A Tale of Two Myanmars

By Andrew Selth, Adjunct Professor, Griffith Asia Institute – Griffith University

As the civil war in Myanmar drags on, most foreign governments appear to have concluded that the military regime will survive and that their own national interests dictate they should recognise it as the country’s government, writes Andrew Selth.  Sham elections scheduled for later this year are likely to only highlight this attitude.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us …[1]

When Charles Dickens wrote those words in 1859, he was thinking of the French Revolution, but they can also be applied to the civil war in Myanmar – considered by some observers to be another revolution. For the conflict there gives rise to feelings of both hope and despair. To many, the Burmese people have everything before them, but there are others who look at recent and likely future developments and are much less optimistic.

The hopeful signs have been widely publicised and are easily identified.

The nation-wide civil disobedience movement that arose spontaneously after the military coup of 1 February 2021 has managed to survive the junta’s brutal campaign against it. The opposition movement has created a shadow National Unity Government (NUG), which consists of 17 ministries and numerous other bodies, including at least four intelligence agencies and eight diplomatic missions overseas.

The NUG has announced a range of policies that seem aimed at correcting the social inequities seen under past military – and quasi-democratic – administrations. For example, it has declared that, under a new federal government, the Muslim Rohingyas will no longer be denied citizenship, the armed forces will be under civilian control, and greater autonomy will be granted to the ethnic minorities that make up 40 percent of the country’s population.

The NUG has also established a People’s Defence Force (PDF) that is growing in strength and sophistication. It reportedly has 65,000 personnel, most under arms, organised into 300 or more battalions in five military districts. Its supporters claim that the PDF effectively controls more than half the country. The NUG and PDF also have links with some powerful ethnic armed organisations (EAO), which actively support their fight against the junta.

Early in the conflict, many analysts were downbeat in their assessments of the PDF’s chances of achieving a military victory. They pointed to the fact that the junta’s armed forces (or Tatmadaw) were better organised, better armed and better trained. They had better communications and could call on air power to assist in operations. They also were supported by China and Russia with both logistics and modern arms supply.

Yet, as the conflict developed into a nation-wide civil war, the opposition forces began to acquire more arms and inflict real damage. In addition to PDF and EAO units, there was a plethora of local defence groups, people’s defence teams and urban resistance cells. Many paid lip service to the NUG but acted independently, protecting communities and conducting small-scale attacks, including “targeted killings”, against the junta and its supporters.

Gradually, the momentum swung in favour of the opposition movement. The junta found it increasingly difficult to assert its control over parts of the country. It also faced challenges in managing its military and police forces, some 13,000 of whom are said to have defected. The situation in Myanmar is still highly dynamic, and is different in different parts of the country, but there is now what one respected analyst has described as a “strategic stalemate”.

Throughout this struggle, the opposition movement in Myanmar has enjoyed the political and moral support of most of the international community. The Western democracies and United Nations, in particular, have been outspoken in denouncing the junta and calling for economic and other sanctions. They have also attempted to deny the junta the means to fight the civil war against the opposition movement, by restricting cash flows and arms sales.

This has given rise to a “spring of hope”. However, while less prominent in the news media, there are also grounds for pessimism, if not a “winter of despair”.

The generals have declared the opposition movement to be a terrorist organisation that must be “annihilated”. They see no scope for a negotiated solution. To their mind, the civil war will be either won or lost. As the US intelligence community has recently noted, for the junta it is an existential struggle. The generals and their supporters have nowhere else to go. That makes them a formidable foe, unlikely ever to surrender.

Also, it is important to keep in mind the nature of insurgencies. Temporary control of territory or towns means little if that control cannot be consolidated, or if the territory is largely jungle. The junta does not have to ‘defeat’ the opposition on the battlefield to maintain its dominance of Myanmar’s ethnic Bamar heartland. Provided that the Tatmadaw remains loyal and cohesive, the military government can absorb a great deal of pain and still survive.

Most of the population seems to be behind the opposition movement, and hatred of the junta is constantly reinforced by its brutal actions, but there are significant elements that support the new order. Not counting the security forces, there are probably millions of people who, for one reason or another, are prepared to live with military rule or who actively promote it. It is not just the security forces against the civilian population, as often depicted in the media.

There are other problems. As Yun Sun has pointed out, the “opposition movement” is not united, but “hydra-headed”. There are deep fissures within and between its many components over policies, military strategies, leadership questions and the way ahead. For now, these differences have been papered over to pursue the common goal of defeating the junta, but some resistance alliances are fragile, and the opposition could easily fragment.

As time passes and casualties mount, other factors will cause the NUG concern. As Ye Myo Hein has written, “dragging out the conflict risks exhaustion”. The junta is trying to divide the opposition movement and sap its energy, waiting for it to run out of steam. Commitment to the opposition movement still seems strong, but there is a risk that the civilian population will gradually come to accommodate the status quo, simply to live a more “normal” life.

In this regard, it needs to be borne in mind that Myanmar’s civil society has largely been destroyed. The economy is in deep trouble, municipal services have broken down and poverty levels are still rising. There is no rule of law, only mutual suspicion and violence. Crime is rampant. Vigilante groups and “hit teams” mete out their own form of summary justice on those considered enemies. Men and women, service and civilian, few are spared.

No foreign country has formally recognised the NUG as Myanmar’s legitimate government. Many have expressed concerns over the junta’s harsh policies, and stated their support for the opposition movement, but few have gone beyond rhetoric to provide practical assistance. Despite pleas from activists, direct intervention in the conflict, under R2P principles, is not a realistic option. Nor is any country going to enforce a no-fly zone over Myanmar.

The opposition movement seems to be on its own, dependent on donations from expatriates and other sympathisers for even the most basic necessities. This will hinder development of the NUG, the PDF and their allies. For example, no foreign government is likely to provide the kind of lethal aid that is desperately needed, like man-portable missiles, which could conceivably tip the balance of forces on the battlefield towards the opposition.

This stance is dictated by a mixture of legal, political and practical considerations, but the outcome remains the same. The international community does not want to get involved. Most governments appear already to have assessed that the military regime will survive over the longer term and that, in their own national interests, they should recognise it as Myanmar’s government. The sham elections scheduled for later this year will highlight this position.

Understandably, this is a great disappointment to the opposition movement. It has also led to a degree of cynicism on the part of many Burmese about the real interests of foreign countries in Myanmar. There is dismay too over apparently diminishing interest in the civil war among journalists and commentators. As the war drags on without any breakthroughs, the attention of those Charles Dickens dubbed the “noisiest authorities” seems to be turning elsewhere.

It is in these circumstances that some observers have started to draw comparisons with past episodes of internal unrest in Myanmar, like the 1988 uprising, when a nation-wide opposition movement morphed into student-led guerrilla bands in the countryside and a government in exile.[2] These groups withered away, as the military regime consolidated its grip on the country and foreign governments, by and large, returned to business as usual.

That is doubtless the scenario the current junta in Naypyidaw hopes will be seen again.

Andrew Selth is an adjunct professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, and author of “Intelligence and Intelligence Agencies in Myanmar Since the 2021 Coup”.

[1] Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), p.35.

[2] David Steinberg, “Myanmar’s History of Governments in Exile”, The Irrawaddy, 25 February 2023, at https://www.irrawaddy.com/opinion/guest-column/myanmars-history-of-governments-in-exile.html