Guest Column

Beware the Myanmar Junta’s ‘Whataboutism’

By Matthew B. Arnold 15 March 2022

The world needs to be clear about what is happening in Myanmar. As the conflict in the country continues, there is a creeping tendency in some quarters to frame it in terms that diminish the scale and frequency of the atrocities being committed by the junta. A small but persuasive group of Myanmar and international policy analysts influence international perspectives on the country. Discreet and outside of public view, some undertake “whataboutism” that inherently favors the junta. Whataboutism is a term that has emerged in recent years, driven by the partisan politics of the US and facilitated by social media, but increasingly used across the world. Simply put, it is the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue.

Day after day, the atrocities committed by junta forces accumulate. In this context of chronic, large-scale atrocities by one institution, whataboutism serves to dilute the significance of these atrocities or shift blame for them. There are two particularly odious themes for whataboutism regarding the current situation in the country.

The first type of whataboutism is the emphasis placed on generalized notions of “all sides are committing violence.” This theme aims to undermine Myanmar’s democratic resistance by highlighting limited numbers of individual incidents to conjure moral equivalence with the junta. The messaging is subtle: “Everybody is committing atrocities…. (so are junta forces really that bad?).” Let us be clear: One side is violating all laws of war as Standard Operating Procedure. I have personally catalogued almost 10,000 conflict incidents since the coup. The number of these that could be seen as excessive by resistance actors is a small fraction of the total, probably less than 1-2 percent. There is a clear reality in Myanmar; it doesn’t need obfuscation. Gratuitous atrocities are committed by junta forces day after day. There is large-scale armed resistance against the coup. Describing it as “violence” and stating that it is by all, diminishes the fact that one side is the aggressor and bears sole responsibility for the crisis that has unfolded in the country. Considering the barbarity of the junta, by any objective standard, the armed resistance in Myanmar is remarkably disciplined. There is a normative point to using the term “armed resistance” rather than “violence”. One side is clearly defending itself.

In a related manner, whataboutism favoring the junta has latched on to the term “retributive”. The usual formula is to describe junta forces attacking PDFs, and then argue that “retributive violence” is happening by all sides. This is disingenuous on multiple levels. First, it is just empirically wrong. Violence against communities, and individuals, is overwhelmingly committed by junta forces. Second, this framing tries to give the impression that junta attacks on the population are secondary rather than the main effort and intent. The underlying argument is they only occur because PDFs launch attacks in the first place. This could not be further from the truth. Attacks on civilians are not the result of attacks by PDFs. They are attacks in themselves, core to the junta’s whole military strategy and demonstrated over decades of brutal practice. This messaging mirrors that used to defend the atrocities committed against the Rohingya, for instance. Third, retributive means “directed only at wrongdoing.” Of course, giving it a name like retributive is easier than calling it what it is—atrocity, war crime, barbarity, etc. Highlighting this point isn’t just semantics. It gets to a wider issue: how the military is driven by an ideology of supremacy. The tactics being applied by the junta are never justifiable, even if communities are supportive of the resistance.

The second type of whataboutism is more subtle, but very effective in the theater of international relations. This whataboutism plays off notions of Myanmar descending into “Balkanization” or violence of “all against all”. This has been a particularly toxic strain of argument put forth by the “Tatmadaw” over decades but still pushed in the current crisis—that it is necessary to keep the country from falling apart. This is perpetuated by policy analysts who describe violence unfolding in regions in very generalized terms, as if it were uncontrolled mayhem rather than deliberate strategies of committing atrocities by the junta. The whataboutism is easy, requiring simple obfuscation of a situation that isn’t that complex. They don’t deny junta atrocities, they just saturate the wider conversation with lots of cherry-picked examples of ostensible abuses by resistance forces to obscure the scale and singularity of junta atrocities driving violence across the country. The result of this whataboutism is defeatism amongst the international community, i.e., that Myanmar is a “lost cause” and “maybe having a junta isn’t such a bad thing”. This whataboutism is toxic because it drives global apathy and fatalism that nothing can be done. Absolutist arguments that the military absolutely cannot be defeated under any circumstances are wrong. The junta is the problem. It will always be the problem unless it is defeated, and a new military created for the country.

After a year of non-stop atrocities, two things should be crystal clear to the international community. The first is that there is not a “military” in Myanmar. What was known as the “Tatmadaw” should not be called a military. A military is defined as “the armed forces of a country.” The current conflict should be understood as a “national uprising” rather than a “civil war”. When an entire nation rises against a military, can the latter still be considered a military? No, of course not. It has lost the significance and legitimacy conferred by the term, no matter how much it is qualified. Using this term makes it too comfortable for other countries to ignore the junta’s atrocities under a façade of sovereignty. As leading human rights groups have argued, the junta and its forces are a terrorist organization committing mass atrocities. With atrocities escalating week by week, this should be obvious to the world but sadly the masquerade of a military existing is maintained, underpinned by facile notions that it is necessary and eventually will have to be negotiated with.

The whataboutism over junta atrocities is toxic. Those making the arguments have become de facto cheerleaders for defeatism and fatalism, forming a vanguard persuading the world to do very little to support Myanmar’s democratic resistance. The reality is clear: The junta is committing systematic atrocities. This is the foundation of their strategy to consolidate control. Junta atrocities shouldn’t be confused for military operations. Systematic atrocities by the junta are only going to get worse so long as other countries fidget with their response to the crisis in Myanmar. During this era of global upheaval, the clearest way to end the atrocities in Myanmar is to support the right side of history. That means the democratic resistance, i.e., the people of Myanmar.

Matthew Arnold is an independent policy analyst. He has been researching Myanmar’s politics and governance since 2012.

You may also like these stories:

Myanmar’s Democratic Resistance Can Win—the World Needs to Support It

The 60th Anniversary of the Myanmar Military’s First Coup is a Sad and Singular Occasion

Myanmar Junta Denies Medical Treatment to Political Prisoners