, and vicious actors like the Myanmar military can ultimately be habituated to the high-minded legal norms contained in international treaties and conventions. Western observers may not support the Myanmar opposition’s decision to resort to armed struggle, but they should understand it.