Guest Column

The Rise and Fall of America’s Muscular Humanitarianism in Myanmar

By Tony Waters 4 June 2021

The Feb. 1 coup crushed Myanmar’s democratically elected Parliament, and Myanmar’s position in the world seemed to change back to the bad days of reclusive military rule. The military took power, and the people quickly opposed it through nonviolent demonstrations and the Civil Disobedience Movement. A shadow National Unity Government (NUG) was established by the elected Parliamentarians, but the military responded harshly by organizing middle-of-the night arrests, street beatings, the terror of lethal sniper attacks, and eventually bombing in the highlands. Hundreds have died, thousands have been arrested, many wounded and millions terrorized.

One of the first developments was a search for international allies for the nonviolent Civil Disobedience Movement. Obvious allies were the US, UN, ASEAN and others who popularized the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine in the 2000s, which powerful countries proudly pointed to. Pleas for intervention soon appeared on signs at Yangon protests asking the US or UN to rescue Myanmar from the coup. Couldn’t one of these entities swoop in and restore the elected Parliament to its rightful place in Naypyitaw? After all, such moves work, particularly in movies, even in Myanmar; after all, “Rambo IV” is about a former American super-soldier who rescues an American missionary family from an evil Burmese military. James Bond films hold out a technical capacity of miracle weapons that precisely distinguish between good proponents of democracy, and the guys who shoot protesters and stage coups. Isn’t such muscular humanitarianism an obvious way to end the unjust coup, and the terrible suffering of peaceful protesters?

The new Biden administration, which came to power in the United States just 11 days before the coup, seemed well suited to the role of Muscular Humanitarian, particularly after the inward-focused Trump administration. Samantha Power, a well-known proponent of humanitarian invasions of Libya and Syria, was appointed head of USAID in January. Her 2002 book, “A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide”, celebrated American exceptionalism, and helped birth the R2P doctrine. Her approach saw the US as the indispensable nation, uniquely capable of evaluating humanitarian needs and genocide prevention. She even tried out this doctrine in 2012 while serving on President Obama’s National Security Council and later as ambassador to the UN, and advocated for the invasions of Libya and Syria, all in the name of humanitarianism. This record is maybe why Yangon’s demonstrators looked to the US for a repeat performance, given the harsh overthrow of a democratically elected government in Myanmar on Feb. 1.

Nevertheless, it was soon apparent that the American promoters of human rights would not invade Myanmar in the name of democracy or humanitarianism, as they had in Kuwait, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, etc. Nor are there serious efforts to extend diplomatic recognition to the NUG by the US, UN or ASEAN, who are wary of China, irrespective of humanitarian principles. All that is offered are the sanctions, embargoes and blockades, which cost the West little. So, the NUG is on its own when it comes to defending human rights—it cannot depend on muscular humanitarians, no matter how easy Rambo and James Bond made it seem. This sends shivers of fear through Myanmar society, which remembers the dark days of military rule between 1962 and 2010.

Limits of muscular humanitarianism

Muscular humanitarianism is in fact limited, despite the overwhelming power of the US military, and the money of USAID. Certainly, it has occasionally worked for the Americans in recent decades. Interventions in Kuwait in 1991 and Kosovo in 1999 were effective against aggressors. The Dayton Accords negotiated under US guns in 1995 eventually returned a semblance of peace to the Balkans. Massive relief operations in places like the Great Lakes of Africa, southern Sudan, Ethiopia and even Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis were successfully assisted by the US. But the US military interventions in places like Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen was not enough to protect humanitarian principles, and sometimes made the situation worse. A bit further back, and nearer to Myanmar, US interventions in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were catastrophic.

The problem is that the enforcement of R2P was never separated from US foreign policy interests, and there are a limited number of enforcement tools in the foreign policy arsenal: invasion, sanctions, embargoes, no fly zones, secret agents and blockades. The US impulse to label international problems as humanitarian and democratic also often covers for larger interests in global competition between Washington and its adversaries. US interests in humanitarianism are typically strongest in places where Russia and/or China could be cheaply confronted, or oil sources protected. Today, human rights for Myanmar are defended with mild sanctions and rhetoric, but only in the context of the US’ China policy, which is focused on issues of trade, South China Sea, COVID, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and a host of issues more important to the Americans than the coup in Myanmar.  Good words are cheap, and carry little risk for the Americans.

The Quiet American

US overreach is seemingly rooted in the very nature of American culture and might. The journalist Graham Greene in the early 1950s reported from Saigon about French Indochina, and described through fiction how America overreached in his novel “The Quiet American”. In the story, an earnest young Alden Pyle brings doctrines about democracy, human rights and military might from the classrooms of Harvard.

Critics in the 1950s pointed to “The Quiet American” as a warning to America’s then-new foreign policy elite who, like Alden Pyle, sell American-style democracy and humanitarianism in the daytime when everyone was watching, but at night sponsored lethal bombings by preferred militia groups. The Americans of course did this in Myanmar, where as long ago as the 1950s, USAID aid was supplied for humanitarian needs, even as the CIA surreptitiously fought communists in the north of the country. USAID started doing this in Myanmar again after 2012 by choosing which NGOs to support—or ignore.

And herein lies the heart of Myanmar’s problem today, when demonstrators call for US and UN intervention, often citing the R2P doctrine. The Americans share such ideals, and preach in Myanmar what they still teach at Harvard and their other great universities. But the Americans are also possessed of a hubris that promotes big principles like democracy, humanitarianism and R2P for others, while still putting itself at the center of how democracy and economic development are defined. US money and military power allow them to do this in an environment that broaches little disagreement.  Which local NGO argues about policy with their donor? Myanmar NGOs funded by USAID already know this. It is only one step from this, to the more muscular humanitarianism that Alden Pyle promoted in Vietnam.

The Quieter Chinese

The alluring potential power of the US is always in a context of another global reality in Myanmar: The hegemonic power of China in Southeast Asia.  So far as I know, no English-language novel “The Quiet Chinese” has been written—though it could be. There are Chinese in Myanmar now advising the military, ethnic armed organizations, businesses and others. They are probably making the same mistakes as the Americans, assuming that what they learned in Chinese universities about politics, development, economics and trade are a superior wisdom.  And the Chinese like the Americans have the money to mute questions by Myanmar NGOs, and other agencies that they fund. But unlike the Americans, Chinese military power is sitting on Myanmar’s northern border, extremely attentive to what is happening not only with the military government and the NUG, but also the ethnic armies, many of which are subsidized from China. Also unlike the US, China makes few nods toward democratic or humanitarian ideals. As with the US, Chinese foreign reach undoubtedly has its own set of cultural, economic and political assumptions that blind it to what Myanmar’s people think.

Myanmar and global politics

Myanmar is new at the Great Power game, of which they were long only a victim. Only since 2010 has Myanmar really re-engaged with the global system after decades as a recluse. The experience with China already seems bitter, which is why perhaps there were all of those signs calling the US or UN forces to intervene against the military government. (Who would want the Chinese to intervene on behalf of a democracy movement?). This Chinese interest though heightens the attention of the Americans on Myanmar insofar as it is part of international politics. The Americans’ interest is in opposing Chinese ambitions in the Great Game that the world’s great powers have long engaged in. This means that the US opposes the Chinese wherever they can. They might use democracy, human rights, and R2P as a loud rhetorical tool, even though the primary interest is in simply opposing China safely and cheaply. The US still always pursues its own geopolitical interests, with Myanmar’s interest as the afterthought. This is the lesson that Greene’s Alden Pyle taught us, and what Myanmar has learned since Feb. 1.  Basically, US aid still comes as agricultural and economic assistance to chosen NGOs by day, and explosives to American-chosen allies at night. R2P is the afterthought in global politics.

During World War II, Myanmar (then Burma) was a pawn in the Great Game between Britain, France, China and Japan, and suffered terribly. After the war, Prime Minister U Nu balanced these pressures by founding the nonaligned movement, but was pushed out by Ne Win, who initiated decades of reclusive isolation which ended only recently, releasing the energy of Generation Z. But as in the past, Myanmar is in the crosshairs. Its geographic position is still between India and China, and the advantages and risks of balancing this with a relationship with the US and its muscular humanitarianism are still there.

From Alden Pyle to Samantha Power

R2P was an idealistic assertion of the primacy of human rights in world affairs. Neither the US nor any other country really has the capacity to implement the effective invasions, sanctions, embargoes, no fly zones and blockades of Myanmar that the demonstrators have called for. But maybe that’s OK; such actions occasionally work, but also routinely result in tragedies rooted in the US’ overestimation of its own abilities and capacities. This is what Greene via Alden Pyle taught us, and hopefully has also taught Samantha Power.

So does this mean that Myanmar is doomed to another cycle of closed military rule, as Ko Kyaw Zwa Moe suggested in The Irrawaddy? Or has the military overreached, as Charles Petrie recently suggested? None of us has a crystal ball, but I tend toward Petrie’s view. Any enduring legitimate Myanmar government is rooted in an essence that emerges from Myanmar’s people.  Myanmar people today have ties around the world, particularly the tech-savvy Generation Z. As Petrie pointed out, the military though is still drawing on older forms of control and confrontation which assume that the people are isolated. The modern communication tools of Generation Z are now freezing the Myanmar economy in ways their predecessors in 1988 and 2006 could only dream of. I think this capacity, along with the taste of freedom Generation Z had from 2012-2021 will slowly—or maybe quickly—erode the terror that the military inspires in the country. Legitimacy will not come from miracle weapons, an invasion in the name of R2P, secret weapons in the American arsenal, or diplomatic sanctions on generals.

Washington’s assistance for democracy and human rights can though perhaps connect Gen Z with their tech-savvy capacity to find and evaluate information. Washington has much to offer in terms of protection for internet access, supporting democratic movements like the NUG, and protecting refugees, even when China facilitates internet firewalls. Who knows, Washington might even risk recognizing the NUG government. But whatever they do, just as in the day of Graham Greene and Alden Pyle, the Americans need to recognize that freedom and legitimacy are not uniquely American exports brought by bureaucrats like Alden Pyle who work for USAID and the CIA, but only emerge from the people themselves.

Tony Waters is Professor of Sociology at Payap University, and director of the Institute of Religion, Culture and Peace at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He works with Burmese, Karen and other students in the university’s PhD program in Peacebuilding. From 1996-2021 he was Professor of Sociology at California State University, Chico. He is also the author of academic books and articles about refugee relief and development, and an occasional contributor to The Irrawaddy. He can be reached at [email protected].


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