Children and elders displaced by fighting between government troops and ethnic rebels in their area wait for food distribution from a volunteer group while taking refuge at a monastery in Namlan town, in eastern Myanmar's Shan state, on May 25, 2021. Photo: AFP / MNWM

There are many similarities between the war in Ukraine and the civil conflict in Myanmar. There are urgent humanitarian concerns in both countries, but the grave suffering in one has been greatly overshadowed by the other.

Western nations have rallied to support Ukraine, with arms and help for its millions of refugees, but the people of Myanmar have received far less. On moral grounds, the world and its leaders need to try to find a better solution to the crisis in Myanmar, which is surely the worst since my country won independence in 1948.

The global media focus on Ukraine is understandable, given the ramifications for Europe and the fact it is more clear-cut – one country invading another. The conflict in Myanmar is better described as a revolution, not only by the ethnic states that have battled the military since the country was formed, but for the first time in decades also supporters of the pro-democracy forces in central Myanmar, outraged by the coup staged by army chief Min Aung Hlaing in February 2021. 

Myanmar has a bigger population than Ukraine – 55.2 million versus 43.2 million – and is bigger in land size (676.5 square kilometers versus 603.5).

Both countries have mixed populations. Ukrainians make up about 77% of that country’s people, with 17% Russian and small percentages of Crimean Tatar, Moldovan, Romanian and Hungarian minorities. Meanwhile, Myanmar has about 68% majority Burman, 9% Shan, 7% Karen, 2-5% Rakhine, 2.5% Chinese, and small percentages of Mon, Kachin, Chin, Burmese Indians, Karenni and more (Rohingya, etc). 

The Russian military is in essence the enemy in both countries. In Myanmar, it has been one of the main providers of aircraft and weapons used by the military (Tatmadaw) in reprisal attacks on many towns in the northwest and east over the past 15 months. China has been another long-term provider of weapons and support for Myanmar’s military.

As in Ukraine, the crisis in Myanmar is a fight for democracy and human rights – millions have risen up against the return to military rule. Myanmar’s struggle involves about eight ethnic regions fighting for greater self-rule – to have states in a federal system like that of the United States of America.

Most have been fighting for equality and partial self-rule since the nation won independence from Britain. And for the past year or so the majority Burman regions have joined their ethnic struggle against military dominance and ruthless army generals. 

Similarly, Ukraine was annexed by Russians for many years, and in 2014, Crimea was occupied by Russia. Now Ukraine is the focus of a new invasion by Russian forces. But unlike in Ukraine, Myanmar’s seven ethnic states never won independence under military rule. Their territories have been occupied by Tatmadaw troops for more than 74 years and are still fighting for their rights.  

These are two battles against authoritarian control. But in Ukraine, the US and other Western nations are helping the people with tremendous military and financial support. Russia is a big threat for European security and global stability. Unlike Ukraine’s, Myanmar’s struggle is seen as an internal problem, a fight for greater independence by many ethnic groups, but not a threat for world order.

So the cries for help by millions in Myanmar have been ignored, and with far less media coverage, there is just lip service on helping their struggle.

Myanmar’s neighbors include China, Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh and India, which do not want to upset the generals and prefer to avoid getting involved in Myanmar’s long struggle against oppression. Unlike Myanmar, Ukraine’s neighbors – such countries as Poland, Moldova, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia – have supported the Ukrainians in their war with Russia, welcoming refugees and giving food, clothing, shelter and help.

In contrast, China recently gave more than US$120 million to Myanmar’s State Administration Council (SAC) set up by the generals after the coup, while Thailand and India have shown a fair cooler welcome to refugees, often pushing back those who flee military offensives. The US has given $250 million in humanitarian aid but no arms, which Myanmar’s democratic forces are pleading for.

To fight the well-equipped Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s democratic forces need weapons and ammunition. Myanmar has been ripe for the revolution and the Western powers need to think about this – if they want to see democratic rule spread around the world, they need to support not only Ukraine but also Myanmar.

Ukrainians have been able to fight back because they have an army, but they need more sophisticated weapons, such as jet fighters, tanks, rockets and drones to compete against the Russian army. Myanmar’s democratic forces are not asking for tanks and jet fighters, they only want automatic rifles, mortars, grenades, and anti-tank weapons. Compared with Ukraine, that is a meager request.

Ethnic land in the north and border regions has been invaded and occupied by Tatmadaw troops, and these groups are fighting for their identity and right to live as free men and women – like the Ukrainians.

In Ukraine, the Russians have reportedly bombarded and every town and city they confronted, with missile attacks and shells from tanks. Everything was wiped out, with hundreds of unarmed civilians allegedly shot dead by Russian soldiers, spurring the US and European Union to supply anti-tank missiles, surface-to-air missiles, drones and aircraft.

Similarly, hundreds of homes in Myanmar towns and villages have been burned down by Tatmadaw troops after attacks by local defense forces. This has led to tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Myanmar is a poor country, where people have to save for at least 20 years to build a small house, and for many their years of effort have been destroyed within a day. Innocent civilians have been rounded up and used as human shields as troops attack democratic forces.

More than 2,000 civilians have been killed since the coup, and the list of war crimes is similar to those reported in Ukraine – people burned alive, dozens of prisoners tortured and killed in custody, families torn apart by violence that has regularly seen teenagers and children slain. Fearful mothers and children are hiding in forest and jungle areas without food or water. 

Every day, from morning to night, the world media are full of news on Ukraine, but the Myanmar people whose villages were burned down or bombed by Russian MiG fighters and helicopter gunships are never mentioned.

The democratic forces are diehard fighters who risk their lives, but they are stuck in an unequal fight, many armed with just muskets. Like Ukrainians, they can fight back with guerrilla warfare. But they need automatic rifles and ammunition. 

China and Russia are the main supporters and protectors of Myanmar’s military generals, and the West sees Myanmar as close to China’s “sphere of influence.” But Western nations need to consider Myanmar if they want to see democratic states emerge in Southeast Asia.

Lip service won’t bring change. The people of Myanmar need support, like the people in Ukraine. Both are suffering an invasion by brutal forces. The European Union and the US need to consider that the people of Myanmar are humans, also fighting for independence, and they deserve just a small proportion of what has been given to Ukraine.

Htun Aung Gyaw is a former president of the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) who later studied at Cornell University in the US, earning a master’s degree in Asian studies.