Myanmar’s violent stalemate can heal deeper divisions

Although the country is on the brink of collapse, it is vital those opposing the military coup find an end to their own disputes and remove their common enemy.

Expert comment
3 minute READ

Dr Gareth Price

Former Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme

Whichever angle it is viewed from, it is clear the situation in Myanmar has significantly worsened one year on from the Tatmadaw military coup – and the military itself appears to have badly misjudged the degree to which the population had changed after enjoying a decade of relative freedom, underestimating the level of resistance it would face.

The Tatmadaw has been attempting to brutalize the population into submission with reports estimating almost 1,500 killed by the military – many of them allegedly tortured to death – and 12,000 arrested, has instead only resulted in radicalization rather than acquiescence, but this resistance is having devastating effects.

In a country where numerous ethnic armed groups had already been fighting the military for decades, the past year has seen numbers of internally displaced people believed to have doubled to almost 600,000 and food insecurity is now a major concern as the United Nations (UN) has estimated around half of the population could sink into poverty.

Even if a proper dialogue process began, it is hard to see why either the military or the opposition would see a return to the prior situation as being desirable or sustainable

The economy and healthcare system have both collapsed, with doctors and nurses playing a prominent role in the resistance movement during the COVID-19 pandemic and more than one million people believed to be now unemployed since the February 2021 coup. Around $6 billion in planned investment has stalled and the value of the currency has collapsed, raising costs of vital imported products such as fuel and medicine.

Divide and rule remains a key tactic

Despite this slow but ongoing deterioration everywhere, the military appears to believe it can still win based on its experience of first dividing then ruling over the various ethnic groups. But if – as seems more likely – stalemate is the outcome with the military too strong to lose but too weak to win, it has little room to manoeuvre.

The so-called ‘power-sharing’ arrangement over the past decade appeared to be a good deal for the military as its 25 per cent block in parliament gave it a constitutional veto while its economic perks and business interests were unimpeded. But even this level of autonomy appears now not to have been enough.

Even if a proper dialogue process began, it is hard to see why either the military or the opposition would see a return to the prior situation as being desirable or sustainable. One key determinant of what happens next is the esprit de corps within the military – and there is plenty of evidence emerging that it is not good.

Desertion is a problem and the continuing war of attrition is bound to eventually become a factor in the balance of power. Many interviews with soldiers who have already deserted reflect a cognitive dissonance between what they had been told – that they were protecting the nation – and their lived experience of killing their own citizens.

If those at the top act to protect their business interests, the same cannot be said for rank-and-file soldiers and without them a military solution is not possible. Although the apparent increase in the use of airstrikes are seen by some as a sign of growing weakness, others caution it is a ‘dangerous illusion’ to view them in this way.

Although foreign intervention would make a difference, the risk of such a move being self-harming to any country willing to try makes it unlikely

But the Tatmadaw military regime still has no major international backing as no-one in the ASEAN group or western Europe, the US, India, or China support the instability its actions have unleashed. Although China’s early statements were somewhat ambiguous in potentially blaming protestors for the coup, and there are recent suggestions it is shifting towards backing the military, this is far from definite.

Influence and leverage need political will

China’s policy options certainly carry the greatest leverage but it still has little incentive to use them either for or against the military. If it began supplying drones in significant quantities to the military, this would clarify which way it was leaning. But although using drones would help facilitate a military victory, it is questionable why one of Myanmar’s neighbours would risk creating the influx of refugees which would surely follow.

ASEAN remains keen to persuade Myanmar’s top army general and nominal prime minister Min Aung Hlaing to change course, but has no means of forcing the issue, while the potential for international leverage is minimal. Had this coup happened two decades ago, imposing a no-fly zone would probably be under discussion by now – but an international war-weariness coupled with China’s new power and influence make such thinking redundant.

Myanmar’s violent stalemate can heal deeper divisions 2nd part

Although foreign intervention would make a difference, the risk of such a move being self-harming to any country willing to try makes it unlikely. But without it this violent stalemate could persist until the civilian opposition is eventually bowed into submission. There is no evidence this is on the cards anytime soon and so the violence and repression could persist for years – especially as it appears unlikely any senior military officials are contemplating switching sides.

One reason for cautious optimism is that since the Tatmadaw has become the common enemy of both the National Unity Government and the ethnic armed groups, the links between them have grown along with early discussions of a possible federal future for a country which – ever since independence – has been torn apart over the relationship between the Bamar majority population and its many ethnic minority groups.

Even though an urgent humanitarian crisis seems highly likely and Myanmar’s future currently seems bleak, this fundamental question over how the country should be run, along with the role of the military, has to be addressed eventually. Regardless of the outcome of the current stalemate, that long overdue conversation must be had if the ethnic disputes which are exploited by the military are ever to be resolved rather than simply papered over yet again.