Continuing popular protests despite the murder of more than 600 demonstrators testifies to the bravery of the Burmese people. Equally significant is the unprecedented national shutdown of government agencies, critical public services, and important private businesses, such as banks. The public also is boycotting firms tied to the Tatmadaw that enrich the military elite.
As a result, the country is shutting down. The New York Times explained, “an entire nation has come to a standstill. From hospitals, railways and dockyards to schools, shops and trading houses, much of society has stopped showing up for work in an attempt to stymie the military regime and force it to return authority to a civilian government.” As business slows, so do tax revenues. Moreover, the regime’s U.S. assets have been frozen, and debt has become difficult to sell abroad.
More ominously, popular patience with peaceful resistance is fraying. Demonstrators have started tossing stones at and using slingshots against security forces. Internet searches on Molotov cocktails have burgeoned. Chinese‐owned factories have been torched — reflecting the widespread belief that Beijing backed the coup. One protester told the Washington Post, “We are glad to see arson continue in other areas. We will do it again whenever we have the chance.” And ceasefires with a dozen ethnic forces are under strain, with combat already having broken out between the Tatmadaw and Karen National Liberation Army.
What do the generals do next? They have killed hundreds, detained thousands, closed independent publications, shut internet access, and issued threats far and wide. Resistance continues. More than two months in, the regime has few options left. The Tatmadaw’s well‐laid plans obviously are kaput. The regime no longer even commands most government agencies. No one in Burma takes seriously the military’s claim that only a few malcontents are to blame for protests. No one outside of Burma defends the military. Even Beijing has avoided endorsing the Tatmadaw.
But it is impossible for the regime to back down. Too much has happened for a return to the status quo ante. The Burmese people would insist on justice as well as democracy. This means the coup‐masters must forge ahead. But moving in that direction increasingly risks plunging into the abyss.
The generals have been increasing their use of violence. At some point, they may see their only option as massed fire on crowds, with catastrophic consequences. The only hope to avert that disaster may be a break in the military. There have been some police defections, but the Tatmadaw is a far tougher organization. The officer corps enjoys a privileged life; members likely figure they will either hang together or hang separately. Moreover, officers’ families have been drawn into the capital of Naypyidaw, apparently both for safety and to act as hostages to ensure soldiers’ loyalties. Common soldiers are conscripts whose family members mostly voted for the NLD but suffer from brutal discipline and rigorous indoctrination.
What can the U.S. and other democratic countries do? Diplomacy is irrelevant for the Tatmadaw, a largely self‐contained institution that survived decades in isolation. The generals appear ready to sacrifice all the gains made over the last decade.
Nor is there a military option. Most of Washington’s allies don’t want to defend themselves; they certainly won’t fight for the Burmese people. The U.S. has no security interests at stake, and there would be no public support for such a misadventure. Although America’s armed forces are far superior, the sizable Burmese army would fight. The humanitarian consequences of urban battles would be horrid. The countryside is insurgent‐friendly, hosting ethnic forces that long survived against the superior Tatmadaw.
Worth review, however, would be the possibility of drone strikes to destroy stored arms, which the army could use against civilians. The goal would be to degrade the Tatmadaw’s ability to harm the Burmese people, without engaging in a shooting war.
This leaves economic pressure. But the military ruled for decades despite U.S. and European sanctions. Washington already has targeted top Tatmadaw leaders and military‐related enterprises. Still, the U.S. and other democratic states should sanction any businesses owned by, tied to, or in business with the armed forces. Penalties might be expanded to jute, lumber, and natural gas exports, industries dominated by the military. The goal should be to dry up as much of the regime’s resources as possible.
The U.S. should, however, avoid broad economic sanctions, which would hurt the people more than the military. Indeed, regime elites and their allies often profit from such controls, since the powerful have the means to dominate new markets created by smugglers and others. American and allied diplomats should contact civil society leaders in the country to learn what the Burmese people want friendly nations to do.
America also should work with Europe in supporting similar United Nations penalties, including an embargo on sale of weapons, surveillance technologies, and other mechanisms of control to the regime. Both China and Russia would normally be expected to vote no. But sanctions supporters should note the angry popular reaction against China and suggest to both governments that supporting such a measure would help insulate Moscow and Beijing from further popular rage. Washington also should privately assure the PRC that America has no design to displace China from Burma or push U.S. trade and investment under a new government. The Biden administration should argue that addressing the plight of Burmese who are being shot down in the street should not be derailed by the vagaries of the U.S.–China relationship.
Finally, Washington and like‐minded states should urge India and Japan, two Asian democratic nations with substantial economic ties with Burma, to weigh in against the military, at least to oppose mass violence. Neither Delhi nor Tokyo is typically a fan of intervening in other nations’ political strife. Economic collapse and street massacres, however, would be catastrophic for India’s and Japan’s investments as well as Burma’s well‐being.
The Burmese people have suffered tragically for six decades. What comes next could be worse than ever before. Horsey warned, “The glue that has long held the fractured country together is coming unstuck. The world faces the prospect of chaotic state failure in a country with myriad armed groups, a large and well‐equipped military that is unlikely to capitulate, and a huge illicit economy backed by transnational criminal organizations that will exploit the situation as they have done for years.” The result would be a genuine crisis, terrible tragedy compounded by tremendous insecurity.