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Resisting calls for using force to save the people of Myanmar

The once vaunted 'responsibility to protect' doctrine faded away after the Libyan intervention. There's a reason for that.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Myanmar is moving closer to open civil war following the February 1 military coup and the ensuing violent crackdown on anti-junta protesters that has claimed more than 800 lives so far. 

There is also growing pressure for a more aggressive international response to the coup, as well as a number of calls for using the “responsibility to protect” doctrine (R2P) to take concerted action against the Burmese military regime. It is debatable whether the R2P doctrine properly applies to the political crisis in Myanmar, but the more important practical question is whether there is a political consensus in favor of using it. Barring dramatic changes in the attitudes of at least two of the permanent members of the Security Council, calls for using R2P in Myanmar will go unanswered. R2P was developed as an international standard for responding to ongoing or potential massive loss of life, and the failure to apply it in response to the genocide that the Burmese military carried out against the Rohingya makes its application now even more questionable.

Some advocates for using R2P in Myanmar correctly understand that it is not synonymous with military intervention, but there are some analysts who are seizing on the deteriorating situation in the country to demand the U.S.-led military action. Anthony Davis wrote a lengthy essay in The Asia Times earlier this month calling for unilateral U.S. missile strikes on the Tatmadaw, the country’s armed forces,  on the dubious grounds that the only thing that the Burmese junta understands is force. Almost nothing would be worse for the people of Myanmar than an illegal U.S. attack on their country, as the hyper-nationalist military leadership would benefit politically from being the target of a foreign government’s bombing.      

Because of the way that R2P was abused in Libya in 2011, it is extremely unlikely that Russia and China would permit the doctrine to be used again in this case. Russia remembers very well how Western governments exploited the doctrine to overreach and pursue a policy of forcible regime change. China in particular would have no desire to greenlight an international R2P response to an abusive authoritarian government on its borders. R2P’s requirements are clear, and the lack of consensus at the Security Council dooms the effort before it begins. International diplomatic efforts should be focused instead on de-escalating the situation in Myanmar to prevent the crisis from turning into a full-blown civil war. All regional powers have an interest in preventing further bloodshed and instability. Framing the response in terms of R2P will exacerbate the situation and runs the risk of turning Myanmar into a proxy conflict between outside powers.

If there is a civil war in Myanmar, there will be significant pressure on Washington to lend support to the forces arrayed against the junta. President Biden needs to resist going down this path, which might very well turn Myanmar into another Syria or at least another Libya, where foreign governments have used the chaos created by civil war to try to expand their own influence and inflict damage on their rivals. The United States has made the mistake of fueling and intensifying foreign civil wars many times before and must not repeat that error in Myanmar.

It should go without saying that direct U.S. military intervention is a non-starter for Myanmar’s neighbors and would be a colossal mistake if it were to happen. Fortunately, there is no indication that the Biden administration is contemplating such an option, and Biden’s own past skepticism about intervention in Libya suggests he would not be receptive to these arguments. However, there is a danger that if Washington were to recognize the opposition leadership in the National Unity Government (NUG), it would come under pressure to come to the aid of the anti-junta forces. 

The Biden administration has condemned the coup and the brutal response to protests and  rightly suspended its limited aid to the government in Naypyidaw. It has also sanctioned the coup leaders and expressed support for a restoration of civilian rule. But, because of Washington’s limited influence in Myanmar, there is not much more that Washington can constructively do. Our government can support regional governments in coordinating opposition to continued military rule; ASEAN’s ability to mediate the crisis is limited, but it is the appropriate organization to address the crisis, and Washington should work with the other member states to present a united diplomatic front. 

Sanctions are Washington’s default option in cases like this, but sweeping sanctions should not be imposed. Given the failure of “maximum pressure” campaigns in Iran, Venezuela, Syria, and North Korea and the terrible effect that sanctions have had on the civilian populations in these countries, the United States needs to tread very cautiously here. An editorial in The Washington Post called for using sanctions to starve the junta of its oil and gas revenues, but we have seen the harm this does to the economies of other countries under similar sanctions and how they can contribute to starvation and deaths from lack of proper medicine. Broad sanctions are unlikely to succeed in dislodging the junta and will inflict pointless suffering on the population just as they did in the decades before civilian rule was reestablished in the 2010s. 

As  Nader Mousavizadeh observed about the impact of Western sanctions and the isolation of the junta in Myanmar more than a decade ago:

 “... Burma presents perhaps the starkest and most advanced case of the failure of Western strategies aimed solely at cutting off repressive regimes. The two-decade-old policy of isolating Burma now looks like a carefully constructed attempt to weaken Western influence and open the door to China, while devastating Burma's legitimate economy and doing nothing to improve its people's human rights.”

Sanctions regimes always punish the weakest and most vulnerable members of a society, so the people with the least power and least influence over the actions of their government are penalized for the actions of their own oppressors. Washington has already tried punitive isolation of Myanmar, and it led nowhere. It would be insane to do the same thing again and expect a different outcome. Myanmar’s economy is already suffering enormous disruption, and the people will be the ones to bear the brunt of any economic warfare directed against the country. The people of Myanmar need solidarity, not collective punishment.

The United States should support an international response that prioritizes the protection of civilians and the provision of humanitarian relief. There are already 250,000 people displaced by violence since the February 1 coup, and that number is liable to grow the longer that the standoff between the junta and the NUG continues. 

U.S. interests in Myanmar are few, and our government’s influence is minimal, and we need to recognize those limitations when considering what U.S. policy should be in the future. It is imperative that Biden resists the usual hawkish demands that he “do something” by taking aggressive, counterproductive action. Washington’s regional allies and partners will be the ones that have to live with the consequences of further instability in Myanmar, and America should do nothing that contributes to destabilizing the region.

Nyaunghswe, Myanmar - 17 Feb 2021: Myanmar people took to the streets to protest against the military coup. (shutterstock/Robert Bociaga)
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