Ten months since the coup, Myanmar remains in chaos. The State Administration Council (SAC) junta has become an ugly but unavoidable fact of life for most Burmese. Meanwhile, its opponents under the National Unity Government (NUG) banner have switched to violent forms of resistance in what they call the “final battle” to eradicate military rule. Mediation appears next to impossible as both sides believe they can annihilate the other and see the rising humanitarian toll as a bearable burden.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners reports just under 1,300 people have been killed by junta forces since February. According the NUG, its nominally affiliated People’s Defense Forces (PDF) killed over 4,600 soldiers between June and November. The junta in turn claimed that 1,150 civilians and 182 security personnel have been killed by PDF attacks. Although PDF outfits claim extremely low casualties, it is more probable that a much higher number of PDF members have been killed. None of these claims can be independently verified in light of the junta’s clampdown on independent media, as well as remaining outlets shifting to a more activist stance.
The country has also seen a steady string of bombings and arson attacks. As the PDF step up attacks on mostly soft targets across the country, the Tatmadaw has launched “clearance operations” replete with indiscriminate and heavy-handed violence in areas with high PDF activity.
For a brief moment, ASEAN appeared to have a shot in reaching some breakthrough to solve Myanmar’s stalemate. With junta supremo Min Aung Hlaing in attendance, ASEAN leaders reached a “Five-Point Consensus” at their April meeting in Jakarta. And after months of wrangling, Brunei’s Erywan Yusof was appointed as special envoy to mediate between the opposing sides, call for de-escalation, and facilitate delivery of humanitarian aid. The international community backed ASEAN’s efforts, perhaps more out of a desire to outsource the headache than a conviction that it will yield concrete results.
Yet from the onset, ASEAN’s efforts have hit one snag after another. Min Aung Hlaing immediately backpedaled after returning from Jakarta, saying that the consensus will be considered only after “stability returned.” Meanwhile, activists interpreted his attendance as ASEAN’s endorsement of the junta and the NUG declared that it had no faith in ASEAN when an ASEAN delegation visited Naypyidaw in June. Anti-coup Burmese platforms are very cynical toward the regional grouping, accusing it of being self-serving and having no real concern for Myanmar’s democratic struggle.
When Yusof announced on September 5 that the Tatmadaw had accepted his ceasefire proposal, both the SAC and NUG torpedoed the effort within 48 hours. The junta’s spokesperson denied that the military had agreed to such an arrangement while the NUG questioned the ceasefire and its human rights minister perplexingly said that humanitarian issues should be dealt with later. The NUG then escalated on September 7 by announcing a “people’s defensive revolution,” launching its much-heralded “D-Day” against the junta. The NUG requested understanding and justified it as a “move of last resort” due to the international community’s failure to intervene.
As the junta dragged its feet and refused Yusof’s requests to meet with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, ASEAN took the unprecedented step of uninviting Min Aung Hlaing to their October summit. This was a major blow to the junta’s push for international legitimacy and the junta skipped the event. Recent no-shows by Min Aung Hlaing at the ASEAN-China and ASEAN-EU summits show that ASEAN, or at least some member states, are taking a harder line against the junta’s violence and recalcitrance.
Mediation currently appears more fantasy than possibility as the crisis inches toward its one-year mark with both the NUG and SAC digging in for a long slugging match. At this stage, neither camp is in the frame of mind to contemplate de-escalation, let alone other negotiations. They will point to last-minute negotiations in late January over the Tatmadaw’s unsubstantiated accusations of widespread voter fraud, an effort at compromise that evidently failed. This gave rise to arguments that negotiations are futile, underpinned by the zero-sum nature of Burmese politics.
Some voices are pushing for a status quo ante solution, but neither side desires that, seeing the precarious political cohabitation of the 2010s as having ultimately failed. The two have labeled each other terrorist organizations, with the junta accusing the NUG of high treason and NUG platforms talking of avenging the “blood debt” of protesters slain after both the 1988 and 2021 coups.
In the junta’s calculations, if it can push through new elections while staving off total economic collapse and maintain de facto control over the country, it will only be a matter of time before foreign governments relent. Min Aung Hlaing has cultivated defense ties with Russia while Myanmar’s three key neighbors – China, India, and Thailand – appear to have accepted the coup as a fact of life.
The junta is already tilting the political field for its promised 2023 polls, crippling the National League for Democracy (NLD) with every trick and obstacle it can think of. It has piled multiple charges onto Aung San Suu Kyi as well as major NLD figures, with sentences stretching for decades. The junta-appointed election commission (UEC) has mulled over dissolving the NLD based on the military’s accusations of widespread voter fraud for the 2020 elections as well as allegations that NLD members through the NUG have engaged in sedition, insurrection, and terrorism. The UEC has also convened meetings with mostly pro-military parties (most of which failed to win seats in the 2020 elections) to adopt proportional representation.
The SAC maintains control over the vast majority of domestic resources and has coopted civilians. It is also relying on bread and circuses, the dragging economic crisis, and vaccine roll-out to cultivate apathy. As the crisis lumbers on, harsh economic realities coupled with clampdowns are already influencing the situation on the ground, even as support for the NUG remains strong on social media and PDFs step up attacks. Defiance is being diluted inside the country as people struggle to make ends meet and have less bandwidth for the rhetoric of constant revolution or appetite for economic collapse.
In its view, the Tatmadaw had twice before snatched victory from the jaws of defeat – once during the late 1940s and again in the aftermath of the 1988 coup. It had outlasted an earlier NLD-affiliated parallel government as well as dealt with youths who ran off to border areas and linked up with ethnic rebels. The SAC also seems to believe that the NUG’s shift to armed revolution will hamper the latter’s international diplomatic and fundraising efforts. These factors confer a sense of familiarity with the evolving crisis and support a belief that the Tatmadaw will again emerge victorious on the ground, albeit with a longer and costlier timeframe. And while rumors of mutinies, counter-coups, deaths, infighting, and purges are widely shared by anti-coup platforms, they remain hard to substantiate or have turned out false, and the military remains cohesive to date.
Given the Tatmadaw’s mentality, the junta won’t be fazed much by external threats unless there is a drastic shift in the domestic balance of power. Although presenting an unprecedented challenge to the junta, collaboration between ethnic armed groups (EAOs) and PDF units is less concrete on the ground. The EAOs see a common antagonist in the Tatmadaw but have divergent objectives and harbor strong distrust of the Bamar-dominated NLD, whose members now form the NUG’s core. While a number of EAOs are providing different forms of support, it is more so to weaken the hand of whichever entity represents Naypyidaw in future negotiations rather than out of conviction of the cause the NLD claims to champion. There is also talk of growing concern among EAO leaderships about the PDF’s tactics and the power vacuum should the PDF prove too successful.
For the NUG, it has invested tremendous effort into international recognition and crossed the Rubicon of armed struggled, ruling out anything but the Tatmadaw’s unconditional ejection from politics. Building on Aung San Suu Kyi’s enduring popularity as well as deep-rooted and new revulsion at the military, the NUG has won support from different corners of the populace. After months of promising quick victory, the NUG is now employing lotteries, raffles, and bonds to gear up for a long struggle. Many Burmese and the diaspora have displayed solidarity and donated millions of dollars.
Going by social media sentiment, the NUG has good grounds to believe it need not negotiate. Pro-NUG/PDF sentiments dominate different platforms, with netizens urging support for the NUG, praising the PDF’s exploits, and vowing to fight till the bitter end. No matter how improbable, overly optimistic, or controversial the statements may be, a large segment of Myanmar social media continues to eagerly consume content supportive of the NUG/PDFs. The Tatmadaw grossly underestimated the groundswell of defiance and struggles to impose full control across the country. Furthermore, the involvement of a number of celebrities and influencers continues to keep the revolutionary zeal alive, though some have adopted controversial tones praising violence or brushing off collateral damage.
Emotions are such that suggesting negotiations, critiquing NUG-PDF efforts, or even embassies urging peaceful resolution invite fiery condemnation online. All the while, Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, once renowned for its non-violent principles, now finds itself treading an increasingly militant path. Overly optimistic claims and simplified rhetoric have romanticized and sanitized conflict. The thinking goes that a few years of hardship, lost livelihoods, and internecine violence are a cost worth paying to uproot a “parasitic entity” that has held the country hostage for more than half a century. NUG supporters have regularly urged others to stock up on emergency supplies for two to three weeks, which they say is how long PDF units will take to capture major towns and cities.
The NUG hopes that international recognition will bring the weight of the international community and lead to measures such as arms embargoes, no-fly zones, financial aid, and even arms supplies to dislodge the junta. It has made some headway with opening representative offices, appointing ambassadors, and garnering high-level meetings with Western officials. The belief is that China is displeased by the coup and will not prop up the junta, while the NUG can count on the United States to support armed revolution in China’s underbelly to overthrow a Russian-backed military accused of genocide. Some ASEAN member states may also begin to deal with the NUG in the face of the junta’s recalcitrance.
On the military front, the PDF’s strength is difficult to estimate though the NUG claims to have tens of thousands of combatants across the country. The PDFs have graduated from muskets and rudimentary bombs, and are now employing sophisticated weapons, complex IED attacks, and reportedly even drones. Despite setbacks, PDF outfits appear able to easily recruit youths enraged by the junta’s excesses and relaunch attacks, while junta forces attrition away from defections and deaths. The NUG is reaching out to form a “Federal Army” with the EAOs, and for the first time in decades, the Tatmadaw is being challenged in the heartland as well as the periphery.
Tatmadaw defectors are also reportedly linking up with the NUG and working to enable more defections and turn the tide. Netizens believe the military is a grossly inflated, incompetent, and overstretched paper tiger and a well-timed all-out offensive by the PDFs and EAOs will break it. Since February, anti-coup platforms have repeatedly claimed that the junta and Tatmadaw are on the verge of collapse and that ultimate victory is always around the corner. There again is enthusiastic chatter that the NUG will launch an all-out blitz in December.
Prospects for mediating Myanmar’s political crisis appears very dim, given the entrenched echo-chambers that both the SAC and NUG have ensconced themselves into. Yet mediation is crucial to prevent Myanmar from descending into an irrecoverable wreck. And for all its failings, ASEAN remains the most viable platform to play a mediating role.
All eyes are now on how the new ASEAN chair, Cambodia, will handle the crisis. Phnom Penh rejected Malaysia’s calls to retain Brunei’s Yusof as special envoy but nonetheless promised to maintain pressure on the junta to abide by the consensus. This will also coincide with the appointment of Singapore’s Noeleen Heyzer as the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Myanmar, raising guarded optimism that there may be better coordination between ASEAN and the United Nations.
The bitter truth is that ASEAN will have to work with the junta to secure aid delivery. However, the grouping should also begin engaging with the NUG to explore how to send assistance to ethnic minority communities sheltering in EAO-controlled areas. A compromise may be for ASEAN to insist only on humanitarian and health-related engagements with both the SAC and NUG while freezing other matters.
ASEAN mediation could very likely entail transactional diplomacy using carrots and sticks with both camps to facilitate humanitarian aid delivery and force them to deescalate. A more proactive ASEAN approach balancing principles and pragmatism will have to take shape to make up for lost time. But if there is an annual game of diplomatic musical chairs to see who gets to bell the Burmese cat and then shrug their shoulders, momentum will always peter out and the entire effort will become a sick joke.
Humanitarian assistance is already a core component of ASEAN’s efforts and can be used for building trust with the feuding camps. As both sides believe victory is near, mutual de-escalation will be tricky. However, ASEAN must insist de-escalation as prerequisite for further engagement with either camp, though more so with the junta given its overwhelming firepower and propensity to abuse it. To do this, ASEAN institutions will require buttressing from like-minded partners to handle the complex emergency. This will channel the collective political weight in demanding concessions and enforcing agreements, and also help to preserve ASEAN centrality in dealing with a member state’s crisis.
ASEAN has an obligation to find a peaceful solution for Myanmar’s people. The path will not be paved with praise or quick success, but even the least-worst option will be much better than an unmitigated disaster.