[OPINION] Coup in Myanmar: An appalling failure of international response

Tom Villarin

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[OPINION] Coup in Myanmar: An appalling failure of international response
ASEAN has not lived up to its role as a regional mediator between the different stakeholders and, with its indecisiveness and divisions, has contributed to emboldening the military junta

In early June 2022, a group of parliamentarians initiated an International Parliamentary Inquiry (IPI) into the global response to the crisis in Myanmar after a military coup that toppled a civilian government last February 1, 2021. A year and a half into the coup, the group found an appalling lack of international support to restoring democracy and providing humanitarian assistance to the peoples of Myanmar. 

Chaired by Heidi Hautala, vice president of the European Parliament, the IPI committee is composed of eight parliamentarians from seven countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe. The Inquiry is being supported by the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), an activist regional group promoting democracy, rule of law and human rights.

The IPI has held at least six public oral hearings, as well as two special and three confidential oral hearings, with experts, diplomats, politicians and activists from Myanmar and other countries. The participants include Dato Sri Saifuddin Abdullah, Foreign Minister of Malaysia; Scot Marciel and Derek Mitchell, former US ambassadors to Myanmar; Kyaw Moe Tun, Permanent Representative of Myanmar to the United Nations; Tom Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, among dozens of others.

The IPI committee members also conducted a fact-finding mission in the Thai-Myanmar border, where I was one of the members. In Mae Sot, we met with over dozen civil society organizations, representatives of the Karen National Union; the National Unity Government of Myanmar, the National Unity Consultative Council, and activists from the Civil Disobedience Movement.

In September during the UN General Assembly, the IPI went to New York to discuss their preliminary report to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as well as to the UN diplomatic missions of the European Union and Malaysia, the latter holding a presser to support the group’s recommendations. The delegation also met with US Senators and House members, particularly the Lanton Commission on Human Rights. We likewise met with the US State Department and the US Institute of Peace. 

Failed coup 

In February 1, 2021, the Tatmyadaw (as othe Myanmar military is known) seized power over the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League of Democracy. The military led by Gen. Min Aung Hlaing alleged that the 2020 elections won by NLD was marred by fraud. The coup quashed a short span of democratic transition that began when elections were held in 2011. The military, which had been in power since 1962, implemented parliamentary elections and other reforms but retained some measure of control. A 2008 Constitution was forged for a military-civilian power sharing arrangement in which the military has an automatic 25% representation in parliament. 

Thousands of people took to the streets and launched a civil disobedience campaign to reject the coup. Vowing to resist the military junta, former lawmakers and activists formed a shadow government and mobilized people’s defense forces across the country. However, the military responded by shooting peaceful protesters which they are notorious for, having crushed democracy movements in 1988 and 2007. Since the coup, the military has turned more violent as more than 2,000 people have been killed by the junta and more than 10,000 have been arrested. 

In the IPI preliminary report, the coup has failed. The Myanmar people opposed it massively and openly from the very beginning. Moreover, the coup was unjustifiable even from the eyes of the military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which lost the 2020 elections. Moreover, a government in exile, National Unity Government, has been formed by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, a group of lawmakers and parliamentarians ousted by the military coup. 

The junta has failed to take full military control of the country despite its brutality attacking civilians. Now it finds itself beseiged on several fronts as there is an unprecedented level of unity across class and ethnic lines opposing the coup. Myanmar is a multi-ethnic country with the Bamar being the dominant ethnic group. 

In late July, the military executed four political prisoners, the first judicial execution in the country since 1988.  Such brazen defiance and impunity made the junta a pariah in the international community.  But countries like Russia and China, instead of condemning and withdrawing support to the junta, have become its biggest enablers by providing arms and bombs as well as diplomatic recognition.  

There is now no middle ground between the junta and the resistance movement, with the possibility for a negotiated solution to the conflict completely closed at this point. While the military has always claimed to be the only institution that can keep the country united, it has instead deepened the divisions. The junta, which has not shown any willingness to open a dialogue with the opposition, and has solely relied on brute force to stamp out the resistance.

Failure of ASEAN

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has likewise failed in its role as an arbiter in the conflict. In April 2021, a Five Point Consensus was signed by ASEAN including the Myanmar military that provides for, among others, a dialogue among all political stakeholders. As a default policy, much of the international community supported the consensus, and it seems they have been hiding behind it in order to avoid doing anything meaningful.

It is clear that the junta has not respected any of its stated commitments in the Five-Point Consensus, and an ASEAN paralyzed by internal divisions has proven incapable of doing anything to enforce an agreement that, from the beginning, lacked clear timelines and enforcement mechanisms.  From the beginning, ASEAN’s Five Point Consensus was designed to favor the military, as it was signed by the junta, rather than the NUG, thus giving Min Aung Hlaing a seat on the table which was denied to the NUG. 

ASEAN has not lived up to its role as a regional mediator between the different stakeholders and, with its indecisiveness and the internal divisions among member-states, has contributed to emboldening the military junta. The junta has taken advantage of ASEAN’s passivity to continue committing crimes with impunity.  ASEAN should acknowledge this failure and abandon the Five-Point Consensus in its present form.

The war of the junta against the people of Myanmar is bound to be a protracted and bloody, with no end in sight. While the military is losing, the resistance is not winning the war.

Humanitarian crisis

The coup triggered a humanitarian catastrophe throughout the country, and international actors have been shamefully passive in the face of it. Myanmar already had a humanitarian catastrophe earlier, with the Rohingya genocide. Millions have been displaced and are living across and within the borders of Thailand, India, and Bangladesh.

The post-coup humanitarian crisis is particularly acute in the Karen and Karenni states (Eastern Myanmar, along the Thai border), Chin State (Western Myanmar, on the Indian border), and the central region known as the “heartland” or the dry zone, comprising wide areas of the regions of Sagaing, Magwe and Mandalay. Those are the main centers of resistance to military rule and, as such, the areas that have suffered the most sustained and brutal attacks by the military.

In Karen and Karenni states there are multiple civil society organizations (CSOs) that have been working on both sides of the Thai-Myanmar border for many years, but they need to scale up cross-border aid, and a huge impediment is the Thai government. Delivering humanitarian assistance to the Dry Zone and Chin state is even more difficult, as the presence of international NGOs is smaller there. 

The UN, for its part, has proved to be as ineffective in solving the political impasse as in guaranteeing the delivery of humanitarian aid to those who need it the most, while neighboring countries like Thailand and India are putting obstacles to delivering the cross-border aid that many areas in Myanmar so badly need.

On the other hand, countries like the United States and European Union member states, which previously supported Myanmar’s democratic reforms and even claimed credit for them, are doing little more than issuing statements of concern and imposing sanctions that barely bite the generals.


Humanitarian assistance should be considerably increased. As a general rule, it should be channeled through Myanmar’s civil society as much as possible, particularly in areas not controlled by the junta along the Thai border.

There is a need to put pressure on, and offer incentives to, neighboring countries (particularly Thailand, India, and Bangladesh), to encourage them to allow an increase in the delivery of cross-border humanitarian assistance. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, should visit these countries to help persuade them. 

The military’s plan to hold elections in 2023 should be exposed as a sham. It should not be seen as a democratic option for it is not as it only serves to legitimize the power grab. But with Russian and China’s continued support of the junta and with no pushback from the US, EU, Japan and other leading members of the international community, the junta might just use this as a smokescreen to continue with its impunity.  

The international community should clamp down and isolate the military junta diplomatically by keeping any and all their representatives out of all high-level official meetings. Likewise, countries should thoroughly coordinate sanctions against the junta. A report by Amnesty International in 2020 revealed that Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), a holding company for its mineral, oil, gas and energy, had netted $18bn between 1990 and 2010 through military-controlled businesses, which plows back majority of the revenues into the military’s budget.

The NUG should be supported by the US and other democratic countries as the legitimate authority in Myanmar. However, the NUG should recognize the Rohingyans as citizens of Myanmar. The Czech republic was the first country to recognize the NUG. On 7 October 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that recognizes the CRPH and the NUG as the only legitimate representatives of Myanmar. Likewise, there is a need to ramp up support for governance and capability building support to the NUG, including the ethnic revolutionary organizations opposing the junta ever since.

ASEAN should abandon the Five Point Consensus in its present form. With the upcoming ASEAN Summit in November 2022, the bloc which would now be chaired by Indonesia, should  negotiate a new agreement, with the NUG and ethnic revolutionary organizations representatives as an integral stakeholder. A special envoy needs to appointed by all the ASEAN members, rather than by the rotating ASEAN Chair. The special envoy should represent, and be accountable to ASEAN as a whole, not just the Chair. –

Tom Villarin, a former congressman representing Akbayan Party List, is a board member of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a regional network of parliamentarians advocating for democracy, rule of law and human rights. He is also a lecturer in the Political Science Department of Ateneo de Manila University

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