Myanmar update: refugees and international response

Eddie Ryan
4 min readJan 17, 2022

In a recent piece, I focused heavily on the caprice and cruelty of the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military currently posing as its governing body. It’s vital to remember in cases like this also to examine the implications of such violent excess for those still vulnerable to it and those who’ve fled it.

After all, when studying the actions of evil regimes it’s easy to stop questioning the motive for particularly disgusting crimes; it’s simply what they do. Yet reports this week instead suggest that the most recent manifestations of the Tatmadaw’s notorious malice had a specific motivation: legitimate insecurity.

Due largely to the caliber of the Burmese resistance — led by the People’s Defense Forces and overseen by the National Unity Government — Myanmar’s military regime is reportedly fighting for its life. The willingness of civilians to take up arms and fight the junta in the streets and in the jungles has been inspiring; the alliances among previously unfriendly ethnic groups have been substantial; and the strength of the violent, revolutionary resistance has been unprecedented.

To be sure, the military is better equipped. In areas along the Thai-Myanmar border, the Karen National Army fights aerial bombardment only with rocket-propelled grenades. Many resistance fighters are also newly trained. Nevertheless, though it has looked as though the military would consolidate control over the country, it hasn’t managed to do so.

Armed ethnic groups control roughly a third of the country, and there are some areas (especially along the Chinese and Bangladeshi borders) that the military won’t even attack due to the certainty of defeat. This reality along with difficult fighting conditions has contributed to low morale among junta soldiers, with many defecting to the PDF — where they provide valuable training. According to Priscilla Clapp, former State Department official and Myanmar mission head, this confluence of factors has bred looming desperation within the junta, prompting the especially flagrant burnings and massacres of the past several months.

Whether this means the resistance has a serious chance of succeeding in counter revolution of course remains to be seen. What seems clearer now than before, in light of these reports, is the need for coordinated international pressure to ramp up immediately. Along with support for Burmese refugees, a matter which deserves special attention, Clapp formulated several options for Western action beyond broad sanctions. The first is a series of targeted sanctions designed specifically to squeeze the military’s oil and gas resources. Given its extensive control over international markets, the United States ought to feature prominently in these efforts which, if properly coordinated and sufficiently aggressive, could hurt the military’s weapons stock. China and Russia could counteract this measure by increasing oil and gas supplies to the junta; still, China at least seems to favor stability in the region and might be amenable to a less confrontational course of action. (This is the optimist’s view, for China could always choose to test things and turn Burma into another proxy warzone.)

Second, the US should intensify its advocacy of UN support for the resistance. In conjunction with targeted economic sanctions to cripple the junta’s offensive capabilities, financial support to the NUG or the PDF through international channels might catalyze some momentum. This outcome depends on timing, though, since there’s no guarantee the junta continues to show the slight signs of vulnerability it has recently displayed. Third, Clapp suggests that the US recognize the forced dispossession and killing of many Burmese Rohingya Muslims between 2017 and 2019 as genocide. This would function as a subsidiary component of the broader economic “squeeze” strategy and might help by weakening the junta’s international image.

In any case, Clapp expressed no illusions about the direness of the situation and the unlikelihood that swift progress will be made to ameliorate the catastrophic humanitarian crisis already visible. For refugees and those still in Myanmar alike, conditions have steadily deteriorated. An estimated half or more of the population now lives in poverty and roughly 223,000 people have been internally displaced due to the violence. Since the coup, the number of Burmese in need of medical assistance has risen from one million to fourteen million (in a country of 54 million). Admittedly, a small part of this suffering stems from the resistance movement’s resolve to force the junta into resignation effectively by destroying the economy. But the military leadership created this humanitarian crisis. In addition to shooting civilians and burning down villages without warning, junta soldiers routinely block aid convoys and beat up health care workers, preventing essential medical supplies from reaching those — including many children — who need them. Hundreds of thousands lack the medical supplies they need as soldiers steal them from checkpoints.

While refugees in India or Thailand may have escaped the threat of junta violence, their lives still lack stability and certainty. Things are particularly arduous in India, where Modi instructed border guards to seal borders completely. The Indian state of Mizoram shares a particularly porous border with the western Chin state in Myanmar; consequently, the historic familiarity between peoples on either side has led locals to transport refugees across in defiance of the order. Even so, Mizoram is quite poor, and India’s non-recognition of refugees often prevents aid agencies from establishing themselves there to provide relief. For the 30,000 refugees who’ve crossed into Mizoram over the past two months, the quality of life only marginally exceeds that of the beloved homeland they left and dearly miss.

With just one month till the sorry anniversary of Myanmar’s coup, things again rest — or rather tremble — at an important juncture. The actions outlined for the US and the UN to take are imperative, urgent, and not to be overlooked. But unfortunately, no matter the success of such efforts, Myanmar’s humanitarian crisis will persist. Calls for Modi to open India’s borders to Burmese refugees should thus echo and resound, with the US leading the way. A concrete demand such as this could conceivably even open the door to cooperation on the more robust measures really required to topple the thugs in Naypyidaw.



Eddie Ryan

History and Economics major, Spanish and Philosophy minor at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Elmhurst, Illinois.