Is Myanmar headed for civil war?

NICK EICHER, HOST: Next, the struggle for democracy.

Yesterday, the Biden administration suspended all trade with the nation of Myanmar, known also as Burma. This, after a particularly bloody weekend there. Pro-democracy protesters clashed with forces from the military that seized power in February.

First, a bit of history: Back in 2015, Myanmar held its first free election in 25 years. The nation’s first civilian government in half a century came under the National League of Democracy headed up by Aung San Suu Kyi.

The new democracy certainly had its problems, but any democracy at all was a big improvement from decades of military rule.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: But just under two months ago, on Feb. 1st, the military arrested the nation’s top political leaders and once again seized power.

The weeks that followed have seen daily protests in city streets against the coup and increasingly bloody military crackdowns on those demonstrations.

Joining us now with more insight on the crisis in Myanmar is Olivia Enos with the Heritage Foundation. She specializes in human rights and national security challenges in Asia. Olivia, good morning!

ENOS: Good morning. Thank you so much for having me on today.

REICHARD: Well, we touched on it a moment ago, but give us a brief overview of the power struggle in Myanmar. There’s a long history of military rule in the country, correct?

ENOS: There is, and I think for a long time people looked to Burma as a bright spot in southeast Asia for the potential of a burgeoning democracy for human rights and civil and political liberties to really take root there. And, obviously, since February 1st, we’ve seen a dramatic turn of events where the very will of the Burmese people has really been overturned.

Late last year, there was an election in November that really gave the current ruling party—the National League for Democracy—a solid victory and the military saw that as a huge threat.

And so obviously they took over and what has ensued has, especially in recent weeks, turned incredibly bloody. So there’s a real need for a strong U.S. response. I think we’ve seen, actually, some really strong and swift responses from the Biden administration, but of course there’s certainly more than can be done not only to hold the Burmese military accountable for the coup, but also to hold them accountable for the genocide and crimes against humanity they’ve carried out against the Rohingya Muslim minority inside of their country.

REICHARD: How has life changed for the people in Myanmar under this military junta since it took control at the beginning of the year?

ENOS: I mean, it’s been a pretty dramatic shift. Obviously the military and the civilian government have long shared power. But there hasn’t been intervention on the part of the Burmese military in such a solid and strong way. People there—there was a very poignant quote on Twitter from a Pulitzer Prize winning Reuters journalist that talked about how if you’ve never lived under a coup, it’s hard to understand what exactly it feels like for people that are there. But as she described it, it essentially looks to them like there’s no future for them. There’s no future for their children. They don’t see a way to get the country back on track. And so it’s really quite a hopeless and dire situation. And, unfortunately, I think it’s going to be quite some time, if ever in the near term, that we’ll see Burma returning toward a path of democracy.

REICHARD: What more do you think the U.S. could do and how far should it go to intervene?

ENOS: I think the U.S. government took some really important action last week where they targeted two of the biggest military-owned conglomerates—MEC and MEHL. Those are huge funding sources for the Burmese military. And so I think the hope was that those actions as well as some of these later actions that we’ve seen cutting trade under TIFA and otherwise as trying to create risk mitigating factors that would perhaps cause military leaders to chart a different course.

But I think it’s a little too soon to know exactly how the military might respond. And I think there’s going to be a need to continue to increase pressure. As I understand it, they’ve stopped short of sanctioning and targeting the oil and gas industry there.

I think supporting the civil disobedience movement in ways that we can is incredibly important. And I also think that we should start looking to refugee mechanisms that we may have. I’ve advocated previously, prior to the coup, extending refugee status to Rohingya refugees. There are 800,000 to over a million currently displaced in Bangladesh, but it may become more urgent as people start to flee the country to look at those options for people who are simply fleeing the coup in general.

REICHARD: Based on what we’ve seen from the Biden administration so far, what do you think the Biden administration will do in the future?

ENOS: So, I’ve been pleasantly surprised  by how quickly the Biden administration has responded to the coup. And my hope is that you’ll continue to see targeted financial measures. And the Biden administration has also said that they really want to work with allies and partners, whether that’s partners in the region or the European Union. I think mobilizing and activating some of those actors can be really important. One thing that the Biden administration also talked about was using the quad framework as a potential mechanism for trying to hold the Burmese military accountable. And so I think perhaps activating some of those allies and partners, those friends in the region, would be an incredibly useful next step.

REICHARD: Olivia Enos with the Heritage Foundation has been our guest. Olivia, thanks!

ENOS: Thank you so much for having me.

(AP Photo) People carry the coffin of a man who was killed during a clash with Myanmar’s security forces in Yangon, Myanmar, Monday, March 29, 2021.

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