The situation on the ground in Myanmar has continued to deteriorate since the military coup on Feb. 1. Violent clashes have broken out around the country and Myanmar’s military and security forces have killed hundreds of people, with thousands being jailed. In addition, hostilities seem to be heating up again in ethnic minority regions, and some of the anti-junta protesters, who originally focused on nonviolent demonstrations, have begun to launch guerilla-style attacks on soldiers and other institutions of state power.
Although the Association of Southeast Asian Nations held an emergency summit to address the Myanmar crisis and released a five-point plan designed to calm tensions, ASEAN’s intervention thus far seems to have little hope of succeeding.
The regional group’s plan did not call for the release of political prisoners, a point demanded by the opponents of the junta, and also left open a timetable for moving toward resolution of the crisis. After junta leader Min Aung Hlaing returned to Myanmar from the summit, he and the rest of the military seemed to disavow the vague promises they had made at the summit and continue the use of tough tactics designed to maintain their grip on power.
Yet rather than clear military control of the country, Myanmar is spiraling into something like a failed state, with potentially massive humanitarian ramifications for the people of the country itself and for neighboring states in the region. Though to be sure, it is the military’s actions that are the cause for this crisis, and Myanmar is still far from a situation like Syria in the 2010s.
Even before the Feb. 1 coup, Myanmar had been suffering serious humanitarian challenges. Nearly a million Rohingya had fled from state-directed violence in Rakhine state, mostly heading into crowded and unsanitary conditions in Bangladesh. Other Myanmar citizens had fled into Thailand and other countries because of fighting between the military and armed ethnic groups, as well as a poor economy, hunger and the spread of COVID-19.
However, Myanmar’s humanitarian crisis is now at a crossroads. The economy has collapsed and the banking system is on life support. The state is also ceasing to function due to the rising violence and civil servants walking off the job in support of the civil disobedience movement. Cash is increasingly difficult for many people in Myanmar to obtain, and many industries and companies are near collapse. The internet is regularly cut off and portions of it are failing.
What’s more, the United Nations believes at least 250,000 people in Myanmar have been displaced since the coup. This figure is probably an underestimate, since there are many parts of the country that are difficult to reach and it is hard to find accurate figures on internal migration.
The coronavirus, for its part, is becoming a very serious problem as the country collapses toward becoming a failed state. With so many people on the move, large protests taking place and no effective anti-COVID-19 strategy in place, the crisis could exacerbate the pandemic inside Myanmar, and also spread the virus into neighboring states.
The World Food Program recently announced that hunger is becoming a severe threat in Myanmar, and that as many as 3.4 million people will be unable to afford food in the coming months due to the collapsing job market and other strains on the economy. The World Bank estimates that the country’s economy will contract by about 10% in 2021, one of the worst performances in the region, while other more alarming estimates predict a 20% contraction.
According to a recent report in Reuters quoting the World Food Program, market prices of rice and cooking oil had risen by 5% and 18% respectively since the end of February, with signs that “families in the commercial capital of Yangon were skipping meals, eating less nutritious food and going into debt.” Outside of Yangon, the situation is likely worse.
Faced with the unfolding humanitarian disaster, sizable numbers of Myanmar nationals have tried to flee across the country’s borders — primarily to Thailand, but also to other regional states. Several groups have been forcibly repatriated.
If the crisis persists, however, it is not hard to imagine that millions of Myanmar nationals may try to flee to neighboring states, overland or in rickety boats. In the past, its nationals fleeing by sea have often drowned because of poorly equipped, unsafe vessels. The massive flows into Thailand have also destabilized the border and prompted the creation of large camps along the Thailand-Myanmar frontier.
It’s time for global powers such as Japan, Australia and the United States, as well as other Southeast Asian nations, to work toward a cessation of violence in Myanmar. As well as working on a solution that reverses the military coup, these countries must simultaneously take steps to prevent a complete humanitarian disaster. For one, Japan and other global powers should put pressure on Thailand and other states in the region to stop pushing back fleeing Myanmar refugees.
Beyond such efforts, Japan, the United States and other regional powers should hold a major humanitarian aid conference that raises money to help countries such as Thailand and Bangladesh house large numbers of fleeing Myanmar nationals. The aid conference also could raise money for the World Food Program and other key international humanitarian organizations trying to stem hunger, the spread of COVID-19 and other calamities inside the troubled country.
At the same time, leading democracies should resolve to boost refugee acceptance limits in order to accommodate new flows of Myanmar refugees that may have come through third-party countries such as Thailand.
Ultimately, Myanmar’s crisis will not be resolved without a political solution. But even if such a solution remains far off, the international community must address the looming humanitarian disaster inside the country — before it spreads throughout other parts of Asia.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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