Two years ago today, Myanmar’s military snuffed out the country’s democratic government in a coup and set about restoring the grim dictatorship that dominated the Southeast Asian nation for 50 years. But the generals’ initial moves — jailing civilian leaders, shutting the free press, issuing heavy-handed decrees — were the only things that went according to plan. To date, the coup has instead triggered myriad unintended effects. None are more urgent and consequential than the instability and crime that the generals’ power grab triggered across Southeast Asia, and none more directly implicate U.S. interests in the region.

Esther Ze Naw and Ma Ei Thinzar Maung lead a rally to protest the recent military coup, in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 6, 2021. (The New York Times)
Esther Ze Naw and Ma Ei Thinzar Maung lead a rally to protest the recent military coup, in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 6, 2021. (The New York Times)

The instability has widened along various tracks, fueled first by Myanmar’s internal dynamics. Despite two years of unrestrained attacks on the general population, the junta continues to lose territory to powerful Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) and the swelling ranks of Peoples Defense Forces (PDFs) that formed to fight the regime. The junta’s campaign to subdue opposition through mayhem and destruction — often using air strikes — has caused food shortages, extreme instability and near economic collapse.

Amid this chaos, the junta has decided to stage sham national elections of some form later this year, should conditions allow, in a bid for international legitimacy. To crush opposition and coerce EAOs into supporting this charade, the army has intensified attacks on territories controlled by key EAOs on the country’s borders with China, India, Thailand and Bangladesh, prompting new security concerns for Myanmar’s most important neighbors.

Along the China border, a disastrous attempt by the military to crush two EAOs — the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army — has destabilized one of China’s most important trade routes into Burma. Similar attacks on positions of a second major armed group bordering China — the Kachin Independence Army — have created tensions that undermine China’s efforts to re-open other trade routes through northern Myanmar as it lifts its austere COVID-19 restrictions.

Assaults on EAOs in Chin State pose a threat to the security of India’s northeast: On January 12, the junta’s bombs strayed into Indian territory during an attempt to pulverize the base camp of the Chin Army. Heavy battles during 2022 between the military and the Arakan Army in southern Chin State also generated concern in India about the ability of the junta to guarantee the viability of its planned transportation corridor from India into Myanmar through that region.

Heavy fighting along the Thai border in Karen State has sent new flows of displaced persons into Myanmar’s neighbor. The collapse of rule of law and security in the Thai-Myanmar border lands has not only resulted in a dramatic increase in humanitarian needs, but has also led to a much more sinister development — the rapid emergence of a series of criminal enclaves controlled by an unholy alliance of PRC-affiliated triad groups and the military’s border guard force units. Bangkok and its environs have become a key staging area for the explosion of these criminal enclaves since the 2021 coup, making Thailand itself a victim of this criminal activity. The recent discovery that a Burmese arms broker and drug trafficker with close ties to Myanmar army commander-in-chief and his family was operating from Bangkok provided unmistakable evidence that at least some criminal activity in Thailand is directly tied to the junta.

Finally, the coup has foreclosed any conceivable return of the million or so Rohingya refugees expelled by the military in 2017, leaving this burden on Bangladesh and the international community. Junta attacks on targets near the border have also strayed into Bangladesh.

Organized Crime Poses a Growing Transnational Threat

The effects of junta-bred chaos are being felt well beyond Myanmar’s immediate neighbors.

The entire region is experiencing immigration pressure from fleeing Burmese, and the junta is guaranteeing refugee flows will continue indefinitely by blocking international humanitarian aid for the internally displaced. Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, with major investments in Myanmar, are concerned about the country’s future economic viability.

But the most sinister threat emanating from Myanmar comes from rapidly expanding criminal activity that thrives in the current lawless environment. For starters, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that opium production has nearly doubled in the past year, along with rising methamphetamine production and trafficking across Myanmar’s border.

Regional criminal networks, run primarily by Chinese connected to triads, have embedded in fortified enclaves along the Thai and Chinese borders, operating in collaboration with the military’s border guard forces. Exploiting the collapse of the rule of law, they run online gambling and Ponzi schemes, powered by blockchain and crypto currency used for large-scale money laundering. These organizations have lured young people from more than 30 countries to the enclaves since the coup with promises of lucrative high-tech employment. Once inside, the foreign nationals are ordered at gunpoint to staff online scams that ensnare their countrymen. If they refuse, they face physical and psychological torture.

Pleas for help to their governments from these young hostages have spread alarm about the growing menace of organized crime in Myanmar. Thai police recently launched a campaign to check the malignancy on its soil, but it has had almost no effect on the Myanmar enclaves. Foreign law enforcement is still struggling to secure the return of Kenyans, Thais, Indonesians, Malaysians, Filipinos, Indians, Bangladeshis, Brazilians and Colombians trafficked through Thailand into Burma during 2022. China has struggled to crack down on this activity by restricting the travel of its nationals to Southeast Asia, but this has not only failed to stem the criminal activity, it has also inhibited post-COVID efforts to reset tourism. The Philippine Senate has proposed new legislation in response to revelations that Chinese mafia groups have targeted Filipinos to establish “scam teams” in Myanmar.

Neighbors Geostrategy Spurs Acceptance of Junta Election Plan

Even as Myanmar’s neighbors seek to insulate themselves from the coup’s damaging effects, they seem increasingly inclined to see the very source of the instability — namely the junta’s push for a return to military government — as the solution.  

In recent months, as the junta regime prepares for elections, China, India, Japan and ASEAN countries have gradually begun to signal they will recognize the results of the vote as legitimate. Apparently, they are ready to disregard the potential that election activity will magnify the violence between the junta and the majority of the population. They ignore, for instance, that citizens are being forced at gunpoint to register to vote and threatened with having their villages torched if they refuse to participate. They are failing to note that the PDFs and other resistance fighters are trying to disrupt the junta’s electoral farce by taking deadly aim at anyone assisting the junta’s sham elections. “Election violence” has already risen alarmingly.

The gathering acceptance of the junta’s electoral bid most likely turns more on geostrategic calculations than any sympathy for the country’s inept military rulers. These states simply believe the military will once again eventually defeat its opponents and seek to preserve their relationship with the rulers. China and India have long competed to expand their influence and economic ties with Myanmar. Japan is engaged in growing geostrategic competition with China and sees its sizeable investments in Myanmar as furthering its own economic corridor to South Asia, the Indian Ocean and European markets.  Meanwhile, Russia, which enjoys close relations with both China and India, has increasingly emerged as the go-to source of weapons and high-level political support. 

Of all the major Asian powers, China has by far the most complex set of interests and connections with Myanmar, demanding balanced relations with a wide array of actors inside the country, including the most powerful of the EAOs. Beijing’s more immediate strategic interest is maintaining a buffer along the border with Myanmar to insulate China from instability and democratic political tendencies in Myanmar. This buffer relies on maintaining Chinese influence through the seven northern EAOs controlling the lion’s share of the Myanmar borderlands in Shan and Kachin States. 

China remains alert to military encroachment on the positions and economic interests of these groups in the border lands, particularly along the Chinese border in Kachin State, where there are major Chinese interests in mining valuable minerals. As a result, various actors in China are constantly engaged with a wide variety of counterparts in Myanmar, undoubtedly sending many different signals about Chinese intentions. Ultimately, China knows that it must adjust to whichever side predominates in the ongoing conflict, as it did surprisingly well with the NLD government.

U.S. Signals Support for the Resistance in New Burma Act

In December, the U.S. Congress passed its annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), incorporating a separate and unrelated Burma Act that calls for greater U.S. assistance to the anti-coup resistance and urges further restrictions on its military leaders and their supporters. Embedding the act in the NDAA sent two main messages about the U.S. position on Myanmar’s future, wittingly or unwittingly. First, the Burma Act places the U.S. firmly on the side of the resistance forces and against a return to military dictatorship. Second, by explicitly including the EAOs and PDFs in its promise of future U.S. assistance, the act sparked hope within the resistance that the U.S. now recognizes it has a strategic interest in reinstating democratic governance in Myanmar and accepts armed struggle as a legitimate form of opposing the coup regime. Many Burmese feel that it is now incumbent on the United States to follow through with the promises of the Burma Act and ramp up its assistance to all elements of the resistance. This is the major challenge now facing U.S. policymakers. 

U.S. officials have already made clear both publicly and presumably through diplomatic channels that U.S. policy is adamantly opposed to the sham elections, which it views as a magnet for even greater violence by both sides. But officials also recognize that the United States is geographically far from the Myanmar battlefield and has almost no direct access to the country to deliver assistance, because neighboring countries do not want to jeopardize relations with the junta and the junta itself blocks or intercepts humanitarian assistance to the opposition. 

Even so, there is ample opportunity for forms of assistance that would enhance the opposition’s strength and unity. The United States could offer increased support for the National Unity Government’s (NUG) international relations and activities; demonstrate more consistent public engagement with the resistance; help the resistance build a viable post-military system, including new security structures; and advise on planning for economic recovery and humanitarian surges. 

The United States can also play an important role in developing Myanmar’s future intellectual assets by funding expanded educational opportunities and fellowships. Finally, the U.S. government should approach the promise of non-lethal support to resistance forces with creativity and with sensitivity to the fragility of the relationships across the disparate elements of the resistance.  

The United States has already engaged actively in diplomatic and international political support for the NUG and the resistance in general, especially in the U.N. and with allied governments in Europe and Asia. This must continue and intensify, particularly around any tendency to confer validity on elections that are not only unfree and unfair, but whose aim is to legitimize a despotic, violent and hated military regime.

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