The competing public commentary on Myanmar

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

A year after the coup that restored the military to power in Myanmar, Andrew Selth finds that two schools of analysis have taken root – one optimistic, the other pessimistic. But regardless of the perspective, he argues effective responses to the military takeover call for “accurate information, open minds, and clear thinking”.

It was a year ago tomorrow that Myanmar’s armed forces seized power after rejecting the results of a mostly free and fair general election. Since then, there has been a dramatic decline in all the standard political, economic, and social indicators. Criminal activity and COVID-19 cases aside, the only statistics that have gone up are those recording the number of people killed, wounded or displaced in the bitter civil war that is now raging across the country.

Given the dearth of reliable information about Myanmar, and the strong emotions aroused by the terrible events of 2021, objective, evidence-based analyses of the crisis are difficult. Some broad observations are possible, but opinions vary widely on precisely what has happened, what it all means and what is in store for the country in 2022. As in the past, notably after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the public commentary on Myanmar is deeply divided.

Broadly speaking, those commentators, popular pundits and activists writing about Myanmar, mainly for the news media, but also for online publications and social media platforms, fall into two schools. For the sake of argument (and setting aside the many qualifications that immediately spring to mind), they can be called the idealists and the realists or, more prosaically, the optimists and the pessimists.

The two schools share some similarities. Both have described in graphic terms the dreadful state of affairs inside Myanmar. The human rights abuses of the armed forces (or Tatmadaw) have dominated the headlines, but as 2021 progressed Myanmar’s economy collapsed, essential services failed, people fell below the poverty line, food and medicines became harder to find and the pandemic spread. Over 400,000 people have been internally displaced since the coup, and about 32,000 refugees have fled to Thailand and India.

At the same time, the two schools have presented governments, international organisations and the public with competing narratives. Members of the first school have written countless op-eds and articles stating what they would like to see happen in Myanmar, and indeed what most observers agree should happen, in an ideal world. The second school, on the other hand, has tended to describe, often in stark and uncompromising terms, what is actually happening in Myanmar and outside it, and what is likely to happen, or not happen, as the case may be.

Myanmar security forces
Military forces observe anti-coup demonstrators, Taunggyi, Myanmar - March 20, 2021. Image credit: R. Bociaga, Shutterstock.

For example, the first school is marked by an abiding belief in the opposition movement’s ability to wear down the security forces in Myanmar, eventually resulting in the collapse of the military regime. Its members anticipate the coalescence and ultimate victory of the 250-plus armed groups that currently oppose the junta, whether they are armed ethnic organisations, rural militias or small urban resistance cells. The idealists also seem to be pinning their hopes on the defection of major combat units from the Tatmadaw and national police force.

This school continues to call upon the international community to assist, by recognising the shadow National Unity Government (NUG), by providing arms and other supplies to the resistance movement, and by denying the junta the legitimacy it craves. The school also supports the imposition of economic and other sanctions. Some members are still calling for the direct intervention of the international community under Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principles, or at least the creation of a no-fly zone over Myanmar, policed by the air forces of foreign powers.

The realist school, on the other hand, has taken a more hard-headed approach. For example, its members have noted the Tatmadaw’s strengths and opined that, as long as it remains largely loyal and cohesive, it is unlikely that the junta can be defeated by force of arms. This school maintains that the NUG’s proposed “federal army” is “a distant dream”. The NUG does not even control all elements of its multi-faceted People’s Defence Force (PDF). The realist school also believes that formal recognition of the NUG remains highly unlikely.

The realists have warned that, while important in symbolic terms, sanctions will not change the junta’s thinking, or its brutal counter-insurgency tactics. Nor will they encourage the generals to negotiate with opposition groups that the regime has already dubbed terrorist organisations. As long as the junta enjoys the support of countries like Russia and China, direct military interventions and no-fly zones are not serious options. Arms embargoes, while perhaps sending a message to the junta, are unlikely to affect the conflict on the ground.

Looking ahead, it has to be said that the realists seem to be reading the tea leaves more accurately than the idealists. Hope springs eternal, but there are few causes for optimism. Indeed, during 2022, the military and political stalemate in Myanmar is likely to be even more vicious as both sides see fewer options open to them and become more desperate to prevail. This is not unusual in such asymmetric contests but, as is often the case, the general population is likely to suffer the consequences more than the combatants.

The junta is clearly determined to crush all signs of opposition, regardless of the consequences, human and otherwise. The generals can be surprisingly pragmatic, but at present they seem prepared to see Myanmar destroyed in order to wrest back control. For its part, the opposition movement risks fracturing and becoming more extreme. The PDF has already issued death threats against moderates for raising the possibility of discussions with the junta. Many activists are angry that the outside world seems to be ignoring their plight.

The number of casualties will continue to rise. Most news reports and op-eds mention the number of “fallen heroes” killed by the junta since the coup, currently estimated to be around 1500. It has been claimed that several thousand security personnel have been killed, but that figure is probably inflated. Few of these articles also mention that PDF resistance cells have assassinated over 800 usually unarmed men and women, and injured another 700 or more, on the (often unproven) grounds that they were informers or supporters of the junta.

Despite their obvious differences, members of both schools clearly care deeply about the tragedy unfolding in Myanmar. Most wish to help governments, international organisations and members of the public understand what is happening there. To a greater or lesser extent, their presentations include an element of advocacy. This is to be expected. However, in assessing their contributions to the debate it is worth remembering that “comment is free but facts are sacred”, and verifiable facts about developments in Myanmar are hard to obtain.

There are no quick or easy solutions to Myanmar’s “fiendishly complex” and seemingly intractable problems. As 2022 unfolds, accurate information, open minds, and clear thinking will be needed by all those writing about the country and offering advice on ways to respond. Myanmar’s long-suffering people deserve nothing less.

Andrew Selth is an Adjunct Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, in Brisbane, Australia. His latest book is Myanmar (Burma) Since the 1988 Uprising: A Select Bibliography (4th edition) (Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2022).

Banner image: Anti-coup protesters shield themselves against security forces, Yangon, Myanmar - March 9, 2021. Credit: Maung Nyan, Shutterstock.