Reversing Myanmar's internal strife
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Reversing Myanmar's internal strife

A protester holds an image of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration outside the Embassy of Myanmar in Bangkok to mark the second anniversary of the coup in Myanmar. (Photo: AFP)
A protester holds an image of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration outside the Embassy of Myanmar in Bangkok to mark the second anniversary of the coup in Myanmar. (Photo: AFP)

This month marks two anniversaries of ongoing conflicts in Europe and Southeast Asia, namely 12 months after Russia invaded Ukraine and two years since Myanmar's military seized power by toppling a democratically elected and civilian-led government under Aung San Suu Kyi.

These two conflicts, the external aggression of a bigger state against a smaller next-door neighbour and a forceful domestic takeover by a power-hungry military against its people, are not meant to be compared, but they do have common traits, including the lack of international legitimacy, the use of deadly force, human rights abuses and the overall perpetration of violence intent on conquest and dominance.

Freeing Ukraine from Russian aggression must remain an immediate global goal for sovereignty-respecting countries while getting rid of Myanmar's military dictatorship should be the aim for justice-seeking and self-determination in Southeast Asia.

To be sure, Myanmar's intensifying civil war is rooted in what happened from 2011–21. This transformative decade was characterised by Myanmar's political liberalisation, economic reforms and development progress, with rising expectations among younger demographics in the 55-million predominantly Buddhist nation. It was as if a dark tunnel of dictatorship and despair was shone with the light of a new future, dim at first and brighter with time. Foreign investment poured in, businesses set up shop, embassies were established. By the mid-2010s, Myanmar was seen to be going somewhere.

But progress meant Myanmar's ethnically diverse society was turning its back on a military past. Elections in 2015 and 2020 shifted the tide of power to civilian rule, as Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won repeated landslide victories over the military's Union Solidarity and Development Party. Less than three months after the country's last election in November 2020, Tatmadaw commander-in-chief Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing pulled the plug on Myanmar's promising decade. Enter the military junta, the self-styled State Administration Council (SAC).

But this time, darkness has not led to despair but nationwide resistance. The immediate aftermath of the coup brought out ubiquitous protests in upcountry towns and urban cities under the Civil Disobedience Movement. It coalesced with a committee representing the NLD members of parliament from the November 2020 election, afterwards coming under the National Unity Government (NUG), which later worked in tandem with the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) to promote an inclusive federal future for the Burmese majority (called Bamar) and ethnic minorities.

In turn, Myanmar's Ethnic Resistance Organisations (EROs) made defiance into an armed insurrection by pursuing open combat operations against the Tatmadaw. Among opposition groups, the spontaneous formation of the People's Defence Force (PDF) units in townships across the country has been the most remarkable and telling of resistance and resolve. Together with the EROs, these organic and fierce PDF militias of brazen youths have taken up homemade rudimentary arms and learned by doing, adopting guerrilla-style tactics of hit-and-run and seizing weapons from security forces when they can. Unsurprisingly, the PDF's frontline fighters are none other than the teens and 20-somethings who tasted the decade of development progress that was denied to their forebears.

The loosely structured opposition coalition under the NUG is now at a turning point. The NUG is gaining more acceptance and recognition among Asean member states, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, and within the international community in the European Union and the United States. The NUG, together with elected parliamentarians, the CDM and the NUCC, increasingly resemble a viable government, able to generate income from donations and limited business activities at home and among Myanmar diaspora workers and exiles.

Broadening and deepening the NUG-led government will require elite consensus, mass support, inclusive and popular participation, administrative capacity and a measure of centralisation. The NUG has to be able to exert authority over its vast majority of supporters, loyalists and citizens on its side of the country. Observers near and far would be concerned about Myanmar's potential breakup, which would worsen the scourge of drugs, transnational crimes, human trafficking, illicit trade and broader instability.

Indeed, the Tatmadaw's biggest advantage, apart from an overwhelming force of arms, is that it is the authority in power which can be dealt with, able to provide a semblance of territorial integrity and cohesion despite facing a nationwide uprising against its rule. Thus the NUG must be able to show that it can hold Myanmar together if and when the SAC loses its grip on power.

In addition, the NUG needs a full-fledged military component, with command and control over the EROs and the PDF units. Recent reports of PDF units turning on each other in the Sagaing region bode ill for the opposition coalition. A nightmare scenario for outside observers is to see anti-military militias turning on each other once the SAC is dislodged from power. In creating an army, the NUG will also need inclusive representation from PDF units, perhaps by working with local community leaders and from the EROs. Ultimately, the military component with command and control over the EROs and PDF must be disciplined, accountable and answerable to the NUG leadership.

Any international support for the supply of arms and anti-aircraft capabilities is unlikely to be forthcoming unless the opposition coalition can show discipline, organisation, command, control and accountability. Finding the kind of leadership under which the different resistance columns can operate concertedly is daunting but necessary. Yet for the NUG-led resistance coalition, taking the civil war to the next level requires no less.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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