Navigating Myanmar’s Triple Crisis: What the World Can Do
by Dominique Fraser, Research Associate, Asia Society Policy Institute
Following the February 2021 military coup, Myanmar has been plunged into a triple crisis: a security, health, and economic disaster. While there are no silver bullets to address these interdependent crises, there are steps the international community can and should take to protect the people of Myanmar. These include: implementing targeted sanctions and an arms embargo; providing increased humanitarian assistance, including COVID-19 supplies; negotiating and finding humanitarian access; ensuring accountability for atrocities; and, protecting refugees.
The triple crisis
The 1 February coup resulted in large-scale protests and a massive Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), the scale of which caught coup leader General Min Aung Hlaing and the military by surprise. The military, known as the Tatmadaw, responded with a violent crackdown, driving some within the anti-coup movement to take up arms. The peaceful protests and CDM have now transformed into a protracted internal armed conflict between a plethora of new and old actors. On one side, the Tatmadaw and the new, regime affiliated Pyu Saw Htee militia, which counts approximately 15,000 members. On the other, around 250 units of the People’s Defense Forces (PDF), which are made up of urban youths and farmers, some of whom have been trained by and are loosely affiliated with the numerous ethnic armed groups that have existed in Myanmar for decades.
This is an unequal contest given the Tatmadaw's size and long and brutal history of fighting internal conflicts. The Tatmadaw’s tactics of burning villages and randomly shooting artillery fire into residential areas, looting properties, carrying out mass arrests, torturing and executing prisoners, and committing gender-based violence have already killed over 1,200 civilians. Some 223,000 people are newly internally displaced and tens of thousands have fled across the borders to India and Thailand. The situation in north-western Myanmar has escalated, with reports of an ominous build-up of troops and weapons, and increased attacks against civilians accompanied by internet shut-downs in Chin State, Sagaing and Magwe Regions. In the town of Thantlang (Chin State), houses and buildings were burnt to the ground in attacks by the Tatmadaw on 29 October. Most of the nearly 10,000 inhabitants had already fled the town a month earlier due to ongoing fighting between the military and the local PDF, the Chinland Defense Force. The security situation in Kayah and Shan States in the east has also been deteriorating. Analysts are expecting months-long clearance operations - a “rolling series of separate but interlocking offensives” - during the dry season (October-May).
The north-western region has borne the brunt of the Tatmadaw’s violence due to strong resistance against the military regime and support for the rival National Unity Government (NUG). The NUG’s shadow government to the military’s State Administration Council (SAC) is composed of formerly elected government officials, members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), leaders of civil society, and ethnic minority groups. Internal differences have made it more difficult to publicise policies, such as its long-awaited budget. The NUG plans to spend its funds on humanitarian relief, the salaries of approximately 400,000 striking workers, and COVID-19 vaccines. Controversially, it has also raised a defence budget to support the PDF to mount a “people’s defensive war”.
The procurement and distribution of vaccines is a high priority, as COVID-19 continues to present a health threat. A deadly third wave began in June but had started to abate by October 2021, by which time the official death toll had reached over 18,000. At the peak of the crisis, the healthcare system was unable to cope with the rapid rise in daily new infection numbers and hospitals had to turn people away amid staffing and oxygen supply issues. Just 15 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated. A promised 27 million doses to be delivered from March through the COVAX program stalled following the coup, with an announcement made in September that COVAX had preliminarily allocated 6.2 million doses to Myanmar, highlighting that final allocation was dependent on the rollout taking place “in a neutral and impartial manner” and “on guarantees around the safety of healthcare workers”.
The health situation is worsened by the military crackdown on healthcare infrastructure and professionals, many of whom joined the CDM. Between 1 February and 30 September, there were at least 297 incidents of violence against health workers, facilities, and transport, particularly in and around Yangon and Mandalay, where the CDM originated. At least 210 doctors and nurses have been arrested or served with warrants, leading to many more going into hiding. Ambulances and healthcare facilities have been raided and destroyed, and the military has blocked medical and other aid from reaching populations, particularly in the Chin and Kachin States. The security and health crises are inhibiting access to basic, critical services, disproportionately affecting women. The slow vaccine rollout is further hampered by a lack of trust in the military government, which has manifested in vaccine hesitancy. This hesitancy does not only apply for the COVID-19 vaccine, but also many childhood immunisations and testing and treatment regimens for malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV.
Economic and humanitarian
The security and health crises have led to “a first-order humanitarian catastrophe in the making”. Myanmar’s economy has contracted by 18 per cent. The price of food and fuel has soared, with half the population unable to afford sufficient food. The national currency, the kyat, has lost more than 60 per cent of its value. Three million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, up from one million at the start of the year. In addition to difficulties stemming from the security situation, there have been reports of the Tatmadaw actively blocking the delivery of aid, as well as implementing restrictive travel authorisation permits and delaying the issuing of visas. As a result of the ongoing crises, some multinational companies are leaving the country. Most recently, Indian mining corporation Adani said it would scrap plans to build a new port on Yangon River, following similar withdrawal announcements by British American Tobacco and Norwegian telecom operator Telenor. In their place, the illicit economy – notably heroin, methamphetamine production, and illegal gemstone and timber extraction – has begun to boom.
The international response
In the early weeks, protestors and strikers called on the international community to protect the people of Myanmar, invoking the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) principle. R2P calls on all governments to protect populations from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. It also calls on the international community to step in if a government is unable or unwilling to protect its population from these atrocities, including by force if necessary.
While proponents of R2P regularly point out that the principle is more than military intervention, the use of force if a country fails to protect its population from atrocities is the major innovation of R2P and what the principle is known for. In the case of Myanmar, a military intervention remains unfeasible. Even under R2P, any use of force would have to be authorised by the UN Security Council, which is unlikely as Russia and China, both of whom have the power to veto any Security Council action, won’t support such action. Even if that obstacle could be overcome, a military solution would have no chance of success against the large and well-equipped Tatmadaw.
International condemnation for the coup came swiftly, but tangible action has been lagging. ASEAN, which has taken the lead in the diplomatic response with the support of the international community, released a chair statement on 1 February, calling for a “return to normalcy”. It was not until April, however, that ASEAN committed to a five-point consensus to address the crisis, inviting General Min Aung Hlaing to an emergency summit. The plan calls for an immediate cessation of the violence, a constructive dialogue, the provision of humanitarian aid, and appoints a special envoy for which it foresees a visit.
It took three months to appoint the special envoy, Erywan Yusof, Brunei's Second Minister for Foreign Affairs, who has so far been unable to visit the country. The junta’s unwillingness to implement the plan has frustrated ASEAN members, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia. In an uncharacteristic move for the organisation, which values consensus and non-interference in internal affairs, it excluded the SAC from last month’s ASEAN Summit. This represents a shift from ASEAN’s past engagement with the Tatmadaw, when it acted as a shield against outside condemnation.
In June, the United Nation's General Assembly issued a Resolution calling on “all Member States to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar”. The Resolution revealed a divided international community, with 119 votes in favour, but 36 abstentions and 1 vote against. The United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union have implemented targeted sanctions against military figures, civilian technocrats, as well as the two main military conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC).
What more can – and must – be done
Myanmar’s woes largely stem from its security challenges, but the grim reality of the current conflict is that a political solution that restores genuine democracy is not in prospect for the foreseeable future. While ASEAN and its partners must continue to work towards peace, stability, and democracy as the ultimate objective, the suffering of the Myanmar people must be alleviated immediately. These two goals can run in parallel.
The regime’s willingness to maintain ‘Fortress Myanmar’ and go it alone makes it difficult, if not impossible, to compel the generals to the negotiation table. Nonetheless, one of the best – or indeed only – tools to do so are targeted sanctions. While some Western countries have already implemented sanctions, important trading partners of Myanmar, including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia, should join in implementing these. Private enterprises could similarly put pressure on the military by withholding payments that would flow to the military, such as the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which provides the government an estimated US$1.5 billion a year. Total (France) and Chevron (United States) have already begun to withhold some dividend payments, but these could be broadened and other companies should follow suit.
In addition to stopping the cash, countries must cut weapons’ sales to the regime, which the military has used for decades to wage a war against its own people. It seems ironic that China and Russia, two of the countries best placed to stop the flow of arms to the Tatmadaw through a Security Council Resolution, are also among its biggest arms suppliers. Nonetheless, the UN Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar’s call for the Security Council to implement a comprehensive arms embargo remains imperative.
Countries must urgently fund humanitarian assistance and find creative ways of distributing aid. This has been undoubtedly hampered by the security situation, aid blockages by the Tatmadaw, and concerns over providing legitimacy to a military regime that has been attacking not only its own people but also specifically the healthcare sector. To deliver humanitarian aid, the international community could take a two-pronged approach. While ASEAN retains the central role in the response, for example by establishing an ASEAN Mission in Myanmar, other countries with open communication channels with the SAC can use their influence to ensure the military allows unimpeded humanitarian access.
The Quad (India, Japan, the United States, and Australia) could play an important role in this regard, as India and Japan can open back-channel negotiations with senior military officials, leveraging the military assistance and foreign aid they provide. India, which has led some talks with the regime, has a direct stake in the security situation as its border states Mizoram and Manipur are vulnerable to refugee influxes. The reportedly good relationship between Modi and General Min Aung Hlaing could help in private discussions, which should be ramped up. Japan, as Myanmar’s third largest trading partner and one of the largest providers of bilateral development aid, can similarly facilitate talks with the SAC on ending attacks against civilians, which Tokyo has so far been reluctant to do.
Countries that have taken a more assertive stance against the military regime can use alternative routes to deliver humanitarian aid through local community and civil society organisations, with the help of neighbouring states. One possible path is into south-eastern Myanmar via the Thai-Myanmar border, as already discussed by the United States and Thailand. An additional route could be taken through Myanmar’s shared border with India. Humanitarian aid must also include COVID-19 vaccines and health supplies, which should be distributed by any means available, including through the NUG and the SAC where appropriate safeguards can be negotiated, while calling on the military to immediately put an end to attacks against healthcare staff.
While protecting people on the ground, the international community should continue to work towards accountability for atrocities. Some 521 local and international civil society organisations already have called on the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) has been collecting evidence on atrocities, including those committed since the coup. This can be used by willing jurisdictions to build criminal cases against high-level decision-makers under the principle of ‘universal jurisdiction’ for genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and torture. At the same time, the NUG should be reminded that its legitimacy hinges on its affiliated forces adhering to international humanitarian law, and that they must be held to account if they commit violations.
Finally, neighbouring and third countries must commit to protecting those fleeing Myanmar. India, Thailand and China are likely to see a further influx of refugees in the coming months. Neighbouring countries must ensure that people fleeing the violence can seek asylum, abide by the non-refoulement rules, and provide humanitarian assistance together with UNHCR. Third party countries should increase humanitarian protection visas for asylum seekers.
There are no easy solutions in Myanmar, but as the situation deteriorates daily and is set to become much worse during the dry season, the international community must recommit to finding a political solution to the crisis, while simultaneously offering protection to the population within and beyond the borders of Myanmar.
 Daily new infection numbers rose to over 6,000 in July, but with a test positivity rate of nearly 30%, the infection and death counts are likely to be vastly underestimated.
 Between 2001 and 2019, China supplied nearly half of all arms and ammunition to Myanmar, followed by India, Russia, Serbia, and Ukraine. Russia seems to view the coup as an opportunity to increase its influence within Myanmar while boosting its arms exports.
 India and China have already sent vaccines to Myanmar, the latter actively vaccinating the populations and ethnic armed groups in border regions. The NUG has announced it will distribute vaccines to areas controlled by ethnic armed groups through ethnic health committees.
Dominique Fraser is Research Associate for Asia Society Policy Institute in Australia.