Myanmar’s Junta Is in Trouble
by Mel Gurtov
A Badly Weakened Dictatorship
Myanmar’s (Burma) military dictatorship, which seized power in 2021, suddenly is vulnerable to attack from the hodgepodge resistance forces loosely aligned under a National Unity Government. These forces are of two kinds: ethnic minority armies, sometimes referred to as the Three Brotherhood Alliance, that have a long history of opposition to the military government, and pro-democracy groups backed by the NUG that have come together since the 2021 coup. (A publication of Myanmar journalists in exile in Thailand lists 30 armed groups in all, 10 of which are ethnic armies).
What makes the resistance so threatening to the military now is that the various armies are coordinating and becoming increasingly successful in the north and northeast, areas that border China as well as Thailand and India. The opposition has captured towns, seized arsenals, and obtained the surrender of some government units, most recently including an entire battalion. Thousands of people have fled the fighting, mainly into India.
The Myanmar junta has superior forces on the ground and in the air, yet a BBC report says: “After two and a half years of battling the armed uprising it provoked with its disastrous coup, the military is looking weak, and possibly beatable.” A Council on Foreign Relations study suggests that another coup by disgruntled army officers is even possible.
China seems to be playing both sides, no doubt aware of the security implications of backing just one.
On one hand, it has consistently supported the junta’s repression. The Myanmar leadership pretends that all is well in relations with China. It insists that ties are strong and that the strategic partnership is firm. The latest evidence is a port visit November 27 by three Chinese vessels, including a destroyer, in preparation for joint naval maneuvers.
Behind the scenes, however, reports indicate displeasure within the junta over China’s relations with the rebel groups, in particular sales of weapons to those groups. That displeasure led to a first-ever anti-China demonstration outside the Chinese embassy in Yangon on Nov. 17.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman had to issue a formal statement reassuring the protesters that China never interferes in Myanmar’s internal affairs.
Chinese authorities are indeed in close touch with the rebelling ethnic groups, which have promised to protect Chinese investments in areas the groups control. The northeast border area is the site of criminal activity—drug trafficking and cypberscam operations—that concerns China because of its impact on Chinese nationals and the capacity for border unrest.
Beijing has neither condemned the opposition forces nor endorsed the junta’s efforts to quash them. According to a reportby the US Institute of Peace (USIP), “Beijing almost certainly approved the offensive after the junta generals ignored its appeals to crack down on lucrative crime centers along the border that pretty on China nationals.”
That has probably gotten the generals’ attention: The junta is now reporting that China is brokering peace talks between the main armed opposition group and the government.
After Victory: The Challenges Ahead
The military successes of the resistance forces beg the question, What might Myanmar look like if they win—that is, force the collapse of the junta?
The USIP study is, somewhat surprisingly, optimistic. Whereas some specialists might predict a fragmentation of the resistance along ethnic and political lines, one of the USIP study’s main findings is that:
“most [resistance fighters] are motivated primarily by a desire to protect communities from the rampaging army and to achieve a new political and social paradigm. Many resistance fighters . . . have roots in communities they serve. Likewise, the core ethnic resistance organizations [EROs] started as social movements decades ago, not armed groups, and continue to serve their own communities.”
As for the potential to overcome differences and build a new Myanmar, the USIP study finds:
“Achieving a new political arrangement will not be straightforward and will likely require years of national dialogue. But USIP research shows that the movement has already made meaningful progress toward national reconciliation and building a shared vision. The various forms of collaboration between EROs and Bamar communities on military operations, social service provision and humanitarian response further demonstrate growing solidarity.”
Two other things the movement will have to accomplish: diverting farmers from opium production, and reversing the country’s stagnant growth. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has just announced that Myanmar has surpassed Afghanistan as the world leader in opium production.
Rising insecurity has apparently contributed to increased resort to poppy growing. It has also contributed to greatly reduced trade, foreign investment, inflation, and displacement of about 2.5 million people, according to the World Bank. The Bank projects overall economic growth for Myanmar of one percent.
Can a highly diverse resistance movement come together to build a just and equitable society? From a distance it may seem that the odds are against, but in the particular case of Myanmar, release from the overwhelming weight of the military may be the key ingredient in building a national consensus for democratic rule and social justice.