BANGKOK – In his speech last week to open the U.N. General Assembly, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres bracketed Myanmar with Afghanistan and Ethiopia as nations where "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.
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.
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. The pushback has left more than 1,100 people dead, according to U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and right groups.
“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,” Bachelet said in a statement. “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, Bachelet warned. “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.”
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 National Unity Government aspires to forge anti-military forces into an army, and on Sept. 7 called for a nationwide uprising, declaring a “people’s defensive war.” It has reached out to ethnic minority militias in the border regions where they are dominant, and have been fighting the central government for greater autonomy for 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.
“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.”