Revisiting U.S. Policy in Myanmar

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is locked in a political impasse in which neither Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s State Administrative Council (SAC) nor the self-declared National Unity Government (NUG) can effectively govern the nation. Meanwhile, the country’s decades-old civil war continues to spread and intensify.

On September 7, the NUG’s acting president, Duwa Lashi La, called for a “revolt against the rule of military terrorists led by Min Aung Hlaing in every corner of the country.” SAC spokesperson General Zaw Min Tun dismissed the announcement, referring to the NUG as “extremists.” Some of the nation’s ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), people’s defense forces (PDFs), and civil society organizations that have sustained the anti-SAC protests have reportedly expressed support for the NUG’s call for revolution. Myanmar is shifting from being a failed state to a warring state.

It is too early to tell how much Myanmar’s civil war will intensify in the weeks ahead. Many, but not all, of the country’s more than 20 EAOs will likely increase their attacks on bases and forces belonging to Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw. Virtually all of the estimated 150 PDFs that have formed since the Tatmadaw deposed the civilian side of the hybrid civilian-military Union Government on February 1 can be expected to join the revolt. However, the resulting armed struggle is unlikely to be well coordinated and may lack a clear overall strategy for defeating Min Aung Hlaing and the SAC. The Tatmadaw will attempt to exploit what it perceives as weaknesses in the anti-SAC alliance.

The nation’s political impasse and intensifying civil war are both indicators that current U.S. policy in Myanmar has been ineffective in the seven months since the military coup. U.S. efforts to promote the “restoration of democracy” and an end of violence in Myanmar have shown little evidence of progress. The September 8 statement by an unnamed State Department spokesperson, who said, “The United States does not condone violence as a solution to the current crisis in Burma and calls on all sides to remain peaceful,” appears out of touch with the real situation in the country.

It is time for the Biden administration and Congress to revisit U.S. policy in Myanmar and to develop a strategy that is consistent with the current political and military situation in the nation.

First, the escalation of violence in Myanmar has generated thousands of new refugees in India and Thailand, as well as tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) inside the country, who are in desperate need of basic humanitarian assistance. So far, the governments in India and Thailand have resisted international efforts to provide coordinated aid to the new refugees. The United States should apply pressure on both governments to allow international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) greater access to the refugees and lead a multiparty campaign to finance the effort.

The humanitarian assistance to refugees and IDPs should be channeled directly to the INGOs, without the involvement of the SAC or the NUG. Neither the SAC nor the NUG have the capability or the willingness to impartially deliver the necessary aid. Organizations that have past experience in providing aid to Burmese refugees and IDPs, such as The Border Consortium in Thailand, should be utilized when possible. Congress and the Biden administration should also consider working with some of the EAOs to deliver humanitarian assistance to IDPs in areas they control.

Additional humanitarian assistance to these refugees and IDPs should not come at the expense of the nearly one million Rohingya refugees who remain in Bangladesh four years after the genocidal attack launched by the Tatmadaw. Although conditions in the camps in Cox’s Bazar have improved a bit, the plight of the Rohingyas remains severe and the refugees should not be allowed to suffer from “assistance fatigue” by the international community.

Second, the United States should significantly intensify and broaden the current sanctions imposed on Myanmar’s military leaders and senior SAC officials. The Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) list contains 71 persons or entities currently subject to financial restrictions under President Joe Biden’s Executive Order 14014, including the Tatmadaw-controlled Myanmar Economic Corporation Limited (MEC) and the Myanma Economic Holdings Public Company Limited (MEHL). The targeted sanctions imposed to date are much too narrow and limited to have any appreciable impact. Congress or the Biden administration should broaden these sanctions to include a ban on all trade and investment with entities owned or controlled by the Tatmadaw, its senior officers, or supporters of the SAC.

Some observers fear that broader sanctions will harm the people of Myanmar more than the military. This view overlooks several aspects of Myanmar’s current economic situation. Very little of the profits generated by military-controlled companies, such as MEC and MEHL, trickle down to the people of Myanmar. Since the military coup, people have turned to the nation’s massive “gray economy” to survive, which will insulate them from the effects of the proposed sanctions. By contrast, the broader sanctions will likely starve the SAC and the Tatmadaw of the necessary funding to continue to finance the war effort. Finally, in numerous media reports, representatives of the anti-SAC organizations have repeatedly called for the imposition of more sanctions. Presumably, they are in a better position to judge the possible impact of the sanctions.

In addition, the United States should utilize existing laws to prevent the use of U.S. financial institutions to provide financial services to facilitate trade or investment with sanctioned persons or entities. In particular, the governments of Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand should be told that they risk the loss of access to the U.S. banking system if they provide financial services for trade and/or investment with Tatmadaw-controlled entities or senior Tatmadaw officers.

Third, the State Department should reestablish public ties to the EAOs, as well as open direct communications with the leaders of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM)—the nationwide effort to deprive the junta of its ability to govern via mass strikes and protests—and the various PDFs. The goal would be to better understand their political goals and seek means of advancing them. Since the palace coup, the State Department has been too focused on discussions with the NUG and the SAC. The political landscape in Myanmar is much broader than those two entities, and public meetings by senior State Department officials with the EAOs, the PDFs, and the CDM would demonstrate U.S. awareness of the complex political reality in Myanmar and possibly facilitate cooperation among the various anti-SAC organizations. Representatives of several of the EAOs frequently meet in Chiang Mai, Thailand. A high-profile visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to meet with the EAOs would send a strong signal to the world that the United States is exploring all options to overturn the coup and restore civilian rule in Myanmar. Similarly, the U.S. ambassador and his staff could meet with representatives of the CDM and the PDFs in secure locations in Yangon and other cities to learn more about what they would like to see the United States and the international community do to help their cause.

For many years, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has successfully maintained relations with both the Tatmadaw and many of the EAOs, giving the PRC significant leverage in Myanmar, although neither the Tatmadaw nor the EAOs particularly like the PRC. One of the weaknesses of U.S. policy in Myanmar over the last decade was the limited interaction with the EAOs, which undermined the image of the United States among Myanmar’s ethnic minorities.

Fourth, the United States should aggressively lead a global ban on military assistance, including arms and training, to the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar Police Force, and pro-SAC security forces in Myanmar. In addition, Congress should pass legislation banning military assistance to Myanmar’s security forces, as the current U.S. arms embargo is based on executive action. The PRC, Russia, and Ukraine are likely to oppose such a ban, but strong U.S. leadership on the issue would likely secure support from U.S. allies and friends, as well as demonstrate to the people of Myanmar who are their friends and who are not.

Fifth, President Biden or Secretary Blinken should at long last declare the Tatmadaw’s 2017 attack on the Rohingya as an act of genocide and crimes against humanity. In addition, the statement should also indicate that similar acts of violence against ethnic minorities in the states of Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, and Shan committed by the Tatmadaw and Myanmar’s security forces over the last 60 years, including since the coup, also constitute genocide, crimes against humanity, and/or war crimes. As part of this declaration, the State Department should provide to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the Prosecutors Office of the International Criminal Court (ICC) the evidence it collected in 2018, and pledge U.S. support for efforts to prosecute Burmese officials culpable for these crimes in the ICC, ICJ, or some other form of international tribunal.

Sixth, Congress should pressure President Biden to nominate a candidate for the position of “special representative and policy coordinator for Burma,” as provided for by Section 7 of the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE (Junta’s Anti-democratic Efforts) Act of 2008, and the Senate should consider confirmation of the appointment. The ambassador-level position has been allowed to remain vacant since Derek Mitchell was confirmed as U.S. ambassador to Myanmar in 2012. Under the current circumstances, the appointment of a new special representative and policy coordinator for Burma would facilitate the coordination of interagency policy on Myanmar, centralize efforts to organize multiparty opposition to the Tatmadaw’s coup, and improve communications with Congress on framing U.S. policy in Myanmar, including improved oversight and possible new legislation—all duties mentioned in the JADE Act.

Michael F. Martin is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Michael Martin
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program