On Ukraine, the world acts; on Myanmar, it waits

Russia has invaded a sovereign state, while Myanmar had a violent overthrow of a democratic government.
A commentary by Zachary Abuza
2022.03.03
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On Ukraine, the world acts; on Myanmar, it waits A photo posted on social media by ethnic Kachins in Myanmar’s civil disobedience movement, expressing support for Ukraine on Feb. 27, 2022.
Twitter@cvdom2021

The people of Myanmar may be in solidarity with their Ukrainian brethren, but they have every reason to be infuriated by the contrasting response from the international community to the crisis they face at home.

Western nations and key Asian allies responded within days to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with tough sanctions and weapon supplies. The international reaction to the bloody military takeover in Myanmar one year ago has been half-hearted by comparison.

The citizens of Myanmar have been bravely resisting the military through civil disobedience and armed insurrection since a Feb. 1, 2021, coup. The exiled civilian administration, the National Unity Government, has also been quick to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while the junta, which counts Russia as one of its few international partners, has slovenly supported the invasion as an “appropriate measure to preserve its (Russia’s) sovereignty.”

And yet, the NUG, which enjoys a broad popular mandate to establish a federal democracy in Myanmar, is largely fighting on its own. It may still hold Myanmar’s seat in the United Nations, from which it voted to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but no governments formally recognize it, although some like the United States are increasing their engagement with it.

The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on top junta leaders and family members, the military’s conglomerates, and crony corporations. Recent European Union sanctions have focused on the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, which is the key revenue earner for the junta.

But key international partners including Japan, South Korea, Australia and Singapore have imposed no sanctions. While the U.S. government quickly froze some $1 billion in Myanmar’s foreign reserves that was parked in the Federal Reserve, allies like Japan and Singapore refused to follow suit.

Some governments, like the United States, have directed humanitarian aid away from the junta and towards the NUG, or affiliated civil society organizations. But the NUG has not gotten access to any of the frozen Myanmar assets abroad, nor have they been allowed to borrow against it. And unlike Ukraine, the NUG has not received lethal assistance.

All of this is in incredibly sharp contrast to how democratic nations are imposing a swath of crippling economic, banking, and travel sanctions on Russia. International actions have put more than 40 percent of Russia’s $630 billion  beyond reach, propelling its economy into freefall.

An aerial photo taken on Feb. 3, 2022 shows burnt buildings from fires in Mingin Township, in Myanmar's Sagaing division, after an arson attack by junta forces. Credit: AFP
An aerial photo taken on Feb. 3, 2022 shows burnt buildings from fires in Mingin Township, in Myanmar's Sagaing division, after an arson attack by junta forces. Credit: AFP
Why the Difference?

So whats the difference? Why have countries like Singapore and Australia that have refused to impose costs on Myanmar moved so quickly to sanction Russia? Why are states like Finland and Sweden jettisoning neutrality to arm Ukraine? Why are offshore banking centers like Switzerland and Monaco moving to freeze the assets of Russian oligarchs?

The first reason is that Russia has invaded a sovereign state. By doing so, Russia has upended core principles of international law and the foundations of international peace and security.

Myanmar had a violent overthrow of a democratic government. The junta has clearly committed egregious war crimes, but its actions have been within Myanmars sovereign territory. Its neighbors in Southeast Asia and other states can hide behind their avowed principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of states.

Second, there are very real concerns that the Ukraine conflict will escalate. Russia has threatened a wider war in Europe, and should they get bogged down in an insurgency in Ukraine, they could target NATO members who are supplying Ukraine with lethal assistance. Former members of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc states have every reason to fear Putin’s justifications for war.

Russia’s use of military force is also of different magnitude. While the Myanmar military has provoked outrage by torching hundreds of homes at a time, Russia has resorted to dropping thermobaric weapons and cluster munitions, leveling cities. Russia has even made veiled threats to use nuclear weapons.

Third, Myanmar is of marginal global importance. It was once a darling of much of the international community because of its brief period of democratization after decades of direct military rule. But it is otherwise strategically and economically insignificant in the eyes of most nations.

Compare with Ukraine, which is a key supplier of food to Europe, an industrial power, and an important supply route for energy. More to the point, and one of the reasons for President Vladimir Putins decision to invade, is that Ukraine was becoming even closer and more interdependent with Europe.

Fourth, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has won over the West through his leadership. While civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi may maintain broad support in Myanmar, she has discredited herself in the West due to her defense of the military’s ethnic cleansing of minority Rohingya Muslims. It is striking how little international sympathy there has been for her since the coup despite her prosecution in closed, kangaroo court trials.

Finally, there is a degree of racism. The West is quick to defend a fellow and easily identifiable Western state. In part, it speaks to diaspora politics in the West, given the presence of Ukrainian communities in the U.S. and across Europe, something Myanmar does not enjoy to the same extent.

A local resident smokes at the remains of a residential building destroyed by shelling, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in Zhytomyr, Ukraine March 2, 2022. Credit: Reuters
A local resident smokes at the remains of a residential building destroyed by shelling, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in Zhytomyr, Ukraine March 2, 2022. Credit: Reuters
What can the NUG learn from Ukraine?

The NUG has every reason to feel slighted, and should be cognizant that the situation in Ukraine is going to dominate international attention. But it does present some opportunities.

The United Nations recently reported that Russia and China remain the two most important arms suppliers to the junta since the coup. As Russian forces get bogged down in Ukraine, and Moscow struggles to service its own needs for armaments and ammunition, middling clients like Myanmar will be a low priority. That will force the Tatmadaw to become even more dependent on China, a country they distrust.

Even if Moscow were able to sell arms and ammunition to Myanmar, there are questions about how the junta could pay for it given international banking sanctions. The international community could also begin to impound ships that are caught violating sanctions against Russia.

Second, the Russian invasion has reinvigorated international support for the defense of democracy. Myanmars military thought they could get away with their coup because democracy and the liberal international order were in retreat. That is no longer the case. Ukraine has been able to remind its neighbors that the economic pains caused by the sanctions were worth it. The NUG has to do the same in Myanmar. We started to see this with Total and Chevron’s divestments, but more has to be done.

Third, despite improvements in their messaging, the NUG could learn from the Ukrainian government’s success in controlling the narrative. Their cyber operations, psy-ops, and other information campaigns have been effective in reaching Ukrainian, Russian and Western audiences.

Fourth, the International Criminal Court has already announced investigations into Russian war crimes in Ukraine. That immediate response should terrify despots around the world, especially those waging war against civilian populations.

Finally, the NUG and citizens of Myanmar would be empowered by knowing that they are not the only ones fighting for their freedom. They too want to chart their own political and economic future, rather than be dictated to by a capricious tyrant.

 

Myanmar's ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun addresses the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, March 11, 2019. Credit: Reuters
Myanmar's ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun addresses the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, March 11, 2019. Credit: Reuters
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or RFA.

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