Pressure Builds on U.S. and the West to Support Democracy in Myanmar

Following a military coup d'etat in February, the people of Myanmar are fighting for democracy, organizing protests and demonstrations of civil disobedience across the country.

After ousting the democratically elected National League of Democracy (NLD) from office, the military junta, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has taken increasingly violent measures against democracy protests in this South Asian country of 55 million formerly known as Burma, which borders both China and India.

But the U.S. and other western nations remain primarily on the sidelines, while neighboring India and China are noncommittal.

Meanwhile, Myanmar suffers.

Since taking power, the military junta has detained more than 8,389 and killed at an estimated1,437 of its citizens in response to protests, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. This continuing brutality and a stifled economy has created a humanitarian crisis.

A protest leader called for help, while continuing to challenge the military.

"We need to send a message to the world about Myanmar's terrible human rights violations," Myanmar protest leader Khin Sandar told Reuters. "We want our rights back. We want revolution. We express sadness for our fallen heroes."

While protesters and activists remain determined in their fight, some worry their efforts to push for democracy will not be enough. Stakeholders at all levels are vying for greater international support.

"This is absolutely an outrageous, unacceptable action by the military," Thomas Andrews, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, told Al-Jazeera.

"There needs to be put on the table a series of specific actions that can and should be taken," he added. "Then we have to move as strongly as we can to see that the international community takes those actions."

He said the world must send a clear message.

"The people of Myanmar need to know that we are with them," Andrews said.

In response to the coup and continuing violence, the United States has publicly condemned the military leaders and enacted a number of sanctions on officials in the new military government.

"The U.S. government will be coming up with a new strategy soon at the request of the Congress," Priscilla Clapp, Former U.S. chief of mission in Myanmar, told PBS.

"They are looking very hard at how to cut off some of the revenue from oil and gas," she said. "It's not that simple, so we've got to be careful, but there are ways of squeezing them, and that is definitely the main thrust of U.S. policy, to squeeze their military more and more."

Unfortunately, strong statements and sanctions from the U.S. are unlikely to do much to change the situation on the ground, said Peter Mumford, practice head for Southeast and South Asia at Eurasia Group.

"There's very little, I think realistically, that the U.S. can do to change what's happening with Myanmar," he told CNBC. "And there's a question about how far the U.S. and other countries will really want to go on sanctions — given concerns that could have a negative impact on the population."

While the U.S. offers support through sanctions and condemnations, other nations like its neighbors India, the world's largest democracy, and China have been more cautious to support a side.

As two of Myanmar's primary global trade partners, officials in New Delhi and Beijing are striving to normalize engagement with both the new military junta and members of the overthrown government.

Last week, India's Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Myanmar for the first time since the military coup. He had meetings with senior officials including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, as well as officials from the civil society and political parties including the National League for Democracy.

He urged Myanmar authorities to release political prisoners and hold elections. The junta agreed to the request, but said the process would not begin until 2023.

Reports confirm a similarly cautious strategy from Beijing, which has ongoing economic operations in the country. It recently transferred military equipment to Myanmar's military government, amid public claims that it had dissuaded Min Aung Hlaing from dissolving the NLD.

"China is willing to contact and communicate with all parties on the basis of respecting Myanmar's sovereignty and the will of the people, so as to play a constructive role in easing tensions," said Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Many in Myanmar have taken issue with the neutral stances of both India and China, accusing them of complacency on the issue.

"We want the government of India to give more pressure on the army to stop killing the people and shooting the protesters, and to restore democracy," James Fanai, president of the Chin Refugee Committee in Myanmar, told Reuters.

Anti-Chinese sentiment has also risen since the coup, as activists call out Beijing's muted response. This has led to numerous protests at the Chinese Embassy in Yangon and several Chinese-funded factories being smashed and set ablaze.

Protestors condemn foreign officials for choosing their own economic interests over human rights and the true "will of the people."

In response to China's strategy, protest leader Ei Thinzar Maung posted on Facebook, "If you want to do business in Myanmar stably, then respect [the] Myanmar people."

Nearby nations have also taken a position. Foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed not to invite Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to a leadership summit in October because of slow progress on restoring peace in the country, according to diplomatic sources.

"The participation of Myanmar at the summits should not be represented at the political level until Myanmar restores its democracy through an inclusive process," Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi tweeted after the conference.

A spokesman for Myanmar's military government blamed "foreign intervention" for ASEAN's decision.

Tatmadaw officials have dismissed these international criticisms, showing little willingness to engage with foreign nations or negotiate with the ousted government.

"We have performed our tasks under the law. The NLD extremists and their supporters chose the act of terrorism instead of doing or solving it in line with the law," Min Aung Hlaing said in a public address. "They incited to become anarchic and committed armed insurrection. They think of making enemies with the ones who do not support or have the same opinions."

The military denies wrongdoing and claims to be acting in the best interests of the people of Myanmar. It calls the death toll numbers from the AAPP "exaggerated."

"We have to try to bring them back to a stable condition," Min Aung Hlaing said of the protestors.

Myanmar, Kayah state, vehicle
Humanitarian group Save the Children said two of its employees were among the at least 35 people killed Christmas Eve in Myanmar. Above, in this photo provided by the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF), vehicles smolder in Hpruso township, Kayah state, Myanmar, Friday, Dec. 24. KNDF via AP

Editor's Picks

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts