The Ball Is In Current US Administration’s Court To Get Things Right In Burma – OpEd
By Than N. Oo and Dr. Khin Maung Lwin
When the present uprising against the illegal power grab by the Myanmar military from a democratically elected civilian government began two years ago, first in the form of nonviolent protests that later morphed into an armed uprising, many expected that the resistance will eventually be crushed by the military similar to many prior uprisings since 1962.
The newly formed opposition, National Unity Government (NUG), was considered to be an on-line government only with no territory control, no viable armed wing, no charismatic leader, no funding and with little collaboration from the existing but themselves a disjointed group of various ethnic resistant organizations (ERO). Many NUG leaders were felt to be former National League for Democracy (NLD) party loyalists whose government at that time was considered indifferent at best and colluded with the military at worst on Rohingya genocide. The military is a sixty-year-old institution that controlled every aspect of Myanmar citizens functioning like a state within a state. It has its own industries to generate income such as Myanmar Economic Holding Limited where theoretically every soldier owns a small share.
What difference the past two years has made? NUG has been able to erase many of the above-mentioned doubts. It now has an armed wing, People’ Defense Forces (PDF). It raises funds creatively such as by selling non interest paying war bonds. It controls territory. Many countries are increasingly engaging it. It now has representative offices in eight countries including one in Washington DC where Uzra Zeya, the US undersecretary of state performed the ribbon cutting when it opened. NUG is now considered to be truly inclusive with many EROs collaborating in the fight against the junta. It has come out of Aung San Suu Kyi’s shadow standing tall on its own. 53% of NUG Cabinet members are non Bamar ethnics. Only 38% of are NLD members.
The NUG has convinced people that it aims for a truly equal federal democratic union. Junta forces are stretched thin fighting for survival than control at multiple fronts which included Chin, Kachin, Karen, Mon, Karenni, northern Shan and central flat plains of Magwe and Sagaing despite the latter two used to be the main source of fresh military recruits made of Bamar Buddhist majority in the past.
During the recent on-line Global town hall meetings jointly addressed by NUG and ERO leaders, the command structure was disclosed in how the combined fighting forces operate. The ERO military personnel are appointed as battalion commanders given their military experience despite the actual fighting force being made of both ethnic and PDF recruits.
Myanmar military is a shell of its former self. Its officer corps lacks experience. In 1998, Defense Services Academy (Burma’s West Point) cut short its training curriculum to 3 years instead of 4 years while expanding the freshman class to 2-3 times larger emphasizing quantity over quality. Since the mid-1990s, the military also secured peace agreements with many EROs and focused on getting rich by squandering Myanmar’s economic resources. Those actions diminished the battle field experience and quality of its fighting forces.
In 1997 the Defense Ministry ordered that the frontline troops were allowed to fulfil their supply demands locally on their own instead of relying only on the Ministry. This gave these units official permission to rob and forage the villages in the frontlines that are primarily occupied by the ethnic people. Not surprisingly the image and popularity of the military has significantly gone down in the past three decades.
Against this backdrop, despite advantage in armament, the military has suffered a lot of defeats as indicated by a running tally reported by the Irrawaddy News Media under a tab called war against the junta. The morale of the troops is supposedly low due to loss from the fights and inability to recruit fresh troops. The number of the actual fighting troop in a forward battalion is much lower than what it should be according to some leaked documents. Yet the Myanmar military is a 60 yr. old establishment and was once considered to be the second largest in SE Asia. It will take a while to defeat it on the battlefields given the disparity of armaments and lack of air defense weapons for the PDF and ERO troops. The democratic forces hope for it to collapse itself from within because of demoralization and corruption.
For the first time ever, the Myanmar military does not appear invincible. One of the longest lasting military dictatorships in the world is on the verge of collapse in a land where democracy may flourish if they can just get a little more assistance from the international community. The United States, being the beacon of democracy and largest defender of it in the world, is best suited to take charge and lead with example. This will be good not just for Burma but for supporting democracy in the world.
The Biden administration seems unwilling to grasp this opportunity. It has been differential handing Myanmar off to Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to fix. This is a wrong approach. Despite some well-meaning member countries, ASEAN is toothless. Its hands are tied by some member countries’ ulterior motives and Myanmar junta’s ability to exploit this weakness.
On April 24, 2021 the ASEAN leaders met in Jakarta with the junta leader Min Aung Hlaing where a negotiating vehicle referred to as the Five Point Consensus Plan was drawn up. But within 2 days, the junta walked the plan back, downplaying the agreement in a press release as mere suggestions. Since then, it has refused to meet the commitments in the Five-point Consensus. Visits by ASEAN’s special envoys have been cancelled . The junta has denied the special envoy access to Aung San Suu Kyi and other detained civilian leaders, a precondition of the visit and requirement under the consensus. The United States should stop delegating to ASEAN the Myanmar issues and step forward with bolder and stronger engagements of its own.
Through the Burma Unified through Rigorous Military Accountability Act (BURMA Act) that the President Biden signed into law on 23 December 2022 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, Congress has now authorized the current administration to do whatever needed in achieving the objectives listed in the act. The Biden administration has the discretionary authority to make major changes. In a laymen term, the ball is in the administration’s court now. The passage of the act also does suggest that the congress sees the present administration not doing enough in supporting the pro-democracy forces in Myanmar.
The Act authorizes the appropriations of funds to assist the EROs and PDFs in their efforts in overthrowing the junta and establishing democracy in Burma through “technical and non-lethal support”. Despite not requiring the appointment of a special envoy to coordinate various forms of support and networking, the BURMA Act did not preclude one. Prescence of such a coordinator will greatly facilitate in achieving the objectives of the Act since EROs and NUG do not have experience navigating the bureaucratic web of many US government departments.
A similar view is shared by former US Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel as indicated in his recent article. Ambassador Marciel who spent four years in Burma has laid out an up-to-date assessment of the country. His constructive views should be seriously considered in shaping the administration’s policy towards Burma. Earlier in the uprising, many parties in the west preferred that the NUG adhere to a political path instead of embracing an armed strategy. But the reality is that the junta senior leadership will never give up unless its own lives are threatened. Cognizant of them harboring such a mentality, the NUG calculated that an armed uprising had to be established as part of the overall strategy in toppling the junta. Now that strategy seems to be working in weakening the military.
It is understandable that Burma is not exactly Ukraine and cannot be equated as such; but the principles are the same. This is a fight for the survival of demoracy when it is endangered by an authoritarian dictator with an overwhelming military advantage. Just as with the Ukrainian territorial defenses (TDFs), Myanmar PDFs have proven to be tenacious and innovative in the face of adversity. They just need more outside assistance to defeat the military.
At the same time the NUG still has some work to do in proving itself. It must demonstrate that it has a reliable organizational structure to run things. The US clearly wants to see the Myanmar resistance forces collaborating one another and working together. If NUG were to lead that task, it must show that it can earn the trust of the EROs, build a unified front and protect the rights of the minorities. Based on the experience of the past two years, it seems to be making steady progress in that direction. But the ball is in the current US administration’s court now. It’s time for a bolder US policy toward Burma.
*About the authors:
- Dr Khin Maung Lwin was dean of Medical University, Mandalay and a neurosurgeon by training. To avoid arrest from the military due to his participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement following the coup, he had to escape taking shelter in territories controlled by a northern ERO. He now helps run a hospital there and trains medics for PDF troops.
- Than N. Oo is a democracy activist and one of the founders of the advocacy group Free Myanmar.
10 thoughts on “The Ball Is In Current US Administration’s Court To Get Things Right In Burma – OpEd”
The world must act now to help people of Burma before it is too late to prevent establishment of another N Korea.
It is a history in making and it is parallel to Alonyphya’s building of the Third Myanmar Dynasty when Myanmar people were tortured,killed , raped and many villages were burned down.
True. Myanmar will be another North Korea if the dictators succeed. Myanmar NUG and EROs need all the help they can get to prevent dictators from having their way and to have federal democracy. This way, cruel killings,arsons and bombings can be reduced/prevented. This time is the best time to help NUG/EROs.
Such a good read. So much truth in it. I really hope world listening to this and taking action.
Promising development, kudos to movers and shakers . It’s not binding yet . Will get more momentum as the movement gains ground in Myanmar, militarily and area under control of NUG. At the moment the only sure victory will come if all opposition combine forces together, without which even the weakened Army will provide a stalemate at best. As with any support from abroad, it’s a barter system. What can you give me that I most desire to make you deserving of big bucks , international clout worthy. With many family jewels already in Chinese hands , and USA and China economies in bed together it’s hard to say what we can offer. The southern islands are desirable bases but with US China tensions already tense in South China Sea with southern tip of Burma having much Chinese investments , I really don’t know how it will fair on the table and how Chinese will react with proxy wars in north of Burma? Many questions, few definitive answers . Not to dissuade as at this point , they’ve crossed the Rubicon. ဖေါင်ဖျက်ပြီးပီ . Trying not to sound patronizing, every step must be carefully considered, it’s a chess game with real life consequences if you lose. My two cents
Thank you Dr.Oo
This is the best time for the world democratic leaders to act to overturn one of the world most brutal dictatorships. Please act quick! History is being written
I agreed with all the points, authors made. I feel that US support has not been effective. US aid does not actually get to NUG. Most NDAA funds went to INGOs who know how to write projects and apply funds successfully. So far, most of the NUG military success comes from ERO who received military support from China. China is now showing signs that they do not like NUG is close to US. We need a real support and commitment from either US or China. Burma is suffering while these two superpower are playing chess.
1. Sanction aviation fuel
2. Enforce no fly zone
3. Sanction MOGE, Thailand is no longer dependent on Myanmar gas
4. Sanction individuals with close ties to junta leaders who are not in the current SDN list.
The military junta did not honor the US government and the American peoples ‘ goodwill during President Obama’s tenure and President Biden bears witness to this.
Mr. Biden, please show the world that the United States is back, not merely in words but in action. Your vigorous leadership is greatly needed and appreciated.
It is not just for the sake of fighting and preserving democracy, but the US government should consider getting rid of the junta, which is deep into the drug and opium business, is a worthy long tern investment for fighting the drug war.