Myanmar’s junta is under pressure in a way it hasn’t been in decades.
Challenging its military might are armed civilian groups known as the People’s Defense Force — a grassroots insurgency made up of citizens including farmers, doctors, teachers, home-makers and engineers — all determined to overthrow the generals who took control of the country in a coup just over a year ago.
Mass street protests and a deadly crackdown followed, and on past history, that might have been the end of it.
But it wasn’t. There is now debate over whether Myanmar is now in the grip of a civil war. Deadly battles are no longer limited to border hotspots. Instead they’re fought throughout the nation, with cities like the financial capital Yangon and Mandalay witnessing assassination campaigns against junta members and bombing attacks. They hit a Chinese-backed electricity facility in the northwest last month.
One thing is clear — the junta is no longer fully in control, with hit and run attacks on military convoys, army bases and other high-security targets a regular occurrence.
Thousands of defections from both the army and police, while not enough to bring them to their knees, are destabilizing and a significant hit to morale.
By mid-September, there were reports that resistance forces had killed more than 1,700 junta soldiers. The military responded with its usual brutal force, killing more than 1,540 people and arresting upwards of 9,000, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a non-profit that has been tracking the unrest, reported.
While the military casualties have so far been limited, the breadth and staying power of the insurgent campaign has been surprising.
All this presents a challenge for regional groups like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has for the last 12 months isolated Myanmar in a way its rarely treated a member state before. Asean foreign ministers are due to meet Wednesday to discuss, among other issues, humanitarian aid for Myanmar.
The grouping has so far barred junta representatives from attending key gatherings due to its failure to implement its five-point consensus plan that includes the immediate cessation of violence and the start of peace talks. This tough stance — a marked change from the last time the junta was in power — has to continue.
Myanmar’s military ruler, Min Aung Hlaing, has repeatedly refused to bow to Asean demands to send a non-political representative to these meetings. That empty seat should speak volumes, and provide further impetus to global leaders, including those in Asean, to diversify their diplomatic outreach on Myanmar and work more closely with the alternative National Unity Government and those groups supporting a return to democratic rule.
The NUG is made up of representatives of those elected in a landslide in the national poll in 2020, which the junta says was tainted, but that international observers said was free and fair. It declared war against the regime in July and urged citizens to revolt against military rule.
Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (which until last year’s coup had been in government since 2015) is facing six years in prison, with more court verdicts to come.
The civilian resistance campaign is complicated by long-running ethnic tensions. Armed militia like the Arakan Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army have been fighting against the military for decades.
Other groups divide into those that signed on to the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Accord with the then-government and groups in the north, particularly along the Chinese border, including the United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Army, that didn’t.
Earlier this month, four armed ethnic groups released a statement pledging to fight against the military regime. This dashed the hopes of Min Aung Hlaing, who has sought to offer a ceasefire to the militia to try and stop them aligning with the People’s Defense Force, says Angshuman Choudhury, senior researcher and coordinator of the South East Asia Research Program at the New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
“Myanmar has been in a state of civil war for a long time, but until now it has been limited to certain territories and ethnic regions. Now, even the Bamar heartland is in conflict,” Choudhry told me, referring to the nation’s ethnic majority.
“Now, in every state and every region we are seeing clashes every week. The game-changer has been the People’s Defense Forces — today the anger against military rule is much more intense than the ‘90s.”
Myanmar’s two giant neighbors, China and India, will also need to recalibrate their response to acknowledge this resistance. Beijing has already opened discussions with the shadow National Unity Government, continuing its ties with Suu Kyi’s allies that led to investments like the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor when her NLD was in power.
India has been more limited in its approach, which has focused mostly on the junta, even as thousands of Myanmar citizens flee into the Indian state of Mizoram. That has to change.
Through all this instability, the economy is in freefall — the World Bank estimates it shrank 18% in the fiscal year through last September, and projects just 1% growth in the 12 months to September 2022.
The U.S. has recently issued fresh sanctions against people and entities linked to the regime, in a move coordinated with the U.K. and Canada.
Meanwhile, companies including Woodside Petroleum Ltd., Chevron Corp., TotalEnergies SE and Telenor ASA are moving to exit Myanmar, citing the worsening humanitarian situation. Japanese brewer Kirin Holdings Co. announced Monday it too was withdrawing.
At this point, there’s no incentive for the military or the armed groups to stop the violence, says Lina Alexandra, a senior researcher at the Center of Strategic and International Studies who focuses on Myanmar, peacebuilding and human rights.
Along with pushing for the implementation of the five-point consensus, Asean should maintain its position of refusing the attendance of military representatives, not just at key meetings but at all levels of the regional body’s processes.
Making way for aid deliveries would be a good starting point to open a dialogue between the conflicting parties, given both sides are in dire need of basic supplies, Alexandra said. Currently humanitarian workers have not been given permission operate, nor is it safe for them to do so, she noted, where the military is still killing and abducting civilians.
For now the junta, with its air force, navy and heavy weapons provided by Russia, maintains a clear strategic advantage. But the attacks from the civilian resistance are inflicting real damage in Myanmar’s heartland. If that continues, the balance could tip. But only if regional actors continue with their unprecedented tough stand and force junta’s hand.
SOURCE: Business Standard