The Myanmar military chooses its battles wisely: rather than facing resistance forces head-on, the junta engages in indirect confrontation with heavy weapons systems. It bombs and shells indiscriminately, striking civilians, including women and children, when they cannot directly strike their enemies.
Despite persistent warring between the military and ethnic resistance organizations (EROs), the junta’s civilian targeting has reached limits unknown since the 1988 uprising, when soldiers gunned down thousands of activists for protesting against the military regime. A February 2022 report from the United Nations noted that the military has “utilized internationally acquired jet aircraft, combat helicopters, armored personnel vehicles, and missiles to target civilians.” U.N. Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews’ latest report documents that “at least 1 billion USD worth of weapons, dual-use technology, and materials used to manufacture weapons were exported for use” by the Myanmar military junta. Now, victims of the hundreds of chilling, brutal military attacks have made their voices heard, but major countries such as Russia and China remain steadfast in their refusal to cease exporting arms.
Slow-acting Western sanctions against Myanmar give the junta the greenlight to continue committing war crimes and crimes against humanity with impunity, as well as have unlimited access to military arms from their allies. To cut the weapons, Western countries must be proactive and coordinate when enforcing sanctions, especially a global arms embargo. Myanmar’s current relationship with China and Russia permits the junta to unreservedly commit war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Desertions, defections, and casualties have lost the junta at least 21,000 personnel since the attempted coup. In addition to slow recruitment, these factors have stretched the junta’s numbers thin and limited the junta’s control to just 17 percent of the country. While the junta is not winning, it is maintaining control by taking advantage of its superior firepower. Airstrikes and artillery allow junta forces to make up for the gaps in their lines and enable them to attack from a distance.
Most concerning, the military’s equipment allows them to attack civilians at a moment’s notice. In March 2022, junta fighter jets bombed a unit from the Free Burma Rangers, a Myanmar-based relief organization run by David Eubank. This attack killed 25-year-old Ree Doh, an aid worker. Eubank and his team faced no choice but to pull his body from their shallow shelter within a drain. Airstrikes and artillery strikes occur without warning, leaving no time for civilians to flee for safety. Even when civilians do manage to escape to the jungles, the military uses drones to surveil the area during the day, allowing them to target and attack temporary shelters at night.
As Eubank stated at the time, “Jet fighters are strafing with cannons and rockets are dropping bombs on us and villagers as we flee. On the ground, mortars are crashing and destroying all in their path. Behind that are the infantry with mechanized armor support. Their high-velocity cannon rounds rake the countryside.”
None of this would be possible had these arms not entered the junta’s hands in the first place. Russia and China are responsible for providing $673 million of arms and supplies to the junta, an unsurprising fact given the two countries’ infamous track records regarding human rights. However, Singapore, India, and Thailand are responsible for an additional $333 million collectively. It is important that the United States government pressures Singapore, India, and Thailand to end their exports to the Myanmar military, as this will be easier than convincing Russia or China.
The military’s reign of terror will never end on its own. In October 2022, airstrikes at the Kachin Independence Army’s anniversary party killed more than 80 people. Many of the attendees were not soldiers, but unarmed civilians: artists, business owners, and elders. More recently, in April of this year, a military bombing in Kanbalu township killed at least 168 people and wounded 30, yet another direct and unprovoked targeting of civilians. Only 18 of those killed were the resistance force members the junta was targeting. The remaining victims, including 40 children, were civilians.
EROs do not have helicopters, jets, or howitzers; they do not have the capabilities nor the means to fight back as the Myanmar military does. However, EROs have the will to fight: for their homes, their people, and a fairly elected government. Despite the people of Myanmar putting their lives on the line for basic human rights and democracy, this is not going to stop the Russian MiG-29s that fly over their heads daily. It is up to the international community to prevent this, and to act decisively with tangible and coordinated action.
The people of Myanmar do not need another U.N. condemnation or non-binding resolution; only action from the international community can immediately and substantively help. Coordinated global arms embargoes and comprehensive sanctions will cut the military’s atrocities at the source, directly saving civilian lives. At the very least, the U.N. Security Council must hold a vote on a binding arms embargo against the junta. Despite Russia and China’s veto power, there is still a purpose in doing so, as an arms embargo vote would bring the crisis in Myanmar to the attention of other U.N. members and spark discussion to possibly change their minds. If diplomats are convinced, they may push for individual arms embargoes in their own countries. The international community has the responsibility to protect the people of Myanmar. The war in Ukraine has shown us how quickly the world can spring into action against atrocities. There is hope that Myanmar can receive the same attention.