29 May 2021

Myanmar’s Opposition Wants U.S. Intervention. Here Are Some Options.

By Michael F. Martin

While the U.S. Congress is considering modifications of the Biden administration’s modest sanctions on Myanmar’s military junta, some voices among the protesters have called on the United States and the international community to consider armed intervention. Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations for the pre-coup Union Government, Kyaw Moe Tun, who continues to oppose the junta from abroad, asked the U.N. Security Council to enforce a no-fly zone over the country and impose a global arms embargo.

The United States has had a unilateral arms embargo on trade with Myanmar since 1988, and Congress has placed restrictions on U.S. relations with the country’s military since 2011. In addition, there are a range of options on the table for harder interventions, although some are more plausible than others.

This article does not advocate or endorse any U.S. military action in Myanmar in response to the Feb. 1 coup; the goal is to provide a brief overview of the options and examine the merits of each option. Given the impending end to two decades of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, military options in Myanmar are unlikely to be popular with either the Biden administration or Congress. Yet, as opposition calls for aid grow, it’s worth examining what the scope of U.S. military action could be.

The most dramatic—and unlikely—option would be a full-scale invasion of Myanmar, either unilaterally (like the U.S. invasion of Panama in December 1989) or multilaterally (like the 1990 war against Iraq). Such an invasion would probably focus on the nation’s central axis along the Irrawaddy River, including the key cities of Mandalay, Naypyidaw, and Yangon. Because of the presence of anti-junta ethnic armed organizations in the seven ethnic minority states of Myanmar (Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan) that have long fought the central government, U.S. forces would probably see limited actions in those parts of Myanmar.

Although Myanmar’s military has reportedly purchased some advanced military equipment and supplies from China, Israel, Russia, and Ukraine, advancing U.S. troops would be unlikely to face sustained resistance. Myanmar’s military has sustained serious casualties in the last two years in fighting against ethnic militias—such as the Arakan Army, the Kachin Independence Army, and the Karen National Liberation Army—which do not possess the resources of the U.S. military. Not surprisingly, morale among Myanmar’s security forces is reportedly low, with many soldiers wishing to resign or defect to the anti-junta opposition.

While an actual invasion might be relatively simple, an occupation would be much more difficult. The recent unity in Myanmar in opposition to the Feb. 1 coup does not extend to any consensus on what form of government should be established after the removal of the military junta. For example, the proposed National Unity Government announced by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, a small group of largely National League for Democracy politicians who were supposed to become members of the legislature before the coup overturned the election results, has received lukewarm support from the major ethnic armed groups and the civil society organizations behind the civil disobedience movement. Following an invasion, the Biden administration could find itself responsible for a politically fractious nation—and face a wary reaction from some of the ethnic armed organizations.

A U.S. invasion of Myanmar also would likely be condemned by China, Russia, Thailand, and other nations. China would perceive the presence of U.S. forces in a neighboring country as a serious security threat and increase its military forces along the border. Thailand would certainly be concerned, given that its current government is the result of a similar military coup in 2014. Without the support of other nations, the United States could find itself isolated and subject to widespread international criticism.

Another military option that has been suggested is for the United States to establish a no-fly zone over Myanmar to prevent the Myanmar military from using its fixed-wing aircraft and attack helicopters against the ethnic militias and the local groups known as civil defense forces that are springing up in various parts of the country. A no-fly zone would rebalance the fighting to the advantage of the civil and ethnic armed groups, possibly leading to the defeat of the Myanmar military.

One of the main challenges of this proposal would be establishing and maintaining the logistical support to sustain the no-fly zone. An aircraft carrier off the coast of Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal could be sufficient to provide the air coverage, but some form of land-based supply system would also be necessary, especially if the no-fly zone became a sustained effort.

It would be difficult to find a nearby nation willing to allow the United States to set up such a logistical support center. India is not a likely candidate; nor is Thailand. Australia and Japan are probably too far away to be practical alternatives.

Also, while the elimination of air support for Myanmar’s troops would alter the situation on the battlefield, Myanmar’s military would still be able to deploy its artillery and other heavy land equipment. As such, it is unclear how significant a change the establishment of a no-fly zone would be in the balance of power in Myanmar’s ongoing and intensifying civil war.

The creation of a blockade off of Myanmar’s coast is another military option. Such a blockade could include shutting down Myanmar’s natural gas and oil production, which is a major source of international revenue for the military junta.

From a military perspective, the maintenance of a blockade would involve less resources than a no-fly zone. Myanmar does not have a blue-water navy of any size or capability to challenge a U.S. blockade. Yet most of Myanmar’s international trade is conducted by land, not by sea. Myanmar’s major trading partners are China and Thailand, and most of the goods are exchanged by land, thereby evading such a blockade. Both China and Thailand might be willing to assist Myanmar’s military junta by permitting blocked goods to enter Myanmar via their territory.

The U.S. military could also conduct a limited number of airstrikes against key Myanmar military installations to undermine its ability to use its air force in the fighting against the ethnic armed groups and civil defense forces. It also could target Myanmar’s weapons and munitions factories. For many years, Myanmar’s military has been producing most of its light weapons and equipment in military-run factories. Airstrikes against Myanmar’s military air bases and/or its weapons factories could seriously compromise the junta’s ability to continue the civil war.

An advantage of limited airstrikes over an invasion or the maintenance of a no-fly zone is it would involve a relatively discrete amount of time and resources, but it could seriously weaken the military. Also, U.S. casualties would be minimal, as the number of airstrikes necessary to seriously damage Myanmar’s air force and weapons production is fairly small given Myanmar’s minimal air defense capabilities.

There would undoubtably be some international criticism of the airstrikes, most likely from China, Russia, and Thailand. It is unlikely that China would attempt to intercept the U.S. airstrikes, given the risk of direct confrontation. The airstrikes might also provide moral support for Myanmar’s opposition movement, as it would be a clear demonstration of U.S. opposition to the military junta.

Yet there are downsides. First, the U.S. military would probably have to return periodically to attack the air bases and weapons factories again, after repairs had been made. Second, the damage caused by the airstrikes might not be sufficient to alter the military balance of power in favor of the opposition armed groups. Limited U.S. airstrikes in other nations, such as Libya and Syria, have not always proved to be as effective as hoped.

A less discussed option is providing military assistance and training to the ethnic armed organizations and civil defense force in support of their war against the military junta. This could involve the provision of arms and military equipment to the major ethnic militias and the newly established civil ones, as well as combat training for their officers.

Such a program would be a significant change in U.S. policy, which has denied such assistance and training to Myanmar’s military for more than 30 years. It would also clearly place the United States behind the opposition movement, which may not win the war against the Myanmar military.

China, in contrast, has been a major provider of military assistance and training for both the Myanmar military and some of the major ethnic armed groups for decades. The provision of U.S. support to the ethnic militias would improve U.S. relations with those groups, but it may antagonize China in the process, unless there is an agreement between the two nations.

Another important consideration is the long-term implications of U.S. military support for anti-government opposition forces. Recent U.S. experience with such endeavors has been rather mixed. In some cases, what were at one time allies became enemies, such as in Afghanistan. Given the history of disagreements between Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations, supplying them with weapons and military training may precipitate an outbreak of these groups fighting each other after the defeat of the Myanmar military.

A final option to consider is the further international isolation of Myanmar’s military, especially its commissioned officers. This could involve an international arms embargo, the freezing of military financial assets overseas, a travel embargo on the Myanmar military’s commissioned officers, and/or the instigation of criminal charges against the heads of the junta. Bertil Lintner, a renowned expert on Myanmar, recently wrote an article advocating the extraterritorial prosecution of the junta’s leaders as an alternative to the types of sanctions being implemented by the Biden administration and other governments.

Previous efforts in the U.N. Security Council to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar have been blocked by China and Russia. The U.N. General Assembly is supposed to consider a non-binding resolution calling for a global arms embargo on Myanmar; a proposal backed by the Biden administration.

But in addition, the Biden administration could apply indirect pressure on nations to join the United States in isolating the Myanmar military. For example, it could make the continued provision of U.S. military assistance and training contingent on severing any ties to the Myanmar military. Alternatively, the U.S. Treasury could ban any American financial institution from providing financial services that involve the transfer of funds to accounts owned or controlled by the Myanmar military or its officers, as well as restrict financial services to foreign financial institutions that provide financial services to the Myanmar military. In its relative simplicity, and in following on from similar measures against Iran, this may be the most appealing option to the Biden administration and Congress—even if it doesn’t match the hopes of the opposition.

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