22 July 2024

In this second year of the Myanmar coup, activities by all parties are expected to accelerate. The stakes are high for all stakeholders as Myanmar’s military digs in. Nine prominent panelists at a Jakarta Post, Thai PBS and Asia News Network webinar provided insights into how 2022 may unfold for the country.

Will the People’s Defense Force (PDF), Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAO) and other pro-democracy oppositions be able to shake the military junta?

In not quite a full blown civil war, except in the selected border areas, the PDF has taken the fight to Myanmar’s heartland for the first time since 1970s. “The centre of gravity has shifted, from major towns and cities to the countryside,” said Bertil Lintner, a veteran Myanmar specialist. There may be 100 or even 200 PDFs “we don’t know”.

There have been attacks here and there and bombs detonated in Yangon and Mandalay. The Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s term for military) has suffered heavy casualties. “We have seen that, but there is nothing really that will dislodge them from power,” he said, because the PDF lacks weapons. Besides, the PDF also lacks coordination and there is no central command.

Nonetheless, the people’s determination remains strong, said Kyaw Win from the London-based Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN), citing an example of families selling their jewelry to help the opposition group buy weapons to fight in the Rakhine State. “The military will not stop the killing and the atrocities and violence will not stop. Yet the people will not give up. The situation will worsen and we need to prepare for the worst.”

Lintner underscored the need for all sides to face reality. “I say it is almost impossible for the opposition to win. (There are) no defections to the level that will rock the power of the Tatmadaw.” The latter has been in power for a long time and remains the most powerful institution in the country. There are no signs of a split in the military, “But if there is, we will see a bloody civil war. I am not optimistic. I wish Myanmar all the best. A year after the coup I don’t see any positive signs at all.”

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Panitan Wattanayagorn, Chairman of the Thai Prime Minister’s Security Advisory Committee, said “I hate to disagree with Bertil and also hate to think that he is right that the military is united.”

“I agree with Bertil with one slight difference. Myanmar today is not like Myanmar 20 years ago. The military today is not the military of 20 years ago. No one can turn the clock back.”

How united are the opposition? Are they slated for international recognition?

All signs point to more severe sanctions coming with the lack of progress on the diplomatic front from ASEAN. The different opposition groups appear to be tightening their unity.

Speaking on behalf of the Karen National Union (KNU), Saw Nimrod, Foreign Affairs Department’s secretary, said the KNU has been working closely with National Unity Government (shadow government) and the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), which is a coalition of elected MPs, EAOs and other anti-regime groups. “We are looking for an opportunity to work together and unite the democratic forces.

He said the NUCC convened a People’s Assembly, which ended last week, to forge unity among key stakeholders. “Their role is to end military rule and bring about a future federal democratic system. It is very important for the international community to look into and support the NUCC and their political platform for future cooperation and dialogue.”

Dr. Sasa, NUG’s Minister of International Cooperation, claimed that the Tatmadaw is losing ground, including the control over Sagaing. “The military generals had not prepared for the CRPH (Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw), have no strategy to deal with PDF, NUG etc. They expected some protests, but not the united forces against them.”

He said the recently concluded People’s Assembly brought together big armed organisations, political parties, MPs, civil societies at the grass roots. “It shows that our unity has been the highest in the history of Myanmar.” The roadmap consists of the eradication of the military dictatorship, drafting of the Constitution of Myanmar, based on the Federal Democratic principle of self-determination, and the union of all peoples, regardless of race, religion, culture or ethnicity, including the Rohingya.

A US State Department official recently held an online meeting with NUG representatives, including the acting President, Prime Minister and designated Foreign Minister.

Evidence of “crimes against humanity”

The NUG has made a move on the legal front, with a statement accepting the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to hear allegations that genocide against the Rohingya minority has been committed.

The previous government, under Aung San Suu Kyi, had filed preliminary objections to the charge brought by Gambia. It is unclear whether this will affect the legal process.

The hearing is scheduled in The Hague on Feb 21st, said Laetitia van den Assum, who was a member of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, set up by Aung San Suu Kyi and the former Dutch ambassador to Thailand and Myanmar.

She added that the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) has been investigating crimes since the coup. The IIMM has received information from many sources indicating that some 1,000 deaths were crimes against humanity. The IIMM provides information to the ICJ, International Criminal Court (ICC) and others.

While many parties internationally and the majority of UN member states have called on the ICC to look into the situation in Myanmar, it will need an agreement among the UN Security Council, which so far has not been forthcoming.

Is ASEAN’s five-point consensus dead and buried?

The NUG’s Sasa lambasted ASEAN’s failure to implement the five-point consensus for Myanmar. “There is no strategy to implement them. There is no inclusiveness in engagement.”

He added that the “a lack of strategy, a timetable and leadership” had thwarted efforts to resolve the crisis.

Sasa ruled out any negotiation with the “killers” and would only discuss specific humanitarian activities as the NUG hardens its stance.

Kobsak Chotikul, a former Thai ambassador, said ASEAN has to admit that the current process is not working. “In 2022 we can’t have the same killing… for another year… the same thing over and over and expect a different result”.

He called for a deadline in July and, if there is no progress, “we have to raise the ante and put up the 6th point by having the international community convening an international conference. Participants should include ASEAN as well as neighbours – China, India, Bangladesh – all of which, he argued, can’t hide behind “the burden of proximity”.

Kobsak said the UN Secretary General António Guterres cannot outsource the crisis management to ASEAN or the special envoy. The international conference on Myanmar should be unending, to take on humanitarian relief and landmine clearance. “They should be coordinated by the Sec-Gen himself and he should be the one going to Myanmar himself.”

Laetitia echoed her support and suggested that the international conference should be pursued to the point where the military regime feels the pressure. “It may not be yet prepared to come to the table, but sanctions are starting to bite, as (we) see the departure (announcement) by oil majors last week. All efforts must be made to get Myanmar to the table.”

She said a deadline must be set and criticised the UN Security Council for not doing its work. Laetitia added that UN member states wants to see other types of approaches and mechanisms that will ensure consultation and dialogue to ensure progress. Many have also called for a ban on arms supply to the junta.

Unending refugee influx

Lack of any diplomatic breakthroughs and intensified fighting have resulted in an influx of displaced persons within Myanmar itself, as well as across the borders in China, India, Bangladesh and Thailand.

Gen. Nipat Thonglek, a former Thai Defense Permanent Secretary, reminded everyone of the plight of 80,000 refugees in nine camps in Thailand since 1988. No countries would take them and Nay Phi Taw has made it more difficult for the refugees to return home. “It is a big burden and a direct impact on Thai borders. It’s been 37 years now!”

The present crisis has also pushed people across the borders. It can be 60-100 on some days and balloons to thousands on certain days.

Panitan said the Thai-Myanmar borders will get more complicated and his committee is urging Thai government agencies to step up humanitarian activities and to play a bigger role along the borders in 2022. Engagement with international organisations and NGOs will be more “intense”.

The KNU’s Saw Nimrod said his organisation has called in vain for “safe zones and no fly zones” to prevent the military junta from targeting civilian areas and to facilitate humanitarian corridors.

The call was supported by Nipat. “They are reasonable and logical. I am happy to hear, but no one listens to them. (I am) disappointed with UN and ASEAN,” he said.

Is Thailand ready for a new initiative?

Panitan underlined Thailand’s role in resolving the crisis in Myanmar as one in which the former can’t go alone in its endeavor. “The gate must be open and it began to open last year, but the stakeholders in Myanmar must look into the opportunity and open the gate for Thailand to assist.”

He said Thailand is interested in a meeting of a “one-and-a-half-track” with officials from different parties participating in a non-official capacity in exchanging some idea, like bringing humanitarian forward.

“An official meeting is difficult at this time and non-officials may not produce results in a short period of time, but one-and-a-half-track can be effective in many circumstances,” he said.

Can China, Russia do more?

Sasa said the NUG has made clear that if China wants to stop the coup today “they have the power (to do so)”.

He said it is also recognised, however, that with China’s huge investments in Myanmar, involving many companies, the problems cannot be solved overnight.

Sasa stressed that democracy is the only path to stability in Myanmar. “We need decisive action from China and just talking to Nay Phi Taw is not enough. Myanmar is fertile land for all Myanmar’s neighbours. The only way to achieve anything is to make the military get out of politics and return power to the people.”

Lintner said China has a “very” long term strategic interest in Myanmar. It’s the only neighbouring country offering China easy direct access to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean.

“Often I hear that China is not interested in the instability in Myanmar. I disagree. They want to see instability they can control and manage. If stability is ensured by a federal democracy and the EAOs give up their weapons, China would be the first to lose its foothold inside the country.”

Lintner said arms sanctions will not hurt the Tatmadaw, which can get a lot of weapons from Russia. “I wish I was wrong, but it won’t have any effect.”

Realism and Hope?

Kornelius Purba, Jakarta Post’s Senior Editor, noted that Tatmadaw leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing will never bow to pressure or to carry out the ASEAN 5-point consensus plan, as it will spell his own end. Hlaing “will use all means to make people who oppose him surrender and younger generals will succeed him someday”

Lintner’s conclusion is that the Tatmadaw will “dig in” and won’t give an inch. For them it is a war against adversaries and the adversaries will eventually have to give in and accept them. It is a war of attrition and a fight against its own people and the international community. They are not going to give up.

“We talk about atrocities and all the bad things they have done. I think their top leadership knows that they are in power and fighting for survival. It’s that fear that keeps them united.”

“I don’t see them compromising. I hope I am wrong.”

Panitan said there have been a lot of mistakes, a lot of miscalculations by different parties in Myanmar. “I think they learn their lessons. This opportunity may produce perhaps a change of mind by different parties. Let’s hope these parties are smart enough to grab this opportunity,” he said without elaborating.

“The arrival of the National League for Democracy, democratic elections, with accommodation of the military, give me some hope and we need to build on that. Thailand could also support, but without agreement by all parties and without being invited, we can’t invite ourselves in.”

Webinar: Myanmar: Year Zero Plus One took place on Feb 1, 2022 – the first anniversary of the coup.