Myanmar: what can the international community do?

By Gareth Evans AC, Former Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs

As the popular backlash against February’s coup in Myanmar produces a mounting death toll, former foreign minister Gareth Evans argues the international community does have options to keep the pressure on the military regime.

One of the most frustrating and depressing characteristics of the current crisis in Myanmar — just as it was with the terrible crackdown in 1988, and with the eruption of the Rohingya crisis in 2017 — is its demonstration that the generals and the Tatmadaw, or armed forces, they command continue to live in a bubble: not the kind of bubble that can be burst with a pin-prick, but one more like a plexiglass shield, not very easily breakable at all.

It is a bubble that culturally insulates and isolates the military from the wider Myanmar community, while the generals make and play by their own rules, finding ways to continue to enrich themselves and somehow persuade themselves that it is legitimate to slaughter their own people to stay in power.

And it is a bubble that means that the military is comfortable in its isolation, lacking in shame in the face of international condemnation, and quite habituated to ignoring external economic and other pressures.

The task for all of us — the internal opposition to the regime, now embracing almost the whole of Myanmar society, and all those in the international community who have been appalled by the February coup and the terrible violence that has followed — is to somehow break through that bubble around the military before the situation descends into even more catastrophic violence.

Internal Action

Internally, it is clear that some progress is being made, and that the bubble is at least starting to crack, if not yet break. The generals, it is now clear, failed to anticipate the breadth and depth of the opposition to their coup throughout the country, and the extraordinary bravery of those in the streets who have continued to demonstrate and those in the civil service and key sectors of the workforce who have continued to stay on strike despite all the terrible violence, and threats of more, that has been thrown at them.

The Tatmadaw must also be acutely aware that many of the ethnic minority militias on its borders, including some of the most powerful, are now again showing more interest in reigniting civil war than in ceasefires. And, above all, it must also be dawning on the generals, as the economy spirals down into freefall, that the country is becoming completely ungovernable.

At the same time, the forces opposed to the military — initially struggling as their parliamentarians and other leaders had to flee into hiding or were arrested or worse — have now found their coherence and collective voice, first through the establishment of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) and now the National Unity Government. The Tatmadaw can no longer even begin to claim that it is the only force capable of governing the country and stopping it becoming a failed state: there is an alternative, with real democratic credentials, ready and able to reassert its authority.

My own instinct is that it is this internal dynamic, now working itself out, which is ultimately more likely to determine the outcome in Myanmar than any external pressure. To an extent greater than almost any recent conflict I can think of, it is the internal pressure building up — thanks to the bravery and commitment of the people and their leaders — that seems likely to matter most.

External Action

But that does not for a second mean that there is nothing more that can or should be done internationally. It is critically important that external pressure be sustained and increased, for two related reasons. First, to give support, encouragement and confidence to those inside the country that the rest of the world — or at least most of it — is behind them in their struggle. And second, to try to crack the bubble which has so far kept the generals isolated and insulated from, and unaffected by, not only the reactions of their own people, but by those of the wider international community as well.

What has to be created is an understanding by the coup leaders not only that things are now totally out of their control and they are friendless internally, but that they are almost totally friendless internationally as well — and that unless they step back from the path they are on, they are going to suffer some real pain.

The starting point for mobilising international action must be ‘R2P’ — the Responsibility to Protect — the set of principles, unanimously endorsed by the world’s heads of state and government at the UN General Assembly’s special World Summit session in 2005. This makes it clear beyond argument that countries like Myanmar can no longer shelter behind the notion that mass atrocity crimes being committed behind sovereign state borders are nobody else’s business.

There can be no doubt whatever that what is now happening in Myanmar, just as what happened with the military’s assault on the Rohingya since 2017, is unequivocally in breach of the R2P norm. On any view, the Tatmadaw and the other security forces it directs have been, and continue to be, guilty of the most heinous crimes against humanity, and there is a profoundly real fear that even worse is to come.

UN Security Council
The R2P set of principles are the starting point for international mobilisation against the Tatmadaw. Image credit: UN Women, Flickr.

What does this mean in terms of options for the wider international community to act? Let me work through them, one by one:

Military Force?

As painful as this may be for some to accept, I think we have to begin by putting completely to one side the military intervention option, even if R2P does contemplate it, and even though the UN Security Council has specifically mandated it in the past. There are three reasons why this is simply not a realistic option: first, the UN Security Council, with China and Russia both wielding vetoes, will never agree to it; secondly, no country with any serious military capability, in the region or anywhere else, has shown any willingness to take up arms against Myanmar, with or without Security Council authorisation; and thirdly, the prudential criteria which should govern any use of military force anywhere, not least the bottom-line requirement that any intervention to be likely to do more good than harm, weigh strongly against such intervention here – the Tatmadaw would be a formidable opponent, enabling no easy disabling strike, and absolutely guaranteeing a protracted and very bloody war in which many more people might die than be saved.

But that is not the end of the story. In the R2P toolbox, there are at least four other major reaction tools available in situations like this, and all of them can and should be mobilised here. In all these areas, if the Security Council fails to act others still legally can.

Naming, Shaming and Diplomatic Isolation

Condemnatory statements (naming and shaming) and diplomatic isolation (including suspension of membership in international organisations) on past experience might be the least likely actions to move the generals. But they must continue to be taken to the extent possible, if only to keep giving heart to the Myanmar people. Similarly, with acts of diplomatic recognition and non-recognition: this is not a particularly meaningful step for those many countries, like my own, which recognise states rather than particular governments, but refusing to accept the credentials of a new Tatmadaw appointed ambassador is certainly a very useful signal of displeasure to the military and morale booster for its civilian opponents.

As to condemnatory statements, the UN Security Council has at least issued statements of concern, without being blocked by China or Russia, but these could and should be stronger. What the Tatmadaw will find hardest to shrug off completely are the voices of its neighbours. Not much can be expected from China in this respect: it has no love for the Tatmadaw, but even less for the anti-Chinese sentiment which has been expressed on the street and, while wanting calm on its borders, is unlikely to do anything useful to achieve it. Nor from India: its North-Eastern states are deeply troubled, but it is not in Narendra Modi’s DNA to press seriously for human rights redress. The military leadership of Thailand could send serious messages to the Tatmadaw leadership but has so far shown little disposition to do so.

ASEAN’s role is more important than anyone else’s, not least because it is the one organisation from which suspension really would trouble the generals. It has shown itself incapable in recent times of acting collectively on anything significant, but Indonesia — and in particular its Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi — are to be commended for trying to energise at least some regional momentum for change. At the leaders’ meeting they have convened for tomorrow there is at least some prospect that Myanmar’s suspension from the organisation will be, if not agreed, at least seriously floated, and this would do something to concentrate the generals’ minds on their present friendlessness.

ASEAN flags
The ASEAN nations play an important role in putting pressure on Myanmar and the Tatmadaw. Image credit: OPgrapher, Shutterstock.

Arms Embargo 

Although arms embargoes are being applied by a number of countries, it is important they be more comprehensive and systematically applied. There is every justification for the Security Council to agree on a strong general embargo, but given Russia’s interests, and spoiling instincts, that seems very unlikely. But as the International Crisis Group’s Richard Horsey has proposed, like-minded countries could still agree to a coordinated list of prohibited items — not only arms, but also technologies for surveillance and repression — and share information on their efforts to block transfers on a voluntary basis.

Targeted Sanctions 

Like-minded countries should also continue to coordinate the imposition of targeted economic sanctions. Sanctions impacting the wider economy and as such adding further stress for ordinary people are to be avoided – and experience elsewhere suggests that in any case these rarely make a difference with those who matter. Targeted financial sanctions, directly impacting the generals’ pockets, are prima facie the ones most likely to have an impact. It is important that the US and UK have again blacklisted the two sprawling conglomerates — MEHL and MEC — through which the Tatmadaw leadership generates enormous income. There is no excuse for other countries not following suit: it is indefensible that Australia has dragged its feet in applying even the most obvious new targeted financial and travel sanctions against the military leadership.

Given that so many of the Tatmadaw’s dealings in jade and timber and energy resources bypass the global dollar economy, there are limits on the usually effective US finance and banking threats. What might make a real difference would be for Singapore, in particular, to match its stated concerns with the generals’ behaviour with some real demolition of their capacity to trade and deal financially through that state.

Judicial Action

An extremely useful action that could be taken by international actors against the generals is to threaten them with prison terms. That is easier said than done, but they have already had an unwelcome taste of international legal pressure with two cases already on the table. One is the Rohingya Genocide case initiated by The Gambia in 2019. The other case, referred by Bangladesh to the International Criminal Court, which is aimed at bringing individual officers to account for their forced deportations across the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in 2017. But neither of these cases directly address the present crisis, and although under the Rome Statute the UN Security Council could refer the Tatmadaw’s current crimes against humanity to the ICC, that remains a forlorn hope given the veto powers exercisable by China and Russia.

The International Criminal Court, The Hague, Netherlands. Image credit: Robert Paul Van Beets, Shutterstock.

What is potentially a much more immediate legal threat to the generals is the exercise by any state in the international community of the “universal jurisdiction” available to it under international law, in the case of crimes that can be characterised not just as local in character but so serious as to constitute “crimes against all”. In practice, this jurisdiction is exercisable when suspected individuals travel internationally and leave themselves open to arrest. This has been exercised by over fifteen states since the Second World War, notably in relation to perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide.

In the case of Myanmar, a good place to start here would be with the senior officers identified by the UN Fact Finding Mission established by the Human Rights Council in 2017. As Simon Adams, Director of the Global Centre on the Responsibility to Protect, has noted, “It's unlikely these guys are going to head to Disneyland for a holiday but they do want to be able to travel freely around South East Asia. They should not feel safe to do so.”

What Next? 

In a just world, a combination of the internal dynamics now working themselves out, and a significant increase in R2P-based international pressure would lead to the bubble surrounding the Tatmadaw cracking and breaking so completely that its unity, and capacity to intimidate and control the country, would simply crumble and collapse, with the Myanmar people thereby succeeding in achieving the revolution they want, need and deserve.

But we have to contemplate the possibility that this complete collapse simply won’t happen. And, as painful as this will be to acknowledge, we have to contemplate the need to at least start thinking about an alternative scenario which would avoid a catastrophic escalation of the present violence into a full-scale Syrian-style bloodbath.

That alternative scenario might be one where the military does not completely capitulate, but feels itself under so much pressure that it starts looking for an exit strategy, or “off-ramp”, which would save at least some of its face and some of its previous institutional role. Any such outcome would necessarily involve some concessions from the National Unity Government which it will not be at all happy to make, and in the ideal scenario I described would not have to. But it would involve no further loss of life, a restoration of the basic principles of constitutional democracy, and mean that the sacrifice of those who have already died has not been in vain.

It would be inappropriate and premature to canvass now, in any more detail, what such a negotiated stepping back, and ultimate settlement, might actually involve. But this is an area where ASEAN — with the Indonesians the most obvious lead actor — could play a positive role. I can understand very well the strength of feeling that has led civilian leaders in Myanmar to reportedly say that ASEAN should not invite to tomorrow’s summit the “murderer-in-chief” Ming Aung Hlaing. But sometimes circumstances demand — as I found in dealing with the Khmer Rouge in negotiating the Cambodian peace plan a generation ago — that, if even more death and misery are to be avoided, one at least has to explore the possibility of mediated dialogue with those whose behaviour has been almost indescribably awful.

Anything less than the complete removal, once and for all, of the political role of the Tatmadaw is not an ideal outcome. Anything less than the trial and punishment of those who have perpetrated atrocity crimes is not R2P working as we who have strived passionately for its birth, and the people of Myanmar who have so trustingly invoked it, would ideally want it to work. But we all have to live with the world as we find it, and do the best we possibly can to achieve peace and justice with the tools we have at our disposal in a real world which falls far short, as perhaps it always will, of the world we want it to be.

Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC was Australia’s Foreign Minister from 1988-96, President of the International Crisis Group from 2000-09, and Co-Chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001. Hechairs the International Advisory Board of the New York-based Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and authored The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All (Brookings Institution Press, 2008).  

Banner image: Protesters hold placards displaying the three finger salute, a symbol of the pro-democracy movement throughout Southeast Asia, Nyaungshwe, Myanmar - March 4, 2021. Credit: Robert Bociaga Olk Bon, Shutterstock.

This article is based on a presentation to a Webinar on Application of R2P in Myanmar with Dr Sasa, Minister for International Cooperation in the National Unity Government of Myanmar, sponsored by Arakan National Rohingya Organisation (ARNO), recorded 19 April 2021