Myanmar military on collision course with international community

Myanmar military on collision course with international community

Myanmar military on collision course with international community
Chairman of the State Administration Council and Prime Minister of Myanmar Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. (Reuters)
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Myanmar’s military leadership last week confirmed that it will execute two pro-democracy activists after their appeals against their sentences were rejected. The military accuses the two men of being terrorists responsible for the deaths of civilians in various bombing campaigns, though you will not find many people within Myanmar who accept that version of events.
The revival of the death sentence seems to be the latest desperate technique the Tatmadaw has introduced to revive its failing campaign and inability to regain complete control from the protesters. Another key tactic that has also been revived is starvation by cutting off food supplies to huge swaths of the population, which was perfected against a number of minority groups during Myanmar’s very long civil wars.
Though the popular resistance to the coup government has been relentless throughout this year, this development suggests that the military is getting desperate, or at least reckless. To be sure, this is by no means a new tactic for the Tatmadaw. It deployed the same approach against the Rohingya during the 2017 genocide. And the use of starvation, particularly as a weapon of war against a civilian population, has been practiced in Myanmar since at least the 1960s, when the Tatmadaw developed its so-called four cuts strategy against the Karen ethnic minority in the southeast of the country.
But deploying similar tactics of starvation and executions against the majority Burmese population would have been unthinkable before February of last year. And it is an especially risky play, particularly when the international community has taken an unambiguous stance in opposing the legitimacy of the coup government and is instead supporting the civilian opposition government that represents the very people they are attacking.
Perhaps the junta expects that the consequences it might suffer for this atrocity will be limited and that it will have the desired effect. This is, after all, not that different to the tactics deployed by Bashar Assad against the pro-democracy rebels in Syria, in Aleppo and Idlib, for example. Going by that precedent, the Tatmadaw can expect that at least the Western part of the international community will seek to isolate Myanmar diplomatically and trade-wise, but that it should nevertheless be able to survive such repercussions relatively unscathed, especially if Russia continues to sell it weapons and China continues to trade with it.
But perhaps this time around, the international community will have learned something from its catastrophic inaction in Syria. And moreover, the leader of the West, the US, is now governed by an internationalist liberal in Joe Biden. This is an entirely different situation to what we had during the previous era.
Certainly, the international support for the pro-democracy, civilian opposition has been much more robust than the world might have expected after the amoral lack of leadership of the previous US administration. And, as things stand, increased support for the opposition, and therefore the rebels, from the West is very much on the table. Deploying the tactics of genocide against your entire people in these circumstances is a much riskier proposition than it would have been even two years ago.

The revival of the death sentence seems to be the latest desperate technique the Tatmadaw has introduced to revive its failing campaign.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Unfortunately, this does not mean that the international community will intervene to end the coup promptly. These revelations point to an escalation between the Tatmadaw on the one side and the civilian population and the international community on the other, but the West is not about to intervene in the country like it did in the Balkans in the 1990s. Still, with these revelations, we are now a step closer to that kind of confrontation. And with every step down that path, the future for the leadership of the Tatmadaw is looking increasingly precarious.
The Tatmadaw should hope that the civilian resistance abates quickly. Because if the pro-democracy movement in the country endures, things cannot possibly end well for the junta.

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, DC. Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim
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