U.S. Policy Toward Myanmar’s Military Junta
Ten days after the inauguration of President Joe Biden, his foreign policy team faced a crisis in Southeast Asia. Namely, how should the United States respond to a military coup in Myanmar? On Feb. 1, 2021, Myanmar’s Army chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing overthrew the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Her National League of Democracy routed the military-backed party two months earlier in national elections, marking the third straight election in which her party humiliated the military. Myanmar’s armed forces (also known as the Tatmadaw) baselessly claimed that the National League of Democracy had committed electoral fraud and arrested Suu Kyi on multiple charges. She and other party leaders have been under arrest ever since.
A nation-wide civil disobedience movement erupted after the coup, and has sustained itself ever since despite a crackdown from the security forces. The military has arrested over 9,600 people and killed more than 1,220 civilians. Reports suggest that the junta has tortured 131 people to death in government detention. In April 2021, members of the National League of Democracy — with representatives of Myanmar complex ethnic patchwork — established the National Unity Government of Myanmar, largely in exile.
The new Biden administration quickly sanctioned the regime (which calls itself the State Administrative Council) and seized $1 billion in assets. Ever since, however, the White House has done little else but pay lip service to the restoration of democracy and call on the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to do more. A recent high-level interagency delegation — led by State Department Counselor Derek Chollet — to Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, and Japan built on a recent decision by ASEAN members to disinvite junta leader Min Aung Hlaing to the ASEAN summit. This was followed by a virtual meeting National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan held with representatives of the National Unity Government on Oct. 25, and a virtual summit Biden attended alongside ASEAN leaders in which he called for the regime to be further isolated.
While it may not grab headlines like the collapse of the Afghan government, tensions over Taiwan, or Russian cyber attacks, the military coup in Myanmar and ongoing, deadly civil conflict touches on important elements of Biden’s foreign policy agenda. Specifically, it represents a setback for the president’s stated commitment to promoting democracy abroad. That Myanmar’s new military junta has extensive ties with China and Russia raises the stakes. U.S. interests in Myanmar are two-fold: restoring civilian rule and making sure the country does not fall under the complete sway of China. To advance U.S. interests amid a changed economic, diplomatic, and security situation in Myanmar, the Biden administration should recognize the National Unity Government, broaden current sanctions to take advantage of the military’s economic vulnerability, and increase humanitarian assistance through the National Unity Government and civil society organizations. In addition, the United States should consider changing its longstanding policy of avoiding contact with the various ethnic armed organizations that are fighting the regime.
A Continued Descent to a Failed State
Myanmar is teetering toward becoming a failed state. The new military junta has overseen economic collapse and the breakdown of basic administrative functions. Inflation is soaring and the financial system is on the brink. The kyat, Myanmar’s currency, lost 60 percent of its value, though it has slightly rebounded. From September to October, the Central Bank of Myanmar spent $110 million defending the kyat. Trade has dried up and the military is now banning the import of cars because foreign exchange is so hard to come by.
The World Bank predicts an 18.4 percent contraction in gross domestic product in 2021, while the United Nations predicts that half the population will be living under the poverty line in 2022. The decline in imported fertilizer portends declining crop yields. The government’s economic minister recently revealed that foreign exchange holdings ($6 billion) are significantly below what had been previously estimated, so the government’s ability to defend the kyat or withstand a further economic slide is limited. While some of the economic troubles are the result of the prolonged civil disobedience movement, any hope that the junta would be able to stabilize the economy has been dashed.
A Changing International Landscape
The junta has benefitted from global preoccupation with other crises, as few states have put much if any pressure on the regime beyond targeted sanctions. Within the U.N. Security Council, Myanmar’s new government has benefitted from Russian and Chinese backing. For Russia, Myanmar is a cost-effective way to leverage influence in a peripheral region, and it has shielded the junta from U.N. Security Council sanctions and an arms embargo. But the State Administrative Council’s main source of comfort was ASEAN’s strict policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of its member states.
That is changing. Myanmar’s junta is becoming increasingly isolated internationally as conditions in the country deteriorate and spill over. Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore successfully persuaded the organization to not invite junta leader Min Aung Hlaing from the ASEAN summit held Oct. 26 to 28 despite significant misgiving from states like Thailand and Vietnam. It was the first time the bloc had ever voted to exclude a leader. And there was very little sympathy for the junta. Indeed, ASEAN put the onus on the State Administrative Council by criticizing it using unprecedented language. Myanmar’s foreign ministry protested the ASEAN decision and chose not to send senior foreign ministry personnel in his place. The Malaysian foreign minister recently suggested that “Maybe now is the time for ASEAN to do serious soul searching on the application of the principle of non-interference and look at other experiences of other regions.” Although this is unlikely to gain traction, it is clear that the junta overplayed its hand and humiliated ASEAN by refusing to start implementing the five-point consensus reached with the group in April 2021.
Frustration within ASEAN is sure to mount, as the junta continues to delay meetings with the ASEAN special representative to Myanmar, who was only appointed after needless delays. Stung by Min Aung Hlaing’s exclusion from the ASEAN summit, the State Administrative Council might go further to thwart the mission of the ASEAN envoy. The new U.N. special representative for Myanmar is also likely to have little access.
Of equal concern for the junta is China’s growing frustration. Though Beijing quickly downplayed the coup d’etat and referred to it as a “cabinet reshuffle,” they have grown frustrated with the military government, whose economic and pandemic mismanagement have curtailed border trade and hindered Belt and Road Initiative projects. The wider conflict in Myanmar between the army and the various ethnic armed organizations threatens China’s $2 billion oil and gas pipelines across the country. China’s special representative demanded access to Aung San Suu Kyi, which was denied. When the junta threatened to dissolve the National League for Democracy, the Chinese Communist Party sent a message celebrating the party-to-party relations — a clear warning to the generals to back down. In August, China warned the junta that it would “make the necessary response” after artillery shells and bullets from fighting hit a Chinese town. China has provided COVID-19 vaccines to rebel groups along its border fighting the junta. In September, China reached a backroom deal with the United States to keep Myanmar’s U.N. ambassador — who had defected to the National Unity Government — seated at the United Nations, a huge embarrassment for the junta. It is inconceivable that countries that are so economically dependent on China, like Laos and Cambodia, would have acquiesced to the recent ASEAN decision to disinvite the junta’s leader without Beijing’s tacit support. China is clearly hedging.
A Changed Security Landscape
Myanmar’s economic and diplomatic position has clearly deteriorated since the military coup. What’s worse, from the perspective of junta, is that the country’s internal security situation is declining, too. A nationwide civil disobedience movement has opposed the junta since it overthrew the government. The protests have persisted despite government coercion and a brutal crackdown, which has led to the deaths of over 1,200 civilians.
Myanmar has always had a complex security landscape with dozens of ethnic armed organizations and pro-government rivals within their regions. Traditionally, they have not worked together, which has allowed Myanmar’s army to divide and rule. This time is different. Never has opposition to the military cut across so many of Myanmar’s ethnic and political fissures.
The coup did not clarify the situation. Several of the largest ethnic armed organizations, including the Kachin Independence Army and the Karen National Liberation Army have pledged support to the National Unity Government and have worked to train and arm its fighters. While the opposition government has significantly more representation from the ethnic minorities, and has pledged to establish a federal republic, there remains deep mistrust of the ethnic Bamar majority that dominates both the National League for Democracy and National Unity Government. The United Wa State Army is more willing to live with the junta if it looks the other way while they continue to participate in the lucrative illegal drug trade. The Arakan Army has maintained its pre-coup ceasefire with the army, but is clearly taking advantage of the army’s multiple fronts to consolidate its political autonomy. The military has just launched a major offensive in Chin State, in the country’s northwest, a region that has traditionally not seen large amounts of ethnic insurgent activity. Other offensives are under way in Sagaing township. But fighting is widespread.
An estimated 500 anti-military people’s defense forces and allied ethnic armed organizations are spreading the Myanmar military thin. The people’s defense forces are ostensibly the armed wing of the National Unity Government. And yet, they are proliferating so quickly that less than half are believed to be be under any semblance of being part of the National Unity Government’s chain of command, which is something it is working to address.
Despite earlier predictions that the people’s defense forces would be massacred in short order by the military, the Tatmadaw is not as disciplined as it was in the past and the label “battle hardened” ignores that so often it is fighting unarmed civilians. The militias are doing much better than anyone would have imagined, and clearly frustrating the army.
The National Unity Government claims nearly 1,600 government soldiers have been killed since it declared war against the junta on Sept. 7. There is no independent verification, and the military denies it, but casualties are definitely mounting. The Tatmadaw is constantly ferrying their best combat forces from one region to the next as casualties are starting to take their toll. During an eight-day period in October, three improvised explosive devices hit the military’s fortress-like capital, targeting military and police facilities. A recent bombing at a pro-junta rally in another government stronghold wounded three police and a soldier. The National Unity Government claims over 100 local-level administrators have been assassinated, including one in Naypiydaw. The assassinations and threats against them are starting to add up: hundreds of administrators have resigned in the last two months. Local militias continue to issue new deadlines for administrators to resign. And the violence is getting more targeted: The chief financial officer of one of the army-owned telecommunications firms was gunned down in broad daylight min Yangon, a move likely to make other military-linked executives very nervous..
The Tatmadaw has responded with the brutality it is known for. Its counter-insurgency doctrine, known as the “four cuts,” is designed to terrorize the civilian population into compliance. It includes the intentional targeting of civilian populations, massacres, ethnic cleansing, the destruction of villages, the forced conscription of porters, and sexual violence. There has never been a population-centric counter-insurgency doctrine based on winning hearts and minds. War crimes are mounting. Recently, the Tatmadaw began using human shields to stave off attacks. It routinely tortures suspects to death and has a host of legal tools to augment its brutality. And in Chin State it burnt some 200 houses and buildings in one town alone. The United Nations has warned of significant war crimes as the Tatmadaw steps up its dry season “clearing operations.”
The National Unity Government, its people’s defense forces, and the aligned ethnic armed organizations are not going to militarily defeat the Tatmadaw. But what they can do is create the conditions for growing factionalism within the ranks of the officer corps. The National Unity Government’s focus should be on creating “off ramps” for a significant number of officers before they can begin the arduous task of establishing a federal democratic system.
At the rank-and-file level, the National Unity Government is making some headway in getting soldiers and police to desert and defect. The opposition government and military defectors established People’s Embrace, an nongovernmental organization to support defectors, and stepped up a social media campaign to encourage more defections. People’s Embrace claims over 2,000 have joined their civil disobedience movement. The opposition government has stepped up rewards for officer defectors and is using them more effectively to encourage additional defections.
The National Unity Government is getting better at using social media to show the geographical spread of their resistance to the military. They are trying to demonstrate to military planners that they cannot win on so many fronts simultaneously. In response, the senior leadership is clearly doubling down. Indeed, a few personnel reshuffles have put some of the military’s most hardline generals in direct control of some of the offensives in Chin State and Sagaing. But the goal of the National Unity Government is to get a sufficient number of officers — from the rank of colonels to two-star generals — to withdraw their support from the senior leaders.
To that end, the National Unity Government wants lethal assistance. Their declaration of war is both morally defensible and lawful — they are clearly fighting in self-defense against a rapacious military junta. But though they may be deserving, that is not in the cards from the United States in the immediate aftermath of Afghanistan.
Eight Steps for U.S. Policy
In Myanmar, the United States has an interest in seeing the restoration of democracy under civilian rule and preventing an isolated autocratic regime completely under China’s sway. There are eight steps the Biden administration should take to advance its interests in Myanmar.
First, the United States should recognize the National Unity Government as the lawful government of the people of Myanmar. Chollet, the counselor of the State Department, “expressed appreciation for the National Unity Government’s leadership and dedication to the people of Burma in the face of the horrific violence perpetrated by the Burmese military regime.” However, the United States continues to recognize that same regime. Sullivan’s meeting with the National Unity Government was important, but fell far short of recognition.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin both attended ASEAN meetings with representatives of the military government. While shoring up relations with ASEAN is important, the United States should use growing frustration within ASEAN to isolate the junta’s representatives. This is the legitimacy the military craves. The Biden administration should deny it that satisfaction. At the same time, sending emissaries like former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson will achieve no concessions, but will instead be used by the military for propaganda and legitimizations.
At the same time, there are clear risks to establishing diplomatic relations with the National Unity Government. Most importantly, the State Department wants to be able to maintain a line of communications with the State Administrative Council. But there is little evidence that America’s diplomatic presence in country has any bearing on the junta.
The French Senate and European parliament both voted to recognize the National Unity Government. Although these were symbolic votes, they have merit. Malaysia was the first country in the region to threaten to talk with, if not formally recognize, the National Unity Government due to the military’s lack of good faith in implementing the five-point consensus. ASEAN parliamentarians are now calling for their governments to recognize the National Unity Government, although ASEAN itself has refused to formally meet with and recognize it.
Short of that, the State Department could withdraw its ambassador to downgrade ties with the junta. It could also step up meetings and coordination with the National Unity Government’s representatives and leadership. The United States can use its diplomatic leverage to demand that it be given a seat at the table, even as an observer in ASEAN or other international fora. At the very least, the Biden administration should threaten to recognize the National Unity Government as long as the Tatmadaw is launching major offensives and committing war crimes against its own people, war crimes the State Department acknowledges are happening.
Second, if the United States recognizes the National Unity Government it could either release the junta’s frozen assets to it or open a line of credit backed by the frozen assets. While the National Unity Government wants to be able to use the funding in order to purchase arms, the United States could limit this to humanitarian aid and relief supplies or non-lethal equipment.
Third, the United States should increase humanitarian assistance to the National Unity Government, circumventing the military regime. During the latest COVID-19 outbreak, the United States provided the National Unity Government with $50 million in vaccines and assistance. Washington needs to increase that amount. The military government has failed to deliver basic social services to its population, a space the National Unity Government is through civil society organizations and ethnic armed organizations. Myanmar’s medical community has been the backbone of the civil disobedience movement.
The National Unity Government clearly has limited administrative capacity on the ground, despite its legitimacy. So the United States should give Myanmar’s civil society organizations more resources so that they can undermine the military’s flagging legitimacy. And it should create the means to do so, as the junta seeks to control the formal and online banking sectors to starve civil society of funding.
Chollet began an important discussions with the Thai government (itself borne out of a 2014 coup d’etat) about opening up access for humanitarian assistance along the border. Thailand will be reluctant, as it have been a close supporters of the junta. More diplomatic pressure is needed on Bangkok, something that will be harder to accomplish without an ambassador in place. But after meeting with Chollet, the Thai foreign minister convened a meeting with the National Unity Government and civil society representatives about stepping up COVID-19 vaccine assistance to the ethnic armed organizations and displaced communities along the border. And Thailand’s prime minister just invited Biden to Thailand for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in 2022 in a bid to improve the alliance.
While the situation on the ground is chaotic, the United States Agency for International Development has a long history of monitoring aid projects and assistance programs. Both the National Unity Government and civil society organizations should be held to account for any international assistance and provide as much transparency as possible.
Fourth, the United States should continue to sanction members of the junta, their family members, individual commanders, military-owned corporations, and those of regime cronies. That is necessary, but insufficient. The United States should work with partner states to put sufficient pressure on the State Administrative Council and its military and financial enablers.
Chollet pressed Singapore, the largest investor in Myanmar and its key financial interlocutor, to do significantly more. He noted, “Singapore has significant financial leverage over the regime and we discussed how we can partner effectively to wield that.” To date, Singapore has been reluctant to sanction the State Administrative Council in any way or prevent three of its banks or other conglomerates from continuing operations in Myanmar. But there have been discernible changes after Chollet’s visit: The Singapore Stock Exchange began investigations into a local real estate development firm with large holdings in Myanmar and Singapore’s bourse has Myanmar’s only overseas-listed firm, a real estate development company with close ties to the military. This is a small but significant change in tone. Some Singaporean investors are starting to sever their ties with military-owned firms.
The United States should press Singapore specifically on Myanmar military front companies headquartered in the city state. Two military-linked corporations, LTR and Asian Aviation Resources, have offices in Singapore. Another two, Excellence Metal Casting and STE Global Trading, have previously been in the Singapore government’s crosshairs and wound up on the U.S. sanctions list for trading with North Korea. The latter firm’s owner is reportedly based in Singapore.
Beyond the region, Washington may have to target military suppliers of the junta in countries like Ukraine, where Washington has some leverage. Sadly the United States has none in Russia, Belarus, or Pakistan — where Myanmar’s military regime also has ties — but it should apply pressure where it can.
But sanctions are going to have to hit the junta much harder to have an impact. The United States has already targeted the more than a hundred companies owned or controlled by the military’s two conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanmar Economic Holdings Public Company Limited. But the United States should consider broader sanctions, in particular in the banking sector.
The two banks directly owned by the military, Myawaddy Bank and Innwa Bank, have already been sanctioned. The U.S. government ought to weigh just how much pain it wants to cause, especially the effect it could have on ordinary people in Myanmar. It could target a few key state-owned entities, such as Myanma Economic Bank, Myanma Foreign Trade Bank, or Myanma Investment and Commercial Bank. But targeting these would devastate the economy and perhaps do irreparable harm. As such, a new round of sanctions that target private banks owned by military cronies or family members makes more sense. These could include Kanbawza Bank Ltd, Asia Green Development Bank, and possibly United Amara Bank.
While some have called for imposing secondary sanctions on the overseas operations of military-owned or military-linked entities, the U.S. government would get little support for this. Indeed, secondary sanctions could backfire if Washington hopes to get more assistance in targeted sanctions.
Fifth, the United States should revisit its policy on not maintaining ties with the various ethnic armed organizations. There is good reason that the government has had this policy: some have been involved in illicit narcotics production or trafficking and some have been too close to China. But any solution to Myanmar’s current conflict will entail greater participation from the different ethnic armed organizations, despite their lingering mistrust of the Bamar majority. Several have done much to support the National Unity Government’s militias and many have stepped up their own military engagements with the Tatmadaw. The Kachin Independence Organization, the Karen National Liberation Army, the Arakan Army, and other groups will have a seat at the table in any future negotiated settlement, so the United States should consider how best to engage them without the potential of significant blowback. There needs to be channels of communication with them.
At the very least, the United States could engage the political wings of these ethnic armed organizations (they all have them) regarding the distribution of medical supplies, COVID-19 vaccines, and other humanitarian assistance. The United States has been engaging Thailand on this thorny issue.
A riskier course of action would be to authorize the intelligence community to establish liaisons with several key ethnic armed organizations, especially those with least allegations of involvement in transitional crime. A less risky approach would be to authorize the intelligence community — if it has not already done so — to establish a liaison relationship with only the National Unity Government and let it leverage that relationship with the different ethnic armed organizations. For example, the United States could provide information on the army’s troop movements. This does not have to be the provision of high-level imagery. The United States could provide the commercial-grade — but timely — overhead imagery that the National Unity Government cannot afford.
This would have one additional benefit: As mentioned above, only half of Myanmar’s some 500 people’s defense forces are under the National Unity Government’s command. This is not good for the country in the long term. The National Unity Government does not have much to offer (weapons, equipment, or funding) the various people’s defense forces as an inducement. Some intelligence — or even the legitimacy garnered by U.S. recognition of the National Unity Government — would help draw some militias into some, albeit limited, command and control.
Sixth, the United States could provide assistance to the families of defecting senior members of the Tatmadaw. The key to the National Unity Government’s success is getting more and more senior officers to defect. The key to this happening is ensuring the safety of their families. Most — but not all — remain cantoned on military bases. Again, the United States will have to work with regional partners.
This is easier said than done. The military lives in cantonments, shops at military-owned stores, bank their money in military-owned financial institutions, and use military-owned mobile phones networks. Their family members are often employed by military-owned businesses. As such, they are more economically insulated. This has prevented army factionalism in the past. But that is not always true when the economic shocks are as great as they are today. Even military families are not immune, with a collapsed kyat and soaring inflation, especially when the ill-gotten gains of the country’s plundered natural resources are hoarded by the senior leadership. While some families could become more dependent on the military to insulate them from these shocks, not all will.
Seventh, the United States should step up law enforcement coordination and intelligence sharing in counter-narcotics, not just with Thai counterparts but also those in neighboring states. One of the key ways that the army funds itself — especially at the local level — is through taxing the production and transportation of illicit narcotics. Transnational criminal organizations have set themselves up in Shan State, now one of the world’s epicenters for methamphetamine production. The largest ethnic armed organization in this region is the United Wa State Army, which has been consistently tied to large-scale narcotic trafficking by the Drug Enforcement Agency. The group has neither endorsed the National Unity Government nor is it loyal to the junta. It has bought itself some autonomy through ceasefires and has clearly benefitted from the Tatmadaw’s campaigns on other fronts.
While the Thai government backs the military junta and sees themselves as a model, it is deeply concerned about the flow of narcotics into Thailand. In September, Thai authorities seized 60 million methamphetamine tablets from Myanmar. The first week of October saw the seizure of 16.2 million tablets of methamphetamine, 1.4 tons crystal meth, and 365 kilograms of ketamine. This is one area where the United States and Thailand can cooperate, despite their sputtering alliance and different approaches to political developments in Myanmar.
But it is not just Thailand. Drugs are flooding across the border into Southeast Asia in record amounts. Lao police recently seized 55 million methamphetamine pills and 1.5 tons of crystal meth in the single largest confiscation of drugs in Southeast Asia. It was their third seizure that week. This is something about which every state in the region is deeply concerned. In the last two weeks of October alone, there have been seizures of drugs from Myanmar’s Shan State in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and en route to New Zealand.
Eighth, the government should increase funding for Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, especially their Burmese services. Since the coup, the military has trampled over Myanmar’s press freedoms. The junta has arrested some 100 journalists since the coup and at least 53 of them were still in detention as of October 1 according to Reporters Without Borders. The country desperately needs credible and independent media voices, especially in the face of constant internet and media blackouts.
Orchestrating a Strategy
Absent a profound political change in Myanmar, the situation there is going to get progressively worse. The military has started its dry season offensives and there are well-founded fears of significant war crimes. The military leadership is clearly growing impatient with the spectrum of opposition to its rule. Confronted with diplomatic isolation and economic misery, the armed forces know that its window of opportunity to consolidate its rule is closing. Min Aung Hlaing and the other generals want results ahead of the anniversary of the coup. The military is not going to throw in the towel and accept the results of the election that it overturned. Similarly, there is little reason to trust that it will hold elections again, as it has already delayed them once. Despite its best efforts, the military is not going to defeat the National Unity Government and affiliated militant groups and impose its will on the population. The National Unity Government, its affiliated militias, and the ethnic armed organizations have little recourse but to escalate violence. The violence — and likely stalemate — will only compound the country’s humanitarian and economic morass.
The National Unity Government has real limitations on the ground. It is largely in exile and has tenuous command and control over the militias. But it does have popular legitimacy and is really the only hope for stability in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi and some of the other imprisoned and aging National League for Democracy leaders have been discredited internationally because of their whitewash of the Rohingya genocide. There is little in the way of international support for her despite her shambolic trial. Indeed, Myanmar’s governance will have to look very different moving forward, which is why it is incumbent on the United States to engage the National Unity Government and its future leaders.
The Biden administration should put together an interagency strategy that will first create the context for a sufficient number of officers to withdraw their support from the military leadership. Second, such a strategy would help the National Unity Government enhance its legitimacy by providing humanitarian and public health assistance to ordinary people in Myanmar. Third, it would help begin a political dialogue that would strip away the military’s vast political powers and establish a civilian rule under a federal republican system.
The United States, of course, is not going to intervene directly in Myanmar. This is a peripheral, internal conflict and should be treated as such. But the United States should take advantage of a changed international context: The ASEAN states and China have shown a changed attitude towards the junta. A limited amount of U.S. leadership could go a long way.
The State Department is unlikely to recognize the National Unity Government as the official government of Myanmar, but it can step up meetings with them, and at least lobby for observer status and greater representation in regional meetings. Biden missed an opportunity to call for recognition of the National Unity Government when he attended the ASEAN summit in October. The Treasury Department is clearly in a position to put significantly more pressure on the regime. While imposing secondary sanctions is likely too drastic, more targeted sanctions against a cash-strapped military should happen moving forward. As the situation on the worsens in Myanmar, Washington should expect more cooperation from regional partners, including Thailand and Singapore.
The Treasury Department, Drug Enforcement Agency, U.S. Agency for International Development, State Department, the U.S. Agency for Global Media are already doing good work with respect to Myanmar — they just need to do more of it and in a more orchestrated fashion with a better defined political end state. U.S. Myanmar policy so far has been disjointed because it has lacked a high-level champion in the administration.
Congress, in an unusually bipartisan manner, has supported Myanmar’s democratic transition in the past, albeit in a manner too focused on Aung San Suu Kyi herself. It can endorse and fund these proposals, and give the administration the support it needs. Recently, the House passed the Protect Democracy in Burma Act of 2021, but it simply calls on the State Department to report on developments and find ways to hold the junta accountable. It is a first step, but needs teeth. With the first anniversary of the coup approaching, the time is ripe for both congressional chambers to hold hearings. Much has changed on the ground since the House Foreign Affairs Committee held hearings in early May.
The United States and the opposition in Myanmar share a common interest in ending military rule in the country and allowing it to become a federal democracy. This comports with U.S. values and geopolitical objectives. A failed state whose conflict is spilling over into a region of critical economic, political, and strategic importance does not. The United States should think about what a potential and realistic solution to this crisis looks like. It is time to enact a limited number of policies to help create the conditions for Myanmar’s people, the National Unity Government, and other ethnic armed organizations to chart a new constitutional and democratic course. Biden has stated that human rights are at the center of U.S. foreign policy — working to oppose a military junta in Myanmar would demonstrate that those words have meaning.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College and an adjunct professor in Georgetown’s University’s Security Studies Program. He is a columnist with Radio Free Asia. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the opinions of the National War College or Department of Defense.
Image: Xinhua (Photo by U Aung)