Myanmar’s coup regime, whose principal strategy for dealing with the country’s resistance movement is blunt, unrelenting brutality, benefits from three misconceptions prevalent in the international community: First, that consolidation of the military’s power is essentially inevitable; second, that absence of the generals’ regime would lead to a power vacuum and failed state; and third, that long-term military control is preferable to the status quo and would lead to stability.

People march in Yangon, Myanmar, on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, in protest to the recent military coup. The military seized power in a coup on Feb. 1, and detained the country’s elected civilian leaders. (The New York Times)
People march in Yangon, Myanmar, on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, in protest to the recent military coup. The military seized power in a coup on Feb. 1, and detained the country’s elected civilian leaders. (The New York Times)

All three misconceptions have motivated international actors to support — or at least abide — the regime, which only deepens the generals’ delusion that they can ultimately pacify the country through force. The overarching reality, however, is that the armed, anti-coup opposition is strong, and the junta will only enter a political dialogue if it fears military defeat. Diplomatic, political or material support to the regime only prolongs violence.

Military Consolidation is Not Inevitable

It was reasonable to see military consolidation as likely or even inevitable when the junta took power on February 1, 2021, but it’s not now. The State Administrative Council (SAC), as the junta’s government is known, has to airlift rations to troops posted just 30 miles from its northwest command; it is arming soldiers’ wives and using police and firemen in combat; its Defense Services Academy is training a tiny fraction of its typical student body; and it is distributing sharpened bamboo sticks to its militias facing off against People’s Defense Force (PDF) units. After two years of attempting to terrorize the population into submission, the SAC openly admits that it controls too little of the country to run a (rigged) election.

Why would anyone believe the military’s age-old strategy — brutal violence and its so-called four cuts tactic — will lead the population to submit now? The army has deployed this approach against ethnic armed organizations (EAO) for decades, and many are now militarily stronger than ever. Though the resistance has many deep flaws and structural disadvantages, there is ample evidence that it remains resilient regardless of the military’s atrocities.

The Failed State Concern

Among the growing cohort who do not see SAC consolidation as inevitable, there is concern that the absence of the military would yield a power vacuum and failed state. It’s an apprehension with some validity. But it must be acknowledged that the status quo stalemate is already moving the country in that direction. The military continues burning villages, murdering resistance governance officials, and fleeing to the safety of their barracks leaving destruction and lawlessness in their wake. There is no victory for either side under this status quo, and the Myanmar people will continue to suffer growing displacement, food insecurity, poverty and trauma.

The failed state scenario is often mistakenly framed as a discrete moment of SAC collapse rather than the result of a sustained status quo. Concern about this outcome yields a low risk tolerance among some international actors who end up doing nothing or not enough to change the balance of power. It moves the country toward the outcome no one wants.

The Costs of Military Consolidation

Military consolidation is not inevitable, but it is also not impossible if the international community continues to support efforts by the junta to stage a sham election, to fracture the resistance movement, and to convince large ethnic armed groups to disengage from the battlefield. The international actors significantly underestimate the costs of this scenario, which, if successful, would be catastrophic for the people of Myanmar and their neighbors for four main reasons.

It will not end the violence.

The SAC has committed atrocities in virtually every township of the country, most recently the beheading of teenagers in Sagaing and a massacre in southern Shan State. It is delusion to think the resistance will stop fighting because the SAC runs a rigged election, and the international community says the war is over. Sham elections would mark the beginning of yet another phase in the country's 75 years of war — this one involving the most complex array of armed groups yet, including scores of increasingly well-armed PDFs who show no sign of letting up.

If the SAC gains strength and the resistance’s center of gravity (EAOs and the National Unity Government) becomes weaker, armed groups will face less internal accountability or inhibitions created by the movement’s norms of engagement — already a concern regarding the numerous new armed groups. The idea of the Myanmar military leading a disarmament and reintegration effort of PDFs is absurd; one led by a post-conflict government involving the pro-democracy movement is not.

Furthermore, other forms of violence are likely to intensify. The reviled military would deploy political violence and extreme repression to maintain its illegitimate power. Bamar Buddhist extremists like Wirathu, who was recently awarded a medal by the SAC, would gain new influence, increasing the likelihood of new intercommunal mob violence and mass atrocities against Muslims.

Related, the potential to resolve past military horrors are unthinkable under the SAC while plans for reconciliation and transitional justice initiatives are already being designed by the resistance. The Rohingya, who faced a campaign of genocide by the generals who now lead the SAC, have no hope of a safe or dignified repatriation under a new military government — a prospect made more concerning by the deteriorating conditions in refugee camps. In addition to the 1 million Rohingya refugees, at least a million others have fled Myanmar into to Thailand, India and Bangladesh since the coup. Virtually none of these refugees could safely return home under a military regime.

Consolidation will produce a newly emboldened and equally incompetent, xenophobic and cruel military government that will set the economy back decades.

The long-term human costs of sustained military rule are enormous — potentially larger than the costs of the past two years. Myanmar will once again become closed to the world and beholden to China and Russia and sink into a deep and long-term economic malaise.

The regime will continue to make policy based on superstition and incompetence — likely re-starting loss-making state-owned enterprise, fixing the exchange rate, banning Western culture, confiscating land en masse, and generally reconstructing its kleptocratic state.

It would result in national fragmentation that would be difficult to undo.

The people of Myanmar may be more united now than at any time in the country’s modern history. To counteract this threat to its power, the military seeks to create divisions. It offers political, territorial and economic concessions to armed groups to induce their withdrawal from the resistance movement and from the battle against the coup regime. This approach ignores the underlying causes of conflict and creates lawless zones for crime to metastasize.

Since the coup, many powerful EAOs have hedged between supporting the resistance and pursuing greater autonomy. Greater ethnic autonomy is certainly not a bad thing — it’s a central objective of the resistance movement — but national fragmentation and lawlessness is.

The military made similar deals in the past, but it is now a much weaker institution, opening the way for EAOs to achieve even semi-independence. Areas that have grown considerably under control of groups including the United Wa State Army, United League of Arakan, Kachin Independence Organization, and the Karen National Union, would start to look more like separate states, vulnerable to capture by foreign powers or criminal organizations. If the resistance becomes weaker and the prospects of the national-level cause dim, these EAOs will have even more reason to distance themselves from Myanmar proper. If the past is any guide, concessions to armed groups leads to expanded malign influence and the growth of a conflict economy that makes future peacebuilding efforts even more difficult.

Consolidation will make Myanmar a new hub for transnational crime.

Criminal organizations have thrived under the junta. China-affiliated transnational gangs have significantly scaled up operations by partnering with local armed groups that were granted concessions by the SAC in exchange for their loyalty. Myanmar has, for the first time, become a destination country for human trafficking, and a hub for cross-border scam operations. Drug production has spiked, and valuable natural resources are being extracted and sold illegally without constraints or concern for local communities.

Where these criminal organizations are not directly collaborating with the Myanmar military, the regime allows them to operate with impunity. This has major implications for Myanmar’s neighbors as criminal organizations embed along the Thai and Chinese borders, traffic thousands into Myanmar, and pollute the region’s banking institutions. These arrangements are a feature of military governance in Myanmar, where criminal patronage, is an organizing principal.

A Viable Alternative

There is an alternative to the scenario to SAC consolidation or a failed state: A weak SAC, which sees no path to military victory, engages in negotiations that shift it out of government and pave the way for a transitional constitution, national referendum, legitimate election and national dialogue process that does not involve the military in a position of political power. The Federal Democratic Charter, an interim governing document for the resistance produced though lengthy deliberations among diverse resistance actors, outlines this roadmap in detail. It could only come to life under two conditions: (1) the resistance is stronger and more cohesive than it is today, and (2) the SAC sees no path to military victory, forcing it to negotiate.

This outcome would benefit the interests of all actors in the region who seek stability in Myanmar. It is the only scenario in which refugees can be safely repatriated; transnational crime operations that have trafficked people from 36 countries can be controlled; national fragmentation can be reversed; and healthy economic activity can resume. Most importantly, it is the only scenario in which the people of Myanmar can address the underlying causes of violence in their country and live in peace.

To realize this end-state, the international community should avoid any action that strengthens the SAC. This includes giving it weapons, supporting its sham election, encouraging dialogue when it is not ripe (i.e., now), or providing political recognition.

Every action, no matter how well-intended, that serves to make the SAC feel more comfortable in its current position delays, potentially indefinitely, the moment when a successful dialogue might take place. Any action that fragments or weakens the resistance, rather than builds its cohesion and coordination capacity, does the same. If international actors seek a peaceful Myanmar, they should consider their every move on this basis.

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