Post-Coup Myanmar Could Become a Failed State

A fire burns on the street during a protest against the military coup, in Mandalay, Myanmar on April 1, 2021.
A fire burns on the street during a protest against the military coup, in Mandalay, Myanmar on April 1, 2021. Stringer/Reuters

Originally published at World Politics Review

April 19, 2021 5:30 pm (EST)

A fire burns on the street during a protest against the military coup, in Mandalay, Myanmar on April 1, 2021.
A fire burns on the street during a protest against the military coup, in Mandalay, Myanmar on April 1, 2021. Stringer/Reuters
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

In the days after Myanmar’s military staged a coup on Feb. 1, it likely hoped to consolidate power with minimal bloodshed. Having overthrown the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the Tatmadaw, as the armed forces are known in Myanmar, set out to create a managed democracy like neighboring Thailand’s, with an electoral system that guarantees victory for military-aligned parties and their allies.

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The coup leader, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, probably hoped that neighboring states and possibly even the world’s leading democracies would eventually recognize Myanmar’s new government. Indeed, as protests erupted across the country in the coup’s immediate aftermath, security forces responded at first with crowd control efforts rather than the widespread use of lethal force. The junta even tried to gain the support of some of Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups, many of which had signed cease-fire agreements with Suu Kyi’s government.

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But over the past two months, the growing anger and resilience of the protesters have made clear that the demonstrations are not going to stop. In response, the Tatmadaw has stepped up its repression, killing at least 700 people, including dozens of children. Some 2,700 people have reportedly been arrested.

While the anti-coup resistance movement remains largely peaceful, the military’s brutality has caused some demonstrators to shift tactics, trading in their slogans and placards for makeshift weapons like slingshots, air guns and even Molotov cocktails. As for the armed ethnic groups that the junta had hoped to woo, many of them have declared past cease-fires null and void because of the coup, and some are launching new offensives.

There appears to be no clear endpoint or offramp to the violence, which is causing public services and other state functions to collapse in parts of the country. Much of Myanmar, particularly its ethnic minority-dominated borderlands, was already difficult to govern due to decades of civil strife. As I wrote in an article for the journal Current History in 2011, Myanmar had the potential to become a failed state even then. Ten years later, that prospect could easily become reality, even in major cities like Yangon and Mandalay. A civil war across the country also seems increasingly likely, one that could spark a massive humanitarian emergency and a new refugee crisis. If not contained, such a conflict could destabilize other parts of mainland Southeast Asia and even neighboring India and China.

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The Tatmadaw apparently failed to anticipate the resilience of the anti-coup protesters, the resistance of ethnic armies, or the fact that it would get little cover from other countries, save China and Russia. Yet for all its weaknesses, the Tatmadaw enjoys high levels of unity and institutional cohesion. Soldiers are indoctrinated from an early age through an intense propaganda effort, and internal incentives prevent large-scale defections. At this point, the junta is unlikely to yield to protesters’ demands that Suu Kyi’s government be reinstated; apparently, it would rather preside over a failed state than give way to a solution that allows for better governance but dilutes the military’s power. One Western diplomat told The Irrawaddy, an independent news outlet based in Thailand, that the situation resembles the civil war in Syria. Like that country’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, Min Aung Hlaing and his fellow generals are “open to destroying the country to protect themselves,” the diplomat said.

There are troubling signs of escalating conflict in Myanmar’s outer-lying provinces. Two of the most powerful armed groups, the Kachin Independence Army and the Karen National Union, have attacked military outposts in recent weeks. And the Arakan Army, a hard-line Buddhist militia that is active in western Rakhine state, condemned the coup in a statement last month, adding that “the oppressed ethnic people as a whole will continue to fight for their freedom from oppression.”

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By some estimates, the ethnic armies have a total of 75,000 soldiers under their command—fewer than the Tatmadaw’s roughly 350,000, but still a sizable number. The volatile situation could also spark renewed fighting between rival armed groups, causing even greater chaos in the countryside. For example, the biggest ethnic army, the 30,000-strong United Wa State Army—which controls territory in the northeast and is also allegedly one of the biggest drug trafficking organizations in the world—might use the power vacuum to try and consolidate or expand the territory it controls.

As some protesters in cities and towns begin to adopt more violent tactics, there is also the prospect of urban armed resistance or even guerilla warfare. Some protesters have met with members of the ethnic militias to learn their tactics. This is likely to prompt an even more heavy-handed response from the military, which recently conducted airstrikes against the Karen National Union. And in some residential areas, security forces are carrying out nighttime raids, going door-to-door to round up suspected demonstrators and subjecting them to beatings, detentions or, in some cases, summary executions. With a steady supply of weaponry and materiel from Russia and its own factories, the Tatmadaw is in no danger of running out of supplies.

For now, though, neither the military nor the protesters nor the ethnic militias seem capable of gaining a major advantage. Instead, Myanmar seems poised for an increasingly bloody stalemate, though with fighting stretching across the country. The junta has largely shut down the internet, but reports of urban battles are emerging. Frontier Myanmar, one of the last remaining independent news outlets in the country, recently reported that one police officer who had apparently joined the resistance used hand grenades to kill five other members of the security forces. In another incident, a protester detonated a landmine in an apparent effort to harm a group of soldiers, who then shot at protesters in retaliation. Frontier Myanmar reported that these were just some of the multiple violent encounters that are increasingly common between security forces and protesters across the country.

A prolonged period of civil unrest in Myanmar will certainly affect its neighbors. With the economy devastated, the financial system collapsing and food prices rising, an untold number of people will fall into poverty and hunger; COVID-19 is likely spreading as well. As the violence persists, refugees are going to pour across Myanmar’s borders in larger numbers, causing significant challenges for receiving states like Thailand, Bangladesh, India and parts of China. Bangladesh, in particular, already hosts hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya refugees who have fled persecution. Many of these countries have no desire to take people in from Myanmar, but they will likely have little choice. If not carefully managed, new camps for refugees and displaced people could breed anger and despair, providing new recruits to trafficking organizations and armed groups.

So far, the international community has responded to the situation mainly by trying to pressure Myanmar’s military leaders through economic sanctions. But these measures have apparently not had an impact thus far. Instead, the lack of foreign investment means the junta will likely turn to illicit revenue-generating activities, like narcotics and human trafficking. It remains unlikely that nearby states will intervene directly to prop up one actor or another, turning Myanmar into a proxy war like the ones that were common in mainland Southeast Asia during the Cold War. Still, if instability rises in Myanmar, regional powers may feel the need to intervene more assertively. All of this means that the situation in Myanmar could easily get much worse before it gets better.

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