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  • Alfred DiLissio

Myanmar's Civil War

November 6, 2023


Myanmar junta soldiers march during a parade to commemorate the 78th Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw in 2023. [Image credit: Aung Shine Oo/AP]

As ubiquitous as condemnations of democratic-backsliding and acknowledgements of encroaching authoritarian rule are, they often leave a notable and yet undecided conflict out of the headlines, the civil war in Myanmar. Beginning two years ago following the ousting of a democratically elected civilian government by a military junta, attention toward the ongoing fight has noticeably waned despite the persistence of human rights violations committed by the country’s military apparatus. What began as a mass crackdown on peaceful protests against the deposition of the country’s democratic government has quickly spiraled into an ugly conflict marred by torture and attacks on civilians perpetrated by the country’s armed forces. Though these atrocities were initially met with targeted sanctions and the same familiar calls for the strengthening of global democracy, they faded into the background a year later as a seemingly more pressing war over self-determination began in Eastern Europe. Though focusing on the plight of Myanmar might seem to dampen the democratic community’s efforts to resist Vladimir Putin’s particular brand of patrimonialism, in fact amplifies the abilities of both those who seek to defend democracy and human dignity to respond to both issues with equal care. To do otherwise would be to ignore the interconnected nature of global politics, and the dangerous role precedent plays in establishing indifference to the abuse of human rights.


In response to its condemnations, the Junta has remained resilient and silent, taking a few years off the near 30-year prison term of former democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose ailing health remains a worry for the country’s democratic proponents. Even under her tenure, human rights violations by the military were a persistent issue. Most notably the violent campaign conducted by the security forces to drive the Rohingya Muslim minority out of the country. Military rule in Myanmar and its abuses have deep historical roots. Kyi’s arrest and ensuing denial of appropriate care constitute a gross disregard for the rule of law under the Junta, one of thousands of political prisoners who have been arbitrarily detained and sentenced without a fair trial. Sentences which feature long terms in prison with hard labor, and for some, the death penalty. Though an individual story such as Kyi’s certainly constitutes a tragedy for some, it should not overshadow the staggering statistics of internal displacement that reflect the condition of over a million and a half Burmese, and the estimated 14 million who are denied assistance by the Junta’s obstructions. It’s for these unsurprising reasons that Tom Andrews, UN-appointed independent Myanmar Expert, called for UN member states, the security council, and other regional organizations, to respond “with the same urgency,” as they had “to the crisis in Ukraine.”


These parties have done little to seriously pressure Myanmar’s military, proving that while the Junta may not be winning the conflict on the ground, they have succeeded in weathering the brief ire of the international community. And to Andrews’s point, much of their attention has instead been focused on the invasion of Ukraine, which, while an equally important cause, should not occlude a concern for democratic-backsliding outside of Europe. Such a global focus becomes all the more relevant when the interconnections between these autocratic regimes are examined. On September 10, 2023, the Junta received its first shipment of Russian Su-30 jets, a transaction which highlights the lifelines that sustain both the Junta’s oppressive air strikes and Russia’s ability to weather western economic sanctions. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has also intervened in the conflict, maintaining ties with both the Junta and its opposing ethnic forces. Though such a strategy might seem to express an ambivalence toward the civil war’s outcome, it can only exacerbate the already pernicious historical struggle against military rule in Myanmar and complicate the peace proceedings should the rebellion forces win and seek further autonomy along ethnic lines. Even if one were to sidestep the moral obligation to support democratic resistance and humanitarian aid, Myanmar still has the potential to play an important role in the U.S.’s broader Indo-Pacific strategy, and its general opposition to expanding non-democratic influence in the region. As part of their broader diplomatic reengagement, the U.S. could even press China to seek an armistice in the conflict. The collateral violence and chaos of the civil war, after all, has proved troubling for the CCP as well. Pushing for a ceasefire could also give humanitarian groups the much-needed breathing room to provide to internally displaced Burmese, as current efforts are obstructed by the junta.


All of this is to say that a win for democracy in Myanmar is a win for democracy and human rights the world over. Rebutting the grip of the junta would knock an ally out of Russia’s orbit, while reaffirming support for global democracies outside of the Eurozone. Should the U.S. indeed wish to rebut non-democratic influence in the Indo-Pacific, and reaffirm its support for the rule of law, Myanmar seems like an excellent place to start.


 

Glossary

  1. Armistice – an agreement between two opposing sides to stop fighting for a time.

  2. Autocratic – having absolute power.

  3. Authoritarian – enforcing strict obedience to government authority, at the expense of personal freedom.

  4. Democratic-backsliding – the process of a democratic regime adopting and practicing non-democratic policies.

  5. Junta – a military or political group that rules a country after taking power by force.

  6. Occlude – to close up or block off; to obstruct.

  7. Patrimonialism – a form of governance where power/authority flows directly from the ruler. Authority in these systems is typically restricted to the ruler and their associates.

  8. Pernicious – highly destructive or deadly.

  9. Rule of Law – consistent and uniform application of laws in a nation.

  10. Sanctions – an economic restriction on another nation/individual/entity to compel adherence to an international standard.

  11. Self-determination – determination by the people of a territorial unit of their own future political status.

  12. Ubiquitous – present, appearing, or found everywhere.

 

Sources

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