The 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) sent shockwaves through the military regime in Myanmar, which illegally seized power in February 2021. The 2023 NDAA incorporates the long-delayed Burma Act, building on precedent set in 2022 when Senator Mitch McConnell added some key points from an earlier version of the Burma Act into last year’s NDAA. Having the Burma Act embedded in the NDAA suggests that U.S. support for the resistance in Myanmar could become a national security priority for the U.S. Congress.
It is not surprising, therefore, that people in Myanmar exuberantly hailed the passing of the 2023 NDAA as a clear signal of Washington’s support to the oft neglected pro-democracy movement.
In the wake of the 2021 coup, Myanmar has become a slaughterhouse, with the military savagely murdering its own people with heavy weapons and air power supplied mainly by Russia and China. Despite atrocities and indiscriminate killings by the military, Myanmar’s people have not faltered in their strong determination to fight against a return to military dictatorship.
Author Pat William once wrote that Samuel Adams, “the father of the [American] Revolution… hoped the oppression (by the British government) would end through reform, but he eventually realized that armed rebellion was the only option.” Similarly, at the outset of the resistance movement Myanmar’s people hoped in vain that peaceful protests could reverse the military coup. As the military’s brutal crackdown continued, they concluded that armed struggle would be necessary to protect themselves and to restore democracy in Myanmar.
Despite the lopsided balance of power, with the resistance forces heavily outgunned and lacking international assistance, the resolve of the people set the armed rebellion in motion, shaking the Myanmar military – one of the largest standing armies in Southeast Asia – from the bottom up. The military regime’s barbaric actions have brought the majority of Burmese people and an array of ethnic minority people to stand together in their fight against the military dictatorship.
Faced with a resistance movement spread across the country, the junta’s foot soldiers are now overstretched, outmaneuvered, thoroughly exhausted, and dramatically demoralized. The desperate junta has been forced to scale up its egregious brutality with excessive deployment of aerial power and heavy artillery against the poorly-equipped resistance forces, while indiscriminately terrorizing the general public to deny support for the resistance. During the two years since the coup, the junta’s security forces are reported to have killed at least 2,685 civilians, arrested 16,651 people, and burned down over 41,000 houses. The actual numbers are probably much higher.
In the face of these brutal attacks, Myanmar’s people have become frustrated with the international community’s indifference to their plight. Compared to the generous support to Ukraine from the NATO alliance, Myanmar’s resistance movement has received little to no material support from the international community. A leader of the resistance movement lamented that “only 1 percent share of support to Ukraine is enough to topple the junta’s spent forces, and to restore democracy in Burma.”
Therefore, Myanmar’s people view the enactment of the Burma Act, which opens the door for support to the pro-democratic resistance, as an encouraging move by the United States. The mere passage of the bill has produced a tremendous psychological impact on both the junta and the resistance movement.
Reflecting its anxiety, the military regime issued a statement saying that the “NDAA interferes with Myanmar’s internal affairs and encroaches on the country’s sovereignty.” It also organized protests by its supporters against the NDAA outside the U.S. Embassy in Yangon. The Burma Act also created a great deal of anxiety for Myanmar’s powerful neighbor, China, which immediately responded by sending its newly-appointed special envoy to meet with the junta’s chief.
By contrast, the bill seems to have motivated the diverse elements of the resistance to strive for better cooperation in coordinating efforts against the military regime. A recent series of New Year’s statements jointly and separately issued by the key stakeholders in the resistance movement – including the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) – clearly demonstrated signs of potential cooperation and shared resolve to fight against the military dictatorship.
To meet these rising expectations, however, the bill must be effectively implemented for tangible effect. Currently facing existential threats, Myanmar’s resistance movement needs additional urgent support from the international community more than ever, and the incorporation of the Burma Act in the 2023 NDAA has raised strong public expectations that substantial U.S. support will be forthcoming to the elements of the resistance named in the act. A failure or substantial delay in delivery of this assistance could also erode people’s confidence in the U.S. government’s declared support for the pro-democracy movement. Perceived abandonment, in turn, could have a catastrophic impact on resistance morale.
Therefore, in order to quickly fulfill the promise of the Burma Act, the Biden administration should consider the following:
First, U.S. policymakers should recognize openly that the people of Myanmar are in a war against the reimposition of a brutal military regime. “Non-lethal assistance,” as specified in the act, suggests that some assistance – such as strengthening communications, command, and control – can be provided legally to the multiple armed resistance forces, and is not reserved exclusively for organizations engaged in non-violent action. U.S. officials should acknowledge this and develop a concrete plan to support the democratic resistance movement as a whole, commensurate with the policy statements set out in the bill.
The enactment of the Burma Act has become a strong motivation for all leading forces in the resistance movement, primarily the NUG and its allied EAOs, to work more cooperatively in their struggle against the military junta. U.S. officials should hold a regular inclusive dialogue with key stakeholders, including representatives of the NUG and EAOs together in a joint setting, and should encourage its likeminded allies to follow suit.
The Biden administration should not hesitate anymore to impose tougher sanctions against the military regime, particularly the junta’s main source of revenue, Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise.
The United States should consider early warning systems as a form of humanitarian support that could be provided directly to the NUG and its EAO allies to protect civilian communities from the military’s indiscriminate airborne and heavy weapons assaults.
Finally, Washington should negotiate with Myanmar’s neighboring countries, such as Thailand and India, for the efficient and prompt delivery of assistance to the resistance forces and the people inside the country.
The support promised in the Burma Act should not be viewed as a one-step effort, but rather as the first step in building a foundation for political engagement between the NUG/EAOs and the United States government to form a solid basis for progressive expansion of future assistance to Myanmar’s pro-democratic movement. Without further U.S. material support, the resistance will struggle to overcome the China- and Russia-backed junta.
“A good piece of legislation,” as former U.S. President Barack Obama once said , “is like a good piece of music.” The passage of of the Burma Act in the 2023 NDAA has brought new hope to the hearts of Myanmar’s people, who are suffering deeply at the hands of a brutal military regime. They enthusiastically anticipate that it will bring a welcome measure of relief in 2023.