On February 1, 2021, the Myanmar military staged a coup against the elected civilian government, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and declared a national state of emergency. People across Myanmar took to the streets to protest and demand the restoration of the NLD administration. While the military responded with force, nonviolent demonstrators have continued their resistance against the dictatorship for the past two years, as other civilians take up arms with the People Defense Force (PDF) and other ethnic armed organizations.
Tormented under the brutal military crackdown, the Myanmar people saw some relief with the December 2022 passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2669, which urges the military to cease its atrocities against civilians and release political prisoners, including the state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. This marks the first time the UNSC has formed a resolution on Myanmar since the country joined the UN in 1948. However, while the resolution calls for significant and urgent action, more should have been done.
The initial text reportedly stated that the UNSC would take all possible measures against the junta, and in the case of non-compliance, even threatened an arms embargo and sanctions against Myanmar. However, the passed resolution used watered down language and only condemned the junta’s actions rather than taking offensive measures. There are two key reasons for the milder approach. First, a lack of consensus within ASEAN on how to address the junta has hindered a coordinated regional response. Second, as permanent members of the UNSC, China and Russia have protected the junta for their own strategic interests at UN forums and barred stronger actions.
Prospects of Resolution 2669
Such cycles of violence perpetrated by the current military are not new to Myanmar. The country has already gone through a 60-year strife between its ethnic armed groups and different junta regimes due to the military’s agenda of establishing Myanmar as a Burman nation. Within this context, the formal recognition of the junta’s brutality against its people through the UNSC resolution is of much significance and long overdue.
Resolution 2669 addresses three substantial concerns related to Myanmar’s continued violence: halting civilian persecution, releasing all arbitrarily imprisoned detainees, and giving ASEAN the lead role in implementing its 5-point consensus plan. Released at the same time, the resolution compliments Washington’s revised Burma Act which cuts off financial and political support to the junta regime. Under the act, the Biden administration will further sanction the junta to eliminate financial support from U.S.-owned companies or U.S. citizens, and will directly negotiate with local groups opposing the junta such as the National Unity Government (NUG) and PDF to undermine the military’s political legitimacy. The aims of this act are synonymous with those of the UNSC resolution, suggesting that the timing is intended to increase collective pressure on the Burmese military.
This resolution is also crucial because it supports ASEAN in implementing the 5-point consensus plan, which is intended to end violence in the country and appoint a special envoy to consolidate dialogue with all parties in the conflict. Known for their attempts at economic integration in the region, ASEAN members share a tumultuous past of hostile relations. The Myanmar crisis has locked ASEAN countries in a stalemate as competing national interests take precedent over the global good. As a result, the bloc has been unable to come to a unified position against the military junta’s coup. ASEAN has already engaged in different discussions with military commander Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing in the past but they have failed repeatedly to bring about any remedy.
Key Obstacles to the Implementation of the Resolution
The failure of ASEAN in stopping the junta’s murder spree resides in the fact that the members are divided in how they want to pursue the junta’s autocratic rule in light of the relationships they share with the country. For instance, Singapore has a USD $4.2 billion investment in Myanmar and Cambodia too has an oppressive administration that lacks political opposition, thus reducing these countries’ incentive to call out the junta. It was even preferred by Myanmar’s ally, China, that ASEAN should be the body appointed to implement the 5-point consensus plan, given ASEAN’s pivotal role in putting an end to Vietnam’s war on Cambodia.
The appointment of ASEAN to put an end to the regime has soured relations between the military and the bloc, so much so that Myanmar has been barred from attending ASEAN’s top-level summits. However, individual countries continue relations with the military, with ASEAN members like the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, and Thailand continuing to trade arms, oil, and gas trading with the junta. These partnerships are the economic backbone of the regime amidst isolation from the West.
A second obstacle to more effective and aggressive implementation of the resolution is Russia and China’s continued collaboration with Myanmar’s junta. Among the five permanent members, China and Russia were the only two countries that abstained from voting for the motion, and who have sold weaponry to the junta knowing it would be used against civilians. Historically, China and Myanmar have maintained brotherly relations over their shared economic and geo-strategic interests. Myanmar continuously gets sheltered by China from the wrath of the international community and China gains access to the Indian Ocean through Kyauk Phyu on Myanmar’s west coast, making the country a centerpiece of China’s Belt and Road initiative.
Russia, on the other hand, has been more of a silent ally, supporting Myanmar during conflict and supplying the junta with weapons and oil. It was unsurprising that China and Russia have shielded Myanmar from UNSC action, given that both countries vetoed the UNSC’s statement condemning the 2021 coup and boycotted talks on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar in the past. Ultimately, the resolution’s gentler language may have been due to these countries’ reluctance to hold Myanmar accountable and their history of vetoing such strong measures. As long as the junta has allies in two of the world’s most influential nations, holding them accountable for the suffering of the Burmese people will remain a challenge.
Much More Is Needed
The resolution is a clear message to the junta to end its killing of civilians and restore democracy in Myanmar. However, it is not strong enough to end the military reign given its soft messaging, and lack of consensus between key permanent UNSC members and within ASEAN. While the UNSC, as the protector of global peace and security, should be the solution to the crisis, this is ambitious in light on Russia and China’s strong relations with Myanmar. Therefore, a stronger regional approach is needed that centers ASEAN as the key actor to implement the resolution.
ASEAN members must realize that short-term economic benefits in Myanmar cannot overshadow the history of ineffective and unreliable military regimes in the country since independence. If ASEAN fails to put an end to junta’s terror in Myanmar, it will tarnish its international image as the leader of the region. Furthermore, younger generations in Myanmar will begin to resent ASEAN for its support of the regime, as is being seen with the rise of anti-Chinese sentiments amongst the Burmese people.
With Myanmar growing more economically unstable by the day, it might be time for China and ASEAN to form a joint response towards the crisis. China has strong ties with ASEAN as mentioned in its 2023 agenda and has proved responsive to ASEAN interests in the past. ASEAN efforts to pressure Beijing to further reduce its support for the junta might be a good place to start, especially as the current ASEAN chair, Indonesia, is strongly opposed to the junta’s rule.
Cooperation could take a two-fold approach. First, as the ASEAN chair, Indonesia can focus on negotiating with the NUG to foster legitimacy to the party while eliminating military’s ploy to exit the crisis by conducting a sham election in 2023. Indonesia can also take a firmer stance by suspending Myanmar’s membership and open diplomacy on the individual state level with all the stakeholders in the country as a neutral peace broker. On the other hand, China, Singapore, and Thailand can use their economic leverage on the junta, threatening discontinuation of economic relations with Myanmar’s oil and gas industry.
While a united ASEAN bloc seems unlikely, countries like Malaysia, Philippines, and Indonesia can collaborate with the European Union to curb foreign financial support for the military, as these countries have had affiliations with the arms supply and telecommunication sector of Myanmar. Following the EU’s suit of sanctioning Myanmar’s oil industry, these democracies should put sanctions on Myanmar generals and their domiciled companies that collaborate with the Junta. The EU can also urge Singapore and Vietnam to halt their associations with the Junta, leveraging its bilateral trade engagements with these nations. ASEAN members like Singapore and Thailand can further help the EU to make its sanctions more effective by freezing the dollars the Junta receives for the natural gas and other sources, deposited into banks in these ASEAN countries. In this way, ASEAN collectively, along with support from China, the EU, and UNSC, can effectively put an end to the military regime in Myanmar.
Image 1: Protest against Military Coup via Wikimedia Commons
Image 2: Protest against Military Coup via Wikimedia Commons