US must focus on Myanmar at this critical moment, says report by expert group

A protester hurling a fire bomb against security forces in Yangon, Myanmar, on March 16, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON - The United States cannot afford to treat the grave setback in Myanmar as a distant distraction of little consequence to its larger interests in Asia, a report by the Myanmar Study Group has warned, one year after the Feb 1, 2021, coup d'etat in the country.

"The United States has few immediate bargaining chips to press the Myanmar military for a ceasefire, release of political prisoners, and restoration of the elected government," the report concedes.

"To deal with the limitations imposed by geographic distance and the current political and security obstacles to direct access, the United States will need to enlist the international community, its alliances, and Myanmar's domestic and exiled civil society to deliver aid and support to Myanmar's civilians and to seek an end to the multidimensional crisis."

The 64-page Anatomy Of The Military Coup And Recommendations For The US Response by the Myanmar Study Group - convened by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) - is a comprehensive report on Myanmar's current political and security landscape.

It comes as policy input as analysts expect the crisis in Myanmar may soon figure in congressional hearings. The Myanmar Study Group comprises nine experts, including two former top US diplomats in Myanmar, Priscilla Clapp and Derek Mitchell.

In late December 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law the US$770 billion (S$1.04 trillion) defence budget for this year, which among other things calls for "supporting democracy in Burma".

The US government uses the names "Burma" and "Myanmar" interchangeably.

The so-called National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) explicitly calls on the US government to, among other things, "support and legitimise the National Unity Government (NUG) of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, the civil disobedience movement in Myanmar, and other entities promoting democracy in Burma, while simultaneously denying legitimacy and resources to the Myanmar military junta".

Made up of ousted lawmakers and activists opposed to the coup, the NUG is a parallel civilian government vying with the junta for international legitimacy.

"By law, the US government now has to support the NUG," Dr Zachary Abuza, south-east Asia security expert and professor at the National War College, wrote in The Diplomat.

"It legally obliges the Biden administration to support and legitimise the NUG, and identifies an end state that is in line with the NUG's stated position."

The Myanmar military's internal strength and cohesion may be weakening, some analysts say. Anecdotally, it is seeing defections and difficulties in recruitment.

The report recommends that the US provide humanitarian and medical assistance - including Covid-19 vaccines - as the most immediate imperative. "China has already set a related precedent by vaccinating groups in northern Shan and Kachin states without any agreement from the regime," it notes.

It recommends diplomatic engagement with Myanmar's immediate neighbours, especially Thailand, Bangladesh and India, to develop common positions and "encourage their interventions with - and isolation of - the junta regime".

The report also recommends that the US support the opposition, and intensify action against the military.

Targeted sanctions on military leaders, senior members of the coup government, military industries and crony businesses have so far had limited effect, it concedes, and the impact of general sanctions would likely fall most heavily on the civilian population.

"But additional responses that could enhance the punishing effect may still be possible," the expert group said.

These would include moving to block proceeds from extractive industries held in dollar accounts and pushing for US partners to immediately cease all involvement of their government or nationals in arms deals with the junta.

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The Tatmadaw - the local term for the military - are "not going to win this war", Ms Priscilla Clapp, a former US chief of mission to Myanmar and currently senior adviser to the Burma Programme at the USIP, told The Straits Times.

"They're going to wind up with an ungovernable situation," she said.

"As far as the whole country is concerned, they're going to have to start thinking seriously about real federalism, which they haven't done yet, and not their own form of federalism, which still means ruling largely from the centre.

"The military must be prepared to step back from governing. They're going to have to be prepared to do that, and they're not. They're not even near that, so it's going to be a long war," she said.

"Both sides are taking a lot of hits. The PDFs are getting pounded, but the PDFs are much more agile than the army. And they are much more dedicated. They know their mission," she added, referring to the numerous People's Defence Force groups that have sprouted up across Myanmar waging an insurgency against the military regime.

The report concludes that "the younger generation (are) willing to pay with their lives to keep democratic progress alive. The United States' support for them must not fail at this critical moment".

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