Argument

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Engagement With Myanmar’s Junta Has Failed

Accelerating atrocities show there’s no point in talking to a desperate regime.

By , a fellow with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Myanmar security forces
Myanmar security forces
Members of the Myanmar security forces stand guard on a street in Yangon on July 19. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Ever since the Myanmar junta seized power in February 2021, there have been calls to engage with the regime to negotiate a path to peace. But facing a widespread resistance, the desperate junta will stop at nothing—including mass killings and large-scale village arson attacks—to remain in power. So far, the military regime has shown no signs of backing down and has continued to intensify violent repression.

The recent execution of four pro-democracy activists against appeals by the international community clearly demonstrates that the junta rejects the peaceful resolution to the current crises, as has been proposed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and neighboring countries. But Myanmar’s military does not listen to outsiders; instead, it operates by its own institutional logic. The global community should understand its series of diplomatic statements and condemnations are a complete failure, and any hope of persuading the generals to restore civilian rule on their own accord is a pure pipe dream.

Statement politics and persuasion diplomacy instead reassure the junta that the international community is powerless, emboldening it to ramp up its atrocious repression. With the violence only escalating, the international community should move beyond lofty rhetoric to undertake more concrete action against the inhumane military regime.

Ever since the Myanmar junta seized power in February 2021, there have been calls to engage with the regime to negotiate a path to peace. But facing a widespread resistance, the desperate junta will stop at nothing—including mass killings and large-scale village arson attacks—to remain in power. So far, the military regime has shown no signs of backing down and has continued to intensify violent repression.

The recent execution of four pro-democracy activists against appeals by the international community clearly demonstrates that the junta rejects the peaceful resolution to the current crises, as has been proposed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and neighboring countries. But Myanmar’s military does not listen to outsiders; instead, it operates by its own institutional logic. The global community should understand its series of diplomatic statements and condemnations are a complete failure, and any hope of persuading the generals to restore civilian rule on their own accord is a pure pipe dream.

Statement politics and persuasion diplomacy instead reassure the junta that the international community is powerless, emboldening it to ramp up its atrocious repression. With the violence only escalating, the international community should move beyond lofty rhetoric to undertake more concrete action against the inhumane military regime.


Since the start of the coup in February 2021, the international community has poured out a slew of statements, condemning the military takeover and demanding the return of civilian rule. So far, by my count, there have been over 100 statements from international agencies and individual countries on the coup in Myanmar. Almost all statements condemn the coup and the junta’s brutal actions and call for the restoration of civilian government.

The leaders of the international community, particularly high-ranking officials from the United Nations and Western countries, regularly speak against the coup and the military regime. For example, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said that “coups have no place in our modern world” in reference to the military’s illegal seizure of power in Myanmar. The United States also consistently puts Myanmar on the agenda of its meetings with East Asian and Southeast Asian partners, for example the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the U.S.-ASEAN Summit, and includes demands to end the military coup in the statements of those meetings. Most Western countries have followed their denunciations with limited and mostly symbolic actions, such as targeted sanctions on military officials and their families.

All this remains largely in the airy world of rhetoric. These statements, condemnations, and symbolic actions are ignored in Naypyidaw, and the recalcitrant generals, being well aware of the possible range of pressure from the international community, have been prepared to weather condemnation, targeted sanctions, and imposed isolation since the start of the coup. The junta’s second-highest-ranking leader, Deputy Commander in Chief Soe Win, even reportedly said, “We have to learn to walk with only few friends.” Countries such as China have offered limited backing to the junta even as the world has condemned it.

On the other hand, some in the region have approached the junta diplomatically in the hope of convincing the generals to reverse their course. ASEAN’s five-point consensus is premised on the belief that fellow Southeast Asian states can persuade the junta to engage in a constructive dialogue aimed at seeking a peaceful solution to the post-coup crisis. The core tenet of this so-called persuasion diplomacy is constructive engagement instead of isolation. The theory of change is that the junta will gradually respond to careful and steady engagement with positive steps to resolve the conflict in Myanmar.

The special envoy of the ASEAN chair on Myanmar, Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, often voices his optimism that persuasion can work. He said in a briefing to the U.N. Security Council that “not all hope is lost as long as we—both ASEAN and the international community—continue to engage constructively with Myanmar [the junta] as opposed to isolating them.” Many still hope that they can coax the junta into reducing its repression and coming to some sort of agreement with imprisoned former leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the pro-democracy movement.

But attempts at persuasion have not worked historically with the generals, who seemingly only know the language of force. When the military regime loosened its decadeslong grip on power in 2011, the international community endeavored in vain to court the generals to democratize the country and professionalize the military.

Scot Marciel, a former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, wrote last year, “As US ambassador to Myanmar beginning in early 2016, I had multiple conversations with General Min Aung Hlaing and other military leaders in which I made clear that further reform and increased respect for human rights could lead to greater engagement from the US military.” Likewise, the European Union Military Committee invited Min Aung Hlaing to its meeting in Brussels in 2016, with the hope that advancing constructive ties with the Myanmar military could enhance the professionalism and democratic outlooks of its officer corps. But all attempts failed completely. Instead, such engagement emboldened the generals to ramp up their habitualized atrocities, which ultimately degenerated into genocide against the Rohingya minority.

When the junta announced that it would execute four pro-democracy activists, foreign countries and international organizations urged the generals not to carry it out. The most significant was Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who, as chair of ASEAN, sent a letter to the coup leader, Min Aung Hlaing, extolling him to reconsider the sentences and refrain from carrying out the executions.

Against some hope that the isolated junta would at least consider the appeal from Hun Sen, who paid the first and only visit by a head government to Naypyidaw since the coup, the military regime went ahead with the executions. The junta officially announced on July 25 the execution of four detainees, including prominent pro-democracy activist Kyaw Min Yu, also known as Ko Jimmy, and the former National League for Democracy lawmaker Phyo Zeya Thaw, who were sentenced to death by the military tribunal without due legal process. This latest atrocity has virtually killed off the last vain hopes for persuasion diplomacy.

The executions disappointed other members of the regional bloc, in particular Cambodia, which remained highly optimistic on implementation of the five-point consensus. In a rare rebuke of one of its members, ASEAN issued its harshest criticism yet of Myanmar’s junta, calling the executions “highly reprehensible.”

But the military, as a totally closed institution, is insulated from outside influence and paranoid of any interference. Since the military first seized power in 1962, it has made itself into a self-sufficient and self-serving institution, which some regard as a “state within a state.” The military became a world unto itself in which “soldiers live, work and socialize apart from the rest of society.” They are also constantly indoctrinated by xenophobic conspiracy theories that foreign interference undermines the sovereignty of the country and ruins Buddhism.

Moreover, they are inculcated by a “guardianship ideology” that claims that the country will disintegrate and the religious faith will be destroyed without the military’s active protection. As their xenophobic narrative is interwoven with their ideological justification for supremacy in Myanmar’s politics, the military leaders view concessions, even the slightest, to demands from the outside world as diminishing their institutional power. The generals have thus never listened to outside demands or even requests: The most obvious example is the generals’ obstinate rejection of offers of foreign aid for the victims of Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

Despite this history, the global community has yet to fully realize that the military operates by its own institutional logic, and negotiation has never been in its DNA, a fact that Myanmar’s people know all too well. Facing down the military’s indiscriminate violence, the people now resort to armed struggle out of desperation to defeat the junta. And they need real material assistance in order to do so. Instead of undertaking unworkable statement politics and attempts at diplomatic persuasion, the international community must do more to end the military’s rule in Myanmar.


The greatest international tragedies stem from a failure to act, ranging from the genocide in Rwanda to the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. In 1998, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton said of the world’s inaction in the face of the genocide in Rwanda that “it may seem strange to you here, especially the many of you who lost members of your family, but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.”

Once again, the world has failed to act in the face of gross violations of human rights, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Myanmar. This time, the international community should not shy away from acting collectively and effectively to bring an end to the military’s brutal rules and its ongoing atrocities.

First, the international community must take every possible measure to end the junta’s international representation at all levels in all institutions. The most significant one is the upcoming U.N. credentials decision. Last year, the U.N. credentialing committee deferred a decision on Myanmar’s representative, but it should not apply a similar delaying tactic this year. The U.N. member states should send a unanimous message that the military regime cannot represent the country and the people that it is terrorizing. Similarly, the junta should be deprived of international representation in all other institutions as well.

Second, the international community and individual countries need to take steps to restrict the Myanmar junta’s revenue through more effective and stronger economic sanctions, as well as impose an arms embargo. The United States also should not hesitate any longer to impose sanctions on Myanmar’s state-owned oil and gas enterprises—the largest sources of foreign revenue for the military’s regime. Other countries should follow suit to impose all possible costs on the junta.

Last but not least, the international community must recognize that statements, persuasion politics, and symbolic actions will not force the junta to restore civilian rule, which is something only popular power can achieve. Thus, the international community should stand together with and support the current resistance movement. International institutions and the global community should consider all possible ways to engage and work with the National Unity Government and National Unity Consultative Council. They should go beyond lofty rhetoric and hollow statements to develop a serious strategy to concretely support the people’s struggle against the military’s brutal rule.

The heinous atrocity perpetrated by the junta in executing the four activists has been etched into the memory of Myanmar’s people. The people will remember who stood with them against the brutal military regime and who stood aside. The world must act to demonstrate that it stands on the people’s side.

The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the U.S. government or the Wilson Center.

Ye Myo Hein is a fellow with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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