Why has the West given billions in military aid to Ukraine, but virtually ignored Myanmar?

Why has the West given billions in military aid to Ukraine, but virtually ignored Myanmar?

Two years after Myanmar’s coup on February 1, 2021, the country’s large and growing resistance forces receive almost no attention outside the country.

The democratic opposition, led by the National Unity Government (NUG) but made up of many different groups, armies, militias and individuals, has also struggled to gain awareness, even for its considerable battlefield successes.

And perhaps most notably, the opposition’s pleas for arms from the West to fight an increasingly brutal repression by the military junta have gone unheeded.

The difference with the West’s response to Ukraine’s war against Russia could not be greater. Although the two conflicts are not entirely analogous, it is nevertheless striking how much Ukraine has galvanized the international community, while Myanmar has been almost completely ignored.

No charismatic, wartime figure

Part of this has to do with the visibility of a central, iconic leader. With ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other public figures imprisoned, Myanmar’s resistance forces have no recognizable public face.

The NUG has an acting president, Duwa Lashi La, who occasionally appears on YouTube and social media. While he enjoys a strong reputation among ethnic Kachin in the country’s north, he is hardly recognized on the global, or even national, stage.

NUG President Duwa Lashi La announces a people’s defense war against the military junta in September 2021.

By contrast, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s transformation into a wartime commander has resulted in a high global profile. He delivered carefully scripted speeches to foreign parliaments and rousing speeches to both the Ukrainian people and important international meetings.

His continued efforts to refocus attention on the next phase of fighting in Ukraine inspired his own people, and made the Ukrainian flag a powerful symbol of resistance in the face of tyranny.

Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the Australian Parliament. A lack of a simple narrative

Ukraine has also mastered the digital battlefield. Its leaders simplified and powerfully calibrated the narrative to emphasize a “good” versus “evil” struggle in which Western democracies were obliged to provide both symbolic and material support.

The complexities in Myanmar – ethnic, linguistic, geographic, ideological, historical and more – make such a narrative much more difficult to collect and sustain.

The 2017 genocide of the Rohingya, which took place under the Suu Kyi-led government, also muddied the waters of the previously simplistic story of a Nobel laureate pitted against a brutal Myanmar army.

Suu Kyi’s government did not have oversight or control over the military that carried out the bloody purge, but that did not seem to matter. Suu Kyi’s decision to present a tenacious defense of the military’s actions at the International Court of Justice in 2019 dramatically shifted international opinion.

Now, with Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya still such a raw issue, it is unclear whether Suu Kyi – or her democratically elected government – ​​deserves the sympathy and support from the West that they once received.

Read more: Aung San Suu Kyi’s extraordinary fall from grace

A fringe actor on the world stage

Geography also matters. In a global strategic sense, Myanmar has almost always been an afterthought in the West.

In contrast, Ukraine has been a constant site of strategic competition for a century or more, particularly in the duel between Western powers and the government in Moscow. The attacks on Ukraine in the last decade by a nuclear-armed Russia are therefore regarded by Western powers as a first-order geopolitical threat.

As such, the US alone has pledged about US$50 billion in total aid to Ukraine in 2022, about half of which was military aid.

Read more: US to give military tanks to Ukraine, signaling Western powers’ long-term commitment to deter Russia

With Myanmar a much less important site of conflict, most of the international community (including the regional body of Southeast Asian states, ASEAN) has been reluctant to provide military support to the resistance fighters.

Historically, weapons smuggled into Myanmar to support anti-government armies have used neighboring countries, particularly Thailand and India, as the gateways. Today, however, the leaders in Bangkok and New Delhi are reluctant to get too entangled in Myanmar’s mess. They also have their own uprisings to watch.

When weapons and materials flow into Myanmar today, they are moved quietly, with as much deniability as can be mustered. With no Western government publicly arming the resistance, the fighters are turning to crowdfunding to buy weapons and using explosives cobbled together with salvaged metal.

Meanwhile, the military junta has built up a large arsenal of weapons bought from Russia and China, or made domestically using supplies from companies in countries such as the US, Japan and France.

Military trucks loaded with missiles during a ceremony marking Myanmar’s 75th Independence Day anniversary in January. Aung Shine Oo/AP

Geopolitics can also matter when it comes to the international courts.

There are two parallel genocide cases involving Myanmar and Ukraine winding through the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The Ukraine case, still less than 12 months old, has received formal interventions by almost all Western states, 33 in all.

In contrast, the Myanmar case regarding the Rohingya was launched in 2019 and not a single country has formally intervened, despite several countries indicating that they may do so.

An opportunity to support democracy

Another reason for the tentative international response to the Myanmar conflict is the expectation, especially in ASEAN, that Myanmar’s coup plotters will eventually hold enough ground and continue to control the levers of power.

But we must ask whether this assessment is correct. In early 2023, after two years of protests and violence, the junta looks particularly vulnerable.

For example, influential voices within ASEAN, particularly from Malaysia and Indonesia, have begun to strongly rebuke the Myanmar military.

They seem to no longer want the entire region’s reputation tarnished by the junta’s brutal mismanagement of Myanmar. They are also aware that anti-regime forces are taking and holding significant land.

Under these circumstances, the international community must move faster to consider a future for Myanmar after this war ends. This means dramatically limiting the military’s ability to gain international legitimacy, stepping up efforts to starve the generals of weapons and financial resources, and supporting the prosecution of war crimes in international courts.

At the same time, Myanmar’s revolutionary forces need support – both on the battlefield and in civilian efforts to rebuild a traumatized society.

The invasion of Ukraine clearly demonstrated for the first time in many years that Western military power can be successfully used to support a democracy under siege. If only a small fraction of the support given to Ukraine is provided to Myanmar’s resistance fighters, they may be given the chance to one day build a thriving democratic state in the heart of Asia.

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