Myanmar’s Military Junta and the Neo-Authoritarian Bloc

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Myanmar’s Military Junta and the Neo-Authoritarian Bloc

The National Unity Government is bereft of any meaningful external support while the junta has been well assisted by its fellow authoritarians since the 2021 coup.

Myanmar’s Military Junta and the Neo-Authoritarian Bloc

Charred houses sit in ash between the trees in Mwe Tone village of Pale township in the Sagaing region, Myanmar on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo

More than two years after a military coup in Myanmar that swept aside a decade of political development in a matter of hours, the successor of the democratically elected government of 2020, the National Unity Government (NUG), has yet to receive recognition or substantial support from Western governments. Much the same is true of the People’s Defense Force (PDF), the NUG’s armed wing. Conversely, Myanmar’s new military leaders have been the recipients of a wave of support from their fellow authoritarians.

This month, the junta’s campaign of repression has grown more brazen as can be seen in their air strikes against civilian populations in the north of the country. One air strike, which led to the deaths of more than 150 civilians, has been viewed as the most outrageous move yet by what is indisputably the most tyrannical regime in South or Southeast Asia. The attack can also be seen as the latest atrocity in the Tatmadaw decades-long conflict against the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) that operate in the country’s mountainous regions and along its borders.

The endurance of the junta and the continued isolation of the NUG has not solely been the outcome of domestic factors within Myanmar’s borders. The dynamics of this conflict are substantially shaped by a greater change in the international order, that is, the emergence of the neo-authoritarian bloc. I use the term “neo-authoritarian bloc” to refer to the core states of China, Russia, and Iran and the smaller, sometimes dependent, authoritarian regimes that collaborate with these aforementioned states, such as North Korea, Belarus, and Myanmar. This new bloc is neither a formal alliance nor even an axis. Yet the emergence of this collective of authoritarian states with the shared interests of self-preservation, the domination of their near abroad, and the creation of an assertive response to their challengers in the West, has become observable in recent years.

Shortly before the invasion of Ukraine last year, China’s leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that there would be “no limits to the Sino-Russian partnership in the future.” This was followed by Xi’s announcement last month that China was ready to “stand guard over world order” in the future. Overall, authoritarian states have become bolder in their actions and have greatly increased their level of cooperation with each other and their overall global ambitions since the beginning of this decade. China’s recent role as peacemaker between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Iran’s sale of drones to Russia for its war in Ukraine, and China’s sale of AI-powered surveillance tech to Iran are all indications of the rapidly growing levels of cooperation, support, and interconnectedness observable within the bloc. The junta in Myanmar has moved closer to China, Russia, and Iran since its establishment in 2021. Its engagement with the bloc has arguably been essential for its survival.

In addition to diplomatic support, China has provided the junta with sophisticated surveillance equipment and technicians to assist in the building of its “golden firewall,” in addition to training diplomats from Myanmar in surveillance methods. In a 2022 report, the U.N. also accused China of providing the junta with weapons. Although China’s engagement with Myanmar is both complex and evolving, as Beijing also cooperates with EAOs in Myanmar’s northern regions bordering China, many have presumed that Beijing will be standing firmly behind the junta for the foreseeable future and has provided it with a significant level of support since the coup.

Likewise, Russia has provided the junta with weapons since the coup and a large military delegation from Russia visited Myanmar in December of last year. Although Russia may not be in a position to provide large quantities of arms to Myanmar since its invasion of Ukraine, its position on the U.N. Security Council gives it the power to overrule any vote by the council in favor of the NUG. Russia has also provided the junta with large quantities of oil and gas and has allegedly collaborated with the military on a nuclear energy program that is still in its early stages. It was reported recently that Russia was exporting some of its crude oil to China via Myanmar due to the growing number of sanctions against Moscow.

Some regional experts believe that Iran is also providing the junta with weapons. A number of visits by Iranian military officials to Myanmar took place in late 2021 and 2022.

Iran has also greatly increased its cooperation with Russia and China on a range of issues over the last three years. Like Myanmar, Iran has also been working toward establishing its own national internet, with the assistance of both Russia and China. North Korea is also known to have supplied weapons to the military in Myanmar in the past and has also collaborated with the junta on nuclear-related issues for over two decades.

The response of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to the coup and the evolving conflict has been mixed, ranging from tacit support for the junta from fellow authoritarians in mainland Southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam), to the more critical positions of Indonesia and Malaysia.  These authoritarian member-states of ASEAN all maintain reasonably good relations with Russia and China.

A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations has described ASEAN’s response to the crisis as a “complete failure.” A five-point plan was agreed to by ASEAN heads of state in Indonesia in April 2021. More than two years later, the junta has not honored any of the substantive points of this agreement. It is safe to say that ASEAN will never take effective action, given that it requires consensus for any shift in Myanmar policy and fewer than half of its member states have provided strong criticism of the junta. Additionally, it has been reported by some that the relationship between the NUG and ASEAN has also been rocky. Notably, Myanmar became a member of ASEAN in the 1990s, a decade when the country’s human rights record was at a low point. Neighboring India has also been largely quiet about the crisis across its eastern border.

Last September, it was claimed that the NUG was in control of more than 50 percent of Myanmar’s territory, yet the shadow government has not been recognized and the PDF has not received significant support from either Western states or neighboring countries. The NUG’s defense minister has openly requested arms from the international community, comparing its struggle to that of Ukraine. The NUG and PDF indeed lack a charismatic leader in the vein of Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but the absence of such a figure does not explain the isolation that the movement has suffered. Back-channel talks between the NUG and foreign governments have taken place and the government-in-exile has some supporters among high-ranking political figures in the U.S., the European Union, and in northeast Asia. Yet fear of angering Russia and China, together with apprehension about backing the “losing side” have made many governments and diplomats wary of weighing in too heavily on the side of the NUG and the PDF. Additionally, the war along the borders of the EU in Ukraine has distracted greatly from events in Myanmar.

Early 2023 saw the passing of the Burma Act by the U.S. House of Representatives, which has provided some hope for the NUG and PDF. Yet the refusal of the Biden administration to recognize the NUG as the legitimate representative of the people of Myanmar, which would undoubtedly lead to other Western states recognizing it as such, is arguably the greatest barrier toward progress for the NUG. The crisis in Myanmar could have been seen as an opportunity for the Biden administration in geopolitical terms, yet the current administration is seemingly unwilling to take risks over Myanmar. Overall, the response of the international community has been a policy of “outrage without action,” as one journalist put it. Western states have refused to sell weapons to the PDF, even though more than 1 million people have been displaced by the junta’s military campaigns over the last two years.

Attempts at establishing a “no-fly zone” over the country, imposing an arms embargo, or other strategies aimed at isolating the junta have either been half-hearted or thwarted by the junta’s authoritarian allies. Sanctions by the U.S., United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada have somewhat undermined the junta economically, as have a number of limited sanctions from the EU. Yet overall, this response has been ineffective and has failed to make any significant impact on the Tatmadaw.

In terms of external assistance, Myanmar’s military rulers have been well supported by other members of the neo-authoritarian bloc: fuel, weapons, surveillance technology, and diplomatic support have all been forthcoming since the coup and show no sign of abating.

The regional and international environments that surround this conflict are substantially more favorable to the junta than to the opposition. This is due to changes in the international order but is also the result of the failure of Western states to support, or even recognize, the NUG. The assertive show of support for Ukraine from Western heads of state since February 2022 only emphasizes how the West has failed the people of Myanmar. Although there are differences between these two conflicts, there is a clear double-standard in terms of recognition and support for these two beleaguered populations, both of whom are losing their lives and property to brutal and uncompromising militaristic regimes.

A lack of political will in the West, the distraction of Ukraine, and the looming specter of a war in Taiwan have made the crisis in Myanmar a secondary concern for Western democracies, but not for the junta’s supporters in the neo-authoritarian bloc. For this emerging bloc, the new junta in Myanmar is a welcome and useful partner.

In 2021, I argued that the crisis in Myanmar would evolve into a protracted conflict and a humanitarian crisis. Events in recent weeks indicate that this conflict is escalating further and that the worse has yet to come. Although the Tatmadaw has weakened since 2021 and has experienced some defections, any turning point shall remain out of view as long as Western states refuse to recognize and actively support the NUG and the PDF. Until that time, the junta will endure with support from the neo-authoritarian bloc.