Three years after Myanmar’s military overthrew the country’s democratically elected government, the ruling generals — having suffered humiliating battlefield defeats — face an existential crisis. Victories by the diverse ranks of Myanmar’s resistance have invigorated their morale and they are tightening battlefield coordination despite slow progress toward political consensus. The military, meanwhile, is short of manpower and controls a shrinking percentage of the nation.

A member of an ethnic militia patrols a front line area near government military positions in the Kayin State of Myanmar, March 9, 2022. (Adam Dean/The New York Times)
A member of an ethnic militia patrols a front line area near government military positions in the Kayin State of Myanmar, March 9, 2022. (Adam Dean/The New York Times)

The international community’s reaction to these dramatic developments has remained remarkably flat with one notable exception: China is intervening in the conflict to advance a crackdown on transborder crime harming Chinese nationals and seeking to strengthen its geostrategic position in the country.  On the third anniversary of the February 1, 2021, coup USIP experts on the country assess the Myanmar conflict.

What is the state of the popular response to the coup regime at this point, and how much ground has the military lost? How do we assess the complex relations across the various anti-junta forces?

Nang Raw and Billy Ford: Myanmar’s resistance is one of the most successful anti-authoritarian movements the world has ever seen. Unlike previous pro-democracy movements in Myanmar that involved segments of society, today’s national uprising is sweeping in a diverse array of actors who have demonstrated a willingness to make enormous sacrifices to resist the junta. This is the basis for the resistance movement’s success, accomplished despite minimal international support and major structural disadvantages.

After more than two years of steady gains, the movement initiated a coordinated nationwide military operation in October 2023 that now genuinely threatens the junta’s survival. Just since October, more than 5,500 junta troops have been killed or captured, including 10 brigadier generals, and more than 30 towns have been taken by the resistance. Overall, the junta has lost no less than 30,000 soldiers since the coup, a major blow to a military of 150,000 troops.The severely depleted military is losing more by the day and has largely failed to recapture territory that it lost. There is simply no way back for an enfeebled and stretched junta that is rapidly losing its ability to control the public. Its airstrikes and arson attacks on civilian populations have only served to deepen the public’s commitment to resist.

The rapid military gains bring new urgency to political dialogues that have failed to keep pace. While there are signs of movement and underlying dynamics that will enable constructive political dialogueprogress has been slow.

As summarized in the recent statement of intent by a critical mass of resistance groups, there is more binding the resistance movement than a shared enemy — namely the desire for a new political system. Considerable work will be needed to achieve a political consensus, but the international community should not take that as justification to engage the junta, hoping that it can offer stability. It cannot. The junta is the primary agent of instability in Myanmar, and the country will be at war so long as it clings to power. Instead, the international community should support intra-resistance dialogue and other efforts to establish a new political system and avoid actions that divide the movement.

How is the international response to the coup changing?

Priscilla Clapp and Jason Tower: The extreme violence and instability in Myanmar threaten the region, yet the country’s neighbors have offered no real solutions. ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) remains wedded to the “5-point consensus” that the military junta has refused to honor, and which does not address the fundamental question of how to facilitate the military’s exit from the country’s politics.

For its part, Thailand has generously, if somewhat reluctantly, provided safe haven for large numbers of refugees fleeing the chaos in Myanmar. But the new Thai government is still assessing options for pivoting away from its traditional ties with the Myanmar army, which is increasingly losing access to the Thai border and becoming irrelevant there. India has been rudely awakened by the junta’s abysmal performance on the battlefield as hundreds of soldiers, overwhelmed by superior resistance forces, flee across the border. The Indian government has an opportunity to build more robust partnerships with the diverse resistance forces that have taken control of key border towns, but its focus is now on finding an immediate response to China’s growing influence in Myanmar.   

China’s bet that the junta represented its best chance to advance and protect its interests in Myanmar is now subject to considerable strain. Due to the generals’ support and protection for criminal networks inside Myanmar that target Chinese citizens for fraud and forced labor, Beijing cooperated with ethnic armed groups on the China border — specifically the Three Brotherhood Alliance — in ousting the Kokang border guard force, which was responsible for running over 200 scam syndicates reaping a billion dollars a year from China. This maneuver, in turn, kicked off a 360-degree assault on the junta military forces by other ethnic armies around the country, capturing key military posts and bringing the resistance battlefront into urban areas for the first time. 

To restore stability on its border and shore up security for its geostrategic interests, China has taken a heavy-handed approach in mediating a cease-fire in northern Shan State between the Three Brotherhood Alliance and junta representatives. While the Chinese government seems intent on enforcing this agreement, the junta keeps up airstrikes on the population while resistance forces continue their assault on military posts around the country. China’s near-term goals seem focused on uprooting the scam syndicates on its border and protecting its pipeline through Myanmar, the sole source of piped oil and gas to China’s southwestern provinces. But the recent developments appear to have China reconsidering whether the junta is capable of restoring the stability in Myanmar necessary to assure China’s longer-range plans for the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.

As for the United States, Washington continues to apply pressure on the Myanmar army to restore democracy while providing nonlethal assistance to the pro-democracy movement. The recent events on the ground create an opportunity to strengthen international coordination, particularly with India, which already sees its Act East plans threatened by the situation across the border. Further sanctions, especially on transnational criminal groups and militias that are providing them with support and protection, will also likely help address some of the growing transnational security threats.

Returning to ASEAN’s role, will it be able to do more as Laos takes over as chair?

Jason Tower and Andrew Wells-Dang: Laos has moved quickly to appoint a senior diplomat, Alounkeo Kittikhoun, into the special envoy role. In just his first month, Alounkeo has already engaged with the National Unity government, the ethnic armed organizations and the military regime. This sends a strong signal of the intention of the Lao chair to build on Indonesia’s “inclusive dialogue” approach, and of Laos to demonstrate its ability to assert leadership on the Myanmar issue. As one of ASEAN’s smallest members, Laos is unlikely to be able to exert influence where larger regional countries have failed. However, its position as a neighbor of Myanmar with close ties to China may give Laos an advantage in being perceived as a neutral arbiter. For Laos, its role as ASEAN chair is an opportunity to demonstrate its capacity and intent to develop a more independent foreign policy.

Following these early steps, Laos hosted the ASEAN foreign ministers’ retreat on January 28-29, with a non-political representative of the Myanmar military attending for the first time since April 2021. While some analysts have pointed to this as a significant “breakthrough,” it might more appropriately be read as a reflection of the junta’s weakness than as a sign of progress.

ASEAN, with its consensus-based structure, is poorly suited to negotiate a solution to a domestic security crisis involving one of its members.  With the junta suffering mounting setbacks on the battlefield, and China deepening its efforts to influence the trajectory of the conflict to meets its own goals, the role for ASEAN is increasingly unclear and may be more limited to addressing the regional and global impacts of the crisis. This includes, in particular, the continued influence of transnational criminal actors, especially along Myanmar’s border with Thailand and Laos. Providing humanitarian assistance is also critical, and if ASEAN can find a way to work through the ethnic armed organizations, the National Unity Government and other key resistance actors, it might also find a feasible means of implementing a humanitarian corridor and increasing this assistance.

Nang Raw is an advisor to the Women Advocacy Commission - Myanmar and visiting senior expert at USIP.


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