Myanmar: Humanitarian crisis will have regional fallout - Hindustan Times

Myanmar: Humanitarian crisis will have regional fallout

ByRahul Mishra
May 05, 2024 09:00 AM IST

This article is authored by Rahul Mishra.

In a surprising move taken a few days ago, Myanmar military junta announced that it has put Daw Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, removing her from prison due to extreme weather conditions. While the announcement is yet to be verified, its timing amidst heavy losses incurred by the Tatmadaw’s (Myanmar armed forces) at the hands of the armed ethnic rebel groups demonstrates just how vulnerable junta has become over past three years. As the country slips into a state of civil war, with virtually no active international action to stop the conflict, it runs the risk of turning into a wider regional crisis with wider and deeper ramifications particularly for its neighbours – India, China, and Thailand.

Myanmar's ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi(AP) PREMIUM
Myanmar's ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi(AP)

The situation in Myanmar remains one of the most severe global crises, necessitating immediate and effective action and attention from regional and international actors. Three years since the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar military junta, took control of the country in a coup d'état in 2021, armed clashes between the military and a coalition of resistance forces comprising pro-democracy groups and ethnic minorities have become increasingly dire, with thousands of refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries such as India and Thailand in search of safety from the ongoing conflict. These have complex ramifications for the country and the region.

The political scene has subsequently been marked by volatility, with the rise of numerous factions. The National Unity Government (NUG), founded by dismissed National League for Democracy Members of Parliament (MPs) and members from several ethnic groups, strive to restore democracy through a Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a group of elected lawmakers and MPs ousted in the 2021, but are not recognised internationally as the formal representatives of the country. Meanwhile, ethnic armed groups have escalated their fight for autonomy, exacerbating armed conflicts across the country.

Consequences on the economic front have been disastrous - major economies, including the United States and the European Union, have slapped sanctions on vital sectors of the economy as well as on military leaders of the Min Aung Hlaing regime. The Myanmar kyat has devalued drastically, and inflation has skyrocketed, resulting in increasing poverty and the collapse of governmental services. The Covid-19 pandemic also contributed to exacerbating a national health crisis, overwhelming an already frail health care system.

The humanitarian situation in Myanmar is also worsening, with more than a million internally displaced and many more seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. Food, health care, and basic services are severely constrained, aggravated by ongoing hostilities and military blockades. International aid organisations have significant challenges in providing help because to security concerns and constraints imposed by the military rule. Beyond Myanmar borders, its refugees confront poor living conditions, with limited access to necessities such as health care, food, and shelter.

Myanmar's crisis is more than just a domestic conflict, it also threatens regional order and stability. The response of neighbouring countries has been diverse, with military and political actions defining the crisis and its regional impact, necessitating a coordinated international response.

The international community is divided on how to appropriately respond to the junta while balancing their own national interests. While western governments condemned the coup and imposed diplomatic and economic sanctions, regional players such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been criticised for their inefficacy, inadequate response, and inability to exert effective pressure on the military junta, underscoring the challenges of regional collaboration during such moments of humanitarian and political crises. China and Russia, both with strategic interests in Myanmar, have taken a positive view on junta’s control of the country, using their veto power at the UN Security Council to prevent broader international intervention.

Thailand has seen a substantial number of refugees crossing its border with Myanmar. While the Thai government has previously granted asylum to Myanmar nationals, the current size of the situation poses significant logistical and political impediments. In reaction to the issue, China has carried out military exercises along its border with Myanmar. These actions are viewed as deterrents to the influx of refugees.

The approach taken by China demonstrates its strategic interest in the borders of the region, as well as its complex relationship with Myanmar's military leadership. Mizoram with an open border with Myanmar, has also been affected. The Indian government has formally closed its borders. However, reports show that local groups and officials in Mizoram have been sympathetic to the refugees, often providing informal assistance.

China, however, has maintained diplomatic ties with Myanmar. Nong Rong, Beijing's assistant foreign minister, visited Myanmar in November 2023 and met with deputy prime minister U Than Swe. A month later, U Than Swe paid a visit to Beijing and spoke with foreign minister Wang Yi, the NUG expressed no surprise at China's continuous diplomatic efforts with the junta as it demonstrated a lack of faith in the regime's ability to defend Chinese investments in the country. The NUG has also called on China to stop providing arms to the ruling military junta, stating that the regime has been using those arms and ammunition to kill innocent non-combatant civilians. Reports have suggested China and Russia are Myanmar junta’s main military suppliers. According to reports, since the 2021 coup, China’s has supplied arms and ammunition worth over $400 million while Russia’s arms trade with military junta has been worth US $260 million. A United Nations report last year stated the junta had imported at least $1 billion in arms since the coup, with much of that coming from individuals and businesses in Russia, China, and Singapore. The junta has been excluded from political-level engagements at ASEAN, although the NUG urged the union to go further and halt dialogue with Naypyidaw at all levels and not just political level as some other meetings at bureaucratic levels still continue.

The path forward for Myanmar involves navigating multiple challenges, with a potential solution lying in a multifaceted approach. Enhanced international coordination is necessary, involving key actors like the UN, ASEAN, and influential states to apply unified pressure on the military regime. Secondly, promoting inclusive dialogue among all parties, including the Tatmadaw, the NUG and CRPH, ethnic groups, and civil society, is crucial for ensuring a lasting solution to the Myanmar conundrum. Ensuring unrestricted access to humanitarian assistance is equally vital to meet the immediate needs of the people, which should be taken as the top-most priority. ASEAN and its dialogue partners, particularly the members of the East Asia Summit, including India, must come forward to resolve the crisis.

This article is authored by Rahul Mishra, senior research fellow, Thammasat University, Bangkok, and associate professor, Indo-Pacific Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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