The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Myanmar’s junta can’t win the civil war it started

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It has been nearly 18 months since the Myanmar’s junta snuffed out its country’s fledgling democracy. The Feb. 1, 2021, military coup staged by Gen. Min Aung Hlaing led to the arrests and detention of hundreds of elected politicians, including the country’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. She remains jailed, and a nonviolent, pro-democracy protest movement that rose up in the wake of the military’s takeover has been battered down by security forces.

What has emerged since is all the more dangerous. The junta’s troops find themselves locked in battles with an array of ethnic militias that have long warred with Myanmar’s military, as well as the roughly 60,000 fighters of the People’s Defense Force (PDF), armed groups affiliated with the underground opposition National Unity Government. Analysts believe the coup-plotting regime is under duress, short on fresh recruits and unable to quell the rebellion it started after so abruptly halting the country’s democratic transition last year.

The fighting ebbs and flows on many fronts, ranging from Myanmar’s insurgency-riven borderlands to the rural heartland of the Bamar people — the country’s ethnic majority. It involves what analysts have cast as at least seven discrete conflicts that pit a thicket of factions against each other, from the junta’s army to well-equipped rebel ethnic militias to ragtag resistance guerrillas to pro-regime Buddhist extremist vigilantes.

Casualty counts are somewhat unclear, with independent access to much of the country impossible. U.N. officials believe that the junta has killed more than 2,000 civilians and arrested more than 14,000. Anti-regime forces have also allegedly carried out attacks on civilians believed to be abetting the military. The United Nations estimated last month that more than 700,000 people have been displaced since February 2021, adding to a population of nearly 350,000 people displaced before the coup.

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Myanmar’s military has decades of experience fighting and suppressing insurgencies. But it is struggling to conduct a campaign against a shifting enemy, which in many instances has resorted to guerrilla tactics. In some areas of the country, the regime maintains little to no control beyond major provincial centers. The regime’s ranks are being thinned by defections and a paucity of fresh recruits.

The junta has deployed brutal, time-tested methods, noted Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations, including “archaic tactics of bombing villages, massacring civilians, and burning towns altogether all over the country” to flush out resistance. But, Kurlantzick added, “this hammer approach is not stopping the rebel groups. It has failed to overwhelm the PDF forces when it can, giving them further hope.”

This week, Amnesty International reported that the military had laid land mines around at least 20 villages in Kayah, a war-torn state near the border with Thailand where ethnic Karenni fighters have clashed with government troops. In a statement, the rights group called on the world to cut off the flow of weapons to the junta and described its actions as “abhorrent and cruel.”

They don’t seem to be effective, either. The generals “have certainly misjudged their own ability to resolve this; they are unable to consolidate power and have proven themselves inept at managing the economy and basic state functions,” Pete Vowles, Britain’s outgoing ambassador in Myanmar, told a local English-language publication last week, referring to the junta. “And it appears that they are more unpopular than ever.”

Myanmar junta vows to execute pro-democracy activists

The anti-regime forces are not exactly in the ascendancy, either. There’s minimal strategic coordination between the irregular PDF units out in the countryside, and a hodgepodge of local alliances between various anti-regime groups and the ethnic militias, some of whom are less invested in throwing the junta out of power than others.

“While they have no lack of enthusiastic recruits, [the PDF] have been unable to move beyond rural guerilla tactics,” wrote Ye Myo Hein and Lucas Myers of the Wilson Center. “The ethnic armies, with their better equipment and more reliable access to arms have performed somewhat better against junta offensives.”

In an interview this week, Duwa Lashi La, the acting president of the opposition National Unity Government, pointed to the gap between global solidarity for Ukraine and what has been mustered internationally for Myanmar’s pro-democracy rebellion, not least as the Kremlin also helps prop up the junta’s military.

“The world can clearly do more to support the people to defend themselves from atrocities and isolate the junta,” he told Asian geopolitical publication the Diplomat. “Just a small fraction of the support Ukraine has received would be an investment in us. That would help us end atrocities quickly, save many thousands of lives and bring forth a democratic Myanmar.”

According to the assessments of some representatives of anti-regime movements, it would not take much to definitively turn the tide of battle. “A supply of 50—100 Stinger-like missiles and a few thousand military-grade M4 automatic rifles would be enough for them to overthrow the military junta,” wrote Michael Martin, an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Depending on which [ethnic militias] and PDFs were supplied weapons, the total cost could be well below $1 billion — a small fraction of the military aid the Biden administration is currently supplying Ukraine,” he said.

But there’s little international appetite to pump in more arms into an already dizzyingly complicated battlefield. Foreign officials who have recently traveled to the region, including Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have all urged cessation of hostilities and political dialogue.

“It’s unfortunately safe to say that we’ve seen no positive movement and on the contrary, we continue to see the repression of the Burmese people,” Blinken told reporters in Bangkok last week, using Myanmar’s former name of Burma. “We will continue to look for ways that we can, and other countries can, effectively put pressure on them to move back to the democratic path.”