Myanmar is in the grips of a sickening cycle.
Nearly every day, unarmed protesters are gunned down by soldiers or riot cops. Social media inside the country is a churn of violent images: maimed bodies and young lives cut short.
Six weeks have passed since the military seized total power and instantly sparked a mass uprising — one powered by huge rallies and a general strike, which is grinding the economy to a crawl.
Bureaucrats, factory workers, bankers and others have joined the resistance. But those who dissent risk their lives. More than 180 have been killed — often by riflemen choosing protesters seemingly at random and firing at their heads.
Happening now: Security forces fire live rounds on protesters in the western Yangon factory district of Hlaing Tharyar. Local residents report two casualties on the spot #March14Coup #WhatIsHappeningInMyanmar pic.twitter.com/RNL1rrGAME— Annie Zaman အန်နီ (@Natrani) March 14, 2021
From within the ranks of the uprising, a battle cry has emerged: “We need R2P.” It is an invocation of the United Nations’ “responsibility to protect.”
This is a promise by all UN member states to “end the worst forms of violence and persecution,” a vow inspired by atrocities in Rwanda and the Balkans.
The R2P promise, in its most far-reaching iteration, can be used to justify armed intervention: airstrikes, even land invasion. There appears to be a sentiment among many protesters (but by no means all) that such extremes may be required to break this cycle.
The wonderful protest project made with people in Hlaing township, including the words #WeNeedR2P #SaveMyammar and also the images of peoples who died for our country, who took part in spring revolution. pic.twitter.com/67u9eLsx30— ZC Htet Wint (@Junnie47769536) March 12, 2021
But this is a highly unlikely outcome, says Chris Sidoti, a former high-ranking UN official. He and two other recently retired top UN officials, Yanghee Lee and Marzuki Darusman, recently formed an independent group, the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, to help influence UN decisions on the country.
There is almost no chance that the UN will send blue-helmeted peacekeepers to Myanmar — and nor should they, Sidoti said.
“I think armed intervention would not be wise in Myanmar. We’ve seen armed interventions go badly wrong in Afghanistan and Iraq. I wouldn’t wish that on the people [of] Myanmar.”
“I think armed intervention would not be wise in Myanmar,” he said. “We’ve seen armed interventions go badly wrong in Afghanistan and Iraq. I wouldn’t wish that on the people [of] Myanmar.”
Myanmar’s military, with an estimated 400,000 million troops, is led by generals who uphold a hypernationalist ideology.
Their worldview is forged, in part, by more than a century of British occupation, which ended in 1948. This ideology intensified under a CIA-backed invasion in the 1950s, and a Beijing-backed communist insurgency that ran into the 1980s. In more recent decades, the US has treated Myanmar as a pariah state where, in the words of one former chargé d’affaires in the 1990s: “We were to use Burma to soak up Washington's human rights initiatives that might otherwise be directed against important countries.”
To fend off foreign invaders would realize the Myanmar generals’ darkest prophecies about imperialists returning to control their lands.
The complexities keep coming.
Myanmar’s army is very experienced, having waged jungle warfare for seven decades — pursuing their own crusade to subjugate the country’s Indigenous peoples, many of them living in mountainous stretches near China. These varied ethnic groups are defended by their own independent armies, some of them quite skilled and armed with sophisticated weapons, including shoulder-fired missiles that can knock aircraft from the sky.
Ethnic groups maintain these independent armies for good reason. Those that are not defended by sizable militia have fared the worst in Myanmar — namely the Rohingya, Muslims native to coastal areas. The military, in recent years, led a genocidal purge against the Rohingya, forcing more than 700,000 into neighboring Bangladesh. (Sidoti belonged to a UN fact-finding mission investigating these crimes.)
Simply put, any UN-approved, Western-backed intervention could inflame a multifront war of almost unimaginable complexity. Some of the ethnic armed groups might line up behind the interventionists; others, allied with China, might choose a different path.
It could quite easily take on the dimensions of a US-China proxy war — bringing on a nightmare even darker than the current cycle of brutality.
“Just think to the early days of the Iraq intervention, when people warmly welcomed the Americans and other troops. That didn’t last long.”
“Just think to the early days of the Iraq intervention, when people warmly welcomed the Americans and other troops,” Sidoti said. “That didn’t last long.”
“I don’t think we should be so naive as to think the Myanmar military would accept armed intervention … or that, as deaths multiplied, people would continue to welcome the presence of foreign troops.
The last time the UN’s R2P doctrine was used to justify intervention was in 2011. The target was Libya, hit by airstrikes from the American, British and French militaries — all to hasten the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Libya is now a shattered place, ruled by the warring militia.
The US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was perhaps thinking of both Libya and Myanmar this month when he said: “We will not promote democracy through costly military interventions or by attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes by force. We have tried these tactics in the past. However well-intentioned, they haven’t worked.”
Still, that many within Myanmar’s uprising desire outside help is understandable. They are everyday people, barricading neighborhoods with sandbags or felled trees. They are defying security forces that include some of the most seasoned killers in Southeast Asia.
Among the battle cries emerging from Myanmar’s resistance is: “How many more dead bodies before the UN takes action?”
Sidoti said that is a “valid and very important question” and admitted that “the people of Myanmar can rightly feel badly let down by the UN and its agencies.”
His advisory council, formed in response to the coup, is urging the UN to invoke the “responsibility to protect” — but not the most extreme version entailing armed intervention.
The advisers believe R2P could rally the UN toward other forms of intervention — such as a global arms embargo, stopping the flow of weapons toward the army (which is largely supplied by China and Russia, along with Israel, India, and Ukraine).
The advisers also back sanctions toward the coup-making generals, their families and their moneymaking corporations; versions of this are already enforced by certain countries, such as the US and UK, but are not comprehensive.
Thirdly, Sidoti said, the UN Security Council should fully extend the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction over Myanmar such that coup-plotting army generals can face charges in The Hague. This would be an extraordinary step as Russia and China, two key members of the Security Council, will typically defend Myanmar’s leaders against potential UN punishment.
No matter what happens, it is clear that Myanmar’s multifaceted uprising will not sit around waiting for foreign help.
Backed by trade unionists and shopkeepers, college students and the middle-aged alike, the anti-coup resistance is vigorous — and has even nurtured a rare sense of solidarity. They remain defiant, despite every protester knowing that they may be shot by forces trying to crush the movement’s spirit.