Why isn’t the world doing more to help Myanmar?

Since the military coup in Myanmar, the situation continues to worsen. What are the avenues for international intervention and what difference could they really make? Yali Banton-Heath outlines the options.

Protesters run during a crackdown on anti-coup protests at Hlaing Township in Yangon, Myanmar March 17, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

It’s been two months since the military State Administrative Council seized power in Myanmar, and the death toll of anti-coup protesters has now surged past 700. Not only are the military-controlled police forces waging a war in the streets of Yangon and towns all across the country, but armed forces troops are intensifying their attacks on ethnic communities in borderland regions too. In Karen state in the southeast of the country, more than 24,000 people have been displaced, and at least 20 killed, as a result of military airstrikes since the coup.

Unfortunately, this showcase of brutality is not unique to these past eleven weeks. Civilians have endured a protracted history of merciless violence at the hands of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar armed forces), whether it be decades of conflict and oppression in remote ethnic regions or the bloodthirsty repression of political dissent in towns and cities. One only has to look back at this violent history to understand how the current situation could quite rapidly descend into a mass atrocity on a far larger scale.

With the slogan ‘How many dead bodies?’ scrawled on banners and hashtagged on social media and countless images providing the harrowing evidence, discouraged protestors and onlookers alike are right to ask: why isn’t the international community doing more to help? The UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Tom Andrews, has echoed their frustration, remarking that the international community’s condemnations are ‘ringing hollow’ and that now is the time for action.

Generals have already ignored the condemnations by foreign heads of state and calls for an end to the violence have only been followed by further attacks

Responsibility to Protect

Most analysts are calling for a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution outlining a multilateral approach, which would initiate concerted international action. People have been calling for such action in line with the global Responsibility to Protect or R2P.

R2P is a principle that all UN member states adopted at the 2005 World Summit to ensure that the international community would never fail to protect people against mass atrocity crimes such as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. It rests on the principle that if a state is failing to protect its own citizens, it is the international community’s duty to step up to the job.

R2P can include the use of economic sanctions, arms embargoes, international criminal prosecution or, as a last resort, military intervention. It should be clear, however, that any military intervention or use of force must be sanctioned by all five permanent member states of the UN Security Council – the UK, US, France, China and Russia – as they all possess a vetoing power.

Military intervention in Myanmar under the R2P would therefore be not only hazardous in practical terms, but also extremely unlikely politically. It wasn’t invoked in 2017 in response to the Rohingya genocide, so there is little reason to expect it will be invoked now.

China would be the primary political obstruction to any UNSC resolution calling for heavy-handed intervention in Myanmar. Due to Beijing’s particular strategic economic interest in Myanmar and the country’s geographical significance for the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s primary concern, above all else, is regional stability. It isn’t necessarily concerned with who controls the country –- or how, for that matter –- as long as the governing power can provide territorial, political and economic security for investment; foreign military intervention could run the risk of further chaos.

While the deployment of UN troops remains highly improbable, the R2P can also be effective through the use of multilateral arms embargoes. Although the EU has had an embargo on arms sales to Myanmar since the early 1990’s, there is now an urgent need for an extensive global agreement. But, with China serving as the largest supplier of arms to the Tatmadaw, and Russia recently announcing its desire to strengthen military ties with Myanmar, it is highly unlikely that any effective arms embargo on a global scale will materialize.

Although economic sanctions must aim to block financial channels to the military regime, it is important that they remain targeted. The international community must be careful not to inflict further economic hardship on the country’s population as a whole

Economic sanctions

A less controversial approach, and therefore one more widely used in foreign policy, is to pursue the route of economic sanctions. Most countries lifted their long-standing sanctions against Myanmar in 2012, when the country first opened up to foreign investment and embarked on its democratic transition after almost 50 years under military dictatorship. The U.S. under Obama eased its sanctions in 2012, and the following year the EU lifted theirs –; a decision that was criticized by human rights activists as being both premature and regrettable.

Some specific sanctions were then re-imposed in 2018 following the escalation of military violence and genocide in Rakhine state, targeting several high-ranking Myanmar army officials including Tatmadaw chief, General Min Aung Hlaing.

In response to the recent coup, the UK has added three more military generals to its sanctions list, as well as a key military conglomerate, and pledged to improve its due diligence process to restrict financial channels between the UK and the Myanmar military. The U.S. has also placed a number of Myanmar generals and military-owned firms –- including Myanma Economic Holdings Public Company Ltd. and Myanmar Economic Corporation Ltd. –- on a U.S. Treasury list prohibiting any US citizen or company from engaging in business with them.

But cash continues to flow. Myanmar makes $1 billion per year from the sale of natural gas, and despite the coup, oil and gas giants Chevron and Total continue to make significant revenue payments to the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). Because MOGE is now under the military’s control, these companies’ payments are effectively bankrolling the Tatmadaw’s operations.

Although economic sanctions must aim to be both comprehensive and thorough in blocking financial channels to the military regime, it is important that they nevertheless remain targeted. With the U.S. cutting off all financial aid, the World Bank halting any withdrawal requests, and the EU suspending all its development aid to Myanmar, the international community must be careful not to inflict further economic hardship on the country’s population as a whole: as was the case with blanket sanctions in the 1990s and 2000s.

Retrospective justice

Another tool in the international community’s belt is the threat of international criminal prosecution. The UNSC is able to refer perpetrators to the International Criminal Court directly, but again, all five permanent member countries would have to be in support such a move.

China has a long history of turning a blind eye to human rights violations in Myanmar, most recently by its indifference towards the Rohingya genocide.

Along with Russia’s indifference towards the genocide, this meant that the UNSC did not refer the Rohingya case directly to the ICC. Instead, the prosecutor was forced to take a roundabout route to bring the case under the jurisdiction of the court, by taking into account Bangladesh’s role in the deportation of Rohingya refugees. Despite an injunction being granted by the court in 2019, the case is ongoing and remains far from the prosecution stage.

Rather than falling back on retrospective forms of justice, foreign governments and international bodies should have read the warning signs well in advance. In 2014 and 2015 Myanmar was ranked first in the Early Warning Project’s list of countries facing a high risk of genocide, yet this initiated no action. In August 2017, by the time the Rohingya crisis reached mainstream media, it was already too late. The following year, 24,000 people were killed, and almost 700,000 displaced.

Alas, the ICC has been relatively unsuccessful in bringing about retrospective punitive justice, with a total of just four convictions since the court was established in 2002. Cases can often take years to reach a verdict, meaning justice through the courts invariably arrives too late to prevent heinous crimes and loss of life.

External pressure and internal realities

Would the Tatmadaw heed foreign condemnation? It must be understood that the Tatmadaw is a deeply nationalistic, and deeply religious institution, which considers itself to be the guardian of the nation. Soldiers believe it is their duty to uphold the Buddhist religion and to maintain national unity and sovereignty at all costs; if not, they predict the country would collapse into ruin. Little, if anything, will deter them from their mission.

For this reason, there is growing skepticism about the value the military junta actually places on international recognition. Generals have already ignored the condemnations by foreign heads of State, and calls for an end to the violence have only been followed by further attacks, increased repression, and even more deaths. Furthermore, despite the Tatmadaw extending a month-long unilateral ‘ceasefire’ to ethnic armed groups on 1 April 2021, armed clashes have continued across the country. Ttatmadaw’s poor track record of heeding their own ceasefire agreements casts enormous doubt on the sincerity of their ‘promise’.

Although pressure applied by the international community may seem futile, hope remains in the pressure being applied domestically. The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) continues to grow, with further support coming from the Milk Tea Alliance, a network of online activists from Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Myanmar. The coup has spawned a new generation of protestors and activists, who refuse to sink back into the political darkness their parents endured, and are willing to risk their lives in the name of democracy. 

The state is now using strong-arm tactics against even the Tatmadaw soldiers – traumatized by the level of violence, and who want to defect or join the CDM – by threatening the safety of their families. The state-owned MWD TV channel is now awash with Tatmadaw recruitment advertisements; a signal of their declining popularity.

On 1 April, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw –- made up of exiled pro-democracy National League for Democracy (NLD, the ruling party before the coup) – announced an interim constitution outlining plans to form a new federal democratic union, a mission which seeks to consolidate various ethnic groups' desires as well as promote wider demands for the reinstatement of a democratic government bolstered by the NLD party.

As of 16 April, they appear to be following through with their plans. The Committee announced last week that they have declared a new 'unity government', comprised of old NLD lawmakers, members of ethnic groups and anti-coup figures. 

As it attempts to regain control over the State's institutions now being manned by the military, this level of organization, coordination and determination in resistance efforts, may prove to be far stronger than the Tatmadaw generals had anticipated. They may be forced to concede that ruling a country through fear and bloodshed just isn’t an option anymore.

Yali Banton-Heath is a freelance writer with an MA in Human Rights Law and a specific interest in human rights issues in Myanmar. She is also an editor at The Norwich Radical.

This article was funded by the Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation.