Source Responsible Statecraft
WASHINGTON, U.S.--The Tatmadaw, or Burmese military, staged its first coup six decades ago. A year ago in February the generals staged their latest takeover, against the semi-civilian government they created a decade ago.
Confronted with unexpected countrywide protests and widespread civil disobedience, Burma’s military has deployed lethal force. The Tatmadaw is believed to have killed 1500 people, detained 12,000 (with nearly 9000 still in prison), destroyed 2200 civilian structures —including homes — and displaced 320,000 people.
Increasingly under fire, soldiers are responding with atrocities. In December, Human Rights Watch detailed the latest brutal attack: “In a year where atrocities by Myanmar’s military have been commonplace, credible reports of a massacre of 11 people, including 5 children, who were bound, shot, and then burned, have sparked revulsion and outrage.”
As the horror expands, the rest of the world remains essentially impotent. Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, complained that the international response has been “ineffectual and lacks a sense of urgency commensurate to the magnitude of the crisis.”
Her frustration is shared by Burmese activists. Wrote Wai Wai Nu: “while more and more of us have come together to call for justice, freedom, and democracy, the international community has failed to truly stand in solidarity with us, issuing lofty statements of condemnation but taking few practical steps to protect our lives.”
What can be done? After first seizing power the armed forces faced periodic opposition, but its control was never seriously challenged. After a pro-democracy uprising, the military held elections in 1990, in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won an overwhelming majority.
Beginning in 2008 the armed services created a hybrid system with a civilian façade. Under the new constitution the Tatmadaw ran the three security ministries and was guaranteed a quarter of parliamentary seats. The military could block any constitutional changes and Suu Kyi, a widely revered Nobel Laureate, was prohibited from serving as president.
The generals apparently expected a fragmented opposition, which would allow them to divide, conquer, and continue to rule. However, an overwhelming majority of the Burmese people voted for the NLD, which formed the first civilian government since 1962.
“Myanmar’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy stalled under the leadership of the National League for Democracy (NLD), which came to power in relatively free elections in 2015. The military, known as the Tatmadaw, retained significant influence over politics, and the government largely failed to uphold human rights and to prioritize peace and security in areas affected by armed conflict.
Nevertheless, the Tatmadaw was dissatisfied. In the November 2020 election the NLD won reelection by an even bigger margin, with the military’s party far behind. Civilian rule would only become more entrenched, with the Tatmadaw continuing to lose legitimacy.
So the generals falsely accused the government of electoral fraud, arrested public officials and NLD leadership, and appointed Hlaing prime minister. The Tatmadaw claimed to be upholding the law, and threatened journalists who referred to it as a “junta” or “regime.”
The military expected widespread obedience as before. However, the country changed over the last decade. The population is younger, more worldly, and unwilling to docilely accept a return to dictatorship.
Most ominously for the regime, armed opposition is spreading. Ethnic militias which had forged ceasefires with the military have taken up arms again. Urban activists also are turning to violent resistance.
Reconciliation looks ever less likely. The generals have committed too many crimes to yield power or participate in a new democratic government. An increasing number of Burmese reject the Tatmadaw’s legitimacy and say they want a new, diverse military under civilian control.
What can the rest of the world do? The United States isn’t going to war in Burma, and certainly no one else is going to do so. A United Nations arms embargo would target the Tatmadaw but faces a Russian and Chinese Security Council veto.
The most important objective should be to defund the Tatmadaw and punish its leaders. Economic sanctions should target army commanders and their civilian enablers. Broader restrictions, including on the sale of minerals and hydrocarbons, would hit the population as well as the military.
Washington should promote a broad coalition in favor of a United Nations ban on weapons sales to the Tatmadaw. That would require assent or acquiescence from China and Russia. For them, the U.S. should focus its arguments on stability rather than democracy. China enjoyed good relations with the NLD government.
Private citizens and NGOs also can aid the cause of Burmese democracy. Public protests and shame campaigns should embarrass the regime and its enablers. Aid could also help sustain activists and people as their economy suffers.
Burma is a human tragedy with no foreign answer. Washington and other democratic states should focus on sustaining the Burmese people as they fight to control their own future. After six decades of military rule, the Tatmadaw should step aside, instead of forcing its victims to depose it violently.