Recent developments in Myanmar stand in stark contrast to the halting despair that descended upon the country almost three years ago. Not only did the despotic rule of a seemingly unassailable military junta usher in a period of civil unrest and violence, it also amplified pre-existing vulnerabilities, resulting in the catalyzation of a broad-based resistance movement.
The People’s Defense Forces, a coalition of diverse ethnic armies and deposed elected leaders, has made sweeping gains in recent months, prompting predictions that the regime could be on the verge of collapse.
Anti-government forces have seized critical border crossings, disrupting the junta’s control over the country’s frontiers with China, India and Thailand. These developments, driven by unprecedented interethnic coordination, represent a massive blow to the regime’s staying power, and are further complicated by battles on several fronts against pre-2021 armed resistance groups and emergent ethnic forces.
Frequent confrontations and daily ambushes targeting the junta’s forces have inflicted troop losses and a decline in morale. The Three Brotherhood Alliance, for instance, has made significant strides by seizing substantial territory, including more than 130 military bases and strategic outposts in the northern Shan state. Alliance operations have led to the demise of a light infantry division commander and the surrender of two battalions. Resistance forces have also seized military equipment, further bolstering the insurgency movement.
The swift fall of junta forces suggests there are significant vulnerabilities in the regime’s long-term grip on power, as a result of nearly three years of losses since its unpopular coup, coupled with internal decay caused by corrupt and self-serving senior officers.
Since the power grab, Myanmar’s economy has contracted significantly, while the seizure of strategic towns such as Chinshwehaw, a major trade hub with China, has reduced trade revenues. Chinshwehaw is particularly important because between April and September 2021, more than a quarter of Myanmar’s nearly $2 billion of border trade with China passed through the town.
Besides the economic fallout, which is poised to get worse as the fighting intensifies, the State Administrative Council, the junta’s administrative body, is grappling with severe financial and diplomatic challenges. Apart from Russia, China and a few Southeast Asian regimes, the junta is not internationally recognized. This lack of global acceptance, coupled with financial sanctions imposed by the US, is straining its resources and further weakening its position.
In some circles, there is a palpable sense that the regime’s downfall is imminent, a question of when, not if, provided the progress of the resistance does not stall or lose its cohesion.
Naturally, the conversations around the latest developments in Myanmar have shifted to what comes next, including the role of the international community in managing the aftermath of the regime’s collapse. The post-junta period will most likely involve a combination of domestic initiatives and non-kinetic external interventions.
The collapse of the regime could lead to a power vacuum that might be filled by a resistance coalition, given its high degree of coordination and its motivation to establish a new political paradigm.
On the international front, there is potential for a rare collaboration between China and the US. Given its vested interests in the stability of Myanmar, China might step up its involvement in peacekeeping efforts. Beijing has been known to provide shelter to refugees, appoint special envoys for peace talks, and defend Myanmar over the crisis in Rakhine State.
Given the recent souring of its relations with the junta, China might find an opportunity to increase its influence among anti-government forces by leveraging its ability to influence the actions of the ethnic armies, as demonstrated by its adoption of more robust measures against military-sponsored criminal activities along the border.
Moving forward, with the junta’s days possibly numbered, China will likely maintain a strategic balance of support for both military and resistance forces, thereby increasing its influence on the two sides of the conflict.
While China initially adopted a wait-and-see approach after the coup, it has increased the pressure on all parties to safeguard Chinese strategic interests. Careful management of its relations and business engagements will allow Beijing to take unilateral actions, focusing mainly on border enclaves within its sphere of influence. Such steps, albeit driven by self-interest, can enhance China’s credibility among anti-junta forces and position it as a key player in Myanmar’s transition process.
The US, on the other hand, has had a limited role in Myanmar’s ever-evolving dynamics, largely as a result of Chinese opposition to Washington’s engagement. However, the Americans might elevate Myanmar in their list of priorities in Southeast Asia by adopting a posture and policies designed to better understand and counteract China’s influence, or at least add some degree of balance to it.
Given the junta’s lack of international recognition and the imposition of financial sanctions by the US, opportunities remain for Western nations to engage more actively with Myanmar’s resistance forces.
Alternatively, the West could bet on shared interests: deposing an undemocratic military junta and Beijing’s desire to stabilize the convulsions in a neighboring country and prevent the contagion spreading.
Such an “alliance” would make it much easier to utilize diplomatic channels, economic sanctions, and international law to sue for a settlement that would result in the junta ceding power in favor of a civilian-led interim authority. Concurrently, the opposition’s National Unity Government would also receive more generous and overt support, having proven its capabilities, while capitalizing on higher-level engagements with external actors.
Geopolitics and great-power rivalries aside, however, Myanmar is in desperate need of humanitarian assistance for a displaced group of more 300,000 people across the country. In Rakhine State alone, more than 26,000 people remain displaced as a result of the conflict between the Arakan Army and the military junta.
The UN reports that most humanitarian activities have been suspended, rendering the situation dire not only for those displaced and aggrieved by the conflict, but also for more than 200,000 people affected by a devastating cyclone in May.
Myanmar’s evolving needs have become a critical test for the commitment of the international community to safeguarding the security of the population, stabilizing volatile regions, and protecting human rights.
Before debates begin about whether the patchwork of ethnic armed groups, deposed elected leaders, activists, and armed defense forces will be able to govern, or whether the country will descend into even greater chaos, Myanmar’s resistance needs to be given a chance. Otherwise, Southeast Asia will be faced with the next hot spot in a disordered world that is balanced on a knife edge.