Nine months since a military coup, the future of Myanmar remains uncertain. Despite a brutal crackdown, millions of people continue to resist the military junta that seized power, both through civil disobedience and armed resistance. What is certain is that a humanitarian and displacement catastrophe has engulfed the country and is likely to get worse. Myanmar's neighbors and leading donors of humanitarian aid, including the United States, cannot allow the complex domestic, regional, and geo-political dynamics preventing resolution of the ongoing violence to prevent the provision of humanitarian aid to those in need---nor refuge to those fleeing for their lives.
Since February 1, 2021, the military leaders responsible for decades of repression of minority groups and genocide against the Rohingya have expanded their abuses to target all citizens of Myanmar who oppose their power grab. The junta's actions have resulted in the killing of more than 1,100 civilians and the forcible displacement of more than 200,000 people, and have left an estimated 3 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. The junta continues its attacks on civilians, which includes the targeting of health workers and the blocking of aid---in the midst of economic failure and the COVID-19 pandemic---virtually guaranteeing a worsening crisis likely to continue to spill over to countries throughout the region.
The junta's actions have also dissolved any hopes of return for those displaced by previous violence by the military. Some 1 million Rohingya refugees remain in trying conditions in Bangladesh, living in the largest refugee settlement in the world. Hundreds of thousands of other ethnic minorities from Myanmar remain in Malaysia and Thailand, and thousands more have recently fled to India.
The nature of the atrocities committed by the military junta and the trajectory of the humanitarian and displacement crises demand regional and global attention. Yet, torn by competing interests, the UN Security Council and regional powers, led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have failed to act decisively to address the crisis in Myanmar. Coordinated targeted sanctions, a global arms embargo, and further efforts at accountability are sorely needed. But even as the struggle continues to push actors like China, Russia, and ASEAN countries to address the roots of the crisis, more must be done immediately to mitigate the humanitarian catastrophe engulfing the country and affecting the region.
An effective response must start with Myanmar's neighbors holding up global standards of refugee protection and non-refoulement---permitting access to those fleeing for their lives and not returning them to a country where they would not be safe. With the support of global donors, Myanmar's neighbors must also immediately mobilize and facilitate the delivery of aid across borders in coordination with local organizations and ethnic groups controlling border areas. Coordinated global pressure must also be brought to bear on the military junta in Myanmar to demand an end to atrocities, including attacks on health and aid workers, and to secure unfettered access for humanitarian relief.
The United States should press ASEAN governments and the members of the UN Security Council to take a stronger stance, but not wait to do so itself. It should simultaneously coordinate increased pressure on the junta through a global coalition of like-minded states, including more forward leaning ASEAN countries. Major donor countries must also continue humanitarian support and increase responsibility sharing with countries like Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Thailand that are hosting those who fled previous persecution at the hands of Myanmar's military. This should include ensuring meaningful access to refuge and resettling refugees, while at the same time urging host countries to permit access to those fleeing violence and to change restrictive refugee policies.
The tragedy in Myanmar is far from over. While complex geo-political dynamics may prevent broader measures from being taken to address its root causes, actions to provide humanitarian aid and refuge for those fleeing for their lives need not and must not wait.