IPRI Quarterly Forecasts I Triggers, Trends, and Trajectories

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IPRI Quarterly Forecasts I Triggers, Trends, and Trajectories
Myanmar continues to burn

  Bibhu Prasad Routray

In spite of being in power for the last two and half years since orchestrating a coup in February 2021, Myanmar’s military-controlled government’s efforts to legitimize its rule remain an incomplete project. It has been subjected to enormous pressure from principally three quarters: the parallel National Unity Government and its armed wing, the People Defence Forces (PDFs) and some of the Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs); the regional countries; and some of the global powers as well as the United Nations (UN). Although it tries to portray a picture of stability, its capacity to govern the country and establish order faces constant challenges. However, these constraints and pressures have done little to dilute its will to stay put at any cost, which translates into launching a brutal war on the resistance movement. Its efforts have been aided by a few countries, who not only believe in its indispensability but also its ability to fulfil their strategic objectives. On the other hand, the NUG and its armed wing, in spite of their impressive achievements vis-à-vis the military, are not anywhere close to victory. They continue to battle a superior adversary, face logistical challenges and have struggled to elicit any visible, direct, and significant external assistance. However, just like the military, they too appear determined to stay on course. This stalemate is ruinous for the country and its economy. The struggle, however, is critical as its outcome will determine Myanmar’s political future.

In the entire contestation between the military and the pro-democracy activists in the last four months, three crucial trends can be identified. Much of these are continuing over the previous two years.

(i) Democracy versus terrorism binary: Restoring democracy and upholding the verdict of the 2020 elections has been the demand of the NUG. It justifies the armed uprising as the only option to secure its goal. The military, on the other hand, has alleged that the elections were fraud-marred and hence, had to be annulled. Interestingly, however, the military vows its promise to restore democracy as well, by planning to hold an election in which its own Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) can secure victory. On 28 March, the military-formed election commission announced the dissolution of 40 political parties including the National League for Democracy (NLD), for failing to re-register under a new electoral law. Although the election, planned to be held in 2023, is uncertain, the disenfranchisement tactic of the military remains part of the broader campaign to dig its feet deep in the country’s body politic.  

Its strategy continues to include intense stabilisation campaigns to militarily weaken PDFs and their EAO allies. On 27 March, during the celebration of the 78th Armed Forces Day, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing repeated that the PDFs and the EAOs are terrorists and reiterated his promise to crush them. Terming the pro-democracy activists as terrorists is strategic, as it seeks to legitimize the military’s use of brute force including air strikes to quell dissent, which has been continuing since January 2022. On 11 April, 175 people were killed in an air strike targeting the Pa Zi Gyi village in the north-western Sagaing region. The military spokesperson confirmed the strike. Again, on 27 June, at least ten civilians were killed in a similar attack on Nyaung Kone village in the Sagaing region. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), till 30 June, 3736 people have been killed by the military since the February 2021 coup. A total of 23,561 people have been arrested, of whom 19,295 are still under detention.      

The NUG’s campaign to restore democracy involves ambushes and attacks on military convoys and security force installations, and targeted assassinations of officials and symphathisers of the military and its government. The deputy head of the election commission was assassinated on 22 April and a lawyer accused of helping junta leaders was shot dead on 24 March.   

(ii) Stability Chaos Paradox: In spite of its inability to silence the opposition and secure prominent townships like Yangon from recurrent PDF attacks, the military insists that the country is stable and the conflict is under control. To showcase that it is ‘business as usual’, it celebrated the Armed Forces Day with a mega military parade in March. Reports in March suggested that work on the Muse-Kyaukphyu rail project, one of the headline projects of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) has started. In May, the Sittwe port, built with assistance from New Delhi in the Rakhine state, began receiving container ships.  Officials from India and Myanmar's military government attended the port's inauguration ceremony. The military government continues to receive a slew of high-profile visitors that have included the Chinese Foreign Minister (on 2 May) and Indian Defence Secretary (on 30 June).    

The NLD-dominated NUG’s strategy, on the other hand, is to spread chaos and prove the military’s stability claim wrong. Further, the NLD reckons that its popularity, which had translated into an overwhelming victory in the 2015 and 2020 elections, bestows upon it a sense of responsibility to keep fighting. The NUG claims control over half of Myanmar’s territory, which has been partially endorsed by Senior General Aung Hlaing, who in February said that of the 330 townships in the country, 132 need security measures.

(iii) Sanctions versus Show of Support: The United States, on 21 June, announced sanctions on Myanmar’s defence ministry, the state-owned Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank (MFTB), and Myanma Investment and Commercial Bank (MICB). The US Treasury Department said that the military has relied on foreign sources, including Russian entities under sanctions, to buy and import arms, equipment and raw materials worth $1 billion to manufacture weapons to support its brutal repression. Between March and June, there were six additional rounds of sanctions imposed by the US on different individuals, military officials, and entities in Myanmar. While the military has tried to put up a defiant posture, analysts are divided on the utility of sanctions. Some have argued that such sanctions have limited value and have pushed the military firmly into the lap of China.

The survivability of the military-backed government indeed depended critically on its relations with countries like China and Russia. While the ASEAN has failed to pursue a united approach to pressurizing Myanmar, countries like India continue not only to maintain normal official contact with the military but have extended a range of assistance including military hardware. In May, a new UN report indicated that Myanmar’s military had imported at least $1 billion in weapons and military-related equipment since the February 2021 coup. Much of the equipment has been sourced from individuals and businesses in Russia, China and Singapore. During the same month, the visiting Chinese foreign minister met Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw. He hailed the friendship between the two nations and pledged to boost bilateral ties.  

The  period between March and June did not demonstrate much change from the state of stalemate that prevails between the two adversaries: the military and the NUG. Both have claimed battlefield victories, underplayed their losses, and repeatedly expressed determination to continue their battle of attrition.

(i) The Military’s advantages: Nation-states have the inherent advantage of almost limitless resources to fight resistance movements. In Myanmar’s case, the protracted experience of fighting insurgencies is aiding the military’s armed campaign. In spite of the slew of sanctions it has been subjected to, the military enjoys several advantages. It has been able to exploit the strategic compulsions of regional countries like India for its own benefit. It has also managed to keep its long-standing relationship with China intact. More importantly, it has also been able to find dedicated sources for weapons.

Its pitiable human rights and humanitarian records have been repeatedly condemned by the UN. For instance, on 3 March, a UN report referred to the ‘four cut strategy’ of the military which included killing, arbitrary arrest, torture and enforced disappearance of anti-coup opponents. However, Chinese and Russian support in the global forum has protected it from any united and resolute action by the Security Council. As the West remains occupied in the Ukraine war, the Myanmar military, for all the valid reasons, has reasons to believe that it’s    

(ii) The NUG’s challenges: On the other hand, the NUG’s challenges are primarily three. Firstly, in the global arena, it is battling international indifference as the conflict fades from the media headlines. This has forced it to reach out to sympathetic countries, urging them to hold the military accountable for possible war crimes. In June, Aung Myo Min, NUG’s human rights minister visited Australia, met advocacy groups and NGOs, and spoke at universities. Although foreign governments have not shied away from maintaining diplomatic relations with the NUG, the latter is yet to secure official recognition.

Secondly, while the NUG views sanctions as a useful instrument for pressurizing the military, it maintains that this has to be accompanied by direct financial and logistical assistance to the resistance movement. So far very little is known about the source of the NUG’s war chest. However, there are reasons to believe that this is far too limited compared to the military which benefits from a range of economic enterprises. This is bound to limit PDFs and the EAOs military campaign in the medium to long term.  

Thirdly, the resistance movement against the military is yet to become a country-wide phenomenon. A number of EAOs including the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), United Wa State Party (UWSP) and National Democratic Alliance Army, have stayed away from the conflict. This works to the advantage of the military, as it focuses its onslaught in limited areas of the country.     

Early Warnings

  • The military-backed government is likely to make an all-out effort to hold elections this year. To ensure that it may escalate its operations, both in terms of strategic geographical areas and intensity.
  • The PDFs and EAOs too are likely to upscale their attacks, although these will remain sporadic.
  • The conflict is unlikely to produce a winner in the short term, which will translate to some parts of Myanmar remaining an active war zone.  

About the author

Dr Bibhu Prasad Routray is the Director of Mantraya, Goa. He was formerly a Deputy Director at the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India.

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