Time for a New U.S. Policy in Myanmar

Events over the last 13 months indicate that it is time that Congress and the Biden administration adopt a new policy to address the ongoing crises in Myanmar. The pro-democracy opposition to the military junta has ruled out the restoration of the hybrid civilian-military government under the provisions of the deeply flawed 2008 constitution. The military junta has continued its past practice of attacking civilians in an effort to undermine support for the emerging revolution, raising allegations of possible genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced by the ongoing civil war.

Calls for ceasefire and negotiations are flatly rejected by Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement. The military junta’s invitation to alleged peace talks on February 15, Myanmar’s 75th Union Day, were similarly rebuffed by almost all of the major ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). For now, a cessation of the civil war is highly unlikely as both sides seem committed to achieving their objectives by military means.

Prospects for a comprehensive and binding international arms embargo are also quite dim. The UN Human Rights Council has determined that China, India, Pakistan, Russia, and Serbia provided arms to Burma’s military in 2021. A report by Justice for Myanmar claims that an Indonesian company has also supplied arms to Burma’s military since the coup. While the UN General Assembly passed a non-binding resolution on June 18, 2021, calling “upon all Member States to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar,” a proposed binding resolution in the UN Security Council is being blocked by China and Russia.

Given these tragic realities, it is time that Congress and the Biden administration look for ways to assist the pro-democracy forces in Myanmar in their efforts to topple the military junta and establish a genuine democratic government. The new U.S. policy would also involve cooperating with the various EAOs and civil society organizations (CSOs) to deliver humanitarian assistance to the growing number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Myanmar. Finally, broader and harsher sanctions should be applied to Burma’s military leaders and military-controlled companies to starve the junta of money and resources that would enable them to continue their brutal attacks on the people of Myanmar.

There are several ways the U.S. government could provide support for the pro-democracy armed forces in Myanmar. Some are either unlikely or impractical. For example, the U.S. prohibition of arms sales to Burma’s military does little to stop offensives against EAOs and the various people’s defense forces (PDFs) that have formed over the last year, given China, Russia, and other nations continue to sell it arms. Similarly, establishing a “no-fly zone” over Myanmar or a naval embargo are logistically difficult and would likely heighten tensions with China.

Another alternative would be to provide selective military assistance, in the form of both arms and training, to some of the EAOs and PDFs. Unfortunately, the U.S. government has a poor track record in providing military assistance to opposition groups trying to topple oppressive regimes. Such aid would have to be carefully planned and implemented to avoid repeating past mistakes made in Afghanistan and Syria.

For now, the most practical and politically viable option would be to offer non-lethal assistance to the EAOs and PDFs as part of a larger program to provide humanitarian assistance to Myanmar’s refugees and IDPs. As of November 2021, the United Nations estimated approximately 3 million people in Myanmar needed basic humanitarian assistance. In its latest overview of humanitarian needs in Myanmar, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) identified 14 million people in need of assistance. In 2021, OCHA sought $276 million for assistance inside Myanmar but received pledges of only $207 million. In 2022, OCHA is seeking $826 million.

Burma’s military has repeatedly blocked or hindered the delivery of humanitarian assistance, particularly to IDPs in areas controlled by pro-democracy forces. Providing non-lethal assistance to the pro-democracy forces would offer several benefits. First, it would allow the EAOs and PDFs to redirect some of their funds to obtaining weapons to continue their effort to liberate the people of Myanmar. Second, the EAOs and PDFs could provide security for the delivery of humanitarian assistance to IDPs, particularly in areas controlled by pro-democracy forces. Third, it would rekindle closer U.S. relations with the EAOs after more than a decade of neglect.

Better relations with the EAOs would also help the U.S. government engage in ongoing discussions regarding the nature of a future federal democracy in Myanmar. Any plan to establish a stable, viable democracy in Myanmar will require the support of the EAOs. Past efforts by former president Thein Sein and former state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi failed in part because of their unwillingness to adequately address the grievances of the major EAOs.

Representatives from most of the leading entities in Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement—including many of the EAOs and PDFs, the civil disobedience movement, various human rights organizations, and the self-proclaimed National Unity Government—have formed the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) to discuss the basic provisions of a future federal democracy and the transition to a new government. The NUCC held its first meeting online on January 27–29, 2022, involving 388 representatives of different opposition groups. Preliminary reports indicate that the NUCC is showing more promise than previous attempts to negotiate terms for a future federal democracy in Myanmar.

Meanwhile, efforts are underway in several of the ethnic states to form functional state governments. The Arakan Army, with the support of the major Arakan political parties, is setting up an autonomous Arakan State. In Chin State, a coalition between the Chin National Front, the Chinland Defense Force, and Chin civil society is also beginning the process of establishing a government for the liberated areas of Chin State. Similar efforts are underway in the other five ethnic states: Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, and Shan. The U.S. government should offer assistance to the NUCC, as well as the efforts at the state level, in their attempts to create genuine democratic governments.

Finally, despite the potential negative economic effects, Congress or the Biden administration should impose broader and stricter sanctions on Burma’s military and its supporters by enacting new laws (such as the BURMA Act) or utilizing existing legal authority. For example, President Biden should apply economic sanctions and visa restrictions on all officers with a rank of colonel or higher and prohibit trade and investment with any company owned or controlled by Burma’s military or its senior officers. Similarly, the U.S. government could also impose targeted secondary sanctions on financial institutions and companies that conduct business with sanctioned persons or entities.

None of these actions will guarantee the people of Myanmar success in overthrowing decades of military oppression and suffering. However, they may increase their chances of success, and at least demonstrate to the people of Myanmar, and the rest of the world, that the United States supports democracy and the protection of human rights.

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.

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