- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
Over the past 18 months, the military junta has ruled Myanmar with extreme brutality, driving the country’s economy into the ground and creating a public health and refugee nightmare.
The army has been accused of widespread massacres and has jailed thousands, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. It has shown no mercy, recently executing four democracy activists, including one former lawmaker.
Although the military, which has ruled directly or indirectly since 1962, has reportedly massacred members of ethnic opposition groups as well as the Kachin and Rohingya minorities over the years, the executions were actually the first official death sentences carried out in Myanmar in more than 30 years.
The executions, in the face of condemnation by the international community and pleadings from officials from other Southeast Asian states, show that the military has fully embraced a scorched earth approach to its rule of the country. The military has shown it will brook no compromise, doesn’t care about how its neighbors view it and that it will spare nothing to remain in power, whether massacring civilian populations in the hinterlands of the country or executing more prominent activists.
The people of Myanmar believe the army has no interest in compromise and would rather see the country burn to the ground than give an inch. Consequently, these same people are stepping up their opposition.
As longtime Myanmar specialist David Scot Mathieson has noted, the fighting, which had erupted after the coup last year in more outlying areas, has now spread to cities, which are turning into potential sites for vicious urban warfare, as are parts of the country such as the Sagaing and Magwe regions that previously had experienced little fighting. Urban areas are poised to explode, making the likelihood of conflict even more intense.
And yet the military may be running scared despite the brutality of its rule. While the army boasts hundreds of thousands of soldiers and heavy weaponry from Russia, it is looking like it could possibly lose its grip on power. This would be a scenario that, in its wake, would leave great uncertainty but would undoubtedly be better for the people of Myanmar.
For one, the military underestimated the power of the guerillas, known as the People’s Defense Force. Many members of this group are from Myanmar’s heartland, who fled to the hinterlands after the coup and joined armed ethnic organizations. These guerillas have proven more effective at attacks on the military than the army imagined and have regularly cornered military convoys, launched effective attacks and captured several military bases, embarrassing the armed forces.
Furthermore, guerilla attacks on military officers and outposts in various parts of the country have been effective at striking fear into army personnel, sometimes undermining the military’s chain of command.
The army has responded to the insurgency with brutal tactics such as indiscriminate aerial bombings, burning of towns and other atrocities. However, such tactics are often ineffective against the People’s Defense Force, causing more of the population to turn against the army and join the guerillas.
Meanwhile, the armed forces, which had managed for years to keep their troops isolated from the general public, with a parallel social welfare system and little interaction with the populace, now seem to be suffering a large number of defections from their ranks. Ordinary soldiers are beginning to recognize the army’s atrocities, in part because of the opposition’s effective social media campaigns targeting the military, and these soldiers are defecting to the People’s Defense Force or just leaving altogether.
Indeed, Myanmar’s armed forces are finding it difficult to recruit new officers and are struggling to fill military academies. This reflects a lack of morale in the army, and some analysts believe the number of soldiers on call in the military is far lower than the high estimates that are often given.
As morale drops, and more and more guerilla attacks successfully target officers, there may be a point at which the Myanmar military begins to splinter. The top brass will likely never give in — they would surely face an international tribunal for crimes against humanity — but the lower and middle-ranking levels of the military are looking much weaker against the People’s Defense Force and their partners in the armed ethnic organizations for more than a year. Although the military has access to weapons, the armed ethnic organizations also are becoming better armed than they were just a year ago, as is the People’s Defense Force.
Meanwhile, the exile National Unity Government has been making progress on a number of fronts. After a somewhat shambolic beginning, it has begun to organize itself and seems to have accepted that Myanmar will have to be a truly federal state in future — a conclusion that represents a major step forward. Its officials have met with senior leaders from the United States and other countries. Canberra has allowed the National Unity Government to open its own representative office in Australia, essentially a step toward Canberra dealing primarily with the government and increasingly alienating the junta. The French Senate and Czech Republic have also recognized the National Unity Government.
Some analysts have argued that the United States and other major democracies should openly recognize the National Unity Government — as well as arm Myanmar opposition forces — if the government in exile can provide a road map toward a future, democratic and federal Myanmar.
At the very least, the time has come for major democracies to recognize the National Unity Government diplomatically, since the military regime has shown it has no limit to brutality. And since the anti-junta forces are clearly holding their ground and the military is unaffected by sanctions and doesn’t appear interested in compromise, the opposition has a real possibility of ending military rule themselves.