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Conflict in Myanmar: A Forgotten Crisis

On April 4, 2024, Ambassador Scot Marciel gave a chilling report of the dire situation unfolding in Myanmar. With deep insight, he outlined the nation's tumultuous past and shed light on the enduring struggle between the military regime and the aspirations of civilians for democracy.

What is Happening?

The conflict in Myanmar, which escalated following the military coup in February 2021, has sparked a national uprising fueled by a collective aversion to returning to military rule. This revolution aims to permanently remove the military from power, amidst horrendous humanitarian suffering, with thousands killed and millions displaced. Similar to the conflicts in Gaza, Israel, and Ukraine, the situation in Myanmar has seen widespread violence and displacement, yet it receives minimal coverage in the news despite the country's significant population of 55 million. Myanmar's complex ethnic makeup, dominated by Bamar Buddhists (where its original name ‘Burma’ stems), but comprising of about 135 ethnic minorities, traces back to British colonization until 1948. Following independence, promises of greater autonomy for minorities under leaders like Un Sung were cut short by his assassination. Subsequent coups and military rule suppressed movements for self-determination, with brutal oppression of domestic opposition. 

While some progress towards democracy occurred after 2010, tensions persisted, particularly regarding the treatment of the Rohingya minority, leading to violence and displacement in 2017. The November 2020 election, marred by allegations of fraud, saw the military stage a coup after Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide. Mass protests ensued, met with violent crackdowns, prompting a grassroots resistance with ethnic armed groups and ordinary citizens fighting back against military brutality, including torture and sexual violence. The military's struggles to maintain control amid power outages, economic woes, and widespread civil resistance have led to recruitment challenges and a growing exodus of people fleeing the country. Moreover, reports emerge of forced recruitment, further intensifying the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.

  • What should ASEAN’s role be in this situation?

  • How do we encourage moral leadership via the UN?

  • Should the United States get involved, knowing its preoccupation with other wars?

Why Is This Being Ignored?

Despite the dire circumstances, Myanmar's conflict often goes unaddressed on the global stage. Ambassador Marciel shed light on the prevailing sentiment that Myanmar is seen as a lost cause, entangled in seemingly intractable issues that deter international investment and engagement. This pessimism stems from a skepticism regarding the feasibility of achieving democracy in a country so deeply entrenched in its struggles. However, Marciel offered a glimmer of hope, noting the growing strength of the resistance against the military regime, which suggests a potential shift in the dynamics. While the United States vocally supports Myanmar's pro-democracy movement, concrete actions to bolster this cause have been lacking. Marciel emphasized the strategic importance of Myanmar to regional powers like India and China, particularly due to its geographical location. However, efforts to address the conflict have largely been spearheaded by China, motivated by its own strategic interests rather than a genuine commitment to resolving Myanmar's internal conflict. 

Marciel elaborated on a possible strategy for spotlighting the conflict in Myanmar: illuminating the pervasive criminal enterprises operating within the nation and their far-reaching implications globally. He detailed Myanmar's staggering prominence as the primary Asian producer of illegal amphetamines, coupled with its role as a nucleus for cyber fraud. Diverse forms of cyber scams, ranging from deceitful online relationships to deceptive job offers culminating in human trafficking, have proliferated. Perhaps by raising awareness of how the conflicts in Myanmar may affect other countries, this will garner more international intervention. However, Marciel highlighted Myanmar's pivotal role as a leading source of jade, rubies, and critical minerals, hinting at the nation's untapped potential for economic prosperity. While emphasizing Myanmar's allure for tourism, Marciel lamented the obstacles posed by governance, underscoring that Myanmar's trajectory hinges on cohesive governance.

  • How do we raise concern for Myanmar when there is little incentive to get involved?

  • How can Myanmar leverage its natural resources to improve economic stability?

  • Due to the military’s lack of adequate knowledge in running an economy, what will happen if military rule persists?

What Should the US Role Be?

Marciel underscored the unfolding revolution in Myanmar, highlighting an unprecedented surge in resistance. He emphasized the pivotal role of the younger generation as a driving force behind this uprising, noting their experience of 8-9 years of relative autonomy and opportunity. Understanding that military rule would extinguish any hope for autonomy, they demonstrate a willingness to risk their lives for their cause. Marciel fervently asserted that the only path to stability and peaceful governance in Myanmar lies in the triumph of the resistance. Proposing a proactive stance from the United States, he advocated for modest financial support and the dispatch of a special envoy to engage with the resistance and coordinate efforts with like-minded nations. Marciel recommended focusing U.S. assistance on providing improved communication equipment rather than weaponry to the resistance. Additionally, he urged the continuation of sanctions against Myanmar, citing the military's ruthless and uncompromising nature. Countries like the US, UK, Australia, Canada, and EU have placed targeted sanctions on entities that enable the military to commit atrocities against its own people. By weakening the military's economic power, he argued, sanctions could continue to provide some change in Myanmar's political landscape.

  • As a pioneer for democracy, should the US do more to support self determined nations?

  • With China providing the most international concern for Myanmar, could coordinating efforts with them pose potential issues for the US?

  • What should be the role of surrounding nations in this issue?

  • Considering a resistance victory, how should Myanmar prevent another military coup?


Ambassador Scot Marciel’s speech at the Tucson Committee on Foreign Relations Event on April 4, 2024.

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