With ASEAN Stuck, It Is Up to U.S. to Lead on Myanmar
BURMA Act can open way for stronger support to resistance movement
This commentary was originally published by Nikkei Asia.
As Myanmar's national uprising against its military's Feb. 1, 2021 takeover enters its third year with no resolution in sight, the international community remains without a viable strategy to help end the crisis.
In April 2021, Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders sought to lead the international response by proposing a five-point consensus plan to end the violence and start a dialogue to forge a compromise solution.
The consensus, however, was stillborn, both due to the regime's refusal to budge from its hard-line stance and widespread skepticism that any dialogue could lead to a compromise deal in what is fundamentally a zero-sum battle.
This month, ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Jakarta expressed disappointment at the lack of progress, even as they continued to promote the five-point consensus as the best way forward for Myanmar.
These are smart people. They know the consensus is leading nowhere but they continue to tout it as the path forward because member states are divided and cannot reach consensus on a better approach.
This impasse has left the U.S. in a bind. In the 2000s, ASEAN's engagement with Myanmar's then-military regime while the U.S. pursued a policy of sanctions and isolation was a constant irritant in Washington's relations with the bloc. Each side was disappointed and often frustrated with the other's stance.
In the current crisis, Washington has been more deferential to ASEAN, expressing support for its five-point plan despite the lack of progress.
This approach might have made sense initially, as it reinforced U.S. support for ASEAN centrality and hid the fact that Washington had no better ideas. But ASEAN's failure to move beyond its moribund consensus should be an overdue wake-up call for the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden.
Vows to continue to "stand with the Burmese people" ring increasingly hollow in light of continued U.S. support for ASEAN's failed approach and Washington's insistence on a peaceful resolution to a crisis for which there is no peaceful answer. The longer the U.S. follows this approach, the more its credibility will suffer, as will its ability to influence events in Myanmar.
The cautious U.S. approach to date is likely due to the reluctance of administration officials to take the risk of adopting a bolder policy of fully supporting the resistance. Perhaps they fear that doing so will only lead to more violence, or they question the ability of the disparate elements within the resistance to defeat the military or to hold the country together if they win.
American officials may also be concerned about prompting China to increase its support for the military regime, or may be so preoccupied with Ukraine that they cannot muster the energy to go all in on a strategically less important conflict.
Whatever the reason, Washington's approach has the U.S. notionally on the side of the resistance but without the commitment and resources to help it win.
Policymakers should recognize that the only potentially positive way out of this crisis is for the resistance to successfully oust Myanmar's military regime. As long as the military holds power, there is no hope for the country.
Supporting the resistance more fully carries risks. But staying on the current path all but guarantees years of continued violence, instability and suffering.
What, then, should the U.S. do? First, it should not go back to the previous era of badgering ASEAN to be tougher. That would be counterproductive. It should, however, stop pretending that the five-point consensus offers a path forward, or that there is a peaceful solution to the crisis.
To the extent that Indonesia, ASEAN's chair for 2023, offers a more ambitious approach, Washington should support Jakarta. The U.S. does not need to jettison ASEAN, but it should not tie itself to the bloc's lowest-common denominator.
Absent a viable ASEAN strategy, the Biden administration should assert leadership by offering much more support to the resistance campaign to force the military out of power, or at least to weaken it sufficiently that it looks for a way out.
This should include stepped-up engagement with the parallel National Unity Government and other resistance elements. NUG Foreign Minister Zin Mar Aung's high-level reception in Washington last week marked a positive step and should be followed by more regular meetings, including at the secretary of state level. The State Department should also appoint a career diplomat to serve as special envoy for Myanmar, engaging with the resistance and coordinating sanctions with key partners.
Washington should bite the bullet and provide substantial funding to the NUG and its partners, as envisioned in the recently passed Burma Unified through Rigorous Military Accountability Act.
This aid should not be conditioned on progress toward building a fully united resistance, for the simple reason that this process cannot be artificially forced. To the extent that Washington worries about the resistance's ability to account for the money, U.S. agencies should provide training rather than use the concern as an excuse not to offer aid.
Provision of substantial arms directly to the resistance is both unlikely to happen and would be difficult logistically, but channeling funds would free up resources that the NUG could use to purchase weapons.
The U.S. also should consider providing equipment to help the resistance improve communications and build on nascent efforts to supply internet access to the public. Washington can also gather military experts to consider ways to help the resistance counter the regime's air power, mindful of concerns about supplying sophisticated anti-aircraft systems.
The U.S. has been supporting democracy and civilian rule in Myanmar for decades but has punched far below its weight in the current crisis. It can and should provide much-needed leadership now, while continuing to partner with those elements in ASEAN that recognize that the current trajectory is not a viable option.