Myanmar is a danger to its neighbors — will anyone step in?

Myanmar is a danger to its neighbors — will anyone step in?

Remember Myanmar? It's been over five months since the military — the Tatmadaw — seized power in a coup, sidelining the quasi-democratic civilian government led by former human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi. Anti-coup demonstrations quickly arose around the country, and the Tatmadaw tried to put them down just as swiftly, responding with brutal violence that killed over 800 civilians.

And although the media has largely moved on, the situation is getting worse in ways that aren't only bad for Myanmar's people, but also for its neighbors.

The economy is taking a huge hit, with the banking sector on the brink of collapse. The provision of many social services, like vaccines (not only for COVID, but also for polio and tuberculosis), has all but stopped. The Tatmadaw continues to face widespread resistance from democracy activists and ethnic militias, and foreign powers like China and the US have done little to bring stability to Myanmar.

Beijing, for its part, has had historically poor relations with the Tatmadaw but is now reluctantly supporting the junta to protect Chinese interests in the country. Washington, on the other hand, is firmly anti-junta but refusing to engage it — Washington seems unwilling to do anything except impose sanctions while putting out press releases about the "restoration of democracy." None of this will bring the country of 55 million back from the brink.

The reluctance of outside players to do more is short-sighted. Because as much as the junta has made life miserable for the people of Myanmar, the country that straddles the invisible border between South and Southeast Asia is also at risk of becoming a huge problem for its neighbors.

One of the biggest issues is that the junta, for all its repression, can't control the whole country. And that's not new. Myanmar is, as historian Thant Myint-U has written, "a colonial creation" comprising various regions with different ethnic groups who were never effectively integrated into a unified state. In fact, since its founding in 1948, no single government has controlled the entire territory of Myanmar, with several armed ethnic minority groups fighting for their self-determination in what remains the world's longest-running civil war. Chief among them are the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group living in Rakhine state whom the Tatmadaw has since 2017 violently persecuted in what looks like genocide.

Myanmar's restive ethnic patchwork is both a blessing and a curse for the Tatmadaw. The junta can't control the whole country, but at the same time, anti-Tatmadaw factions are likely too divided to unite and bring them down. Indeed, as we saw in recent months, a number of ethnic groups condemned the coup, but only a few have actively fought back against it, with most instead working to advance their own interests.

To be clear, Myanmar is not a "failed state" like, say Somalia, where the central government barely exists and can't provide basic services or meet vital needs at all.

But the outlook is nonetheless bleak — because while the Tatmadaw controls just enough of Myanmar to prevent regime change, it doesn't control enough to contain the risk of instability to its neighbors. This risk can take several forms.

First, as the economy collapses and people suffer, losing access to whatever services they may once have had, Myanmar could soon become a major source of refugees. Already, thousands have fled into Thailand (which turned some of them back) and India. China closed its border and sent troops to defend it. But more refugees are likely.

And with them comes a responsibility for which few South and Southeast Asian countries are prepared. Just as Syrian refugees inflamed tensions in the Middle East, with countries like Lebanon and Jordan struggling to integrate this influx into their own populations, Myanmar's refugees will pose economic and social challenges to its neighbors as well.

Additionally, there is the threat of illicit and criminal activity gaining a larger foothold in Myanmar. As the rule of law further breaks down, illicit businesses — like methamphetamine production, which was a massive problem in Myanmar before the coup, and wildlife smuggling — will increase. Drug trafficking and criminality of this kind have a way of bleeding across borders fast.

Lastly, there is a real, if limited, potential for greater Islamist extremism taking root in the country. Myanmar, particularly Rakhine, is home to a small number of weak Islamist groups — including the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army — that have in recent years attracted a smattering of foreign fighters and committed heinous violence against Hindu and Buddhist civilians. They could use the ongoing crisis to bolster recruitment both from Myanmar and from further afield, just as the Islamist insurgency in the Philippines brought fighters from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Middle East. Powerful Islamist groups such as Pakistan's Lashkar-e-Taiba and al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent have already identified the Rohingya as a cause célèbre.

Even a limited uptick in extremism would pose a risk to surrounding countries, particularly Bangladesh, which borders Rakhine. But the shockwaves could be felt further afield. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak once warned that Rakhine could be a "fertile ground for radicalization and recruitment by [the Islamic State] and affiliated groups" and thus constitutes a "serious security threat to the region." The coup has only augmented that problem.

And yet, even with all these potentially nasty risks growing, foreign powers seem unwilling to act — that is, by actually engaging the junta (which the US has so far refused to), and pushing it into some power-sharing agreement.

But with China narrowly focused on its own self-interest, and the US boxed in by its commitment to "restoring" democracy in Myanmar, there is, at the moment, little reason to be hopeful, either for Myanmar or for its neighbors.

Charles Dunst is an associate with Eurasia Group's Global Macro practice

We believe in access for everyone.;dc_trk_aid=504469522;dc_trk_cid=156468981;ord=[timestamp];dc_lat=;dc_rdid=;tag_for_child_directed_treatment=;tfua=;gdpr=${GDPR};gdpr_consent=${GDPR_CONSENT_755};ltd=?
Visa: We believe in access for everyone. Image of a small, diverse group of people, smiling

Gaps in economic opportunities have made it hard for all individuals to take part in the global payments ecosystem. To address those gaps, society needs public policies to empower citizens, small businesses, and economies. That’s why, in 2021, the Visa Economic Empowerment Institute (VEEI) started conducting research and publishing reports about fostering digital equity and inclusion, unlocking growth through trade, and imagining an open future for payments. In 2022, we hope you’ll visit the VEEI for insights and data on the future of inclusive economic policies. See our newest stories here.

A year of Biden

Joe Biden’s first year as US president included two major historic accomplishments and a series of (often bitter) disappointments that has his party headed toward likely defeat in November’s midterm elections. Biden’s own political future is increasingly uncertain.

More Show less
Two children and a robot. We have to control AI before it controls us, warns former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

Listen: Tech companies set the rules for the digital world through algorithms powered by artificial intelligence. But does Big Tech really understand AI? Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt tells Ian Bremmer that we need to control AI before it controls us.

What's troubling about AI, he says, is that it’s still very new, and AI is learning by doing. Schmidt, co-author of “The Age of AI: And Our Human Future,” worries that AI exacerbates problems like anxiety, driving a human addiction cycle that leads to depression.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

COVID has accelerated our embrace of the digital world. The thing is, we don't always know who’s running it.

Instead of governments, Ian Bremmer says, so far a handful of Big Tech companies are writing the rules of digital space — through computer algorithms powered by artificial intelligence.

The problem is that tech companies have set something in motion they don't fully understand, nor control.

More Show less

If omicron makes cases explode in China, the country's leaders will have to choose between weathering short-term or long-term pain.

Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, predicts that sticking to the zero-COVID approach at all costs will hurt the Chinese and global economy. In his view, learning to live with the virus is the way to go.

More Show less
The Graphic Truth: How do US presidents do in their first year?

Joe Biden's approval rating has taken a big hit during his first year as US president. Biden is now just slightly more popular than his predecessor Donald Trump at the same point in his presidency. While Biden has made a series of policy and political blunders that might be reflected in polling, this is also a sign of the times: US politics are now so polarized that presidential approval has a low ceiling. We compare the approval ratings of the last five US presidents in their first year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow, Russia January 19, 2022.

Iran and Russia heart each other. The presidents of Iran and Russia have little in common personally, but they share many geopolitical interests, including in Afghanistan and Syria. They also have a common resolve in countering "the West.” These issues are all on the agenda as Vladimir Putin and Ebrahim Raisi held their first in-person meeting in Moscow. Raisi is a hardline cleric who leads a theocracy with nuclear ambitions. Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is a wily autocrat who enjoys provoking America and Europe, and has ambitions to return to the glory days of the territorially expansive Soviet Union — as seen with the Kremlin's recent provocations on the Ukrainian border. With the Iran nuclear talks on life support and Joe Biden already bracing for Russian troops crossing into Ukraine, Tehran and Moscow now have even more reasons to scheme and cooperate. Indeed, Moscow and Tehran have increasingly been cooperating on energy and security issues (Iran might be buying Russian military technology) as their respective relations with the West deteriorate.

More Show less
Namibian citizen Phillip Luhl holds one of his twin daughters as he speaks to his Mexican husband Guillermo Delgado via Zoom meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, April 13, 2021

2: Namibia’s High Court ruled against two gay couples seeking legal recognition of their marriages. The judge said she agreed with the couples, who are seeking residency or work authorizations for foreign-born spouses, but is bound by a Supreme Court ruling that deems same-sex relationships illegitimate.

More Show less

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal


Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

A year of Biden


Can we control AI before it controls us?

GZERO World Clips

Should China learn to live with COVID?

GZERO World Clips

China vs COVID in 2022

GZERO World Clips


Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal