Myanmar faces increasing uncertainty
text size

Myanmar faces increasing uncertainty

As the anniversary of Myanmar's military coup nears, the country faces its worst-ever political, economic and social crisis, and with the civil war constantly deeping, the prognosis for the coming year is bleak.

A Myanmar demonstrator, wearing a shirt with a picture of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, turns up at the United Nations Complex in Bangkok on Oct 29, 2023. Thousands of Myanmar nationals gathered outside the premises to protest against the military coup, which occurred on Feb 1, 2021. (Photo: Apichart Jinakul)
A Myanmar demonstrator, wearing a shirt with a picture of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, turns up at the United Nations Complex in Bangkok on Oct 29, 2023. Thousands of Myanmar nationals gathered outside the premises to protest against the military coup, which occurred on Feb 1, 2021. (Photo: Apichart Jinakul)

Today marks the third anniversary of the military coup led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing that ousted the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Over the last three years the Tatmadaw -- as the armed forces are known, has plummeted the country into ever-increasing violence and despair.

Millions of civilians have been forced to flee from their homes because of the fighting between the Myanmar military and the opposition forces -- a collection of experienced ethnic armies, civilian militias and recently formed activist-based defence forces. Throughout the country there is a burgeoning humanitarian crisis threatening to engulf the country in serious starvation.

On top of that a major economic crisis that has sent the Myanmar currency, the Kyat tumbling -- it is now more than 3,500 kyat to the dollar: less than half its value before the coup. Sources in the country's central bank have confirmed the lack of foreign currency has made it difficult to pay for imports: in particular it has forced harsh restrictions on the import of electric vehicles from China.

There is an acute shortage of oil, gas and petrol: motorists face increasingly long waits at the pumps, and the price of fuel has sky rocketed; electricity shortages and black outs are worse than they have ever been -- reminiscent of the mid-1990s, when black and brown outs were endemic. Residents in Yangon and Mandalay complain that they get less than four hours of electricity a day, and even that is irregular and intermittent. In fact, some economic analysts believe the military government will run out of money by the end of February.

On the ground only the Tatmadaw's superior air power has kept them in the game. Only concerted carpet bombing of civilian targets which has wreaked havoc and devastation on areas deemed to be giving assistance or are sympathetic to the so-called revolutionary forces, has helped them maintain a certain degree of superiority. But even that is now under threat with the Kachin forces -- based in the north near China -- having downed two aircraft recently. And earlier this week a brigadier general, his two pilots and the accompanying contingent of soldiers were killed when his helicopter was shot down around Myawaddy near the Thai border by the Karen army's Cobra brigade.

In the last three months, ethnic forces in the north of the country -- known as the Three brotherhood -- the Arakan Army (AA) the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) -- have launched highly coordinated and well-planned attacks on Myanmar's Tatmadaw. During that time, the army has suffered severe losses on a scale not experienced since the days of independence. Since Oct 27 last year, when the current ethnic offensive was launched, the Tatmadaw has lost nearly 40 townships, over 500 army outposts, and more than 10,000 troops have been killed, injured, or have surrendered or defected. Myanmar's military now faces an existential threat for the first time in its more than seven-decade history.

Morale and discipline within its ranks are at their lowest ebb. Changes to training schedules and military preparations in the last decade under the current commander-in-chief has left the armed forced inadequately trained and unready for armed battle. The last time the Tatmadaw was engaged in full-scale military action was in the mid-nineties against the Karen National Union -- apart from an extended skirmish against the MNDAA in 2009. The current battles in the north have left the army further demoralised. And the sentencing of the handful of commanders in charge of the recent Tatmadaw surrender to the MNDAA won't have helped morale or discipline either.

What's happened to the Tatmadaw in the last three years, especially the last three months, has been unprecedented, a former senior officer in the Tatmadaw has admitted. He blamed a lack of discipline in the lower ranks for the spate of surrenders, especially amongst the junior officers. But the level of demoralisation is endemic. Privately, many younger officers are fed up with the situation -- some even saying they would be prepared to desert except for the potential ramifications for their families if they did. The will to fight is fast dissipating within the Tatmadaw. According to reliable sources inside Myanmar, thousands of soldiers have gone absent without leave (AWOL) rather than fight or defect, hiding within the country.

Military families are also questioning the continued violence, fearing for their safety. The democratic forces' use of drones has been a major ingredient that has helped level the military playing field. They have proven crucial in the battle for territory, and instilled a measure of fear amongst all civilians, especially military families.

The personal safety of leading government and business figures has also become a matter of serious concern. Several prominent businessmen who fled abroad after the coup are being courted by the regime and encouraged to return. Their hesitancy to do so however was interpreted as hinging on safety concerns.

But this concern about personal safety extends right up to the very top, where it is increasingly accentuated. Sources close to top general, Min Aung Hlaing, have revealed that he has become increasingly paranoid and generally becoming more and more isolated. His concern for his personal safety has extended to having all Myanmar visitors, including the number two general, Soe Win, fully bodied searched before they can see him. His precarious situation appears to be playing on his mind. He suffers from acute insomnia, according to sources close to the general. He cannot sleep without having an injection administered every night.

To many, Min Aung Hlaing has become the most hated and despised army commander of all time.

He is loathed throughout the ranks within the Tatmadaw. No one has a good word for him. He is universally blamed for the mess of the last three years. There is widespread ill feeling -- especially amongst nationalist Buddhist monks and the Ma Ba Tha (Patriotic Association of Myanmar.) One of their number publicly called for Min Aung Hlaing to step down and hand power to Soe Win.

He was briefly arrested after the outburst and quickly released. More crucially, Soe Win was moved from the War Office and replaced.

In the meantime, the push for Min Aung Hlaing to step down is gathering support, albeit under the surface. A group of former senior military officers, mostly associated with former president Thein Sein, are marshalling their supporters and preparing to launch a putsch. They call themselves nationalists hardliners. For the present they are biding their time to see what the early days of February bring.

Today, Min Aung Hlaing must convene the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC). At that meeting he must either extend the current state of emergency for another six months or form a "civilian" provisional government to oversee the next steps towards his plans for an election, which he says will be in the first quarter of 2025, This is after a census is held this October which would pave the way for the electoral rolls to be compiled.

For the time being all eyes are on that meeting today -- the day of the anniversary: it may help clarify the direction Myanmar's military supremo is plotting, although by the same token it may also spell the end of Min Aung Hlaing's brutal and illegal reign -- but not immediately.

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.

Larry Jagan

A specialist on Myanmar

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.

Do you like the content of this article?