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International focus must remain on Myanmar crisis, as Russia-Ukraine war diverts attention, expert says

International focus must remain on Myanmar crisis, as Russia-Ukraine war diverts attention, expert says


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing war are amplifying political disruption throughout the Indo-Pacific, especially in Myanmar, where a military coup suspended democracy more than a year ago.

The war in Eastern Europe has diverted attention from the Myanmar crisis and enabled Myanmar’s military, which seized control of the country in February 2021, to commit increasingly violent acts against civilians, according to Jason Tower, country director for Myanmar with the United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan, independent institute founded by the U.S. Congress.

“On the whole it’s really critical now, particularly following Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, that Myanmar not be forgotten,” Tower said during his talk, “The Myanmar Army’s Assault on Democracy and China’s Strategic Interests in Southeast Asia,” in May 2022 as part of the Strategic Multilayer Assessment series for the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Myanmar’s military has increased air attacks on civilians and used paramilitary forces to assassinate former National League for Democracy party members and their families, allegedly killing eight party leaders in recent months, according to media reports.

Most Myanmar civilians view the military regime as illegitimate, given the economy is collapsing and the junta is unable to govern or provide services, Tower said. “There really is no new normal returning” to Myanmar, he said. The conflict has displaced more than 600,000 people in Myanmar, according to the United Nations, although the number may be much higher.

Although some analysts have called the Myanmar conflict a stalemate, Tower contends that since September 2021, resistance forces, including the People’s Defense Force (PDF) and various ethnic groups, have taken control of key areas of the country and pushed out the military along with the State Administrative Council, the illegitimate military-installed government. More than 600 PDF groups have been identified across the country, as citizens have moved from urban centers and received training in the borderlands, Tower said. Nationwide protests have continued since the coup and are growing increasingly violent, he said.  (Pictured: Protesters demonstrate against the military coup in Myanmar in February 2021.)

Moreover, the pro-democracy National Unity Government, which is widely seen as the legitimate government, has been unifying PDF forces, building ties with ethnic forces and developing an interim federal charter. The PDF also has reopened schools in some areas.

“In some ways the context in the Ukraine and the Ukrainian successes against Russia on the battlefield have also emboldened, inspired the Myanmar people, who are I think increasingly seeing parallels between the struggle that’s going on in the Ukraine against Russia and the struggle that the Myanmar people are undertaking against autocracy and against military rule in Myanmar,” Tower said.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine has rendered it unable to provide its previous level of support to Myanmar’s military. However, Russia’s waning attention has opened the door for the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

“You have seen China dramatically increase its support for the military over the past months since Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. This represents one of the most significant challenges to the opposition to military rule in country. But also increasingly, it is generating a threat to democracy across the region more broadly,” Tower said. In addition to supplying economic and technical assistance to the military regime, the PRC has initiated economic projects to sway public opinion in hopes of preventing the return of democracy and of diminishing the influence of Western actors.

Russia’s distraction also presents opportunities for allies, partners and like-minded nations to support the resistance forces’ efforts to restore democracy and stability in Myanmar. To alleviate suffering and boost morale, they can provide humanitarian and governance support to the PDF and ethnic armies through collaborations with civic groups, Tower recommends. They can strengthen the coalition of leading resistance actors such as the Kachin Independence Organization, the Arakan Army, the Karen National Union and the National Unity Government. They can also assist countries that support revitalizing democracy in Myanmar and work with India and Thailand to expose transnational Chinese organized crime, especially in border regions, which helps finance the Myanmar military.

“If the international community, if the U.S, does not come to the defense of democracy in Myanmar, I think you really will see China consolidate its position in that country, gain influence in that country. And you are talking about very important strategic space between India and the rest of mainland Southeast Asia, where China seeks to enhance influence and ultimately to consolidate its position in the Indian Ocean through Myanmar,” Tower said.

“So, it’s a really important issue to be focused on and to be prioritizing Myanmar along with the Ukraine as we have these parallel crises continuing into very critical spaces in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.”