In Sarajevo, in early-1992, during one of the final sittings of the Bosnian parliament, Radovan Karadzic, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, told Alija Izetbegovic, the leader of the Bosnian Muslims, that the act of Bosnia seceding from Yugoslavia would “drag Bosnia down to hell.” In a BBC interview after the war, Izetbegovic claimed that after this meeting that “I felt as if the gates of hell had opened.” This move toward the establishment of an independent state led to a three and a half year conflict that destroyed Bosnia, created millions of refugees, and led to the deaths of over 100,000 people. In 2011, as the protests were spreading across the Arab world, a young man in Syria sprayed anti-regime graffiti on a public wall in the town of Deraa. His imprisonment by local security forces was followed by protests, which were aggressively put down by the security forces, which in turn led to protests spreading across most of the country. After much brutality, the protest movement evolved into a campaign of armed resistance against the state, carried out partly by former members of the military and police. The Syrian tragedy has yet to come to an end.
My time spent studying armed conflict over the last four years has made me aware of the fact that when certain thresholds are crossed, and when both recent and long held (yet repressed) grievances rise to the surface, the dynamics of a political conflict can develop a logic of their own. What begins as a protest movement can, with the right internal and external factors in place, develop into a brutal and protracted armed conflict, which can also lead to the destabilization of the wider region; Syria, and the conflict in neighboring Lebanon (1975-1990) are two prime examples of how quickly and extremely a multi-ethnic state can fall apart and wallow in seemingly endless armed conflict for more than a decade.
For the protesters who have been beaten, imprisoned, tear-gassed, and killed since Myanmar’s military coup on February 1, it is questionable at this stage whether these young people will accept any future form of governance for their country that involves a dominant role for the Burmese military. After experiencing ten years of relative freedom, followed by the unfair cancellation of an election, the grievances of protesters in Myanmar are valid and impossible to dismiss. Since the coup, the country has experienced internet outages and a severely brutal crackdown on an initially non-violent protest movement. It is quite likely now that the protesters will become more radical in their demands. Even were it on offer, a return to the pre-coup status quo would probably not be acceptable to most after the brutality they have experienced.
Analysts are still debating the exact reasoning (or lack of) behind the military’s seizure of power. The armed forces were guaranteed a position of power and privilege under the military-drafted 2008 Constitution. Although the National League for Democracy won a landslide election victory in November 2020, the military’s position of dominance seemed not to be under threat. If anything, Aung Sang Suu Kyi has been criticized over the last decade for appearing to be too close to the military. Overall, to expect compromise or reasonable engagement from the Myanmar military, considering its long history of violence against its own people, would be naive.
The military’s brutality towards protesters and rebellious minorities in the past has been well-documented, and it would be fair to view them as experts at control, suppression, and brutality. Similar to other authoritarian regimes, the Burmese military see themselves as the “guardians of the nation” and often use outdated anti-colonial rhetoric and references to past struggles against foreign domination to justify their own control of the country. In February of this year, Anthony Davis argued that the Burmese military had implemented an effective strategy for containing the protests. Yet what is more significant is the number of police and soldiers now defecting, with some even joining the protest movement. This phenomenon is reminiscent of how members of the Syrian security forces joined protesters in 2011 and 2012. Although this phenomenon has not become widespread so far, if it grows, it is a development that would change the course of this crisis.
Like the former Yugoslavia, Myanmar has also long experienced the phenomenon of armed separatism along all of its frontiers. Some of these insurgencies have survived since the late 1940s, and their resilience is beyond question. The Myanmar military has contained many of these insurgencies, yet have never truly been successful in defeating any of them. With the Burmese military now preoccupied with putting down protests in its central regions, rebel commanders in these outlying areas are possibly eyeing a ripe moment for a significant push against the central government, and an opportunity to appeal to the international community against a regime whose reputation has sunk in recent weeks. However, the Arakan Army, a separatist group in western Myanmar, has supposedly used the crisis to build confidence with the junta for negotiations in the future.
Attacks on Chinese-owned factories have prompted China to take a greater interest in the crisis, which could be countered by the U.S. or China’s local competitor, India, if the Chinese level of involvement were to become substantial. However, it is questionable whether external involvement will be requested or tolerated by the junta. In 2008, the Burmese military prohibited foreign aid organizations from delivering humanitarian aid to hundreds of thousands of civilians affected by Cyclone Nargis. Additionally, the military also was comfortable closing off the country for nearly five decades as the economy stagnated and the country failed to develop. Like their neighbors in Thailand, the Myanmar elite has an aversion to external (particularly Western) involvement in their internal affairs, thus reducing the chance of constructive mediation between the two sides being provided by a western government or a European NGO. Other ASEAN states are also either authoritarian in nature, or not powerful enough to influence the Myanmar government. They also stand to gain little from involving themselves in a complicated crisis such as this. Additionally, separatism and the role of rebellious minorities is a general phenomenon across Southeast Asia that no ASEAN member state is interested in supporting.
Thus, if external parties are ineffective or unwanted as a mediator, any solution to the crisis must be homegrown. Naturally, Aung Sang Suu Kyi as leader of the country’s largest political movement, and one who is both familiar with the military’s top brass and recognized internationally for her past struggles, would be the appropriate mediator for any negotiations between the military and the anti-coup movement. However, as leader of the same political movement that the military clearly views as a threat to its dominance, it is unlikely that the generals will release Aung Sang Suu Kyi unless they come under significant pressure from China, or from a protest movement that could possibly evolve into an armed insurgency over the coming months.
After nearly two decades of their pro-democracy leader living under house arrest, and after nearly five decades of military-dominated rule, Myanmar developed a system that worked reasonably well for much of its population during the 2010s. The system was imperfect and based on an extreme level of compromise on the part of the NLD, yet the country did re-enter the international fold and its economy began to develop after years of stagnation. That era of compromise and cooperation is now over with little hope of a return to the pre-coup political arrangements.
Have the gates of hell been opened upon Myanmar like they were upon Bosnia and Syria in the recent past?
It is too early to discount the possibility of some form of actor emerging on the scene who might steer the crisis in a different direction. Yet, judging from the increasing levels of violence, defections from the security forces, and a protest movement radicalized by brutality and motivated by their experience of ten years of relative normality, it is not impossible that the conflict in Myanmar could degenerate into a conflict like Bosnia in the 1990s or Syria in the 2010s – a conflict that would lead to the creation of millions of refugees and internally displaced peoples, the possible intervention of external parties, the destruction of a country, its environment, and economy, and the possible emergence of new and smaller states along Myanmar’s existing peripheries.
Both sides in this conflict are becoming more incensed and external parties are reluctant to get involved in a country that has been divided along ethnic lines since independence in 1948. Overall, it is too early to predict the worst for Myanmar. Aung Sang Suu Kyi could be released by the military and some form of cessation of hostilities could take place, or the military might try to open a dialog with protesters, if enough pressure is applied by external actors. It is also possible that with a particularly severe level of oppression, the protesters could be crushed. However, their resilience and determination has been proven over the last few weeks. As things currently stand, the factors are now in place for the development of a protracted and disastrous armed conflict that would, in the long term, affect all of Southeast Asia.