Since Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup on February 1, an initial sense of shock has given way to vibrant protests, and most of the ire has been concentrated on the junta: Hundreds of thousands of people in towns and cities from the foothills of the Himalayas to the far southern border on the edges of the Andaman Sea have marched in defiance of an armed force known for its durability and cruelty. Members of Generation Z, who have reaped many of the benefits of Myanmar’s halting and incomplete democratization experiment of the past decade, have filled the streets with creative rallies and bombarded social media with meme-laden protest art.
In recent days and weeks, however, many people have also expressed a sense of intense anger, betrayal, and despair at the United Nations, and the international community more broadly, for doing too little to help the country. Despite the military’s best efforts to keep Myanmar offline, an array of memes and messages have emerged. In one viral GIF, a grinning cartoon soldier stands with an automatic rifle pointed at a protester holding a sign. A nearby UN official tosses a paper airplane, which bounces harmlessly off the soldier’s hat. The soldier then fires, sending the protester flying out of the frame, an animated blood trail following behind. A widely circulated image features a man holding a handwritten cardboard sign that reads just “700” people killed in “70” days. take your time un. we still got “millions” left.
In an effort to address the unfolding crisis—soldiers have picked off unarmed protesters with devastating head shots; rounded up politicians, torturing some to death; and killed scores of children—foreign governments and international bodies have held meetings, but they’ve taken little action. As the amount of blood spilled has increased, so too have the number of statements from global capitals, expressing varying degrees of “concern,” a favorite catchall of diplomatic jargon—from “serious” to “deep” to “profound.”
Some countries have leveled economic sanctions at Myanmar’s military and their businesses, but they have been far from uniform and largely brushed off. Foreign governments seem split over whether, and exactly how, to engage with a group of elected lawmakers from the ousted administration. Organizations such as the UN have been left looking largely ineffectual and paralyzed by inaction.
Myanmar’s economy, meanwhile, has collapsed, many of the conflicts that were under way prior to the coup have intensified, and the military continues to murder with impunity. The situation, officials are warning, has pulled the country to the brink of being a failed state. Yet despite these ominous forecasts, it is becoming clear that Myanmar—a country that prides itself on stubborn self-reliance and resilience—could be on its own, a more robust global response stymied by geopolitics and the meandering sluggishness of international bodies.
The UN and its secretary-general have been “unspeakably slow” in their response to what is happening, Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister and the president of the Asia Society, a New York City–based research institute, told me recently. “Given the mass murder of civilians by the Burmese military a few weeks ago, if that wasn’t a trigger for immediate action by the Security Council I don’t know what is,” he said, referring to Armed Forces Day last month, when more than 100 people were killed by security forces across the country as the military celebrated in the capital. The overall number of deaths since the coup has surpassed 700, according to a monitoring group.
Despite the pandemic, Myanmar was poised to see economic growth prior to the coup. The moves by the military have erased this, and worse. Fitch Solutions Macro Research revised its economic forecast for the country to a 20 percent contraction, from a 2 percent expansion, bleakly warning that “there is no worst-case scenario on the economy which we can rule out.” The International Crisis Group has said that the impending economic crisis “will push millions into poverty,” and the World Food Programme estimates up to 3.4 million more people will be hungry in the next six months with food prices rising sharply. A widespread civil-disobedience movement has paralyzed some businesses and state-owned enterprises, just as demonstrators had hoped. A senior official at one of Myanmar’s largest banks, who asked not to be named for security reasons, told me he fears that the economy cannot be saved. There is, he said, “no confidence in the government … They have lost not only the people but also their fucking minds.” He added, “Sooner or later, it will go kaput.”
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.”
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a regional bloc better known for its flamboyant shirts and silly handshakes than decisive action, has so far also lacked a viable path forward. The coup presents enormous risks for regional stability, with outflows of refugees and the possibility of conflict spilling over Myanmar’s borders. “It is customary to pin hopes on an [ASEAN] way of fudging and nudging the main protagonists into some workable face-saving compromise to save the day,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor and the director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, in Bangkok, wrote recently, “but this time the situation is dire and dark.” A meeting of the group’s leaders is scheduled for today, nearly three months after the coup was launched. The junta leader Min Aung Hlaing is set to attend, a move that has angered protesters, who see the invite as formally recognizing and legitimizing a regime that illegally overthrew a democratically elected government. The National Unity Government, a parallel government composed of ousted lawmakers, anti-coup protest leaders, and ethnic minorities that was formed last week demanded, unsuccessfully, to be invited.
Ultimately, Myanmar presents a uniquely complex mix of protracted preexisting conflicts, non-state actors, and a military that has over decades wormed its way deeply into politics and the economy. The junta’s leaders are remarkably inward-looking and ruthless. But so far, they have been totally unable to muster any semblance of law, order, or legitimacy with their repression, instead creating only chaos and a resilient movement against it.
“The international community faces a catch-22 in Myanmar. The current situation is crying out for retributive justice, yet there is little prospect that retributive justice will ever work with the Tatmadaw,” Pedersen told me, referring to the military by their Burmese name. He suggested that countries around the world could have an impact in more limited areas—mediation and development capacities, for instance—and by more gradually calling for reforms. “Yet to even consider that option in the midst of a human-rights crisis is to risk condemnation and ridicule.”
Additional reporting by Kyaw Ye Lynn in Yangon