Is Myanmar the new Syria? Rising violence threatens a repeat tragedy

As ethnic militias back the popular uprising and refugees flee the country, the similarities with Syria are deeply disturbing

In August 2011, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s then foreign minister, made a “mercy dash” to Damascus. He appealed in person to Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to stop killing his people and talk to his opponents after five months of anti-regime protests.

Davutoglu spoke for Turkey but also, indirectly, for the US and the west. He had conferred with Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, before making the trip. His message: it’s not too late to call a halt; the alternative is civil war. But Assad turned him down flat.

At that early point in the crisis, about 2,000 people had died. Fearing worse to come, Davutoglu kept trying. In Istanbul the following year, he urged the US, Britain and other countries to work together to prevent a humanitarian “disaster”.

Millions of Syrians were at risk, he told me. “How long can this situation continue? I mean in Bosnia, now we have Ban Ki-moon (then UN secretary-general) apologising 20 years after. Who will apologise for Syria in 20 years’ time?”

Ten years on, Davutoglu has an answer. The west failed to act decisively, 500,000 or more Syrians are dead, 13.3 million are displaced, the country is in ruins – and no one has apologised. Meanwhile, half a world away, history repeats itself. Is Myanmar the new Syria?

The portents and parallels are many and disturbing. They foretell yet another avoidable human tragedy of epic dimensions. Once again, those who could stop it don’t. Instead, they wrangle and seek national advantage.

Once again, UN alarm bells ring, warning of an “imminent bloodbath”. Myanmar’s military junta, which seized power in a coup in February, is waging a war on citizens, the special UN envoy Christine Schraner Burgener told the security council last week.

Another failure to uphold international law and honour the international community’s “responsibility to protect” could produce “a multi-dimensional catastrophe in the heart of Asia,” she said. But again, as perennially over Syria, the council is split.

In Myanmar’s case, it’s China, not Russia, that holds the whip hand. Like Moscow, Beijing plays a double game. Its UN ambassador, Zhang Jun, said China supported stability, dialogue, and what he disingenuously termed the “democratic transition”.

Yet it is China that is blocking international sanctions and other UN action to rein in the junta. Like Russia in Syria, it is a saviour of killers. No surprise, perhaps. If it’s a choice between autocracy and democracy, the world knows where president Xi Jinping stands.

An image of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi is projected on a screen
An image of Myanmar’s detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi is projected on to a screen during a night-time demonstration in Yangon in March. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The US president, Joe Biden, says human rights are a central plank of his foreign policy. But over Myanmar, he looks weak as Beijing calls his bluff. The UK, the former colonial power, is trying harder, leading the UN debate, sanctioning military-related sales, and providing funds to record rights abuses.

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s neighbours in the Association of South-East Asian Nations make solemn statements and do next to nothing. Taken altogether, it’s nowhere near enough. The pressure group Burma Campaign UK demands a global arms embargo, for example, and referral to the international criminal court.

There is little doubt Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the junta boss, and members of the military and police are each day committing crimes against humanity and war crimes. Min Aung Hlaing is already wanted for the 2017 genocide of the Rohingya minority.

These uniformed killers and torturers are counting on impunity fuelled by international divisions and inertia. As matters stand, it’s entirely possible that, like Assad and most of his henchmen, they will escape justice.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed so far, and thousands detained or forcibly disappeared, according to the UN’s human rights office. “Night raids, mass arrests and killings have become daily occurrences,” it reported last week.

“De facto military authorities have increasingly resorted to heavy weaponry such as rocket-propelled and fragmentation grenades, heavy machine guns, and snipers to kill demonstrators in massive numbers,” it said.

Evidence accumulates that youthful civilian demonstrators are being radicalised by this trauma. Unusually, street protests appear to enjoy broad middle class support. There is talk of taking up arms in self-defence and building an opposition-based federal army – another echo of Syria in 2011.

Significantly, Myanmar’s “parallel government”, the CRPH, comprising MPs elected in last year’s election and supporters of the deposed leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is now proposing a new federal constitution that recognises the rights of ethnic minorities.

The CRPH’s move makes it more likely that a burgeoning armed opposition will join forces with battle-hardened ethnic militias, such as the Karen National Liberation Army, which have long resisted Tatmadaw (army) depredations.

The so-called Northern Alliance – the Arakan Army, Kachin Independence Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army – has also strongly condemned the junta’s killing spree.

They vow to defend “the people”. And the Tatmadaw, while claiming to be the only force capable of holding the country together, is pulling it apart. In such incremental ways, as Syrians know, do civil wars begin.

The fact that refugees from the violence are spilling over the borders into Thailand and India, just as the Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, is another red light for an international community still struggling with the aftermath of the Syrian exodus.

With the extreme distress and injustice caused by forcible displacement come desperation, hunger, disease, and the spectre of terrorism. We’ve been here before.

It’s true these people are less likely to wash up on Europe’s shores. But that hardly makes this escalating emergency less urgent, humanly, morally and politically. Is the world really prepared to tolerate a second Syria in Asia?

Although Davutoglu’s 2011 mercy dash failed, early intervention remains the best hope of nipping conflict in the bud. How much more horror before we cry “enough”?


Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Myanmar’s top general Min Aung Hlaing is strangling a democracy. What will the west do about it?
Joe Biden’s ‘waffle-fest’ summit shows the international community is toothless when faced with a murderous junta boss

Simon Tisdall

05, Dec, 2021 @9:15 AM

Article image
A child screams in Myanmar … and China pretends not to hear
The country’s global standing is plunging as Xi Jinping attempts to whitewash atrocities in the name of empire-building

Simon Tisdall

14, Mar, 2021 @7:30 AM

Article image
Doctors under fire as Myanmar military targets efforts to aid injured protesters
Medics tell of attacks on staff and ambulances to stop treatment of patients and punish those who took part in national strike

Rebecca Ratcliffe and Observer reporter in Myanmar

10, Apr, 2021 @2:31 PM

Article image
More than 100 killed as Myanmar junta unleashes worst day of terror
Children as young as five among those shot in democracy protests

Emma Graham-Harrison

27, Mar, 2021 @7:08 PM

Article image
UN welcomes Syria ceasefire against backdrop of deadlock and dissent
The truce led by Russia and Turkey is holding – but the different players in the peace process still have conflicting objectives

Martin Chulov

31, Dec, 2016 @10:29 PM

Article image
Justice and the Rohingya people are the losers in Asia's new cold war
Attacks against the Muslim minority in Myanmar have gone unchecked as regional players focus on their own interests

Simon Tisdall

20, Sep, 2020 @6:29 AM

Article image
Turkey threatens to hit back as Assad advances in northern Syria
Three million stuck at Turkish border in one of the worst humanitarian crises since start of war

Bethan McKernan

09, Feb, 2020 @9:39 AM

Article image
Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi accused of taking bribes as more deaths reported
Elected leader’s party reject as ‘slander’ junta’s allegations that Suu Kyi took cash and gold worth nearly $1.3m, as UN condemns crackdown

Guardian staff and agencies

11, Mar, 2021 @2:13 PM

Article image
He captured a fresh start for Myanmar … and then its descent into tragedy
Photojournalist Minzayar Oo tells how a shot of Aung Sang Suu Kyi changed his life and led to him winning a unique award

Tim Lewis

21, Oct, 2017 @11:05 PM

Article image
In the targets of the junta: life and war inside rebel-held Myanmar
In Myanmar’s opposition controlled areas the risks of opposing the military leadership and the quiet hope that permeates daily life co-exist

Lorcan Lovett in Demoso, eastern Myanmar

04, Jun, 2023 @8:00 AM