Author: Nicholas Farrelly, University of Tasmania
Until the 1 February 2021 coup, Myanmar was gradually leaving behind the worst aspects of military dominance. The steps forward were still usually tentative and too often accompanied by steps backwards, but the general direction of change had proved positive for the past decade.
The most distressing exception to that general pattern — the continued waves of violence that pushed more than a million Rohingya out of the Rakhine state — were consistently ignored or downplayed by Myanmar’s civilian and military leaders.
Even Aung San Suu Kyi went all the way to The Hague to lead the Myanmar government’s defence against allegations of genocide. Her need to placate conservative forces highlights the compromises and contradictions that drove Myanmar’s top politician to accept military supervision for so much of her elected government’s existence.
Yet even those compromises eventually proved insufficient to keep the army in the barracks — when the time came, the coup-makers moved swiftly to curtail the National League for Democracy’s senior echelon. With hundreds of key political and cultural figures detained immediately, and thousands more over the following months, the backlash against the coup required a new generation of leaders to take their place.
Millions of people around Myanmar bravely defied military orders to stay home and reminded the world of their deep commitment to the principle that the people, not the generals, should decide who is in charge. Over months and through repeated crackdowns, the work of anti-coup activists became harder — with many rounded up and then abused in government jails. Recent reports indicate that over 1400 people have been killed and more than 11,000 arrested.
Myanmar’s National Unity Government, which is underground and in exile, argues that it should be considered the legitimate representative of the Myanmar people. At the United Nations many countries have been listening, with the anti-coup Ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun, still in his post.
Under these conditions, new armed groups have emerged, many using the banner of the People’s Defence Force. These are loose militias, often with rudimentary weapons, drawing much of their strength from the intersection of civilian grievance and the longstanding fighting capabilities of ethnic armies in Myanmar’s borderlands.
While some of those ethnic armies have avoided any active opposition to the coup, others have provided protection, training and perhaps guns and ammunition to an array of new guerrilla forces, while also sustaining their own combat postures.
The Myanmar army has struggled to adjust to this terrain, with potentially thousands of government troops killed in the past six months. Fighting in the Sagaing and Magwe regions, and parts of Chin, Kachin, Shan, Kayah, Mon and Kayin states, has proved bruising for all sides.
Attacks in urban centres also continue. Myanmar army and police retribution has come thick and fast, with the arrest of alleged combatants leading to their disappearance into the military regime’s torture centres.
With the economy collapsing and many foreign investors seeking rapid exits, the military regime has sought diplomatic, financial and military support from China and Russia. While Russia has appeared comfortable engaging with the junta, China’s post-coup policy has proved more restrained.
It seems that China’s strategists — who had invested heavily in Aung San Suu Kyi’s electoral successes — were surprised by the ‘back-to-the-future’ character of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s coup. For China, it is Myanmar’s darkly deteriorating security and economic situation that now poses challenging questions for decision makers in Kunming and Beijing.
Similarly hard choices face governments across Southeast Asia, particularly in Thailand and Singapore, both of which have prospered through commercial links to Myanmar’s recent boom. Thailand has the further complication of a long and, in parts, lightly patrolled border, meaning that flows of people, supplies and weapons have historically linked its borderlands to conflicts in Myanmar. Thailand is adamant that it will not host large-scale facilities for Myanmar’s newly displaced people.
For Bangladesh, little has changed: it still needs to grapple with the more than one million Rohingya who have settled, at least for the medium term, in the Cox’s Bazar region. While Myanmar’s anti-coup activists have gone out of their way to signal more inclusive future policies for the return of the Rohingya, the reality is that, when in power, Aung San Suu Kyi and her key advisors were committed to popular policies that pushed the Rohingya away.
Since the February 2021 coup, Myanmar’s democrats have needed to begin reckoning with this history and with the shape of a future federal union. But, for now, their attention is on the struggle to stay alive and to keep up their united opposition to the military’s claim to rule.
There is no easy way to end the post-coup conflict and yet the Myanmar army’s capacity to consolidate its rule appears more fragile than ever, especially with so many new armed groups now taking up to the fight to the military regime and its representatives. Outrageous attacks by the junta against civilians are likely to only fortify the already strong resolve of resistance forces in the mountains, but also in the country’s big cities. There is simply no good future for Myanmar while the military leadership strangles its own people.
Nicholas Farrelly is Professor and Head of Social Sciences at the University of Tasmania. He was previously Director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University.
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2021 in review and the year ahead.
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