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The World This Year
Myanmar in 2023: Extended Emergency, Political Instability and State-led violence

  Alka Bala
Alka Bala is an undergraduate student at the Department of International Relations, Peace and Public Policy, St Joseph's University.

Major Developments in 2023
On 27 January 2023, Myanmar's military announced the Political Party Registration Law, which repealed the 2010 legislation. The new law entails strict election criteria, which would crush meaningful party participation in the elections and could sideline the military's opponents. The law bars parties and candidates deemed to have links to individuals or organizations "designated as committing terror acts" or seen as "unlawful". According to the State's media, "parties that want to contest the national election will also need to secure at least 100,000 members within three months of registration and have funds of 100 million Myanmar kyat (USD 45,500)", 100 times more than previously. The money has to be deposited with the state-owned Myanmar Economic Bank.

On 01 February 2023, on its second anniversary of the military coup, the State of Emergency in Myanmar was extended for the third time, postponing the proposed dates for elections and garnering a new round of sanctions from the United States, Canada, Britain, UK and Australia targeting members of the junta and junta-backed entities. On 31 July 2023, the coup leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, announced the fourth six-month extension of emergency, citing that polls could not take place amid continued fighting in the Sagaing, Magway, Bago and Tanintharyi regions as well as Karen, Kayah and Chin states. 

During 10-11 May 2023, the 42nd ASEAN summit in Indonesia addressed the escalating military actions in Myanmar. The leaders demanded inclusive discussion, humanitarian relief, and a halt to violence in Myanmar. Indonesia, as the ASEAN Chair, has been engaging all major stakeholders in Myanmar - the military, the National Unity Government, and armed ethnic groups for peace talks while condemning attacks and demanding compliance with the Five Point Consensus plan. These objectives were reiterated at the 43rd ASEAN Summit held in September in Indonesia.

2023 saw an increase in hostilities by Myanmar's military, especially with the increase in airstrikes. According to a report by Burma Affairs and Conflict Study, between October 2022 and June 2023, "as many as 395 air strikes were conducted by the Military Council with the highest number of such air strikes took place in the Sagaing region, second highest in Karen state and the third highest in the Chin state." 

On 27 October 2023, in order to combat the military, the Three Brotherhood Alliance (3BTA), which comprises the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Arakan Army (AA) launched "Operation 1027" in northern Shan State, close to the Myanmar-China border. "Operation 1027" has the support of Myanmar's National Unity Government, as reiterated through their issued statement.

On 12 December, UNODC's latest report stated that Myanmar has overtaken Afghanistan as the world's biggest opium producer. Poor access to markets and state infrastructure, as well as rampant inflation, "appears to have played a significant role in farmers' decisions in late 2022 to cultivate more poppy", the report said.

Major Issues in 2023
First, the shrinking political freedom and civic space in Myanmar. In response to the new Political Party Registration Law, Manny Maung, Myanmar researcher at Human Rights Watch, said, "The junta is creating a system to crush all political opposition and derail any possible return to democratic civilian rule." Myanmar's National Democratic League and other minority parties, Kayah State Democracy and the Kayan National Party, got deregistered as they objected to standing under any election held by the military. However, this means limited democratic party alternatives for the citizens and forces them to vote in favour of military-backed entities when and if the elections are held. The existing electoral system in Myanmar, accompanied by the new law, has questionable credibility regarding holding free and democratic elections. The ongoing fourth extension of the State of emergency grants the military, led by Min Aung Hlaing, extensive control over other organs of the government, which is misused by enacting arbitrary legislation, subverting the legitimacy of the judiciary by appointing judges aligned to the junta's interests. Notably, the fourth emergency extension violates Section 425 of the constitution, allowing only two extensions.

Second, the regional destabilization caused by military-led violence. The military has increased airstrikes and has also targeted civilian populated areas and public infrastructure, such as hospitals and schools, as a measure to counter resistance leading to a rising death toll. The violence has also caused a conflict spillover as refugees flee to neighbouring countries of Thailand from the Eastern Karen State and Into Mizoram from Chin State, also into Yunnan Province of China. 2.3 million population are internally Displaced within Myanmar, whereas 1.35 million are refugees.

Third, the persistent humanitarian crisis, accompanied by the impacts of natural disasters. Cyclone Mocha, which ravaged the northern part of Myanmar, highlighted safety and security challenges for affected communities, indicating an impending food security crisis due to the depleting household reserves and crop damage. The cyclone highlighted an education crisis, as 80 per cent of schools and educational infrastructure was destroyed, along with other persistent threats of sexual violence, lack of sanitation facilities and privacy. UNSC condemned the Myanmar military over the conditions in Myanmar with more than 18 million people in Myanmar in need of humanitarian assistance, two million had been forced from their homes, and some 15 million people were "food insecure". The repatriation of 6000 Rohingyas refugees from Bangladesh faced a roadblock as the delegates were unhappy over the poor arrangements of facilities as per the Rakhine State Resettlement Plan and the lack of clarity over the provision of citizenship for Rohingyas.

Fourth, sanctions on Myanmar and their ineffectiveness. The United States has imposed nearly 20 rounds of sanctions on Myanmar, along with the UK and European Union (six rounds of sanctions) and Canada and Australia, targeting multiple military leaders, business enterprises owned and associated by them, and state-owned enterprises, while also targeting suppliers of aviation fuel. Myanmar's military has a lengthy history of surviving sanctions, and in the two years since the imposition, their stance has not changed, and instances of brutality have escalated. Myanmar enjoys diplomatic support from China and Russia, from China in the form of increased investments, economic partnerships and support. At the same time, Russia has promised military and tactical support by providing military equipment and aircraft.

Fifth, a divided ASEAN on its actions on Myanmar. The ASEAN stands to lose its value as an effective international forum over its lack of consensus and inaction on Myanmar. An example of this loss of centrality is the announcement of Timor Leste rethinking its plans to join ASEAN, citing the body's failure to "convince the military junta to [end the violence]." The Philippines is scheduled to assume the chair in 2026 in place of Myanmar after ASEAN decided to suspend Myanmar's rotating chair function. Nevertheless, this move is insufficient, and significant action is needed to address the lack of progress. ASEAN's announced troika mechanism - an arrangement between outgoing chair Indonesia, future chair Malaysia and incoming chair Laos to work collectively to identify a solution, including all relevant stakeholders from Myanmar, seems promising.

2024: Looking Ahead
First, the future of sanctions. A shift in focus from formal sanctions to steps taken by private sector actors might prove more effective. Since the coup, many international companies have withdrawn from Myanmar — notably Japan's Kirin beverage conglomerate and energy multinationals such as Woodside, Chevron and Total. The lack of activities of foreign energy corporations may have a greater effect on Myanmar's export earnings and internal economy. Despite acknowledged limitations, the United States, Europe, and like-minded nations will continue with the sanctions, as the goal is to reduce and prevent the junta from obtaining revenue or resources, progressively undermining the military and supporting resistance groups.

Second, the role of international players. India and Thailand are likely to realign their pro-junta stance, which is viewed through the close cooperation in economic projects; such interactions and maintaining relations would be seen as protecting their interests. However, given the conflict spillover and the refugee influx into both these countries, while considering the violence in Manipur in North East India, it is plausible that the present relations will transform to address national and security concerns. ASEAN will have to make evident progress in realizing the Five Point Consensus into a reality to regain its centrality as a regional forum for deliberation and conflict resolution. Providing humanitarian assistance and cross-border aid is the most realistically achievable goal by ASEAN in coordination with UN agencies, as most ASEAN nations share borders with Myanmar. It is imperative to reduce the flow of arms into Myanmar to curb Military violence. Hence, western countries can coordinate and place an arms embargo.

Third, tactical attempts to maintain the junta's control. Chinese and Russian Support immunizes the junta to withstand international sanctions and criticisms coupled with weak regional response acts as a catalyst for civilian strife. The elections might occur in October 2024 or early 2025, after a national census, according to the junta. However, the credibility of such an election is to be reevaluated. The junta also tends to pose "elections" as a card to obtain validation and support in ASEAN to a certain extent. It can attempt to gain some section of public opinion through certain democratic and administrative reforms but maintain political control. An attempt in this direction was the reduction of the imprisonment sentence of Aung San Suu Kyi and U win Myint's ( the former president) sentence by four years while also allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to meet with Thailand's foreign minister and Deputy Prime Minister, which was considered as a positive development. In the future, the junta can also use the divided opinion among the Buddhist monks to propagate their form of government and manipulate public opinion.

Fourth, the future of the Resistance as it vows 'Beginning of the End for the military'. The junta's territorial control only extends to half of the country. The ethnic revolutionary organizations and resistance groups are gaining ground and are either in direct conflict with junta troops or are providing assistance to the People's Defense Forces. Resistance forces hold an upper hand over the demoralized and demotivated Junta troops owing to the public hostility and persistent corruption within the military. However, resistance solely through Operation 1027 will not bring realistic and lasting change. The National Unity Government will have to shift its policy and focus through achievable goals of diplomacy, even start a meaningful dialogue with the junta and approach potential partners, especially Myanmar's neighbours. ASEAN member states have opportunities for public and covert interaction and assistance. The level of support would be based on the extent of vested interests in Myanmar and their national interests.

Ultimately, the future of the situation in Myanmar in 2024 and resolutions to the crises faced will come from a changed perspective of all the domestic actors involved and from international players.

About the author
Alka Bala is an undergraduate student at the Department of International Relations, Peace and Public Policy, St Joseph's University.

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