Myanmar has descended into quasi-civil war, but neither side has means to win it
While Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s coup against a civilian government one year ago has failed to achieve national unity and peace as promised, the unprecedented uprising of Myanmar’s people is still far from achieving victory.
“To be honest, if we are still talking about the coup one year later, [that means] it has failed,” Debbie Stothard, founder, and director of rights organization ALTASEAN, said recently.
Stothard was speaking at a webinar was hosted by Singapore-based thinktank ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute on Jan 27.
If the coup had been successful, then the junta would by now have installed a puppet civilian government, stepped up measures to restore calm, and revived the economy to build its legitimacy, she said.
“But that did not happen. The military is merely escalating the fighting and violence,” she said.
Gen Min Aung Hlaing staged his coup on Feb 1 last year after accusing Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s government of election fraud.
The general then set up a junta known formally as the State Administration Council (SAC), which he chairs as premier, to run the country. He has also retained his position as chief of the armed forces.
Stothard calls the coup an irrational move. She explained that Gen Min Aung Hlaing seized power because he failed to twist Suu Kyi’s arm into making him the country’s president upon his military retirement. The coup sparked strong resistance from the people, notably the young generation across the country, which triggered a fierce and bloody crackdown.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) reports that since February 1, 2021, the junta has killed 1,507 people and detained 8,899 others.
There have been more than 7,000 armed clashes and military attacks on civilians in the year since the coup. In fact, the number of violent clashes in Myanmar during the dry-season offensive from September to December was far more than that of strife-torn Syria and Afghanistan combined, Stothard said.
The World Bank reported on Jan 26 that the coup and the COVID-19 crisis have severely impacted Myanmar’s economy, which shrank 18 percent last year – the biggest contraction in Southeast Asia.
Military crackdowns and offensives against dissidents not only caused thousands of casualties and mass displacement but also affected businesses, logistics, confidence, and appetite to invest, the bank said in its report.
Khin Ohmar, a seasoned activist who founded and chairs Progressive Voice and has been fighting the military since the student uprising in 1988, said the first anniversary of the coup should be seen as a celebration for the people’s movement.
“This is the first time I have seen such large-scale activism, with the people gaining solid ground in their resistance against the military,” Khin Ohmar said at a separate webinar, hosted by Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies (Thailand).
Speaking at the same event, independent analyst Matthew Arnold said the resistance in Myanmar was a spontaneous uprising of a people – especially the young generation – who will not tolerate military domination anymore.
The uprising is employing several different tactics, including relatively peaceful civil disobedience and boycotts against military-linked businesses. It has also organized armed resistance that has partially disrupted the junta’s administration and loosened its control in areas such as northern Magway and Sagaing, Arnold said. Some ethnic armed organizations will be able to take significant control of their areas in about six months, he predicted.
What began as a natural uprising turned into a sort of civil war when the parallel National Unity Government (NUG), which claimed legitimacy after the November 2020 election, set up the People’s Defense Force (PDF) in May last year to weaponize the battle. The PDF apparently aims to upgrade into a federal army that will go head-to-head with the Myanmar military, also known as the Tatmadaw.
The NUG has received cooperation and assistance from certain ethnic armed groups to train its armed wing, the PDF, but is not yet able to match the well-armed 350,000-strong Tatmadaw, said Thammasat University academic Dulyapak Preecharushh, an expert on Myanmar’s security affairs.
To suppress the people’s resistance, the Tatmadaw recruited and armed pro-junta villagers to form death squads named after an ancient Bagan king, Pyu Saw Htee. The squads go house to house, village to village, hunting and destroying dissidents, Dulyapak explained. He was speaking at a seminar held by Thammasat University’s Pridi Banomyong International College on February 1.
While Arnold sees strong collaboration between NUG/PDF and ethnic armed groups – some of whom have fought for autonomy against the Tatmadaw since Myanmar’s independence in 1948 – Dulyapak doubts there is unity or a common objective.
Groups in many areas in the North and Northeast are even fighting one another in a bid to expand their territories, he pointed out.
Armed conflict in Myanmar has become more complex and more fluid since the military coup. Some ethnic armies have announced they will fight alongside the NUG/PDF, while others have chosen to maintain the ceasefire they signed under the previous regime. This is despite many declaring that the truce is already dead.
The Karen National Union and its armed Karen National Liberation Army, as well as the Kachin Independence Army, have adopted a far more aggressive approach towards the Tatmadaw, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said.
The February 2021 coup created a drastic shift in armed conflicts in ethnic areas and drew the Kayah-based Karenni National Progressive Party and its Karenni Army, along with the smaller Chin National Front, into open armed conflict, said the ICG report published on Jan 12. The Tatmadaw has launched airstrikes against both the Karenni and Karen ethnic groups since April last year.
Several other ethnic armed groups – such as the Arakan Army, the National Democratic Alliance Army, and Ta’ang National Liberation Army – said in March last year they would only fight the Tatmadaw if their respective territories were invaded.
Meanwhile, the Shan State Progressive Party and Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), who are based near the Thai border, remain ambiguous about committing to the NUG/PDF struggle, the ICG report said. It noted that the RCSS, chaired by well-known leader Yawd Serk, has “ensured that no PDF forces have based themselves within its territory”.
By Thai PBS World’s Regional Desk