Pulling Myanmar Back from the Brink: Can the Responsibility to Protect Help?


How the United States, United Nations, and ASEAN could assist Myanmar

By Catherine Renshaw – Professor and Visiting Scholar, Centre for International Governance and Justice

Among the many heartbreaking images coming out of Myanmar in recent weeks have been photographs of signs and messages from protesters, written in English, calling for international assistance and “R2P.” In February, Myanmar’s ambassador to the UN made an extraordinary speech calling on the international community to “use any means necessary to take action” to restore democracy. The people of Myanmar believe that the international community has a responsibility — a duty — to keep them physically safe from the military’s attacks. They are begging the outside world for practical help. They are bewildered that it is not forthcoming.

Their views are understandable. In 2005, at a United Nations World Summit, world leaders agreed there was a responsibility on the part of the international community to prevent atrocities like genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The Summit, convened in the wake of genocides in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, was the genesis of a new principle of international law called the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ or ‘R2P’. The rhetoric accompanying R2P was impressive. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said: “Never forget the victims of atrocities and crimes in so many places. They number in the millions. Those losses have permanently stained the history of the 20th century. Together, in this century, we can chart a different course.” The “different course” embodied by R2P rests on three pillars:

  • States must protect their own populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and war crimes;
  • Every state in the wider international community must help states meet their obligation to protect; and
  • If a state “manifestly fails” to meet its responsibility to its own people, then the wider international community must take “collective action in a timely and decisive manner.”

Collective action could include diplomacy, sanctions, or arms embargoes. It could also, as a last resort, include military intervention authorised by the UN Security Council. This is what protesters in Myanmar are seeking. They have seen Myanmar’s military rulers withstand diplomacy, sanctions, and arms embargoes in the past. What they want is an international army standing between Myanmar’s troops and the unarmed men, women, and children who are being shot on the streets.

The United States is a long-standing supporter of democracy in Myanmar. Throughout the years of military rule, from 1962-2010, the United States implemented a policy of punishing sanctions and diplomatic isolation against the country’s military rulers. From 2011, following Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from prison and the military’s decision to allow her to stand for election to parliament, the US began lifting sanctions. It also provided strong support, political and financial, to the young democracy. Trade between Myanmar and the US recommenced; direct foreign investment flowed in. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined a long line of Western leaders who made their way to Myanmar to demonstrate support for Suu Kyi and her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The US was well aware that under the 2008 Constitution, the NLD was locked in an uneasy power-sharing arrangement with the military. But the roadmap to reform laid out by the military under the Constitution appeared at the time to be the country’s best chance for gradual liberalisation. The hope was that Myanmar would go the same way as its Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) neighbour Indonesia, which also began its transition to democracy in partnership with the military.

The 2017 deadly crackdown by Myanmar’s army on Rohingya Muslims laid bare the fragility of Myanmar’s transition. Myanmar’s military responded to an attack by Rohingya insurgents in Rakhine state with extreme violence against Rohingya villagers. At least 10,000 Rohingya were killed and 750,000 were forced to flee across the border to Bangladesh. In response, the US imposed targeted sanctions on the most senior leaders in the Burmese military, including Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing.

The imposition of US sanctions on the head of the military was a critical step in highlighting the illegitimacy of the military campaign in Rakhine. It was also a step that hobbled whatever political ambitions Min Aung Hlaing harboured to one day lead the country as its President. The US could never recognise a Head of State who was under sanctions for carrying out crimes against humanity. The NLD’s resounding win in the 2020 elections left the military further humiliated and isolated. In all likelihood, the military anticipated that its rejection of the results of the 2020 elections and its demand for new elections would be met with strong condemnation from the US with further sanctions. In February 2021, the junta attempted to withdraw the $US1.34 billion held in reserves by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. President Biden issued an Executive Order freezing the account. In March 2021, the US imposed sanctions on the military’s two mega-conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL).

The difficulty with sanctions is that the military knows, from the long years of sanctions prior to 2010, that it can withstand isolation with the support of friends like China and Russia. The Security Council veto power held by China and Russia is the reason why stronger UN action, such as military intervention in support of the protesters or a global arms embargo, is very unlikely. In terms of military intervention, its consequences would likely amplify destruction and loss of life. This is not the first time we have thought about R2P in relation to Myanmar.

In 2008, when Cyclone Nargis wreaked havoc through the Irrawaddy Delta and the military junta refused to accept international aid, there were calls to implement R2P through foreign military intervention to provide aid. Then, as now, the urgency and desperation of the situation seemed to call for dramatic action from the international community to stave off the inevitable death of many innocent people. Then, as now, there was ultimately a recognition that foreign intervention would not achieve its goals and that the cost would be too high.

The lesson learned in 2008 was that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations could be a useful and effective actor in managing the misunderstanding, paranoia, and fear of Myanmar’s military. The only solution to this terrible crisis is one that involves a mediated agreement between the military, leaders of ethnic states and the National League for Democracy. Myanmar’s people now say they are waging revolution, not merely a return to the status quo and its partial democracy. With every day that passes, the stakes become higher for all parties. Armed ethnic organisations have returned to outright combat with the military.

ASEAN, for all its flaws, is the only actor with sufficient legitimacy to broker a way out of this tragedy. But faced with the horror and brutality of what is happening, people in Myanmar are grasping at the straw of hope that the international community may step in to protect them. One thing we need to consider when this is over is whether it is conscionable to allow such profound and terrible travesties of hope to continue. R2P does not mean “never again” in relation to atrocities. It has a far more diminished meaning.

Catherine Renshaw

Dr. Catherine Renshaw is a Professor in the School of Law at the Western Sydney University. She has also been a Visiting Scholar at the Regulatory Institutions Network, Centre for International Governance and Justice, Australian National University. Catherine completed her law degree at the University of New South Wales, her Master of Laws at the University of Sydney and her PhD at the University of Sydney. Catherine is admitted to practice as a lawyer in the Supreme Court of New South Wales and the High Court of Australia. She has practiced as a solicitor for major law firms in Sydney and Newcastle and for the Legal Aid Commission of New South Wales.

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