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Myanmar on the Brink

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Myanmar on the Brink

What does the emergence of a government-in-exile and a newly formed alliance of ethnic rebel groups mean for the country’s emerging conflict?

Myanmar on the Brink

Protest art depicting coup leader Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing in Mandalay, Myanmar.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Kantabon

After two months of military rule, at least 581 protesters have been killed in Myanmar. More than 100 died on March 27 alone, and the events of that day have seemingly had a catalytic event on the development of both the opposition movement’s long-term plans, and also the response of ethnic minority rebel groups toward the protest movement. Throughout February and March, ethnic minority insurgent groups, governing over self-ruled parts of the country’s periphery that are now becoming refuges for protesters fleeing from the central regions, have failed to take advantage of the apparent opportunity that the emergence of the protest movement presented them with.

Due to having fewer fighters and many operational weaknesses that are the result of years of bombing campaigns and incursions by the Myanmar military into their territories, in additional to a lack of external support or recognition from the international community, Myanmar’s plethora of ethnic armed organizations were initially less active than a passive observer might have expected. The formation of a new alliance made up of 10 of these rebel groups indicates a changing perspective within these minority organizations, likely shaped by the simultaneous emergence of a government-in-exile representing the pro-democracy movement. This new rebel alliance voiced support for the government-in-exile on April 4.

Writing last month for The Diplomat, I argued that the factors were in place for the crisis in Myanmar to develop into a divisive and devastating conflict which would be accompanied by a large-scale humanitarian crisis. The most pertinent question to be asked at this juncture should be: “is there any way to turn back now, and how?” As in the early stages of the recent civil wars in Lebanon, Bosnia, and Syria, there currently seems to be no one able to play the role of peacemaker. In the 1990s and 2000s, Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s admirers sometimes compared her to Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King. Her ability to inspire support, attract international attention, and negotiate with her adversaries ultimately led to a 10-year period of power-sharing between her pro-democracy movement and the country’s military. Aung Sang Suu Kyi is now awaiting trial by the junta, a trial that will most likely propel the protest movement into more intensified actions.

After the bloodshed of March 27, exiled lawmakers, who are supportive of the protesters, formed a sort of government-in-exile, which is likely to be supported by some Western nations, as the violent response of the military continues to intensify. Around the same time, it was reported that a shipment of grenades and ammunition had been intercepted by the Thai police on the border with Myanmar. Some speculated that the weapons were on their way to the protest movement. Throughout March, the tag #springrevolution became popular online, an indication of how the movement now sees itself: as a revolution, seeking radical change. On April 2, in a further escalation, the junta ordered a nationwide internet blackout as a means of stifling communication and further undermining what remains of the country’s free press. The blackout was accompanied by the arrests of journalists and celebrities.

Myanmar’s armed forces, or Tatmadaw, are experienced, well-armed, well-trained, and seemingly well-indoctrinated. There have been some defections from the ranks of the police and military since the coup, yet overall these numbers are insignificant.  The number of defections could change if the protest movement intensifies or transforms into something more violent. However, the military’s cohesion has so far held, as has its determination to stamp out desertion, as can be seen by the shooting of a policeman protecting protesters on April 2.

There are more than a dozen ethnic armed groups opposing the central government in Myanmar, some of which have been fighting since the late 1940s. According to some analysts, these groups collectively field around 100,000 fighters, compared with the 350,000-strong Tatmadaw. The ceasefire offered to these rebel groups by the military in late March (so the military could focus on stamping out the pro-democracy movement) was not rejected by all of these groups, as many have become exhausted from years of conflict, loss of life, destruction of property, and the international community and ASEAN turning a blind eye to their struggles and grievances.

The responses of neighboring states and the international community have been mixed. China has expressed concern over attacks on Chinese-owned firms, intimidation of Chinese nationals, and a high level of online abuse and trolling in support of these acts. It is assumed by many that the Myanmar protest movement sees China as a key supporter of the junta. “Junta children” have also been harassed, both online and in real life. Other authoritarian regimes in the region, such as Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, have failed to support criticism from Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore of the junta’s actions during the first few weeks of the conflict. Overall, ASEAN has proven itself to be impotent, divided, and dominated by authoritarian regimes, as most observers already knew it was. Additionally, towards the end of March, the Thai military was accused of selling rice to Myanmar military personnel. On March 31, the U.N.’s special envoy to Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, requested that the international community consider every option to prevent the crisis in Myanmar from escalating in a significant humanitarian emergency. The U.N. Security Council has been divided over how to respond to the crisis.

The only realistic solution to such a polarized and divided conflict is the intervention of an external third party trusted by both sides, or a charismatic and respected individual who can bring the two sides together. Aung San Suu Kyi is one such charismatic and respected individual. Unfortunately, she is distrusted by the military and is awaiting a trial that is likely to be unjust. It is also likely that the unfair charges levied against her will inspire more anger from the population. Is there another individual within the international community who is willing, capable, and trusted enough to play this role? If Aung San Suu Kyi was to re-emerge from imprisonment to play the role of peace maker as Nelson Mandela did in South Africa in the early 1990s, she might be able to push for a cessation of hostilities, and drag both parties to the negotiation table. Yet, after all that has taken place since February 1, is it possible to reverse what is becoming an increasingly intense and divisive conflict?

By briefly observing the changing roles of the different actors involved — the establishment of an internal government-in-exile, supported by an alliance of ethnic rebels groups, protesters now arming themselves with homemade weapons and planting small bombs, and the increasingly intense crackdown by a regime that enjoys external support from China and Russia — there is no reason to believe that the current crisis will defuse itself, or diminish naturally, in the near future, without substantial intervention by a transformative individual or external party. In the coming months, India, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, and other neighboring and nearby states shall increasingly inherit the burden of the growing flows of refugees into their territories. It is a matter of speculation how these states will deal with the arrival of these needy people at their borders. Worryingly, the state government of Manipur in eastern India recently refused to allow Myanmar civilians from fleeing the violence into India, and initially refused to give them food and shelter. After more than two months of junta rule in Myanmar, there are no grounds to hope for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, barring some kind of unexpected and decisive intervention from the outside.