Read: How Aung San Suu Kyi lost her way
These factors have contributed in recent days to comparisons, albeit imperfect ones, that Myanmar could be facing a situation not unlike Syria’s: a pariah regime presiding over a rump state in near-permanent civil conflict and an economy in ruins.
Protesters in Myanmar have called on the UN to invoke the “responsibility to protect,” or R2P. Adopted in 2005 at the UN World Summit, a two-day gathering of about 200 world leaders, R2P is a set of principles that seeks to prevent mass-atrocity crimes of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. Created out of a desire to prevent a repeat of the genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s, the principles are based on three pillars of responsibility: that each state must protect its own people; that the world must help states protect their populations; and that the international community must protect people when their states are failing to do so.
Across Myanmar, protesters have carried signs and banners calling for R2P to be invoked. “I don’t understand why the UN, U.S., and the international community just stands there and watches the regime’s forces killing civilians,” Lin, a 23-year-old protester in Hlaing Tharyar Township, a sprawling, poor suburb of Yangon that was recently the scene of mass killings by security forces, told me. He asked that his full name not be used, for fear of repercussions. “We are not trained for battle. We can’t fight the soldiers who are well trained,” he added. A number of his friends, he said, moved from Yangon into the jungle of eastern Myanmar in recent weeks, joining the ranks of armed ethnic groups that have been battling the military for decades in an attempt to win greater autonomy.
The demands illustrate the enormous gulf between what the people of Myanmar believe they need and what the world is willing to offer. It is “natural for people who face an overwhelming force to call for the international community to save them,” Morten Pedersen, a senior lecturer in international and political studies at the University of New South Wales Canberra, in Australia, told me. But, he cautioned, “I suspect what most of the protesters have in mind when they call for R2P to be invoked is military intervention, and that will never happen in Myanmar.” Pedersen, who wrote a recent article examining the failures of R2P in the context of the Rohingya crisis, said that even a broader reading of the doctrine that put forward a range of noncoercive policy options would be a challenge. “I doubt that we will see any of the major powers seriously pursue the R2P track in Myanmar,” he told me, “simply because they know that it invariably leads to expectations of actions that they cannot or do not want to take.”
The issues are practical as well as political: Russia and China are veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, and both would block any significant action—Moscow, as a longtime friend of Myanmar’s that supplies it with weapons and provides training to its military, and Beijing, as its huge neighbor that has maintained friendly relations with both civilian and military governments in the past. Still, Rudd, the former Australian prime minister, argued, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres should use his power to convene the council to vote on a resolution regarding R2P. Russia would be difficult to convince, Rudd acknowledged, but he was less sure that China would be against it and suggested that it might abstain from a vote instead. “China does not want to be seen as protecting Burmese butchers,” he told me. “It is bad for China’s international reputation.”