The military junta that attempted to seize control of Myanmar in February 2021 has failed. Free movement of its personnel is now reduced to the areas south and west of Mandalay in the country’s core. Even there, it is facing daily assassinations and bomb attacks and is barely able to govern due to widespread civil disobedience and a lack of public trust. The Naypyidaw junta, as it is aptly becoming known, is bunkering down wherever it can, reliant on its air force and roaming bands of methed-up soldiers to sow chaos in areas outside of its control.
Nonetheless, a group of Myanmar’s neighbors, India, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Laos, seem adamant about treating the junta like a single sovereign entity and nursing it back to strength. Through what’s being called a Track 1.5 dialogue, these countries are seeking to marginalize the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has been placed by the United Nations and the wider international community in the driving seat of international Myanmar policy. ASEAN had been inching towards a more moderate and critical position on Myanmar, until Thailand launched a separate track of talks aimed at undermining this approach. Track 1.5 talks have included junta officials and aim to bring stability back to the country, in the hope the junta can force through a transition to a slightly more democratic-looking political arrangement, despite continued exclusion of its much more popular political opponents.
Even for states that couldn’t care less about the junta’s extreme human rights abuses or other moral concerns, this junta-first approach makes minimal sense, on realist grounds.
Naypyidaw’s Loss of Effective Control
Maps recently produced by the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), a humanitarian organization working in resistance areas, demonstrate just how limited the Myanmar army’s movement has become since the coup, as a result of the widespread nationwide uprising. The maps show how most major roads outside of the country’s core center are no longer under central authority. The military can still use some of these roads but only as part of well-organized military operations and not without great human and monetary cost.
A panel of senior diplomats called the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar last year released research showing that the junta only had stable control of around 20 percent of the country’s townships. The others were either controlled or heavily contested by ethnic resistance organizations (EROs) and local defense forces.
Since the coup, I have spent time in some of the FBR maps’ “white areas” – those where the junta’s movement is “very limited”. The situation varies greatly on the ground, but the maps provide an accurate bird’s eye picture. Some of these areas have been under the control of EROs for decades, some since the country’s independence in 1948.
Other “white areas” are newly liberated territories, often where multi-ethnic communities are working together to build bottom-up administration with guidance from EROs, defense forces, the opposition National Unity Government (NUG), or other actors. Many other “white areas” are still vulnerable to incursions by roving bands of the Naypyidaw junta’s military units, who rape, burn, and dismember their way through the townships as part of an “ogre” strategy intended to strike fear into all those who resist. In practice, these units are always defeated and the abuses have simply spurred even more committed resistance from those communities and millions of people across the country.
Air strikes and long-range artillery are the most destructive universal threat. Millions of people in resistance areas live under constant remote surveillance by drones, knowing that at any moment this could be followed by a devastating air force sortie. Long-range artillery is a daily occurrence in most resistance areas. During my travels in numerous areas, the sounds of shells followed by reports of civilian casualties have been a daily occurrence.
As the FBR maps indicate, the resistance started from a very low bar, given the unmatched power that the Myanmar military had amassed since the last major uprising in 1988. But the key thing to watch is the trajectory of the conflict. The resistance has become increasingly better organized, increasingly more united, in terms of cooperation between EROs, political parties, and activist groups, and has remained consistently determined to see the revolution through. Many analysts have repeatedly claimed the resistance will be crushed or will collapse into disunity but the over-arching trends have consistently moved in the opposite direction.
In March, Mandalay Region, the symbolic and strategic heart of the country, became the most active conflict zone in terms of the number of clashes. Meanwhile, rocket attacks on previously well-defended air bases and weapons factories have increased. Conflict is raging in numerous townships within 50 kilometers of the military’s fortress capital Naypyidaw and analysis firms have predicted that clashes in the capital district and surrounding areas will increase considerably this month.
It is unlikely that the Naypyidaw junta is on the verge of immediate collapse but it is increasingly looking like a rump state, hunkered down in its trenches, wildly lobbing grenades into the surrounding areas.
Nonetheless, for as long as the generals have the most conspicuous elements of state infrastructure down in the trench with them, neighboring countries and the U.N. seem very willing to pretend it is the “de facto authority” of the whole country. Some even want to take steps towards “normalizing” foreign relations with Myanmar in the hope that they can do a re-run of the resource rush that took place under military rule in the 1990s.
Dead-end Efforts to Dress the Junta Up as the State
Regardless of any basic moral considerations, which neighboring countries may see as a liberal distraction, treating the Naypyidaw junta as a reliable authority is simply impractical. The junta is just not able to implement its political or economic decisions across most of the country’s territory. This is most stark along the country’s long borders with India and Thailand, where its military and police outposts are isolated and starving, and where its administrators were mostly pushed out by local communities two years ago.
For all the obvious problems with China’s extractive economic interests in Myanmar, there are lessons to learn from Beijing’s outcome-oriented pragmatism and its awareness of what is really going on in the country. China half-heartedly recognizes the Naypyidaw junta as the holder of key central infrastructure like visa offices, airports, and banks, but hedges its engagement considerably through its bilateral relations with at least seven powerful ethnic armed organizations and various political parties. China is able to keep its pipelines flowing and its trade gates open in spite of the collapsing Naypyidaw junta, not because of it.
Some in neighboring countries claim that the military is holding the country together, fearing an imagined “balkanization” scenario in which Myanmar collapses into an even deeper form of chaos. Aside from the odd implication that Yugoslavia would have been better off as a single country for all eternity, this entire narrative is based on falsehoods. In practice, the resistance movement is far more united across ethnic lines than anything linked to the majoritarian extremist junta ever could be. EROs at the heart of the movement have stated emphatically that their number one priority is keeping the country together and that the military is the source of all division.
The NUG was appointed by a National Unity Consultative Council, represented by over a dozen major political parties, ethnic resistance organizations, strike leaders, and others. It is holding talks regularly with a wide range of EROs, including some that are close to China, and its defense forces are cooperating with their armed wings across three area commands. Despite the inevitable and much-discussed internal tensions and ongoing challenges of this political project, unity has only increased month on month, and the levels of ground-level cooperation between disparate forces from different national communities is astounding. The Federal Democracy Charter they agreed on in April 2021 and amended in January 2022 is the foundation for a new union based on ethnic equality and democratic rule. Their political roadmap is miles ahead of anything put forward by the junta, whose only discernible objective is to change the title of its dictator from commander-in-chief to president.
The only way it would make any realist sense for Asian countries to continue supporting the junta’s survival is if they believe they stand to benefit from never-ending chaos and instability in Myanmar. This provides an inexhaustible source of cheap labor and ensures their neighbor remains an inward-looking buffer state that could never post a strategic threat. But it also comes with huge economic and social risks and is simply unsustainable.
More likely than such Machiavellian machinations, these countries probably just have very limited intelligence of the ground situation and so remain hitched blindly to a failing military that they assume will somehow repeat the events of the 1990s and establish a firm grip on the country. They may want to sign new infrastructure deals with the Naypyidaw junta but it lacks the capacity to provide a modicum of security for such projects, let alone the bureaucracy to manage their implementation or the capital to help finance them.
Time for Clarity
Unless these states come up with a more realistic and rational strategy, the most likely outcome of the track 1.5 dialogue and their ongoing engagements with the generals is that these states will become increasingly irrelevant and distant from what is actually being implemented on the ground. Countries, companies, and international agencies that find ways to work with resistance actors will be the only ones who can actually have an impact, for better or worse.
This also means that countries across the world currently deferring to ASEAN leadership on Myanmar desperately need a new approach or they too will become increasingly irrelevant, while resource-hungry China remains the only country with well-defined goals and a strategy for implementing them. It is time for foreign democracies to take a more direct approach, perhaps through an “ASEAN plus” grouping including Japan, India, Bangladesh, and Western countries. Among the first of their concrete objectives should be to help the resistance remove the military from politics for good, while strengthening state and union-level democratic institutions.
The fact that no foreign democracy is able to even explicitly articulate such obvious solutions to this entirely man-made crisis is a strong indication of why so little has been achieved.