At the end of a conversation with a Ukrainian official a few months after Russia’s invasion, I asked what her greatest worry was. She replied without hesitation: “That we will be forgotten.”
That will sound only too familiar to the opponents of a brutal regime thousands of kilometers away, in Myanmar. Nearly two years after a coup and increasingly out of global headlines, one of Southeast Asia’s poorest nations has slid into an intractable civil war. By announcing plans for an election later this year — on its own terms, of course — the military is gambling it can project just enough legitimacy to ease outside pressure. The wider region and the West must crank it up instead.
Myanmar’s troubles didn’t start on Feb. 1, 2021, when Senior General Min Aung Hlaing grabbed power — just before a newly elected parliament was due to be sworn in — but they certainly multiplied. A period of stuttering democracy came to an end when the junta disputed, then annulled, the election that had produced a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. It prompted a surge of resistance and repression, as the armed forces clawed back what little ground they ceded when military rule was relaxed a decade earlier.
The situation has not improved with time, or with Min Aung Hlaing agreeing to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ five-point plan, which includes an immediate end to violence and dialogue among parties. In fact, it’s become a nightmare. The conflict has spread, with resistance movements across the country, sometimes alongside pre-existing ethnic armed groups. Refugees have spilled into neighboring nations, more than a million people are internally displaced, and organized crime has flourished. Inevitably, the regime has proven economically ruinous.
So far, soldiers have killed almost 2,800 people and arrested more than 17,400 in the crackdown on pro-democracy opponents; there have been death sentences for activists, some of them university students, and reports of extrajudicial executions. At least 60 people, including many civilians, died in air strike on a concert held by an ethnic minority group in October. Deposed leader Suu Kyi, meanwhile, faces a total prison term of 33 years — a symbol of the country’s dashed hopes, even if this one-time human-rights champion was left badly tainted by her denial of military atrocities against Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority.
Amid all this, with a state of emergency running out, Min Aung Hlaing has plans for a vote. It’s an election a military-backed proxy party is near certain to win, with a little help from the junta’s evisceration of Suu Kyi’s NLD and some convenient changes to the rules. There is almost no chance of the ballot being free or fair, as the United Nations has already noted. Increased violence is a certainty.
Outsiders’ influence is limited, and certainly the exasperation is palpable. “I am just a special envoy. I am not Superman,” Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, whose country chaired ASEAN last year, told journalists at a meeting in Phnom Penh. “I think that even Superman cannot solve the Myanmar problem.” But the wider region, Myanmar’s neighbors and the West are not entirely without options.
As Richard Horsey, senior Myanmar adviser with the International Crisis Group, put it to me, the first imperative is to stop the situation from getting worse. He points out that combined with the passage of time, the theater around the vote this year creates the risk — especially for non-democratic countries in the region — that foreign leaders will be tempted to accept the election result as the best of only bad options, and move on. After all, Myanmar has been a trouble spot for decades.
Holding the line will be especially challenging if military chiefs move tactically to release Suu Kyi or loosen the conditions of her detention after the vote, which as Aaron Connelly of the International Institute for Strategic Studies explains, would split ASEAN and the broader international community, and risks splintering resistance to the junta as well, by encouraging the NLD to rally alone behind her.
It is vital to keep up the pressure.
The West can sustain and add to bilateral sanctions, even if UN measures remain unlikely because of China and Russia’s use of their veto power. Existing sanctions have not changed minds and are unlikely to do so soon — the military has had decades of experience in circumventing restrictions — but such measures signal intent, and they do hurt. Western governments will not send weapons, but they can provide other support to the shadow National Unity Government and those resisting on the ground, encouraging coordination, funneling humanitarian aid through local organizations and, most of all, continuing to emphasize its credibility. The West has limited leverage, not none.
Western powers can do far more to press those around Myanmar to step up, not least by encouraging restrictions on arms sales. They can also preempt efforts from neighbors that would legitimize the junta’s election, say offering assistance or sending observers, as India has before.
New Delhi and Beijing have had other priorities, but China in particular is loath to have a tinderbox on its doorstep, and should be encouraged to provide even tacit opposition. There is little love lost, after all, between the military and Beijing. The small success of seeing the UN Security Council adopt its first resolution on Myanmar in over seven decades last month is a largely symbolic step — there is still no formal UN arms embargo — but a hopeful one. So is the continued presence of an ambassador representing the ousted Suu Kyi government. Other countries with remaining ties, like Japan, should also be put on the spot.
Then there’s ASEAN, for whom Myanmar has been a litmus test. The West has been eager to shunt the problem to ASEAN, but the grouping hasn’t shone, too often wrapping itself in process. It also hasn’t done as badly as some feared, downgrading junta representation, for instance. Under the chairmanship of Indonesia, riding high after its diplomatic success in Bali last year, there are chances of achieving a more substantial suspension, already proposed by President Joko Widodo. Still, it’s economic growth, and not Myanmar, that is top of Jakarta’s agenda.
As former US ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell argued to me, every actor has retreated to their comfort zone — for the West that has been sanctions, and for ASEAN, procedure. Some creativity is now required, and that will include encouraging countries in the region to increase pressure on senior junta leaders themselves, especially when it comes to their continued access to elite financial, health and education services.
The coup opened a Pandora’s box in Myanmar, unleashing violence that could spill over across borders, but also human and drug trafficking, plus worsening disease — Myanmar was already a hotspot for drug-resistant tuberculosis before 2021. So long as the military remain in power, without popular support, there is no hope of containing the misery.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.
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