BANGKOK (AP) — In his speech last week to open the U.N. General Assembly, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres bracketed Myanmar with Afghanistan and Ethiopia as nations for whose people “peace and stability remain a distant dream.”
He declared unwavering support for the people of the turbulent, military-ruled Southeast Asia state “in their pursuit of democracy, peace, human rights and the rule of law.”
But the situation in Myanmar after the army’s seizure of power eight months ago has become an extended bloody conflict with ever-escalating violence. Yet the U.N. is unlikely to take any meaningful action against Myanmar’s new rulers because they have the support of China and Russia.
When Myanmar’s army ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, it claimed with scant evidence that the general election her party won last November in a landslide was marred by massive voting fraud. The takeover almost immediately sparked widespread street protests that security forces tried to crush. Since then, the pushback has become violent.
“The military’s iron grip on power faces resistance from large segments of the society. Weapons of war continue to be deployed in towns and cities to suppress opposition,” Michelle Bachelet, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement Thursday. “These disturbing trends suggest the alarming possibility of an escalating civil war.”
Human rights groups have cataloged many abuses by government forces, including the use of deadly force against peaceful civilian protesters and forced disappearances. But the army’s foes have also turned to terror, as even its sympathizers admit. Local administrators who refuse to abandon their posts are targeted for assassination, as are civilians tagged as informers.
“Sabotage and assassinations, these are not the norms in civilized society,” Mon Yee Kyaw, executive director of the Myanmar-based Nyan Lynn Thit Analytica think tank, said in an email interview. But due to the violence perpetrated by the military, tactics of bombings and assassination were adopted as defensive measures, she said from Thailand, where she is currently located.
“People believe unquestionably that they need to take actions to vanquish the military before the monster kills the people,” she said.
The stakes are big, warns the U.N.’s Bachelet. “The national consequences are terrible and tragic. The regional consequences could also be profound,” she said. “The international community must redouble its efforts to restore democracy and prevent wider conflict before it is too late.”
But there is at least one major impediment to prospective U.N. action, which could include such measures as a comprehensive arms embargo. China and Russia are among the top arms suppliers to Myanmar, as well as ideologically sympathetic to its ruling military. Both are members of the Security Council, and would almost certainly veto any effort by the U.N. to impose a coordinated arms embargo, or anything beyond an anodyne call for peace.
Myanmar opposition forces have one small consolation. It has been reported that the General Assembly’s Credentials Committee, which each session goes through the formality of approving each country’s permanent representative, will temporarily put off its decision on Myanmar’s permanent representative.
The current envoy, Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, switched his allegiance soon after February’s takeover to the opposition’s underground National Unity Government, which styles itself as the legitimate alternative to the ruling generals. For at least a couple of months, he appears likely to keep his seat — or at least deny it to an appointee of the military government.
It is a rare feather in the diplomatic cap of the shadow government, which has not been recognized by any nation, but it reportedly comes at the cost of the envoy remaining silent during discussions in the world body, including Monday’s scheduled opportunity to speak for his nation.
Countries sympathetic to the opposition, such as the United States and Britain, have enacted diplomatic and economic sanctions that pose a major inconvenience to the ruling generals. But pleas for more decisive intervention, such as under the humanitarian doctrine of right to protect, long ago fell on deaf ears.
The peaceful protests in cities and towns across Myanmar that began in February were met with deadly force by the security forces. To date, more than 1,100 individuals have been killed, according to the U.N.’s Bachelet and human rights groups.
Consequently, protesters started wielding simple homemade weapons and then organizing themselves into local militias that they called “people’s defense forces.” While these groups were established mainly to defend localities against government attacks, some became more proactive, engaging in assassinations and bombings of government offices and commercial enterprises with ties to the military.
The National Unity Government aspires to forge them into an army. It also has established alliances with militias established by ethnic minority groups in the border regions where they are dominant. Most of these ethnic armed organizations have been fighting the central government for greater autonomy on and off over decades.
With up to 70 years of combat experience, groups such as the Kachin in the north and the Karen in the east have the potential to put extra pressure on the government. Some also provide military training for militants and safe havens for opposition leaders.
The National Unity Government set the stage for an escalation of violence when, on Sept. 7, it called for a nationwide uprising, declaring a “people’s defensive war.”
“It’s hard to say if it will be productive and what the long-term consequences might be,” Christina Fink, a professor of International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C, said by email.
“The regime certainly has the advantage in terms of military expertise, weapons, equipment, and manpower,” Fink said. “The military is suffering from the resistance, but whether these tactics will result in the military conceding is not clear.”
She and other observers point out that the opposition continues to apply nonviolent pressure as well, such as refusing to pay electricity bills, which denies the regime much-needed cash.
Resistance comes in different forms and shapes throughout Myanmar, said Aung Kyaw Moe, executive director of Myanmar’s Center for Social Integrity, which promotes pluralism, diversity and inclusion.
“The junta’s troops are fighting because troops have to follow a chain of command, and the people’s defense force members are fighting because they want to defend the democracy from dictatorship,” he said.
The army has failed to prevail so far “because so many people are willing to lose everything in order to overcome military rule,” Fink said. “Their anger and hatred of the military is incredibly deep.”
“This is because the election results so clearly demonstrated the people’s will, and the military took that away; because people equate military rule with going backwards economically, politically, and socially; and because the military has acted so brutally toward civilians, including children, and people have not just heard about this but seen graphic images documenting this on social media.”