TOKYO — Roughly eight months since the civilian government was forced out of power in Myanmar, the Southeast Asian country is on the brink of a full-scale civil war as the military cracks down on peaceful protests and the parallel National Unity Government — formed in exile by democratically elected leaders — calls for open revolt.
The death toll from military airstrikes and targeted burnings is now growing even among noncombatants. The international community, and in particular Japan, must step up its efforts to prevent the crisis from escalating any further.
“Armed clashes now occur regularly in many heartland areas where conflict has not been seen in generations,” United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said at a Human Rights Council session on Sept. 23.
Bachelet warned the country was facing the possibility of an “escalating civil war.”
“In border areas that have faced conflict for many years — including Kachin, Shan, Kayin, and Kayah states — some ethnic armed organizations have assisted People’s Defense groups and, in some instances, have conducted joint military operations with them,” she said, referring to a loosely aligned group of militias fighting the military.
The Myanmar military in particular has been accused of causing a humanitarian and economic crisis, including by hoarding medical supplies and cutting off internet access. Over 1,100 people have been killed since the military took control of the Myanmar government on Feb. 1, according to Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Another 200,000 are believed to have fled their homes due to armed clashes and targeted fires. The country is reportedly suffering a surge of coronavirus infections as well.
Even in Yangon, which has gone relatively unscathed so far, there have been injuries from at least 39 explosions that have rocked the country’s largest city between Sept. 1 and Sept. 22, according to Myanmar’s Eleven Media Group.
In response to the situation, Bachelet called on the Human Rights Council to “support a political process that engages all parties to this crisis, including the National Unity Government, civil society, and representatives from the ethnic minority communities, especially women.”
A peace plan drawn up by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member, “should urgently be accompanied by other influential member states,” she added, urging the international community to assist efforts to foster a comprehensive framework for addressing the crisis.
But global efforts have made little difference so far. A glaring example was the canceled address to the U.N. General Assembly by Myanmar Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun. He had been scheduled to speak on the last day of the high-level event.
Kyaw Moe Tun was appointed under Myanmar’s democratically elected government and has been an outspoken critic of the military and its takeover. Though reported to have been dismissed by the military government, he is believed to have secured more time in the post in exchange for his silence in a deal brokered by the U.S. and China.
At first glance, the deal appears like a compromise between the military government and pro-democracy forces. But the U.N. also undeniably denied the world of the chance to hear about what is actually happening on the ground in Myanmar.
A June 18 resolution by the U.N. General Assembly, which called on all member states “to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar,” also highlighted weaknesses and dysfunction within the organization.
Even though the language in the resolution was toned down in the final version, China, Russia, Thailand and Cambodia abstained from the vote. The international community could not present a united front, even in the form of a nonbinding resolution.
Russia, a key backer of the military, has not reduced arms exports since the power change. Moscow has pushed forward with the delivery of six Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets to Myanmar under a contract signed in 2018. It will also supply surface-to-air missiles, surveillance drones and radar systems to Myanmar in a deal signed at the beginning of the year that is expected to move forward.
Meanwhile, the ASEAN initiative that Bachelet had high hopes for has not lived up to expectations. In April, the 10-member bloc held a summit in Jakarta and invited the country’s top military leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.
There, ASEAN leaders agreed to a five-point consensus regarding Myanmar, including the immediate stop to violence, constructive dialogue between the military and civilians, and the appointment of a special ASEAN envoy.
More than five months later, none of the five points have been realized. But the one thing that came out of the Jakarta meeting is that Min Aung Hlaing was welcomed as Myanmar’s leader.
Bachelet’s call for other members of the Human Rights Council to help with the ASEAN initiative reflects a weak point of the Southeast Asian economic community.
“The international community must redouble its efforts to restore democracy and prevent wider conflict before it is too late,” Bachelet said at the end of her report.
It is tempting to be pessimistic when considering whether countries like China or Russia will be sympathetic to this appeal. But to sit idly by would only make things worse.
The stance of these “influential member states” that Bachelet urged to act will be in question. Among the 47 Human Rights Council member nations, those with strongest influence on Myanmar outside ASEAN are China and India — which share borders with Myanmar — former colonial ruler Britain, and Japan, which has been the largest provider of aid for many years.
In 2012, immediately after Myanmar began taking steps toward democracy, Japan essentially waived about 300 billion yen ($2.7 billion) in debt that was in arrears. Japan invited Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing to the country in 2019 — when Aung San Suu Kyi was the de facto leader — and Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi met the general during a trip to Myanmar in August 2020. Japan is unique among developed democratic nations in terms of its relations with Myanmar’s military.
Considering this history, how it deals with Myanmar should be a major issue for Japan’s diplomacy. And yet this was not a topic of debate when the country’s ruling party held its leadership election last week. Opposition parties and the Foreign Ministry have yet to weigh in as well. Now is the time for Japan to act on Myanmar by drawing on the diversified and strategic perspectives guiding its diplomacy with China, ASEAN and India.
For example, it may be possible for Japan to work with China in applying pressure on the Myanmar military. Beijing has cited the principle of nonintervention in the domestic affairs of another nation as the reason for not condemning the military at the U.N. and other international forums, but it has shown flexibility regarding that principle. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said that “China opposes coup attempts to seize power” following a military takeover in Guinea on Sept. 5.
Tokyo should urge Beijing to persuade or pressure the Myanmar military to change its ways. This should be in Beijing’s interest as well, with Chinese companies in Myanmar having been attacked amid rising anti-China sentiment.