Why Doesn’t the West Sell Weapons to Myanmar’s Anti-Junta Rebels?

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Security | Southeast Asia

Why Doesn’t the West Sell Weapons to Myanmar’s Anti-Junta Rebels?

Whether or not direct military aid would help, Western governments should recognize that there is no going back to the status quo ante.

Why Doesn’t the West Sell Weapons to Myanmar’s Anti-Junta Rebels?

Protesters hold placards during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, February 14, 2021.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/MgHla (aka) Htin Linn Aye

At its worst, the Western response to the Myanmar crisis could be accused of mirroring the typical Social Darwinian approach of China, biding time until one side appears to be in the ascendancy. On occasions, insinuations of moral equivalency between the rebel groups and the military junta have been made, often because U.S. and EU statements discuss the crisis in very broad and basic terms. A European Council statement published on January 31, for instance, stated, “As a matter of priority, the EU reiterates its calls for an immediate cessation of all hostilities, and an end to the disproportionate use of force and the state of emergency.” (“All” here being the operative word.)

Nonetheless, the anti-junta groups have the right to ask: If the likes of Russia and China are getting away with allegedly selling weapons to the military, why can’t Western democracies arm those fighting to restore democracy and freedom? One argument against this is recognition. No Western democracy has formally recognized the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) as the legitimate government of Myanmar, nor has any recognized the junta. At international bodies, including the United Nations, the matter has been tacitly postponed. However, selling weapons to the civilian People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) or ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) would not constitute a formal recognition of the NUG, nor compel the Western governments to do so.

The other argument is escalation. Western democracies could say any greater intervention by themselves, including arm sales, would only escalate the violence and further complicate the crisis. That is far from obvious, but the Western media would likely see any arms sales to the rebels as escalating the violence. However, I’ve heard from a very well-placed source, whom I won’t name, that they think the conflict would be over within months if anti-junta forces have access to proper weaponry, rather than the homemade and black-market equipment they’re fighting with today.

The West could also argue that an actual solution to this crisis will take years, requiring the breakup of the military, an institution with deep roots, and the arduous imposition of a federalist system for the country. If Western governments were seen as being behind this push, opponents of the move, especially the military, would have additional propaganda. Indeed, geopolitics is at hand. China and India would be apoplectic if they perceived the West as trying to install a proxy government on their borders.

Given this, Western governments contend the best course is for them to mostly stay out and continue trusting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), despite it having no experience of mediating a solution to a problem this serious, to take the lead on conflict-resolution. Yet, the West isn’t exactly sitting on the fence. Their sanctions have clearly been one-sided. The U.S. and Britain, for instance, have now imposed several rounds of sanctions on Myanmar, the latest coming this week. The European Union has gone through three tranches of sanctions, and I expect another round to be announced later this month. In all these cases, sanctions have been exclusively applied on junta officials and businesses aligned with the military. Put differently, no NUG official, PDF or EAO now fighting against the junta has been sanctioned by a Western democracy.

At the same time, Brussels and Washington have made the naïve proposal of an international arms embargo on Myanmar. Such an embargo is highly unlikely. Last June, the U.N. General Assembly could only muster enough support for a non-binding resolution that “calls upon all member states to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar.” A binding resolution would have to come from the U.N. Security Council but Russia and China, accused of selling weapons to Myanmar’s junta, would likely veto it. The second issue is whether such an embargo would only apply to Myanmar’s military and junta-aligned forces. Brussels has been coy on what it actually wants, but Washington has intimated that an international embargo would only apply to the junta. On December 28, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for an international embargo to “prevent the recurrence of atrocities in Burma, including by ending the sale of arms and dual-use technology to the military.” However, Western governments almost always impose arms embargoes on countries, not on organizations.

What is stopping Western democracies from selling weapons to the rebel groups? The EU has its own arms embargo on Myanmar, which has been in place since the 1990s and which would prevent European governments from selling weapons to the PDFs and EAOs. (The U.K. has had one since 1988.) But the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported last June that the EU embargo remains in place until April 30, 2022, when it presumably has to be extended, as it does annually. This columnist cannot find references to plans for its extension, and how it will be done. It is theoretically possible, then, for an amendment to be made to specifically exempt groups fighting the military from the embargo.

The U.S. also has an historic arms embargo on Myanmar, but exemptions could be made. On December 27, President Joe Biden signed into law the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, which compels the Biden administration to:

… develop, in coordination with likeminded countries, a comprehensive, multilateral strategy to (1) support democratic governance and inclusive and representative civilian government, including by supporting entities promoting democracy in Burma and denying legitimacy and resources to the military junta; [and] (2) support organizations that represent the democratic aspirations of the people of Burma in the struggle against the military junta.

Because it is broadly-worded, Washington could define the PDFs and EAOs as “entities promoting democracy in Burma” and as “organizations that represent the democratic aspirations of the people of Burma in the struggle against the military junta.” As such, Congress or the Biden administration would have a legal text upon which to base a possible amendment to the U.S. arms embargo on Myanmar. Again, that’s highly unlikely.

The other consideration is the countries that don’t have arms embargoes. Since there is currently no binding international embargo, they couldn’t be punished if they sell weapons to the PDFs or EAOs fighting the junta. Ukrainian manufacturers have reportedly sold weapons to the junta. But it wouldn’t be beyond comprehension for Kyiv, if lobbied, to start selling arms to the rebel side (especially if a Russian invasion of the country never materializes and Kyiv is left with a stockpile of Western-donated weapons).

Aside from the question of legality (which makes arms sale to anti-junta forces incredibly unlikely) does the West have an ethical obligation to arm the rebels? The U.S., U.K. and EU have consistently said they want to see the return of the democratically elected government that was overthrown by the military last year, as well as the cessation of violence. Recently, the rhetoric has been ramped up. The U.S. Congress now compels the Biden administration to “support organizations that represent the democratic aspirations of the people of Burma in the struggle against the military junta.”

However, there is no way back to the status quo ante the West still seemingly thinks is possible. In recent weeks, the most senior officials of the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government, including State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, have been sentenced to several years in prison on trumped-up charges. The NLD, while not formally banned, may struggle to participate in whatever degraded form of election the junta is planning for the future. (It may even decide not to compete in protest.)

The ASEAN-led Five Point Consensus, which was agreed with the military junta last April, and which supposedly committed the military to ending its violence, has never been followed. The armed forces killed civilians the day after it was signed, and junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has explicitly said the military will only cease its violent actions after the civilian resistance and PDFs have given up their struggle.

Has the West misled the Burmese people? Some “realist” commentators argued rather quickly after the coup that because the West was never really going to engage seriously in this crisis (and that its empty words allegedly spurred on the rebels while not providing them with any tangible help) it would have been better for Washington, Brussels, and London to have held their noses and accepted the junta, and then tried to work with it on limited concessions. I disagreed at the time, as I do today.

Still, the West perhaps played some role in spurring the rebels with a false sense of solidarity. An argument could be made that the Burmese people would have fought on regardless of what the West did, even if no action was taken. They, after all, have a long history of fighting alone against the military. Yet, the chorus on social media and from rebel groups appealing for more Western action indicates that there is still some expectation of Western help.

If nothing else, the West must accept if it wants to keep on imposing sanctions, they have to be far more crippling than they are. Presently, they are doing nothing but pinching the junta; they haven’t yet even targeted the junta’s largest source of foreign revenue, the proceeds from oil and gas, that is has used to purchase weapons allegedly from Russia and China.

Arming the rebels may considerably escalate the crisis and lead to even greater bloodshed (and this author is not recommending it), yet others say it would shorten it and tip the conflict in the anti-junta favor. But something needs to change. There’s no going back to the status quo ante in Myanmar, nor is the West, while pleased with itself, doing much by sticking to its own status quo.