The Debate | Opinion | Southeast Asia

Myanmar’s Civil War Has Already Begun

Here’s what the international community can and should do about it.

Myanmar’s Civil War Has Already Begun

In this file photo, soldiers from the Kachin Independence Army patrols outside Laiza, Myanmar, April 2, 2012.

Credit: Sebastian Strangio

Min Ko Naing, a veteran political activist, and a leading figure behind Myanmar’s Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the legitimate interim government opposing the junta, has put it clearly: Activists opposed to the junta should go to territories held by allied ethnic armed organizations in the southeast. “These territories will become ‘free zones’ where they can continue the fight against the military together with ethnic minorities. Those who remain in the cities will continue their fight by guerrilla protests,” he told Radio Free Asia.

Myanmar is looking at civil war – or, actually a major escalation of the civil wars that the country has experienced since independence – between the junta which took power in the February 1 coup and the broad umbrella of CRPH and ethnic minority organizations that have just formed a National Unity Government (NUG). Few people now believe in a negotiated agreement. The reason is simple: neither has any incentive to compromise.

The junta, having killed over 700 protesters and civilians know there is no way it can walk away from this coup. For now, the coup leaders remain firmly in control of the armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, as long as they do not compromise. Once they start losing, there is little to prevent the second tier of generals from tossing them out and seeking a better deal for themselves.

The CRPH is similarly locked into confrontation. Its new ethnic allies are suspicious that the National League for Democracy, the ruling party ousted on February 1, will sell them out if presented with a chance at compromise so the CRPH needs to demonstrate firmness. Its political base is mobilized and riled up and is not looking for a return to the status quo ante. “The people of Burma would not accept [a negotiated settlement],” NLD executive committee member Phyo Zeya Thaw told me back in February.

What then are the prospects for the coming civil war?

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The key factors are: first, the strength and breadth of the coalition supporting the NUG through the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), which will include ethnic armies  and ethnic political organizations supporting the NUG, but the constituency of which has not yet been finalized; and second, the relative international support of the CRPH vs. the junta. The coalition of ethnic armed organizations operating through the NUCC will not defeat the Tatmadaw militarily. The junta will instead be undone by its comprehensive failure at governing the country and providing services to the people, which it is being denied by continuing civil disobedience. The key to victory for the NUG will be to keep civil disobedience going in the face of repression and an economic collapse that has already started.

And here is where the international community comes in. Foreign governments need to recognize the NUG and release to it the funds frozen in bank accounts in the United States, Singapore, and elsewhere. They also need to ensure satellite-based telco is available to the NUG to direct civil disobedience action in Myanmar’s heartland from its base on the border with Thailand. Most importantly, the international community needs to help the NUG in putting its funds to use. This requires access to neighbors’ goods markets and financial systems and their open borders, particularly Thailand’s and India’s. Establishing these channels is vital both for the survival of the NUG and for the large-scale humanitarian operations that will soon be necessary. The ASEAN initiative to deliver humanitarian aid is welcome. Any humanitarian support delivered by the junta will be rejected by the civil disobedience movement. Aid delivered through Thailand, on the other hand, could supply both refugee populations in NUG territory and the heartland and thus be more acceptable politically. These tasks are where international diplomatic energy is best focused right now.

Depending on the above, there are two possible outcomes. A swift military victory for the junta, if Thailand and India deny support to the NUG, or if the coalition buttressing the NUG is too weak to hold against the overwhelming onslaught the Tatmadaw will unleash. Reluctantly, then, China will throw its weight behind the junta, prompting India and Japan to race to normalize relations. The Western powers will keep up sanctions, shutting the junta out of the dollarized economy and leaving it much poorer than before.

The result will not be a return to the 1990s, where Myanmar, comfortably for the regional powers involved, fades into oppressive, stable, deeply poor obscurity. Instead, a junta victory would spell long-term instability for Myanmar as conflict continues to smolder, destabilizing a partially-isolated country up to and beyond its borders until, finally, after years, the junta is dragged down by its own disastrous stewardship of the country.

The alternative is no smooth ride either: a long and hard-fought contest would see the NUG succeed as the Tatmadaw slowly disintegrates in the face of its glaring contradictions – a fighting force that defines itself of the protector of a Bamar Myanmar, murdering unyielding protesters in Myanmar’s ethnic Bamar heartland and being ground down in fighting stubborn guerrilla armies on multiple fronts in Myanmar’s borderlands.

Once the Tatmadaw starts wobbling, soldiers will defect or desert en masse, and the junta will lose quickly and decisively. Myanmar is no Syria; the junta has no secure political or territorial base to fall back on. Then the rump Tatmadaw will sacrifice the junta leadership to cut a deal and secure its influence within a new federal Myanmar. A tense transition – a constitutional assembly and fresh elections – will follow as the hard questions about Myanmar’s future need answering: What will be the role of the Tatmadaw in a new Myanmar? Will the military be integrated with the victorious ethnic armies? What exactly does autonomy mean for Myanmar’s ethnic states? What will happen to those sub-state autonomous zones, like the powerful Wa State?

Unity among the disparate winning coalition will quickly falter, violence may erupt, and it will require intense efforts from regional powers to keep the federal transition together. At this point then, regional powers including the U.S., Japan, India, Thailand and China, would find themselves on the same side, cajoling their respective clients into giving ground to find a compromise. It will be messy but it is still a golden opportunity: a peaceful Myanmar at last, 75 years after its independence.