Navigating Myanmar’s Democratic Transition: A Call To Action For International Community – OpEd


Since 1962, the people of Myanmar have endured brutal military oppression, human rights abuses, and the denial of self-determination. In their decades-long struggle against military oppression and for self-determination, numerous uprisings have been met with extreme brutality from the military, yet the spirit of resistance has endured. By 2012, this perseverance bore fruit in the form of a fragile pseudo-democracy, where a civilian government operates under the shadow of military control, which still holds sway over key ministries and commands 25% of the parliament seats.

The pivotal 2020 elections saw civilians secure enough of the 75% of available parliamentary seats to potentially overturn the 2008 constitution, which had been crafted to perpetuate military dominance. This development precipitated a military coup, sparking widespread protests. Initially peaceful, the demonstrations, including street rallies and the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), eventually escalated into violence after the military brutally suppressed protestors, including shooting young, unarmed women in the heads.

In response, the protestors, now organized into the People’s Defense Forces (PDF), began to fight back with homemade weapons, as the conflict escalated into a full-scale civil war. The PDF, alongside diverse Ethnic Resistance Organizations that have long contested military rule for equal rights and self-determination, are coordinated, though somewhat loosely, by the National Unity Government (NUG). This government is the executive branch mandated by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), which consists of elected parliament members who evaded the coup.

Over the past three years, and particularly in the last six months, these resistance movements have demonstrated significant military victories and have gained control of substantial territories, surprising many international observers. This critical juncture presents the Internation Community, especially the United States, with a prime opportunity to intervene—not merely as observers but as catalysts for a democratic future in a region desperate for freedom. The time to act is now, before the flickers of hope are extinguished.

Strategic Significance 

Geographically and politically, Burma bridges South and Southeast Asia. It borders both giants like India and China, and smaller ASEAN nations, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, making it a key player in regional stability and a potential democratic ally in a strategically competitive region. 

Burma is not only pivotal for its geopolitical location but also as a crucial corridor for international trade and energy supply. It provides the most convenient ocean access for landlocked southwestern China and serves as a vital conduit for oil and gas supplies from Russia and the Middle East. Furthermore, Burma is a strategic hub in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, designed to expand its influence across South and Southeast Asia through infrastructure development.

Historical Struggles for Democracy

Since the military coup of 1962, Burma has endured a tumultuous struggle for democracy marked by student and worker unrests in the mid-1970s, the massive 8888 Uprising in 1988, the Saffron Revolution in 2007, and significant political reforms starting in 2011. Each of these movements has been met with brutal crackdowns with the loss of thousands of lives but have clearly demonstrated the resilience and determination of the Burmese people to pursue a democratic future. The majority of the NUG have sacrificed their youth in prison for daring to ask for self-determination from the military. For instance, Daw Zin Mar Aung, the Foreign Minister spent ten years in prison and the Deputy Foreign Minister U Moe Zaw Oo spent nine years. Many of the democracy activists among the Burmese diaspora have faced prison and exile.

A Moment for Change

The 2021 military coup, staged under the pretext of election fraud, starkly illustrates the junta’s disregard for democratic processes. However, the unified resistance against the military coup and the widespread abhorrence of its rule presents an unprecedented opportunity. This broad consensus against the junta including the heartland Bama and the majority of the ethnic minority groups, creates fertile ground for compromise and the introduction of democratic reforms. The International Community must seize this moment to support the internal movements striving for democracy while anticipating how such actions could be perceived by Burma’s neighbors and addressing potential geopolitical tensions.

The International Community’s Role: A More Direct Approach

The U.S. decision to delegate Burma’s crisis handling to ASEAN has been met with skepticism, as little progress has been made, and most ASEAN members seem to favor the status quo. This necessitates a more direct and initiative-taking approach from the U.S., particularly through the effective and timely implementation of the BURMA Act. This legislation provides powerful tools to support pro-democracy forces if applied strategically.

The BURMA Act contains humanitarian aid for the Internally Displace People (IDP) and non-lethal assistance for the resistance in addition to sanctions on the military junta, their cronies and military controlled businesses which are their principal sources of funds. 

A few NGOs are objecting to the provision non-lethal assistance and recommend converting it to humanitarian assistance which USAID usually delivers through NGOs, but many have the opinion that non-lethal assistance such as battlefield medical supplies and communication equipment to assist in aid delivery could be extremely helpful and direct distribution of materials could save overhead costs.

Navigating External Influences

Even though many in the neighboring countries and civil society organizations support a democratic Burma, but struggle with how to achieve it. The U.S. must remain vigilant against efforts by some neighboring countries, self-serving NGOs, and religious extremists to undermine the BURMA Act and the broader democratic revolution. These groups may lobby with narratives that serve their own interests against the people’s democratic aspirations. Narratives like the military being necessary to keep the country together in peace are not logical when the military itself is the main source of unrest. The fear of the country fracturing is not as great a concern as none of the EROs have declared that they are going to leave the union. Many EROs have declared interest in forming a federal democratic state.

Some neighboring countries have vested interests in maintaining the status quo. Economically, Burma serves as a source of cheap, compliant labor and a market for goods. Politically, a democratic Burma could set a precedent that some neighbors find undesirable amidst their own authoritarian leanings. These countries exploit Burma’s instability, using it as a buffer state while engaging in economic activities that do little to promote sustainable development within Burma itself.

Moreover, Burma has become a hotbed for illicit activities including drugs, cybercrimes, gambling, and human trafficking. The military’s corrupt alliances with regional warlords and its involvement in these illegal economies have exacerbated conflict and lawlessness, hindering the nation’s progress toward peace and democracy with repercussions in the region.

Investing in the Future

Burma is a youthful country, with a generation that has an immense hunger for democratic change. This burgeoning demographic is pivotal as their enthusiasm and drive for reform can catalyze the country’s transition to democracy. Failure to adequately support this demographic at this critical time risks engendering a cynical and disenfranchised generation, which could have long-term negative consequences for regional stability and global democratic ideals.

As part of the BURMA Act, the U.S. has allocated $10 million for 2024 to educate Burmese stakeholders on effective governance, federalism, democracy, human rights, tolerance, and reconciliation. These educational initiatives are crucial and should commence as soon as possible to lay the groundwork for a sustainable and inclusive government. This is the most effective preventative measure against the country fracturing after the military is deposed.

Conclusion: A Strategic Imperative

As Burma stands at its crossroads, the international community of democratic nations has a golden opportunity to guide and support its transition into a true democracy. This is not just a matter of international solidarity—it’s a strategic imperative. Committed to the ideals of freedom and democracy, the international community should not squander this chance to help Burma join the ranks of democratic nations within ASEAN. The time to act is now, with the understanding that assisting Burma can also help secure a more democratic, stable, and prosperous Southeast Asia. The ongoing efforts and resilience of the Burmese people, highlighted by the National Unity Government and ethnic resistance organizations, continue to press for a democratic breakthrough despite overwhelming challenges.


James Shwe

James Shwe is a Burmese American Engineer residing in Los Angeles, California, USA. He was born in Yangon, Myanmar in 1954 and has been residing in the US since 1984. He is a Registered Professional Mechanical Engineer in California. He owns and operates a consulting engineering firm in Los Angeles.

3 thoughts on “Navigating Myanmar’s Democratic Transition: A Call To Action For International Community – OpEd

  • May 8, 2024 at 3:15 am

    A hearty congratulations of a perfect Feature Article
    that hits the nail on the head.
    Uncle Win

  • May 9, 2024 at 5:55 am

    Agree with the views in this Op-Ed. Thank you for writing this up. The military junta’s decline can be hastened by heightened engagement from the international community in Burma. The democratic fighting forces can use all the help they can get. A democratic Burma promises regional stability. In contrast, the military was the main culprit that brought in all the instability in the country and the region during past six decades. Burma’s historical context sets it apart; democratization here won’t lead to fragmentation like in Iraq or Syria. Investing in Burmese democracy will bring peace and prosperity to the country and will eliminate illegal transnational business dealings such as cyber crimes and narco-business that are now taking place at border areas where no law exits.

  • May 10, 2024 at 1:18 am

    A fantastic, well researced and argued piece!


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