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Myanmar’s Junta Is Weak but Dangerous

The West shouldn’t let up pressure after Myanmar’s recent prisoner releases.

By , a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.
Prisoners are released outside Insein prison.
Prisoners are released outside Insein prison.
Prisoners are released outside the Insein prison in Yangon, Myanmar, on Nov. 17. STR/AFP via Getty Images

International pressure has produced the release of around 6,000 political prisoners in Myanmar, including several foreigners detained by the military regime. But while the news is welcome, it shouldn’t fool outsiders as to the fundamentally corrosive nature of the junta—and the backing it receives from Moscow and Beijing. The junta continues to commit atrocities, fueled by Russian arms and Chinese support, and Western resolve can’t weaken when it comes to supporting the country’s democratic opposition.

In July, the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, executed four democracy activists, the Tatmadaw’s first formal use of capital punishment in decades. The judicial murders, intended to intimidate the population, reflect the regime’s growing frustration as the second anniversary of the Tatmadaw’s coup against the civilian government, then-headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, approaches. The military is losing control in an increasingly bitter struggle across the nation. For decades, the army fought brutal campaigns against multiple ethnic groups, concentrated in the north and east. However, armed resistance now permeates majority Burmese areas as well.

Obviously, U.S. and European governments, which traditionally have been most concerned about Myanmar’s travails, have much on their agendas. However, China’s and Russia’s increasing involvement makes it foolish for the West to look away. Alas, as the horror has grown, international attention has ebbed, save from Moscow and Beijing, which have moved closer to Naypyidaw. Beijing has steadily increased support for the junta. Myanmar topped the agenda at the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference. Little progress was expected, however, and the Chinese government apparently expected Myanmar to join Cambodia in backing China against other ASEAN members in ongoing territorial disputes.

International pressure has produced the release of around 6,000 political prisoners in Myanmar, including several foreigners detained by the military regime. But while the news is welcome, it shouldn’t fool outsiders as to the fundamentally corrosive nature of the junta—and the backing it receives from Moscow and Beijing. The junta continues to commit atrocities, fueled by Russian arms and Chinese support, and Western resolve can’t weaken when it comes to supporting the country’s democratic opposition.

In July, the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, executed four democracy activists, the Tatmadaw’s first formal use of capital punishment in decades. The judicial murders, intended to intimidate the population, reflect the regime’s growing frustration as the second anniversary of the Tatmadaw’s coup against the civilian government, then-headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, approaches. The military is losing control in an increasingly bitter struggle across the nation. For decades, the army fought brutal campaigns against multiple ethnic groups, concentrated in the north and east. However, armed resistance now permeates majority Burmese areas as well.

Obviously, U.S. and European governments, which traditionally have been most concerned about Myanmar’s travails, have much on their agendas. However, China’s and Russia’s increasing involvement makes it foolish for the West to look away. Alas, as the horror has grown, international attention has ebbed, save from Moscow and Beijing, which have moved closer to Naypyidaw. Beijing has steadily increased support for the junta. Myanmar topped the agenda at the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference. Little progress was expected, however, and the Chinese government apparently expected Myanmar to join Cambodia in backing China against other ASEAN members in ongoing territorial disputes.

On Sept. 7, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing visited Vladivostok, Russia, and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The latter called Myanmar “our long-standing and reliable partner in Southeast Asia.” Moscow has provided diplomatic support as well as low-cost oil to Myanmar and moved ahead with cooperation on nuclear power.

More important to the junta though are potential arms shipments: According to Fulcrum contributor Ian Storey: “[T]he strong ties between the Myanmar and Russia militaries remain critical to bilateral relations. To maintain its control of the skies, [Myanmar’s State Administration Council] wants to import more military hardware from Russia, especially fighter jets and helicopters. Russia is eager to ramp up its arms trade with Myanmar to make up for falling sales elsewhere in the region.” This will only guarantee increased violence, brutality, and slaughter.

In September, Nada al-Nashif, the United Nations’ deputy high commissioner for human rights, reported to the U.N. Human Rights Council that since February 2021, “at least 2,316 people (including at least 188 children) have been killed. Widespread fear and insecurity among the civilian population has forced over 1 million individuals (of whom, 45,500 [are in] neighboring countries) to leave their homes and now live in precarious conditions without access to food, medical assistance, and other basic services. … Over 15,607 people have been arrested, with some 12,464 remaining in detention. The death toll of people in custody is steadily rising. At least 273 persons have died in formal detention settings, such as prisons, detention and interrogation centers, and police stations as well as at least 266 reported deaths following raids and arrests in villages, at least 40 of whom were reportedly killed with headshots.”

Even more startling has been the spread of active combat from distant ethnic areas to majority Burmese territory. Last year, Gue Gue, a doctor and member of the underground resistance, told Al Jazeera: “Myanmar is like a slaughterhouse now. People are killed daily like animals.” The country is sliding toward a broad civil war. Nashif observed: “Military tactics increasingly involve indiscriminate attacks and weaponry. … In Magway and Sagaing regions as well as Kachin, Shan, Kayah, and Kayin states, residential buildings—as many as 30,000—schools and other civilian infrastructure have been burnt to the ground during military ground operations.”

Atrocities, too, are multiplying. In September, the Tatmadaw murdered 11 children in an airstrike on a school. “They kept shooting into the compound from the air for an hour,” said school administrator Mar Mar. The military claimed that it was attacked by rebel forces. The junta dismissed its opponents as “terrorists.”

In fact, the Tatmadaw’s campaign has imposed a huge cost on children. In June, the Human Rights Council issued a report that found that the torture and murder of children by the regime was commonplace. Another report in November suggested that over half of a million children had been displaced by the conflict.

Fueled by Chinese support and Russian arms, the conflict is likely to grow—in part because the resistance is so strong. In decades past, the Tatmadaw quickly crushed urban protesters and steadily suppressed ethnic insurgents. However, in this round, much of the population has engaged in various forms of nonviolent but active resistance. The young, who grew up in relative freedom over the last decade during the junta’s compromise with civilian rule, proved especially unwilling to kowtow to a military dictatorship.

Many of them have taken up arms, essentially merging urban and rural opponents into a national, if still disunited, battle. Although it is overly sanguine to claim that democracy’s backers are winning, the Tatmadaw has little reason for optimism. Its only tool to hold onto power is violence, treating the entire population as its enemy. Its opponents, which include most Burmese, increasingly are willing to respond in kind.

The West needs to do its part—both for the sake of the people of Myanmar and to frustrate Sino-Russian efforts to profit from the conflict. Washington, Brussels, and especially democratic Asian states should look for new ways to penalize the junta. They should consider offering diplomatic recognition to Myanmar’s exiled National Unity Government (NUG) and giving it access to $1 billion in frozen government assets. Moreover, Western governments should direct humanitarian aid to the support of civilians victimized by the Tatmadaw. Only half of the country’s territory is under the government’s control.

Australia, India, Japan, and Singapore should join other states in applying financial and diplomatic pressure on the junta. Americans and Europeans should consider increasing penalties on the regime. One step would be to target the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, a state energy company. Allied governments should consult with the NUG and other opposition leaders, to the extent possible, on the penalties they would support to further weaken the regime despite the additional hardship it may cause for the people of the country.

Burmese democracy advocates express frustration, indicating that they are “disappointed by those nations that voice support for them but then fail to back up their words with action,” said Tom Andrews, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar. Myanmar’s burgeoning conflict is worsening. The Tatmadaw’s misrule, which began six decades ago, has caused mass hardship and thousands of deaths, and it is driving Myanmar into even greater poverty and violence. Increased refugee flows burden Thailand, itself facing serious political challenges. The struggle is enhancing the influence of both Beijing and Moscow.

The longer the crisis persists, the greater the harm that will occur. Andrews has warned that the situation has gone from “bad to worse” since the coup. Alas, the bottom has not yet come into view. Concerted international action is desperately needed.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World. Twitter: @Doug_Bandow

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