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Coups, Conflict and Carelessness: How the International Community Let Democracy Die in Myanmar

Updated: Mar 5

Deep Dive Article

An anti-coup protest regarding Myanmar - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On a cold day in December 1978, at a White House ceremony commemorating the 30th anniversary of the passage of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed:

Human rights is the soul of our foreign policy, because human rights is the very soul of our sense of nationhood.

For decades, U.S. foreign policy has purportedly been centred around this idea. Whether American intervention occurs under the pretext of preserving democracy, or securing freedom, human rights has been a continuous underlying issue in both America and the West. This does not necessarily appear to be true today.

As Myanmar has slowly devolved into conflict and civil war in the past year-and-a-half, the eyes of America and the wider International Community appear to be glued shut. Tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers alike have been killed, and almost a million people have been displaced in Myanmar. Yet, despite this, the response from the International Community has been muted, and the military junta ruling the country has been given free rein to do as they please, with little-to-no condemnation.

What is happening in Myanmar?

In February 2021, the democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was deposed by the Tatmadaw - Myanmar’s military. Ms. Suu Kyi had won the November 2020 election in a landslide. Yet, the Generals had supported the opposition party and decried the election as fraudulent. A military junta assumed control, with all power eventually being transferred to the Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services, Min Aung Hlaing.

Since the coup, the country has been in a constantly renewed state of emergency, with the promise of “free” elections expected to occur in mid-2023. The coup itself, however, can easily be regarded as a disaster for the military junta. A de facto civil war has broken out, as sporadic fighting, incessant protests and armed insurgencies challenge the government across the entire country.

While the groups involved in the fighting are numerous, and difficult to pinpoint, there have been some key players in the conflict. In Chin State, in the west of the country, there has been armed resistance since April 2021, spearheaded by the Chinland Defence Force (CDF). Although the CDF has had some successes in their fight for democracy, the group is plagued with inefficiencies.

They are manned mostly by school and university aged recruits, with little-to-no training, and inadequate weaponry. The soldiers are forced to use old hunting rifles, or the occasional weapons they can scavenge off Tatmadaw soldiers. A severe lack of funding, and a rudimentary network of communications and organisation has diminished the force’s operational capabilities. To make matters worse, there are accounts of government forces burning churches and houses throughout Chin State as reprisal for casualties inflicted by the CDF, severely damaging morale.

Human Rights Abuses

The CDF is but one example of countless groups, organised on ethnic, regional, or religious lines, engaged in the struggle. There is difficulty for international observers to track the conflict at all levels, and this confusion has inundated the military junta too. In response, the junta has embraced a campaign of absolute repression, and unrestrained violence.

Over 15,000 people had been arrested as of November, and the military does not discriminate when cracking down on political dissidence. Politicians, journalists, civil activists, and foreign nationals alike have all been jailed, often on trumped up charges. Recently, however, the acting government did pardon over 6,000 prisoners to celebrate Myanmar National Day on the 17th of November. Those pardoned included a former British Ambassador, Vicky Bowman, who was arrested alongside her husband after the coup last year. Amnesty International officials praised the releases, but warned that “arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention and secretive, closed-door trials have become routine” in the country.

Across the rest of the country, the junta has been ruling with an iron fist, and has given the Tatmadaw soldiers free rein. An estimated 2,400 civilians have been murdered as of November. In Kayah State, in eastern Myanmar, burned bodies of women and children are routinely found in hastily constructed mass graves.

Michelle Bachelet, the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said earlier this year that Myanmar forces had deliberately targeted civilians and densely populated areas. “The appalling breadth and scale of violations of international law suffered by the people of Myanmar demand a firm, unified, and resolute international response” she added. Over 800,000 people have been displaced by the fighting. An estimated 14 million people in the country need immediate humanitarian assistance. Yet despite this, Ms. Bachelet’s pleas seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

What has been the response around the world?

The reaction to the coup and subsequent violence has been subdued to say the least:

  • The UK and the U.S. have been the most severe in their response – banning all business dealings with Myanmar military officials and state-owned companies.

  • South Korea has suspended all financing for infrastructure projects in the country.

  • The EU and Canada have imposed some sanctions against a limited range of military and government officials.

Aside from that, the usual unanimous international resolve to bring an end to the fighting has been peculiarly absent. To the irritation of activists across the globe, world leaders seem to be wilfully ignoring the calamity and bloodshed in Myanmar. One only need look at the reaction to the war in Ukraine, compared to the south-east Asian conflict to see the discrepancies. The difference in reactions couldn’t be starker, even though Myanmar is the second-deadliest ongoing conflict this year. For months, civil society groups and US members of Congress have been calling for the American government to impose strict sanctions on the military regime, specifically, on the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). MOGE is the country’s state-owned energy company and is considered to be the main source of foreign income.

Yet, the U.S. and Western governments alike have ignored such pleas. Some assume this is out of fear for the ramifications of such sanctions; when millions are facing famine and starvation across the country, the moral implications of damaging the already crippled economy must be considered. This school of thought has, however, been widely debated and disregarded. The military government has been reported to block aid to the parts of the country most in need, and much foreign investment is simply re-directed to fill the coffers of the junta and their enablers.

The question as to why there has been such a limited response from the international community, aside from the occasional vocal condemnation, is therefore still unclear.

Should the West act more decisively?

When considering the conflict in Myanmar in the wider geopolitical context, the situation gets a lot more complex. As the military coup unfolded last year, most countries saw chaos and stepped back. China, on the other hand, saw an opportunity and embraced it. China has been the economic powerhouse behind the junta, propping the shaky establishment up with arms and investments.

China has been funnelling over $2.5bn into Myanmar since the coup, to build a new gas-fired power plant near Yangon, which will be 81% owned by Chinese companies. Similarly, they have invested billions into infrastructure projects, high-speed rail networks, oil and gas pipelines and road links across the country. Many of these projects were planned before the coup, but the new government has become a much easier business partner for the CCP to deal with. Most importantly, once these projects have been completed, China will have a corridor to the Indian Ocean. This will allow easy importation of oil and gas from the Middle East, Venezuela and Africa, and will reduce Chinese reliance on Australian gas. China also sees opportunity to extend its reach and influence in Southeast Asia, through a friendly regime in Myanmar.

This raises the question – where is Uncle Sam? The United States has famously supported intervention across the globe to advance U.S. interests, and to defend human rights. Yet, despite this political posturing by China, in a region of the world where America is quickly losing its clout, the U.S. is seemingly turning a blind eye. Whether it's years of Trumpist isolationism forever shifting American foreign policy, or simply a world too preoccupied with the global economic crisis, and the Russo-Ukrainian war, is unclear. Whatever the reason, the people of Myanmar, and their supporters around the world are perplexed as to why the world seemingly isn’t helping.

The fight for democracy in Myanmar has been widely pushed to one side. The blissful ignorance of Western countries, who not too long ago championed themselves as defenders of liberty, has enabled the unlawful military repression to continue unopposed. As American interventionism dwindles, and the West’s soft power proves more and more inefficient, Myanmar’s conflict raises interesting questions about how much undemocratic regimes will be able to get away with in the future.

From the bloodshed in the Congo, to the Taliban’s tyranny in Afghanistan, Myanmar is but one example of a global conflict that has been forgotten. The noted absence of the West marks a continuous shift away from the America-dominated world order we have known for the past century, and leaves millions in uncertainty about how much help they can expect to receive if they find their democratic freedoms under threat.


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