Lt. Col. (Ret.) Dr. Miemie Winn Byrd/Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies
Two years after seizing power in a coup, the Myanmar military is on the verge of collapse. Coup plotters have failed to gain control of the country since they overthrew its democratically elected government and detained its leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and other high-ranking officials on February 1, 2021.
The coup was initially met with widespread peaceful protests and civil disobedience. However, the military junta’s relentless, brutal crackdown transformed the nonviolent protests into armed resistance. The military’s oppression across the country has caused a humanitarian crisis, instability and security challenges that have spread beyond Myanmar’s borders.
The resistance coalition, led by the National Unity Government (NUG), has mobilized more than 90% of the population, including many women, established the People’s Defense Force (PDF) and is tactically cooperating with battle-hardened ethnic revolutionary organizations (ERO). These efforts reveal how the resilience of the population has empowered a movement to put tremendous pressure on the junta. Burdened by its own endemic corruption, cronyism and conceit, the military has lost its combat effectiveness and professionalism. It has devolved into an armed crime syndicate. As such, it is unable to battle on the ground against even a loose coalition of eclectic forces: poorly trained civilians, organized and resourced PDF personnel, and experienced EROs. The junta relies on airstrikes against towns and villages to cut the people’s support for the NUG, PDF and EROs.
While the junta crumbles under its own ineptitude, the resistance coalition must have a unified command system and tangible support from the international community to consolidate its successes and to reach a tipping point against the military.
History of Instability
Myanmar, also known as Burma, has a long history of political instability, primarily under the rule of brutal military dictators from 1962 to 2011. The military, which claimed to be the guardian of the country’s stability, oppressed ethnic minority groups, leading to the world’s longest-running ethnic insurgencies. In 2011, the junta attempted to transition to a civilian government to diversify away from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and reengage with the West. However, the military’s attempts to secure its power by reserving 25% of Parliament seats for active-duty military members and requiring 75% of Parliament to amend the Constitution were unsuccessful in suppressing the people’s will.
In 2015, Myanmar’s civilian political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won the general elections and came into power. The NLD won another landslide victory in the 2020 elections. However, the military, led by Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, alleged fraud and seized power in a coup. The coup was widely seen as illegitimate internationally and domestically and sparked protests and civil disobedience from citizens demanding the restoration of democracy. The junta responded with force, using live ammunition, tear gas and water cannons to disperse crowds. The junta then declared itself the State Administrative Council, and security forces began arbitrarily arresting, torturing and killing protesters and their families, transforming the people’s peaceful movement into an armed resistance.
The crisis deepened as assaults on civilians forced many to flee to neighboring countries, and airstrikes and the burning of villages increased the flow of internally displaced people and refugees. As of March 2023, over 1.6 million people had been displaced since the coup, and nearly 18 million people needed assistance accessing food, water and medical care, according to the United Nations. The junta has imposed internet blackouts and blocked access, making it difficult for relief organizations to reach those in need. The humanitarian crisis in Myanmar continues to worsen, and the international community has condemned the junta’s actions and called for the restoration of democracy.
A Military Junta Teetering on the Edge
Despite support from the PRC and Russia, the junta’s forces continue to lose ground to resistance coalition forces. The military’s control has particularly eroded in the Sagaing and Magway regions, where the PDF has driven most of the junta’s administrators from their posts. The junta has also lost border areas to local EROs. By mid-April 2023, the junta controlled less than half of the country, or roughly 72 of the 330 townships, according to independent experts.
Junta forces have sustained significant losses as they fight on multiple fronts. At the same time, the military’s capacity to recruit and train troops has vanished, “triggering the desperate step of dismantling key police functions across the country and sending police officers to the front lines,” the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) reported in July 2022. After the coup, the Myanmar Defense Services Academy, for the first time in its 67-year history, was unable to fill its freshman class, The New York Times newspaper reported in November 2021.
Most personnel are afraid and ashamed to publicly acknowledge their military affiliation. According to ex-combatants who defected, 70% of soldiers no longer have the will to fight. The defectors said they felt compelled to leave the military after being ordered to shoot civilians. Many couldn’t leave, however, because the junta has moved military families into compounds and restricted their movement, effectively holding them hostage. One defector, an air force pilot, said armed guards surround a pilot’s home when he enters the cockpit and leave only after he completes his bombing run. Many military family members are forced to serve in the conflict and provide base security without pay.
Defections and desertions have triggered a morale crisis within the ranks. A battalion commander who defected in mid-2022 said his unit dwindled to 150 personnel from its full contingent of about 800. Many commanders pocket the salaries of soldiers who defected or were killed in action, leaving the junta leadership with a poor grasp of personnel strength. Over 10,000 security personnel, including 3,000 military and 7,000 police, have defected, according to Australian National University.
The ground losses resulting from low morale and broken logistics are not surprising. The junta primarily relies on air power to oppress the population and the coup plotters continue to miscalculate the people’s resolve against military rule. The junta’s disregard for public welfare extends to its treatment of its own troops. The military leaders increasingly are isolated and focused solely on self-preservation and self-interest. They believe the country can only be controlled through mass human suffering. Given that mindset — and barring the possibility of resistance forces using overwhelming force — deploying more strategic, nonlethal tactics may be the only way to force the junta to negotiate.
Moving Toward Unity
While the military disintegrates under its own mismanagement and corruption, the resistance coalition must cooperate to consolidate and maintain its gains. Although ethnic armed organizations (EAO), the armed wings of the EROs, have been cooperating with the NUG in training, supporting and equipping the PDF since the coup, a more coherent unity of command is needed to unify efforts across all groups.
The EAOs have featured prominently in Myanmar’s political landscape for decades, fighting for greater autonomy and control over their territories in response to the central military government’s oppression and discrimination against ethnic minorities, which account for about 30% of the population. The nearly two dozen EAOs represent different ethnic groups, each with distinct territories, histories and grievances.
To achieve unity of command, the EROs need guarantees of a federal democracy where they have autonomy and equality within the political system. The trust required to enable such unity has been elusive because of historical misunderstanding and broken promises by the Burman majority, which is now represented by the NLD. Although the NUG has given verbal assurances, the EROs remain concerned about how such guarantees will be enforced once democracy is restored. In March 2023, the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee, a bloc of seven powerful EAOs, stated that although they have agreed to cooperate with the Burman majority, they have to rely on themselves to gain their rights and establish a federal democracy. The NUG needs to provide the EROs with greater assurances to strengthen the resistance coalition.
The international community has called for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar, the release of all political prisoners and a global arms embargo on the nation. In December 2022, 12 of the U.N. Security Council’s 15 members voted to denounce the military’s human rights violations, but India, the PRC and Russia abstained.
The European Union, United Kingdom and United States have imposed sanctions on the military junta and its leaders, including freezing assets and banning travel. The U.S. Congress passed the Burma Act in December 2022, authorizing nonlethal technical support to the NUG, PDF, EAOs and ex-members of the Myanmar military.
From the beginning of the coup, the PRC and Russia have generally favored the junta but provided support to both sides, likely an attempt to protect their significant investments in Myanmar. Under its One Belt, One Road infrastructure scheme, for example, the PRC has major investments at stake in projects to build railroads, highways, oil and gas pipelines, and at least one seaport in Kyaukpyu on the Indian Ocean, as part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. The construction of a hydropower dam on the Irrawaddy River in Kachin State also hangs in the balance. Ninety percent of the electricity produced by the dam would be exported to the PRC, according to an October 2022 report by the USIP.
The PRC also has become increasingly involved in Myanmar’s internal affairs, despite Beijing’s claim to be following a policy of noninterference. It has maintained its close relationship with the military but also attempted to placate ethnic armed groups. Beijing’s continued economic and diplomatic support for Myanmar, and its refusal to condemn the junta, has raised concerns about its motives and drawn widespread criticism.
While calling for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, the PRC has continued to supply both sides with weapons, in part to maintain leverage over each, according to analysts. However, most of the arms and munitions have gone to the junta, which is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. All the while, the PRC has sought to deter Western nations from seeking a resolution in Myanmar.
Meanwhile, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) must do more to pressure the military to restore democracy. ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus approved in April 2021 calls for: an immediate cessation of violence; constructive dialogue among all parties; appointment of a special envoy; provision of humanitarian assistance; and a visit by the special envoy to Myanmar. Junta leader Min Aung Hlaing agreed to the deal that month, but the military’s campaign of violence has continued.
Critics note that the consensus lacks mechanisms to hold the junta accountable and that it was largely a way for ASEAN to maintain its principle of noninterference in member states’ domestic affairs.
Further, a lack of unity within ASEAN on how to address the crisis has hindered the organization’s efforts, with some member states criticizing the junta while others hesitate to speak up.
Critical Role of Women
Unlike in previous uprisings against the military, about 60% of current pro-democracy participants are women. The Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF) Battalion 5 was the first EAO to form a female combat force after the coup. Since then, many EAOs and PDF units have had female combatants within their ranks. Myaung Women Warriors (M2W) are known for their land mine attacks against junta troops in the Sagaing Region. While some women participate in lethal combat missions, more women than men appear to be involved in nonlethal resistance. The women focus on mobilizing and organizing the local population to support and sustain the resistance. The women’s nonlethal efforts are infusing resiliency for the people and sustaining an unprecedented level of countrywide rejection of the junta. However, despite their majority, women still lack proportionate representation in leadership positions within the NUG, PDF, EROs, EAOs and other organizations to increase operational effectiveness.
National Unity Government’s Role
Overall, the most encouraging opposition to the coup has come from the Myanmar people. The country’s permanent representative ambassador to the U.N., Kyaw Moe Tun, took an unprecedented and historic stance at the U.N. General Assembly by denouncing the coup and requesting international aid to restore democracy. He was the first Myanmar diplomat to speak out against the military’s actions on a global stage.
In the aftermath of his appearance, the NUG emerged as a coalition of NLD lawmakers, ethnic minority groups and civil society leaders who had escaped the military’s grasp. The NUG’s declaration that it was the legitimate government representing the will of the people was a momentous development on the country’s political landscape, providing a platform for restoring democracy and posing a significant challenge to the military’s legitimacy.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the NUG’s formation was that it united diverse political and ethnic groups that had often been at odds. The NUG’s formation held the promise of a future where cooperation and collaboration could pave the way for a more inclusive and democratic society.
However, the NUG’s impact has been hindered by numerous challenges, including a lack of formal recognition from other countries. This has limited the NUG’s access to resources and support at the same time that the military crackdown on pro-democracy forces has made it difficult for the NUG to operate effectively.
The NUG’s ability to lead the resistance coalition to success will depend on overcoming such challenges — including deep mistrust among ethnic majority and minority groups — while garnering meaningful international support.
Road to Victory
The pro-democracy resistance coalition has been surprisingly successful. However, it needs some adjustments to tip the scales in its favor. From this moment on, its road to victory depends less on lethal actions and more on nonlethal measures, such as:
Implementing a coherent communication strategy to maintain public support, increase worldwide pressure and expand military defections.
Optimizing human resources and talents, including deploying women, empowering Gen Z and leveraging ex-combatants.
Focusing on understanding the enemy by prioritizing intelligence operations and systematic debriefings of defectors.
Providing political guarantees for EAOs to enable unity of command and effort.
As the conflict moves toward the three-year mark, the people of Myanmar are battle-weary and want stability in their country. However, over 90% of the population believes that the military rule will never bring long-term stability. Therefore, the resistance coalition forces must come together to realize significant progress to reach a tipping point.