Shades of Syria in Myanmar

What the Arab Spring’s largest failure can teach us about the developing crisis in the Southeast Asian nation.

A protestor posting online as “MM” shows his progression from student to armed rebel | via @theboysinmyanmar

Recent comparisons between the evolving situation in Myanmar and the conflict in Syria have been numerous. Most notably, the U.N.’s top human right’s official, Michelle Bachelet, warned:

“There are clear echoes of Syria in 2011. There too, we saw peaceful protests met with unnecessary and clearly disproportionate force… The state’s brutal, persistent repression of its own people led to some individuals taking up arms, followed by a downward and rapidly expanding spiral of violence all across the country.”

The comparison between the two crises is apt. A coup in February of this year plunged Myanmar into crisis, leading to scores of strikes and protests concentrated in the country’s largest cities of Yangon and Mandalay. The military — who deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi — responded with violence, killing hundreds of unarmed protestors, including 158 on a single day in the city of Naypyitaw. Hopes by the restored military junta that the protests would fade have been dashed and the country is teetering on the edge of large-scale armed conflict. It is difficult to not see shades of the early Syrian revolution in these images from Myanmar, with state security forces directly targeting peaceful protestors in brutal attacks, compelling many to take up arms. While this comparison certainly helps contextualize the complex situation in Myanmar, it also can act as a quasi-roadmap to identify key pitfalls that may push the country into further conflict and humanitarian crisis. Here are two key considerations to proactively address the crisis.

Violent Ends

While Myanmar’s most recent crisis started with a coup d’é tat, Syria’s began as part of the regional upheaval of the Arab Spring. Peaceful protests in the southern city of Daraa trigged by the arrest and torture of young men for painting anti-government graffiti soon swept through all of Syria’s major cities, including the capital of Damascus. In response, dictator Bashar al Assad waged a brutal crackdown on the nationwide protests, labeling the opposition as terrorists. As the Assad regime continued to meet protests with violence, the previously unarmed opposition coalesced into what became the Free Syrian Army, marking Syria’s transition from peaceful revolution to violent insurgency. Largely due to the security vacuum created by the Assad regime’s tactics of targeting civilians with barrel bombs and chemical weapons and besieging communities in rebel-held areas, many of these armed opposition groups began to fracture, clash or become subsumed by jihadi movements. This fragmented conflict dynamic not only watered down any true military opposition to Assad’s forces but also created space for the so-called Islamic State to establish its caliphate. The result today is a Syria that is pock-marked by various opposition groups on its northern border, with an autonomous U.S.-backed state in its northeast and a former al Qaeda affiliate controlling large portions of a province with 4.2 million people — half of whom are internally displaced — in its west.

Troubling, Myanmar does not have to wait for armed opposition to organically form within its borders. The country is already home to approximately 20 anti-government ethnic militias— most fighting for regional autonomy — as well as hundreds of armed groups aligned with the military. Most notably, fighting between the government and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army insurgents in northern Rahkine state is the impetus for the military’s brutal campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority, who are not legally considered Burmese citizens by the government. The well-documented crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population — perpetrated by both insurgents and the government — have resulted in nearly 1 million refugees pouring into neighboring Bangladesh from Rakhine state.

Similar to Syria ten years ago, there are worrying signs the protest movement is moving toward violent means, and with already established armed rebel movements, this transition could happen at a frightening pace. The National Unity Government — a parallel opposition administration formed in response to the February coup — has called for the formation of a “federal army” of insurgent groups, and young people are increasingly flocking to join militias that support the protests such as the Karen National Union and Kachin Independence Army.

The lesson we should draw from Syria is this transformation from protests to armed opposition is a potent force, but no preordained. In the case of Syria, once aligned armed opposition groups splintered largely due to fractious international support for their cause. Left to their own devices, Myanmar’s militias risk the same fate. As the military junta has thus far shrugged off condemnation and sanctions, international support should instead focus on early, coordinated engagement with Myanmar’s opposition-aligned ethnic militias to urge them from stepping up their military campaigns. The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signed by 11 of the country’s militias in 2015 provides a platform for such engagement, which should by the agreement’s observer nations such as the U.S., U.K. and Japan. There is no doubt that drawing a diplomatic line between the National Unity Government and Myanmar’s opposition militias will be unpalatable to many protestors, especially as the military continues to use violence against its critics. But the conflict in Syria has taught us not even attempting to gain a foothold in the space where protest and conflict meet can result in a splintered, bloody war and humanitarian catastrophe.

The goal of this diplomacy should be clear and relatively minimal: to prevent the armed opposition from forming a unified army that could quickly exacerbate the conflict and to establish a single channel for international engagement for the country’s opposition. As tepid outreach from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has failed to even convince the junta to stop the killing of protestors, engagement with Myanmar's armed opposition may be the only effective diplomatic entry point to stave off further crisis in the country.

The system, not the leader

Along with preventing the downward conflict spiral of fragmenting armed opposition groups, the other lesson Syria — and in fact the entire Arab Spring — can teach us about the situation in Myanmar is to understand the systemic causes of citizens’ discontent. For too long, much of the democratic world has placed outsized significance on the influence of authoritarian leaders. To be sure, leaders set the tone and agenda of governments and should be held directly responsible for the failures and abuses of their power. Bashar al Assad’s refusal to extend any concessions to his opposition dealt a death blow to peaceful change in Syria and Hosni Mubarak’s move to transfer power to Egypt’s armed force instead of resigning helped set the stage for the military coup that overthrew his democratically elected predecessor a year later. But the mass gatherings on the streets of these countries — and those we now see in Myanmar — are not simply caused by unpopular strongmen, but deeper institutional failures of governance.

Myanmar’s history is littered with such failures. From 1962 until 2011, the country was ruled by a military junta that presided over one of the world’s most impoverished countries. The landmark 8888 Uprising in 1988 — which put future leader Aung San Suu Kyi into the national spotlight — began due to large-scale economic mismanagement and subsequent austerity measures due to the country’s massive. Again in 2007, the Saffron Revolution was led by Buddhist monks protesting massive hikes in gasoline prices due to the removal of government subsidies. These protests paved the way for democratic reforms and the country’s first openly contested election in 25 years. It’s no surprise, then, that the military’s refusal to recognize election results in 2020 and their subsequent government takeover pushed the country’s citizens into the streets.

It’s easy to see the same broad strokes in Syria. Protests in the country were certainly bolstered by the democratic outcry of the Arab Spring, but they were also deeply local. The worst drought in the country’s history devasted its agricultural sector in the years immediately preceding the protests and long-held discontent for the government’s kleptocratic practices that heavily rewarded the minority Alawite sect were kept at bay by a notoriously brutal secret police. Most infamously, uprisings in the city of Hama in 1982 led to the military’s besiegement of the city, resulting in over 20,000 casualties. This history is often swept over when discussing the war in Syria, but such narratives are critical in understanding the deeply rooted motivations that push citizens to protest and fight against their own government.

While wholesale institutional change is not feasible in the near term in Myanmar, policymakers should not lose sight of these root causes when addressing the crisis. Forcing concessions from the country’s military and addressing the humanitarian crisis are vital, but they will do little to stop the popular disconnect that has drove Burmese citizens to this critical juncture. The ultimate goal of any negotiations to solve the crisis in Myanmar cannot be only to expand civilian representation in its political system — which was the case in 2012 — but instead, large-scale reforms of the country’s entire governing institution to make them more accountable to citizens, provide greater economic opportunity, and more effectively deliver public services. This will be a tough pill to swallow for many, and some will be quick to jump to “interventionist” conclusions. Indeed, invoking a “responsibility to protect” would likely only destabilize the situation even further. However, understanding this lofty goal from the outset — and coalescing the international community around this objective — can help shape and inform further responses to the situation. As any sort of substantial U.N. action is unlikely, especially in the near term, it’s crucial that the framing and message of any bilateral or multilateral engagement with both military and opposition leaders concerns meeting the needs of the people of Myanmar, not only addressing the immediate crisis at hand. The failure of the international community to clearly articulate such a desired end state in Syria until 2015 via U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 severely hampered efforts for large-scale reform and allowed time and space for the conflict’s numerous bad actors to gain a foothold.

Although we’re still unpacking the mistakes in Syria — and there are plenty — the circumstances have necessitated we shorten our learning curve. We owe it to the citizens of Myanmar.

Foreign policy & conflict. Views here are personal and do not represent those of my employer.

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