China’s Success, Western Failure in Myanmar’s Revolution

In 2023, Myanmar’s post-coup civil war was marginalized by the world due to the Ukraine war, Middle East conflict, and domestic American politics. However, Operation 1027 in late October, where ethnic armed organizations overran military outposts and seize weapons, renewed global media interest and shook diplomats.

The year ended with optimistic predictions of an imminent resistance victory by the Three Brotherhood Alliance, demonstrating that Myanmar’s struggle against military rule is not a stalemate and is gaining momentum in various areas.

International action was consistently ineffective in 2021, with hopes of the world’s help being ineffective. In 2022, there was anger against the United Nations and weak efforts of international engagement. However, 2023 was a year of self-reliance, determination, and confidence, with many younger revolutionaries welcoming Western humanitarian assistance and sanctions as they see it as their only option. Indonesia, as chair of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations, started with optimism that Indonesia could recharge regional efforts at engaging the SAC in line with the bloc’s April 2021 Five Point Consensus (5PC).

Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi’s performance in Operation 1027 was disappointing, despite secretive conclaves in Jakarta and Singapore of foreign peace entrepreneurs and the exiled National Unity Government (NUG). The key Karen, Karenni, Kachin, and Chin EAOs, collectively known as the K3C, were absent, being more closely enveloped in China’s orbit.

The ASEAN AHA Center’s efforts to expand humanitarian aid in Myanmar were unsuccessful, leading to attacks on Rohingya boat people in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. China’s influence on Myanmar was significant, with resistance relying on external weapons for three years.

Beijing’s tacit support for the 3BA was crucial for the operation. Although Beijing did not “outmaneuver” the West or ASEAN, it paid more attention and invested more diplomatic effort. Thailand also pursued a manipulative role toward Myanmar, frustrating Indonesia’s efforts with a series of unilateral visits by senior Thai officials to SAC leaders in Naypyidaw.

The UN General Assembly (NUG) in Myanmar has been criticized for its ineffective engagement with Thailand on multiple humanitarian and political fronts, unlike the more discreet and effective interactions of the Eastern Assistance Organizations (EAOs). The UN has been described as ‘unconvincing’ by many sources as the potential leader of the future Myanmar. The West has failed Myanmar in three crucial ways: first, at an international system level, especially from the United Nations, where the UN’s mediation efforts were undermined by the removal of Special Envoy Noeleen Heyzer.

The West failed to generate new and better ideas that could work in real-world Myanmar. It produced several bad initiatives, such as Finland inviting SAC officials to Helsinki for a secret meeting and Switzerland convening a workshop with the SAC and leaders of insignificant, illegitimate, and barely armed EAOs who signed the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). Both were condemned by Myanmar civil society organizations for groveling to the SAC and served to discredit the West at large.

The attempts at quiet diplomacy showed the limitations of Western capacity to foster innovative thinking on supporting the real resistance forces. The international human rights system also failed Myanmar, despite producing multiple reports on mass atrocities and some deplorably poor and opportunistic funding grabs. Trust in international rights promotion, justice initiatives, universal jurisdiction campaigns, and strategic advocacy waned, following a global pattern.

Many Western countries have failed to develop effective unilateral approaches or make Myanmar a prominent issue in their foreign policy outlook. The Burma Act in the United States has produced little, and humanitarian assistance is important but tokenistic. Canada has given up on Myanmar by imposing no further sanctions on the SAC and accepting only a handful of asylum seekers. The EU, Britain, and Canada have also shown declining interest in “complicated” Myanmar.

The West has failed to support the National Union of Myanmar (NUG) and the broader resistance complex to perform more effectively in international forums. While it may not be the West’s role to strengthen the exiled government, more effective support programming could be devised to help the resistance succeed.

The NUG’s credibility as an international representative of the revolution has not improved over the past year, with Foreign Minister Zin Mar Aung not generating a higher profile for Myanmar amidst fierce competition with the wars in Gaza and Ukraine. The NUG must also control the narrative with more confidence, as a November profile in the New York Times was embarrassing and counterproductive to the resistance.

The international community’s interference in Myanmar’s internal turmoil could be damaging. Following Operation 1027, Western pathologies of over-optimism and alarmism led to diplomats adopting narratives of defeatism, potentially causing Swiss and Finnish tomfoolery to include the regime in resolutions. The “SAC-positive” diplomacy or “SAC-adjacent” mentality is not effective in addressing the issues at hand.

The energy, innovation, and sacrifice on the frontlines in Myanmar was not matched internationally, as thousands of exiles work to depose the military through fundraising, political alliances, and drone technology. Many revolutionaries in Myanmar are fighting for an end to military rule and progressive new political arrangements, not waiting for the West’s help or blessing.

ChinaChina's SuccessChina's Success Western Failure in Myanmar's Revolutiondomestic American politicsMiddle East conflictMyanmarUkraine warWesternWestern Failure in Myanmar's Revolution