Two years after the military coup, the conflict in Myanmar continues to intensify and the international community appears powerless to affect meaningful change. Global institutions, regional organizations, and neighboring countries continue to look for a “political solution” to Myanmar’s crisis, with calls for “peaceful” dialogue ad nauseam. And therein lies the problem: this elusive “political solution” does not exist.
The military junta’s unrelenting string of civilian massacres is proof that it has zero interest in accountability. Burning civilians alive, torching entire villages, bombing primary schools, and torturing detainees – the evidence is all documented and publicly available. Blatantly continuing monstrous human rights violations in the face of mounting evidence should be enough for the international community to realize that the military junta will not compromise.
The pro-democracy resistance is well aware of this fact and has been working towards removing the junta entirely. With resistance troops – a coalition of People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) and ethnic revolutionary organizations (EROs) – making encouraging gains and emboldened by heavy junta troop casualties, the die has been cast and both camps have moved far past the possibility of a negotiated settlement.
In fact, the junta now controls only around half of the country’s territory. The roughly 100,000-strong EROs are either in direct conflict with junta troops or are consolidating territorial control for regional autonomy and in some cases providing various forms of assistance to the PDFs. The 65,000-strong PDFs, the majority of whom are trained by battle-hardened ERO commanders or junta soldiers who have defected, have mostly been transformed into capable fighting forces now, armed with automatic rifles, snipers, machine guns, drones, and mortars.
The resistance troops now outnumber junta combat troops, many of whom have lost the will to fight and face a crisis of combat effectiveness, thanks to gross mismanagement, crippling institutional corruption, and vitriolic hostility from the public. The junta’s remaining tactical superiority is its air force, which of late has not been helping its troops win battles and has instead been carrying out aerial massacres of civilian populations.
But the junta air attacks have only strengthened the people’s resolve to defeat the junta. The international community must acknowledge this and cease futile attempts to engage the junta, desperately hoping to dissuade it from murdering civilians. The generals have no remorse, will not cease atrocities, and certainly will not concede.
This is the military’s third coup. External parties, particularly regional partners, should be discerning enough to understand that the 2011 transition to a quasi-democracy was unexpected, though much welcomed, anomaly. First, Myanmar’s long-suffering people were desperate for any measure of progress after nearly a half-century of authoritarian rule. Second, the military government of the time had full territorial, economic, and administrative control of the country and was consequently able to initiate the transition on its own terms. Third, and most importantly, the transition was in the military’s best interest. The easing of sanctions helped enrich its business interests and the “reforms” served to secure its survival as the junta witnessed the Arab Spring rage and long-ruling autocrats fall.
However, once the civilian National League for Democracy administration started pushing for constitutional reform to remove the military appointees that held effective veto power in parliament, the military saw their political and economic hold on the country threatened. It should be clear by now, that the military never intended to relinquish power.
The repeated coups and sickening human rights violations over the past six decades should be a wake-up call for the global community, and a reminder that there is a severe moral hazard to negotiating with the Myanmar military. Coups have happened before and will happen again, if the military is allowed to maintain an outsized role in politics through another military-designed transition to civilian rule with the junta’s proposed sham elections.
It need not be a zero-sum game, however. Concerned partners and regional players simply need to accept that the military junta is headed towards its demise and that the resistance will push on – to understand that Myanmar’s crisis is not deadlocked, only that the junta has come to a dead-end. The swiftest way to end the crisis in Myanmar is to provide every form of assistance possible to expedite victory for the pro-democracy resistance.
Staunch pro-democracy allies such as the United States. The United Kingdom and European Union should continue to sanction the military and affiliated entities, though not much can realistically be expected from the latter two with the war raging at the EU’s doorstep in Ukraine. Provisions in the U.S. BURMA Act for “non-lethal” assistance towards EROs and PDFs is an encouraging step in the right direction. The National Unity Government (NUG) and EROs also require assistance in both formal and informal diplomacy, to help facilitate dialogue with potential partners, particularly with neighboring governments.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should proceed with what it does best: closed-door diplomacy. However, of its Five-Point Consensus peace plan, only one goal – the provision of humanitarian assistance – can realistically be implemented in the foreseeable future. The attack by the junta’s proxy militia of an ASEAN aid convoy should not deter the organization from continuing to provide humanitarian aid. Instead, it should reconfigure its approach by bypassing the junta entirely and delivering aid across borders from neighboring countries through ASEAN Plus mechanisms. ASEAN’s engagement with EROs should focus on the effective delivery of humanitarian aid, considering ERO territories are located along borders.
Contentious as the idea may be, neighboring China, which is looking to defuse tensions along its borders and mitigate the Myanmar public’s growing anti-China animosity, should also consider partaking in such a regional mechanism in good faith. Of all neighboring countries, it holds the most influence over the junta, which is beholden to it for scraps of legitimacy granted by its continued engagement. Being able to effectively provide humanitarian assistance will significantly ease the burden for the resistance and allow it to focus on defeating the junta.
Both ASEAN and neighboring countries should continue to provide temporary refuge for those fleeing persecution from the junta, perhaps by exploring immigration channels and visa schemes that enable Myanmar citizens of different legal status to make worthwhile contributions to host country economies while seeking refuge. The political, social, and financial contributions of the Myanmar diaspora fuel the resistance and millions of dollars in financial assistance from overseas have been instrumental in sustaining the fight against the junta. Keeping the persecuted diaspora safe overseas is an often overlooked yet indispensable component of the pro-democracy movement.
A host of other options for assistance exist, but as the primary interlocutor, the NUG must also develop a pragmatic foreign policy, one that engages in realpolitik rather than repetitive calls for de jure recognition and complete disengagement with the junta. Activism is not diplomacy. As long as the junta continues to occupy Naypyidaw and its bureaucratic institutions, countries and global institutions will inevitably have to maintain some level of engagement with it. On the other hand, as long as Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun maintains his seat at the United Nations, under international law, the junta cannot be considered the legitimate government of Myanmar.
The NUG must keep expectations realistic and start approaching potential partners, especially Myanmar’s neighbors and ASEAN member states, with opportunities for both public and covert engagement and assistance. The level of support would depend on each country’s risk appetite, capability, and vested interests in Myanmar. Support from the U.S. and other pro-democracy allies is instrumental. But it is the regional players and neighboring countries that can do the most to help the resistance win.
Briefly put, external parties working towards resolution of the crisis in Myanmar must acknowledge that capitulation of the junta is the only plausible outcome, while pro-democracy forces must keep expectations realistic and focus on achievable goals in diplomacy. A change of perspectives by all involved is the only path forward to resolving the crisis.