Myanmar as interim 'non-state' state
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Myanmar as interim 'non-state' state


Myanmar, also known as Burma, has become a de facto state that is dominated by non-state entities. Contrary to facile claims, Myanmar is not a failed state like some that beset parts of Africa and the Middle East. The ethnically diverse country of 55 million still functions despite widespread violence in an ongoing civil war. Unless and until Myanmar is understood and re-conceptualised as an interim state comprising non-state entities, it will be difficult to move forward to remake and reconstitute a new country after the civil war and the passing of the military junta that seized power on Feb 1, 2021, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

Three years after the putsch and the ensuing civil war, it is clear that the junta under the State Administration Council is losing its grip on power. Initially, few analysts could have imagined that Myanmar's seasoned and battle-hardened army could lose a war to an unconventional coalition of armed youth groups known as the People's Defence Force and the ethnic armies under the Ethnic Armed Organisations. But the battlefield balance began to turn against the SAC a year after the coup, as PDF units received better training and arms and coordinated more closely with the EAOs.

Gen Min Aung Hlaing's fatal mistake was to start a two-front war at home with virtually no public support, not just against its traditional foes in the EAOs but also for the first time against its own Bamar people, which represents the majority of the population. The fierce resistance forces in the PDFs and EAOs, who now deem their collective cause as a "revolution" to get rid of the military dictatorship and remake the country, have tentatively come under a parallel civilian-led National Unity Government (NUG).

Even before last October, when the so-called "Three Brotherhood Alliance" consisting of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, and the Arakan Army launched a coordinated attack in northern Shan state bordering China and captured two dozen towns and many more military outposts, the writing had already been on the wall for the junta. The more it fought, the more it lost, as manpower and morale increasingly sagged.

The SAC is now no longer the sole and effective authority in power. It is supposed to represent the Myanmar state, but the junta controls less and less territory in the country, with zero acceptance by its own people. Where it still can impose control, such as in major towns in the Bamar heartland, the SAC is facing stiff resistance. There are more and more places around the country where the junta has to fight to remain in control.

As the PDFs and EAOs take the fight to junta forces, despite the latter's superior airpower and artillery, the SAC will be pinned down and forced into rearguard actions to hold out in major cities, such as the capital of Nay Pyi Taw, Yangon, and Mandalay. The junta administration may not collapse with dramatic effects like the fall of Berlin in 1945 or Saigon in 1975. The Myanmar military's fall may be more like a hollowing out towards atrophy, as troops refuse to obey orders and lose the will to fight. The SAC's latest Conscription Law to force and add young men and women to its ranks is thus a sign of desperation that troop levels and morale are low. Unsurprisingly, potential draftees have run away from or bribed their way out of the new conscription.

These outcomes point to a shell and shadow of a once omnipresent state. It does not mean Myanmar is lawless or devoid of government. Instead, authority and power have become diffused in the process of reallocation and revamp. In Kayah state bordering Thailand, for example, both the Karenni National Progressive Party and the Karenni National People's Liberation Front have won key victories against the SAC, with many of the "liberated" areas in the state coming under the administration of the Karenni Interim Executive Council.

Other non-state entities are becoming entrenched and dominant elsewhere to the point that they now collectively control and govern Myanmar more than the SAC. At issue for Myanmar's next-door neighbours and the broader Asean neighbourhood is to learn how to deal with Myanmar, which will comprise non-state authorities in the interim period while the civil war runs its course and dialogue and negotiations take place alongside among the resistance coalition about the future of the country.

As Asean is state-centric, its member states are ill-equipped to handle and manage relations with an inchoate new Myanmar. Since it was hammered out in April 2021, Asean's "Five-Point Consensus" (5PC) has languished because it was premised on dealing with the SAC as a member state. The inclusion of the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) in the 5PC is emblematic that Asean's state-centric approach to Myanmar is misguided. The AHA Centre was designed for regional management of natural disasters during peacetime, not as a humanitarian intermediary amid a civil war.

Thailand's recently announced "Humanitarian Initiative" to aid and assist the Myanmar people along the Thai-Myanmar border adversely affected by the civil war suffers from similar shortcomings. Accustomed to dealing on a state-state basis, the Thai initiative was undertaken without prior consultation with predominant non-state stakeholders in ethnic zones. Instead, it relies on the Myanmar Red Cross, a bureaucratic organ under the SAC. Involving the Myanmar Red Cross undermines the trust and confidence the Thai government needs to build with non-SAC stakeholders.

Non-state entities are hard to partner and deal with because they are naturally motley without a singular and workable agency. It behoves the ethnic and Bamar non-state players among the NUG, PDFs, EAOs, and their various civilian administrative bodies to confer and organise to come up with an alternative state authority the neighbourhood and the international community can deal with. This is a daunting and drawn-out process during the interim period, but the situation on the ground has moved beyond the SAC as the representation and agency of the Myanmar people. At issue now is how to build Myanmar's non-state state into a new country.

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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