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Why the US Needs to Back Myanmar’s Spring Revolution

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Why the US Needs to Back Myanmar’s Spring Revolution

Recent rebel offensives have the military junta reeling. A little bit of outside support could hasten its collapse.

Why the US Needs to Back Myanmar’s Spring Revolution

Soldiers from the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) pose with the MNDAA flag after capturing a Myanmar military base at Magra-tapok hill in northern Shan State on October 27, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/The Kokang

While the United States is preoccupied with conflicts in Ukraine, Gaza, and elsewhere, it is missing a golden opportunity to not only deter China from invading Taiwan, but also to score a major victory in President Joe Biden’s battle royale between democracy and autocracy.

Specifically, if the U.S. provided just a little more support to Myanmar’s resistance forces, which are poised to win their Spring Revolution against Myanmar’s brutal military junta, it would hasten the downfall of the junta and the restoration of democracy in Myanmar.

In the process, the U.S. would gain enormous strategic advantage vis-a-vis China. First, helping Myanmar’s resistance cross the finish line would mark a major global victory for democracy. This is because Myanmar sits at the geostrategic crossroads of China, India, and Southeast Asia, a region that has experienced democratic backsliding as China’s influence has expanded. Second, it would preserve Washington’s ability to deter the Chinese government by threatening to blockade the Straits of Malacca in the event of a conflict.

The “Malacca dilemma” – China’s heavy reliance on oil and other crucial imports through the narrow Straits, which can be easily blockaded by the U.S. and its allies – currently gives the U.S. enormous leverage over Beijing and deters it from invading Taiwan and embarking on other misadventures.

China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping is clearly obsessed with Taiwan and is on the verge of painting himself into a corner on this issue, at which point he might feel pressured by Chinese ultra-nationalists to attack the island even if he knows it would be foolish. The U.S. has no choice, therefore, but to maintain enough leverage to deter China from taking actions that could trigger nuclear war.

In this regard, Myanmar presents the U.S. with a unique opportunity. After the junta falls, Myanmar’s new government will not only be democratic, but also less willing to grant China what it most desires: unrestricted access to the Indian Ocean as a way around the Straits of Malacca.

Accordingly, Myanmar is now America’s single largest “strategic blind spot,” in the words of  Burmese-American Myanmar specialist Miemie Winn Byrd, a retired U.S. Army officer who teaches at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.

The conventional wisdom is that the U.S. has avoided supporting the Spring Revolution because it would antagonize China and upset its delicate relationship with Thailand, its longtime treaty ally. However, both China and Thailand have recently changed their Myanmar policies for three reasons.

First, China and Thailand are finally realizing that the junta is “actively collapsing,” so they will eventually need to change their policies anyway; second, both countries now view the junta as the region’s greatest source of instability; and third, China and Thailand have concluded that coup-leader Min Aung Hlaing is unwilling and/or unable to tackle the forced cyber-scamming epidemic, which exploded along their borders with Myanmar during the COVID-19 pandemic and has severely harmed countless people from China, Thailand, and dozens of other countries.

Indeed, one of the reasons Beijing tacitly supported the Spring Revolution’s “Operation 1027”—a  wildly successful military operation that Byrd views as the revolution’s tipping point—is that Min Aung Hlaing refused to crack down on forced scamming and other crimes which were harming Chinese citizens.

This also explains the recent confusion among policymakers in China, which is the junta’s primary source of weapons and funding. In effect, Beijing has been propping up a regime that is incapable of providing stability and profits from harming Chinese citizens.

The consensus among seasoned Myanmar analysts with armed conflict expertise, such as Matthew Arnold and Miemie Winn Byrd, is that the junta is “actively collapsing.” Long-time Myanmar conflict analyst David Mathieson has said the junta is “finished,” and Jane’s Defense Weekly analyst Anthony Davis, who has covered armed conflict in Southeast Asia for decades, has urged the international community to “prepare diplomatic, humanitarian, and judicial responses” for the aftermath of the junta’s collapse.

Despite this, Beijing somehow still refuses to accept the reality that democracy will soon be reestablished in Myanmar. As soon as China acknowledges this, the leadership in Beijing will realize that China’s best – and only – option is to support the Spring Revolution and try to salvage China’s relationship with the Myanmar people, who will ultimately decide how much access China has to the Indian Ocean.

It’s simply a matter of degree. The more access China has to the Indian Ocean, the less leverage the U.S. has to deter Xi (and Chinese citizens acting in his name) from attacking Taiwan, encroaching on foreign and contested territories, undermining the sovereignty of other countries, and embarking on other misadventures.

China’s flagship project to facilitate its access to the Indian Ocean – the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) – has seen little progress since the coup. The junta knows this and is now scrambling to convince China that it can provide the stability China needs to expand the CMEC.

But it’s too little, too late for the junta. The sooner Beijing realizes the Spring Revolution will prevail, the sooner China can attempt to resurrect its relationship with Myanmar. Anti-Chinese sentiment has a long history in Myanmar and has grown exponentially since the coup because China has been supporting the junta’s war against its own people.

To be sure, Beijing knows that increasing its support for the Spring Revolution – even if only by facilitating humanitarian aid distribution– would go a long way towards improving China’s negative image in Myanmar. Conversely, if China continues to support the junta it will only damage its long-term interests in the country.

Influential Myanmar commentator @Nicholas6284 summarized this current dynamic on Twitter/X recently, arguing that the “best option for China is to help the resistance win fast and normalize [its] relationship” with the new democratic Myanmar government.

In this regard, perhaps one way to convince China to accept the reality would be to remind Beijing of its good relationship with Myanmar’s previous civilian government under Aung San Suu Kyi, which signed the CMEC agreement with China and provided enough stability to kickstart the project.

Indeed, Myanmar’s parallel National Unity Government (NUG) did just that on January 2, releasing a 10-point position paper entitled “The NUG’s Position on China,” which is designed to convince China that the NUG would be a better partner than the junta. Among other things, the NUG promised in the position paper that measures would be taken to “safeguard Chinese economic investments” and combat “online scams.”

Eventually, Beijing might realize that it is in China’s own best interest to cooperate with the U.S. or Thailand to expedite the inevitable downfall of the junta, at least by supporting the provision of humanitarian aid. To this end, former U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel has suggested that Washington should consider cooperating with Beijing on Myanmar issues, and professor Tony Waters has even proposed the idea that cooperation on Myanmar could lead to a broader Sino-U.S. detente.

In fact, the U.S. and China have already cooperated to prevent the junta from representing Myanmar at the United Nations, so nothing is impossible. But even if greater U.S.-China cooperation on Myanmar is wishful thinking, policymakers in Washington need to wake up and realize that it’s in America’s interest to enhance support for the Spring Revolution regardless of what China does.

Against this backdrop, the U.S. would be foolish not to seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to support the impending victory of Myanmar’s brave revolutionaries, who have defied all odds against a well-armed Goliath and achieved spectacular successes largely on their own.

Even simply increasing U.S. humanitarian aid would, by itself, expedite the junta’s downfall because it would free up resources currently being used by resistance forces to support the millions of displaced people in need of food, medicine, and shelter.

Of course, the U.S. could and should do more to support the Spring Revolution, but at the very least the Biden administration should fast-track the full distribution of assistance authorized by the Burma Act passed by Congress in early 2023.

The more assistance and sanctions the U.S. can muster in cooperation with its partners, the faster the junta will collapse, and the less suffering Myanmar people will endure from the junta’s scorched earth campaign against civilians. In the aftermath of Operation 1027, the junta has reaffirmed it will intensify attacks against civilians as it gets more desperate to stave off its inevitable defeat. Thailand is fully aware of this and has already approached Japan for more humanitarian aid for Myanmar refugees.

Just a little bit of support will go a long way in Myanmar, so this is essentially low-hanging fruit that the U.S. can grasp at little cost. At the same time, the rewards Washington would reap would be correspondingly high. In particular, it would advance U.S. interests by revitalizing democracy in the region and maintaining Washington’s substantial deterrence against Chinese adventurism.

In doing so, the U.S. would also engender enormous goodwill among the Myanmar people and position itself as a key player in Myanmar’s reconstruction and transition to democracy. As an added bonus, after years of declining influence in a region increasingly dominated by China, the U.S. would finally reestablish its influence in Southeast Asia – a fast-growing and strategically-located region that U.S. policymakers cannot afford to ignore.

Guest Author

Peter Morris

Peter Morris is a lawyer, journalist, and aspiring linguist who has been involved with various Myanmar projects since 2008. He majored in politics and East Asian studies at Brandeis University, completed a master’s program in China Studies at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, and studied linguistics and several languages (including Burmese, Jingpo, Rawang, Sgaw Karen, and Shan) while enrolled in a combined JD/Tax LLM program at the University of Washington (Seattle) School of Law. Follow Peter’s tweets on X or his blogs on LinkedIn.