The job of the analyst and politician is to avoid oversimplification and comprehend complexity on behalf of others. On occasions, however, complexity becomes a placeholder for mere obfuscation. Give an ear to most foreign governments’ statements on the Myanmar crisis, and lingering behind their grand, noble promises is the insinuation that this crisis is too complex to result in any more direct intervention than they are currently willing to offer. Yet they appear only too happy to ignore simplicity when it’s offered.
Granted, the reasons for the current crisis – a political civil war between the forces of liberty and repressive order; decades-old ethnic civil wars; and postcolonial decisions about federalism and ethnicity – are complex, or “multidimensional,” as some analysts say. But causes ought not to mean solutions are equally incomprehensible or overly complex. Linger in any courtroom and you’ll find that verdicts on justice are delivered with startling clarity, especially compared with the drawn-out intricacy of assessing the reasons for that verdict.
Last month, I attempted an explanation in this column for why the international community is wrong to still be clutching to the idea that the path out of this crisis is a “return” to the democratic experimentation of the 2010s. That’s to say, a return to the status quo ante. (Read my piece to see my reasons for making this claim, but the obvious point is that returning to the 2010s, even if it was possible, which it isn’t, would mean that the threat of another coup persists, leaving Myanmar at risk of a perpetual cycle of peace and putsch.) Yet one possible reason why the international community sticks to this false assumption is that it maintains complexity – and complexity is an excuse for inaction.
Indeed, if foreign governments are sincere in wanting to “restore the country’s path toward democracy” or “assist Myanmar’s return to normalcy and democratic transition,” it requires not just the complex process of convincing the junta to lay down its arms yet maintain its undue influence over politics (as was the case in the 2010s). It also requires convincing the Myanmar people that they must accept some political power for the military, ignoring the fact that the military is capable of committing another coup, and forgetting that thousands of their comrades have been killed while fighting against the same forces that foreign governments presumably reckon will be a “stakeholder” in any post-crisis scenario.
The alternative interpretation of how this crisis is to be solved contends that because there is now no way back to the status quo ante, Myanmar and the world are left with a simple choice: accept the junta and its plans for a rigged ballot (and then be satisfied that that is enough progress to call the crisis to an end), or accept that the junta must fail, the military be reformed root-and-branch, and Myanmar must be federalized, as the revolutionary National Unity Government (NUG) now proposes. There is, unfortunately for some, no moderation or middle path in this interpretation, unlike the comforting and overcomplicated compulsion towards the status quo ante. Indeed, it presents a rather direct choice: support the NUG, its allied ethnic groups and the civil disobedience movement, or not. Or, more starkly, accept the junta or actively engage in bringing about its downfall.
Other complexities are also offered up. We recognize states, not governments, foreign countries say, although that doesn’t explain why they’re not giving more space to NUG officials for dialogue. The Ukraine war is distracting, is another excuse, although that comes up against Western focus on Taiwan, as well as the obvious assertion, as one analyst put it, that “a small fraction of the assistance delivered to Kyiv could decisively turn the tide of battle in Myanmar.” We’re hamstrung as ASEAN is taking the lead on the Myanmar crisis, governments contend, yet it doesn’t preclude their simple reaction that ASEAN is failing in this task.
Writing in August, Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. made a noteworthy assessment. “Following the coup,” he stated, “most foreign governments believed that the junta would brutally and efficiently consolidate a new military regime. The scope and resilience of the opposition, both civil and armed, surprised the international community at least as much as it did the junta’s generals.” He added: “Those faulty early assumptions help explain why the United States and others were slow to embrace the NUG – supporting a doomed resistance would only cause more bloodshed and economic pain for average Burmese citizens.”
Indeed, that appears to have been the case, although that does not explain why they are still demurring now when the revolutionary movement shows few signs of exhaustion and the junta continues to lose ground. But there’s a caveat. “It would be irresponsible for outside parties like the United States,” Poling wrote, “to provide military support to the NUG in the absence of a political roadmap with substantial buy-in from a critical mass of EAOs [ethnic armed organizations].” Otherwise, he added, “it seems all too likely that this civil war will just transition into the next, when a victorious Bamar government seeks to reimpose control over territories…that have been lost since the coup.” Indeed, but is this not demanding evidence for the unverifiable? The NUG has provided something of a roadmap and has refined it on several occasions. It has renounced the 1982 Citizenship Law. Several EAOs are allied with the NUG, while more are against the junta. And the National Unity Consultative Council is proving to be a “nucleus of the future federal structure of Myanmar,” as Philipp Annawitt put it recently.
How sincere is the NUG? And could it actually instigate its progressive plans if it defeats the junta? That, indeed, is complexity injected into the debate. One might reason that the NUG, as well as groups like the Arakan Army, have only reformed their thinking on the Rohingya and ethnicity in order to win international support. Perhaps that’s the case, although it might also be argued that if they weren’t sincere, they might have reverted to type by now. After all, some in the NUG (I hear) are giving up on the hope of any meaningful interventions from the West. And, as such, might not stoking ethnicity gain them more support at home, the only front in which this conflict will be won? Moreover, might not the NUG’s progressive plans become more realistic only after a “buy-in” from the likes of the United States?
To quote Poling again: “Either the junta will lose on the battlefield or the state will fracture. As soon as the NUG and its compatriots have a viable roadmap to avoid state collapse, the United States and its allies should help it achieve victory.” Correctly, a binary choice is presented: the junta loses or the state fractures. In other words, the junta wins and this crisis will persist for years, if not decades. Yet, in presenting this binary forecast, an injunction is also offered: the NUG must present a “roadmap,” an unfathomably complex one, to avoid state collapse before support is offered. But if state collapse is one of the only two inevitabilities, isn’t the simplest response to plump for the side that’s at least offering a way to avoid this outcome, however unverifiable that solution appears today?