February 2024OpinionAsia

Myanmar’s Course Towards Chaos

Cameron Bird
Staff Writer

For all the rhetoric surrounding Myanmar’s instability since its coup d’état in 2021, those paying close attention to Myanmar recognize an even more important fact: it may only become more unstable. The essential combination of historical precedent and political theory suggests that not only is Myanmar better off with a centralized government, but that if it maintains its crash course towards decentralization, it will result in devastating consequences for all different populations in Myanmar. If international actors advocating for the restoration of a democratic Myanmar fail to intervene or otherwise assist democratic advocates in Myanmar, the ensuing conflicts will ravage the state and destabilize an increasingly strategically important region. 

The inherent nature of Myanmar as a multi-ethnic state has been a source of division since its independence in 1948. Its consistent oppression of the Rohingya people resulted in massive sources of conflict in 2012 and 2017, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Yet the recent coup has in many ways united many minority groups, creating a common enemy out of the oppressive majority government, which has forced armed rebel groups to work synchronously to effectively combat the military government. Al Jazeera reports that the unity of these armed groups has resulted in the creation of the Three Brotherhood Alliance, composed of the Arakan Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and Ta’ang National Liberation Army, which have waged combat against the military junta quite effectively, and garnered significant momentum since late 2023.

When considering the overall instability of the region, the military junta’s proven inability to establish sovereignty at home and legitimacy abroad has become flashpoints of concern. The Associated Press reports that inflation and displacement are increasing in Myanmar, whilst economic growth remains stagnant at best. Furthermore, as armed groups establish their own regions of governance, the decentralization of power will likely result in further economic decline and civilian safety. According to the United States Institute of Peace, the junta’s inability to maintain control over specific regions controlled by ethnic minority groups has also destabilized trade in the region, led to increased crime, starvation, and homelessness. It must be acknowledged that the current form of governance in Myanmar is unacceptable from a moral and political standpoint. The Guardian reports that since the military took over in 2021, 4,000 civilians have died at the hands of the military, and the possibility that crimes against humanity have been committed has been raised by multiple rights groups. Yet the success of armed groups in rebelling against the military has and will continue to only increase these issues. Decentralization has rarely worked in global politics, and although the prospect of multiple ethnicities experiencing self-determination appears a flowery and conclusive concept, the inevitable consequences are frightening. Even in scenarios where ethnic, religious, or racial groups have managed to split into their self-governing states, it is not a process that has occurred peacefully or accompanied by economic growth. Whether it is an artificial split, a practical split, or a blend of both, the potential for genocide, protracted conflict, and continued oppression persists. Examples of these are plentiful, whether it be Yugoslavia in the early 1990s or Palestine in the 1940s, these regions still maintain incredibly volatile conflicts. Myanmar appears to be set on the same path if multiple ethnic groups continue to establish power within their own regions and decentralize Myanmar as a whole. 

It becomes increasingly imperative that the U.S. and other powerful actors stand by supposed liberal values and intervene. The prospect of increased instability in Myanmar is disconcerting to all actors in the region and on the international stage. Additionally, the idea that a democratic state could turn into a decentralized failed state within a decade raises serious concerns about the international community’s commitment to these ideals and capability in addressing them. Amid this crisis, China has become an increasingly relevant actor, stepping in to act as a mediator between rebel groups and the military junta, reports Reuters. Motivated by threats to trade and the potential for a refugee crisis, China has acted in its own self-interest in attempting to stabilize the conflict as much as possible. This contrasts sharply with the actions of important Western actors, who provide only lip service to the values of democratic freedom and anti-authoritarianism that they purportedly espouse. Sanctions and condemnations are insufficient in providing necessary change, and China’s proposed rules of order in international politics will only gain more traction the longer the West allows states to drift further towards authoritarian structures. Advocacy for the restoration of Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratic government should become a focal point of the Biden administration’s Southeast Asian foreign policy agenda. If it does not, the U.S. becomes complicit in the demise of yet another potential democracy. 

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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