By Yasmine Yang; Shuji He
On February 1, 2021, just hours after the military coup d’état seized key members of Myanmar’s government, and former State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi released a statement on the “Chair NLD” (National League for Democracy) Facebook page in which she urged people “not to accept the coup by the military and resist it resoundingly.” Almost immediately, national strikes and mass protests erupted as part of an organised resistance campaign known as the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM).
Myanmar’s ongoing civil war is the world’s most prolonged conflict since World War II. Ever since gaining its independence from Britain in 1948, the country has been dominated by a military junta for many years. The Union of Burma, like most of its newly independent neighbours on the Indian subcontinent, started as a parliamentary system. Nevertheless, representative democracy only lasted until 1962, when General Ne Win conducted a military coup and seized power for the following 26 years.
In 2015, Myanmar held its first multiparty and national elections. Suu Kyi’s opposition NLD party won a landslide victory, ushering in a new era of civilian governance after decades of military dictatorship. New parliamentarians elected Htin Kyaw, a longtime confidant of Suu Kyi, as President. But the real power was in the hands of Suu Kyi, who was appointed to the newly created office of State Counsellor and became the de facto head of the civilian government. Domestic security, most areas of foreign policy, and a slew of other domestic policy issues remained within the Tatmadaw’s jurisdiction. Indeed, the 2008 Constitution includes several clauses aimed at preserving the military’s supremacy, setting out that the military must appoint 25% of parliamentary seats and then requiring that any constitutional amendment have 75% support. The NLD and the Burmese people are trapped in a military-created box that denies both human rights and democratic values. Hence, the only path ahead is to challenge the laws and institutions that have reinforced military power and shielded generals from responsibility for decades.
Due to historical and structural reasons, Myanmar’s national political reforms and peace processes are still in a dilemma. Although the armed forces have said elections would be held and a state of emergency lifted by August 2023, democracy groups have expressed scepticism about the military’s promise of free and fair polls. Therefore, these characteristics determine that the struggle between the two sides in Myanmar could have a protracted war in three stages. The first stage covers the period of the army’s strategic offensive and protesters’ strategic defensive. The second stage is the period of strategic stalemate. The third stage will be the period of protesters’ strategic counter-offensive and the army’s strategic retreat.
I. The army’s strategic offensive and protesters’ strategic defensive
Days after the military in Myanmar seized power last February 1, millions of people rushed to the streets against the takeover, leaving their jobs in what has turned into a widespread Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and opposition to the junta’s bloodshed. The CDM in Myanmar has used various tactics including banging pots and pans, street protests, refusal to pay bills, and boycotting state-sponsored lotteries and military-affiliated businesses. Moreover, the National Unity Government (NUG), created mainly by the National League for Democracy and representatives of ethnic minorities and anti-regime protest groups, aims to serve as an alternative government to the military regime. Similarly, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) and civil society organisations have set up global connections to finance CDM participants.
The military, taken aback by the CDM’s impact and popularity, has utilised every instrument at its disposal to impede and co-opt the movement. Initially, the military used intimidation and threats from their subordinates to impose dominance while luring civil supporters with promotions and incentives. However, as the movement expanded exponentially, troops and police deployed lethal violence to crack down on the movement. Even though NUG and CRPH appear to be competing for authority with the junta, military oppression and the resurgence of the COVID-19 epidemic have hampered the pace of the CDM movement. In the face of immediate threats and financial pressure, some participants choose to return to their previous jobs. Consequently, in this stage, democracy groups were too weak to against the military, resulting in the deaths of protesters and hundreds of arrests. On the other side, the junta wanted to end the protest quickly but it was more challenging than they thought because of the growing protesters’ strategic defence.
II. Strategic stalemate
Defectors from the security forces have also been accused of training employees for the People’s Defence Forces (PDFs), coordinating with other defectors, and leaking military secrets to the press and the NUG. More than a year after the coup, PDFs have emerged as a leading dominant resistance force amid Myanmar’s already crowded network of anti-state groups. In the meantime, PDFs claimed to have killed thousands of junta troops, as well as begun building “liberated zones” in rural areas along with their own “people’s administrations.” In Kayah State, opponents of the coup organized a state police force of 300 CDM soldiers as part of an alternative ruling authority.
The growing danger of assassination, detention or even death at the hands of Myanmar’s security forces rapidly put a stop to the public protests that erupted during the early days of the coup government. While tiny protests continued in many places, they resorted to new guerrilla strategies including flash mobs and the use of social media as an intelligence network. At the same time, as more radical aspects of the CDM attempted to push for the necessity to counter force with force, there was a clear shift away from the earlier emphasis on peaceful protests. By using massive metal shields, Molotov bombs, and hand-held catapults, these young radicals, primarily from Generation Z, established guard squads to safeguard fellow protesters as best they could. The fact that the new smaller protests were primarily restricted to a specific town or region, with participants drawn from the surrounding area, brought a new territorial dimension to resistance in Myanmar.
Politically, the NUG extensively attracted ethnic militias and actively sought diplomatic recognition. Economically, Myanmar’s civilian NUG sells bonds for citizens at home and abroad to fund the revolutionary movement against a dictatorship. Meanwhile, international organisations also provide financial support for NUG. For example, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) partners with Myanmar’s civil society, local organisations, and other international donors to reinforce democratic values and support Burmese working to build an inclusive, prosperous future for all people in Myanmar. More importantly, on December 27, 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law the 2022 National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA), which includes the requirement of the Biden Administration to report to Congress on its efforts to legitimise the National Unity Government (NUG). As a result, it means that the United States will be a strong backer of the democratic forces in Myanmar to support CDM and the related associations that promote democracy while rejecting the legitimacy of the military regime and imposing targeted sanctions on them.
Therefore, the situation inside and outside Myanmar has changed at this stage where the democratically elected civilian government may gain the power to change from weakness to strength while preparing for a strategic counteroffensive.
III. Protesters’ strategic counter-offensive and the army’s strategic retreat
To a large extent, the Myanmar democratic strategic counter-offensive still depends on support from Western governments. For example the US Congress introduced the Burma Act 2021, which authorises further targeted sanctions against the military regime and recommends that the US government recognises the Myanmar government’s genocide against the Rohingya ethnic minority. Once this Act is legalised, it will provoke complicated systemic responses in Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, the West may also claim that a real solution to the crisis will take years to require the dismantling of the military, a deeply entrenched institution, and the arduous implementation of a federalist system across the country. We can not predict the details of the following process but there may be a possible chance that the West nations will be united in their resolve to impose stronger sanctions on the military and its supporters. In addition, they will also continue to support that valiant determination to bring democracy and the rule of law to Myanmar. Obviously, the war is protracted and consequently ruthless in nature.
Yasmine Yang: Master of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. She is doing the master thesis on border security between China and Myanmar. Her research interests are human rights, security, as well as politics in China and Southeast Asia.
Shuji He: Master of International Politics at the Southwest University of Political Science & Law in China. His research interests are mainly the geopolitics of Southeast Asia, China’s Southwest border and non-traditional security issues.