Myanmar: A Forgotten Conflict?

Aadit Pareek, Mar 12, 2024

From November 2020 to January 2021, much of the world watched in disbelief as one of its beacons of democracy teetered to the brink of collapse. Donald Trump and his supporters repeated falsehoods about the illegitimacy of the 2020 election which ultimately culminated in an unsuccessful attempt to overturn the results of a democratic election. Ironically just eight weeks later, the world watched in horror at what could have happened had these attempts succeeded as Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, orchestrated a coup d’etat [1]. The military deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically-elected government under the false pretense of an illegitimate election. 


The Status Quo


Now, nearly three years after the coup, the ensuing civil war has claimed the lives of more than 4,500 civilians. A further 1.9 million are internally displaced or in danger of falling victim to war crimes on the part of the junta, Myanmar’s military government, creating a dire humanitarian crisis [2]. Despite this, many international actors with the capacity to effect positive change on the conflict, such as India, have either adopted a business-as-usual approach to their relationship with Myanmar’s military junta government or made only nominal efforts to delegitimize the junta in favor of the rebel forces, namely, the U.S. and EU [3]. Rebels have united around the National Unity Government and are actively working to reclaim their democracy, without significant support from world leaders. The timid approach of these countries in discussions of Myanmar’s military government will only prolong the conflict. The international community, led by India, China, and the West must take bolder, more conclusive steps to support the rebel coalition’s National Unity Government in Myanmar, helping overthrow the military junta and prevent further war crimes against civilians. 


Does India have More to Gain by Intervening?


India, Myanmar’s fourth-largest export market and fifth-largest import partner has maintained a status-quo approach to their diplomatic relationship with the junta, continuing trade relations unperturbed. Indian state-owned and private companies, like Yantra India, have sold weapons and raw materials to the junta. These weapons include surveillance technology as well as missiles and artillery equipment. A UN report alleges that these weapons have been used in the commission of international crime and Indian companies have avoided sanctions through the use of shell companies [4]. 


Despite the economic benefit of continuing to pursue normal diplomatic relations with Myanmar, the worsening humanitarian crisis on the border will exacerbate the Rohingya refugee crisis in north-eastern India. This would impose an economic and logistical burden on one of India’s most underdeveloped regions. Furthermore, the military junta in Myanmar has enabled militant separatist groups in India’s northeast, providing them with safe haven in border territories following their recent (2021) attacks on India. The national security incentive alone should be enough to alter India’s diplomatic relationship with Myanmar [5].


Another argument that could motivate India to change its stance on the conflict would be cooling relations with the West. Despite enjoying increasingly amicable relations with the U.S. and its Western allies, there may be diplomatic pressure on India to uphold democracy in Southeast Asia, as India is seen as a leader of democracy in the region. Diplomatic tensions with the West may curb India’s foreign policy and economic goals, outweighing any benefits from maintaining a status quo with the junta.


A Changing Stance from China


While China initially was supportive of the junta, and was one of its largest arms suppliers, its support for the junta seems to have waned in recent months. A notable instance was in January 2024, when China opted not to send a congratulatory message to Myanmar on its independence day. Prior to this, it had been one of the few countries to do so before 2024. Recent military operations by the rebel forces further point to China’s possibly shifted stance against the junta. All previous operations near the Chinese border were not carried out due to an indefinite ceasefire brokered by China [6].


China’s involvement in any decision-making on peace-enforcement operations in the UN Security Council will be pivotal in deterring Russia’s veto. Chinese President Xi Jinping has forged a close personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This may prove vital to a possible Russian abstention from any Security Council resolutions taking decisions on any intervention in Myanmar. Thus, hastening rebel efforts to overthrow the junta and overseeing a free, fair, and wide election.


The West - Targeted Sanctions


The U.S., U.K., and their E.U. allies have made unsuccessful efforts to sanction high-ranking military officials in Myanmar’s junta. This has been the result of poor coordination and a lack of sanctions against high-impact targets. As of February 2023, only 13% of Burmese targets were sanctioned by all three Western forces: the U.S., U.K., and E.U. Furthermore, the U.K. and the U.S. have not sanctioned Myanmar’s largest foreign currency source, the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise. Other state-owned firms like Myanmar Economics Holdings Limited have evaded sanctions by funneling revenue through subsidiary companies.


However, the Western allies have made attempts in the UN Security Council to condemn the junta’s crimes and call for a ceasefire in the Civil War, all of which have been vetoed by both Russia and China. Renewed efforts to use the Council with China’s new position could yield better results [7].


Uniting for Peace in the UN


The UN’s primary goal remains to maintain international peace, oftentimes through the deployment of multinational peacekeeping or peace-enforcement agencies to security hotspots globally. This tool may prove very useful to the current situation in Myanmar. There have been multiple verified UN reports of sexual violence, mass murder, torture, and other war crimes against civilians in Myanmar by the Tatmadaw (the military) since the beginning of the civil war.


Although regularly seen as a body where little is achieved in terms of world peace, the UN has historically made meaningful strides to deter tyranny through the invocation of Article VII during the Gulf War (1990-91). The Security Council is authorized to exercise force upon any actor threatening the peace of a member nation (Article VII of the UN Charter), an action for which the junta is already culpable. Assuming Russia vetoes an action in the Security Council, the UN could invoke Uniting for Peace (UPR). The UPR provision allows for a veto in the Security Council to be overturned by a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly.


What Next?


Any hope for peace in this conflict ultimately rests on nations safeguarding humanity rather than acting upon their own self-interest. Pragmatically, it seems naive to assume nations could act outside of their own best interests. Yet, the world is changing. States are no longer looking for direct material benefits. They now focus on how they want to be perceived globally. Every state wants to project a favorable image– one as a defender of its beloved ethical values. Appealing to reputation could be the key to securing lasting peace. Rationalizing why states act a certain way when conflict arises can be understood in the context of its status-related concerns. 


The horrors of the wars in the Middle East and Eastern Europe have smothered Myanmar's voice on the international stage. However, I believe a collaborative effort towards justice for Myanmar can be the precursor to more harmonious international cooperation, shifting us towards a future marked by empathy rather than destruction.


[1] Cheatham, Tom. “Myanmar spiralling 'from bad to worse, to horrific', Human Rights Council hears.” UN News, September 21st, 2022.

[2] UNHCR. “Myanmar Emergency Update (as of 2 October 2023).” reliefweb,, October 31st, 2023.

[3] Al Jazeera. “China, Russia, India enabling Myanmar's military rule: Report.” Al Jazeera, November 2nd, 2022.

[4] Hmung, Zo Tum, and John Indergaard. “Time is Running Out for India's Balancing Act on the Myanmar Border.” United States Institute of Peace, June 15th, 2023.

[5] Petty, Martin, and Devjyot Ghoshal. “Myanmar junta attacked on new fronts, thousands flee to India.” Reuters, November 13th, 2023.

[6] Blanchette, Jude, and Ryan Hass. “Operation 1027: Changing the tides of the Myanmar civil war? | Brookings.” Brookings Institution, January 16th, 2024.

[7] Center for Preventive Action. “Civil War in Myanmar | Global Conflict Tracker.” Council on Foreign Relations, January 31st, 2024.