On May 5, 2021, Myanmar’s parallel government, the National Unity Government (NUG), established its armed wing, the People’s Defense Force (PDF), with the aim of overthrowing the military regime that seized power in a coup on February 1, 2021. Led by members of the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government, the NUG has built a strong military partnership with four long-standing ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) known as the K3C: the Kachin Independence Organization (K), the Karen National Union, the Karenni National Progressive Party, and the Chin National Front. The NUG is also collaborating less visibly with other EAOs, mostly those that enjoy close ties to China.
Though the military still controls the country’s major cities and assets after two years of battle, resistance groups have slowly taken control of territory, including border areas and some towns in ethnic states, in addition to the territories that have long been under the control of allied EAOs. As territorial competition has intensified, so have human rights breaches and humanitarian crises. As of July 30, the United Nations estimated that there were now 1.9 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Myanmar, 1.59 million of whom had been displaced since the coup. On the human rights front, a local NGO reported that 3,850 civilians had been killed for opposing the junta; at least 24,100 had been arrested, of whom 158 had been sentenced to death. In addition, approximately 70,324 houses and buildings had been torched by the military as of May 31. In fact, all those numbers mostly represent open sources and Myanmar military abuses, not counting opposition violations, which were of course relatively insignificant. What the current political climate suggests is that the country’s struggle will not end anytime soon.
Throughout the world’s history, different factors have contributed to the success or failure of armed revolutions, and this article reviews the strengths and weaknesses of the current resistance movement in five key areas.
Public Support (10/10)
In the aftermath of the coup, the Myanmar military, known as Tatmadaw, offered certain positions to ethnic-based political parties in the newly-formed administration in order to mitigate the political unrest in ethnic states, while anticipating anti-coup protests in the country’s Burman majority regions. The calculation was totally wrong, as the regime’s spokesperson later admitted in a media interview, as the initial protests against the military takeover evolved into a nationwide uprising. The Tatmadaw was brutal in cracking down on peaceful protestors, and yet the public continued to resist it by organizing nationwide silent protests (or uprisings) on specific days, banging pots and pans every night during a specific period, boycotting military businesses, and initiating social punishment against military associates.
The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) has rapidly evolved into a resistance platform for civil servants, including security forces, and the NUG claims that the number of state workers who had joined the movement reached 360,000 in mid-2021. The movement drew international attention, even being nominated for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. Even when the anti-coup campaign devolved into a full-fledged civil war, the people, especially Burmese expatriate communities, continued to fund both the NUG and their own ethnic-based resistance organizations. The public’s support basically ticks all the boxes for the revolution to prevail.
International Support (4/10)
Just as the people’s support was an obvious strength of Myanmar’s revolution, international assistance and support has been on the weaker side. Following the coup, protestors called widely for external armed intervention to safeguard civilians from the Tatmadaw’s inhumanity, but it was utterly unsuccessful. Under diplomatic and economic pressure, the U.S. has played a leading role in coordinating sanctions, pressuring the Tatmadaw on human rights issues, and encouraging the members of ASEAN to move forward with its Five-Point Consensus peace plan.
However, these efforts have been largely ineffective in preventing the military’s action and the U.S. has even failed to persuade its Quad partners – Australia, India, and Japan – to collaborate on a solution to the crisis. The passing of the Burma Act by the U.S. Congress remains the most significant gesture of international support, yet six months later, there has been no meaningful action or pledge under the Act. Meanwhile, the Tatmadaw has maintained close ties with neighboring countries, except Bangladesh, and imported at least $1 billion in arms since the coup, mostly from Russia ($406 million) and China ($254 million).
A Strong & Charismatic Leader (6/10)
An influential and charismatic leader is essential to uniting the populace, motivating followers, gaining international confidence, and waging psychological warfare on the enemy. The Tatmadaw was of course concerned about the anti-coup movement being led by a prominent leader, so it detained key officials and senior members of the ruling party, including the president, Win Myint, and de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on the morning of the coup.
Arrest warrants are also issued to NLD associate public figures, including Min Ko Naing, once described by The New York Times as the second most prominent opposition leader behind Aung San Suu Kyi. Though he no longer wields much weight in the aftermath of the Rohingya crisis, he was someone the public looked up to during the peaceful protest phase, but has surprisingly played no key role in the NUG.
The current acting president, Duwa Lashi La, is highly praised for his honesty, social skills, and communication skills. However, with all due respect, his appointment was widely seen as a gesture toward the Kachin Independence Organization, the NUG’s most reliable armed group partner, to which Duwa Lashi La is reportedly close. Is it time for a new leader to emerge among the NUG’s trusted armed partners? A former U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar, Scot Marciel, once said, “a unifying, charismatic figure would certainly help a great deal, as would a highly professional public communications campaign.”
Adaptability and Resilience (8/10)
By its nature, armed revolution can last much longer than anticipated, and can encounter unforeseeable challenges. Therefore, resilience and adaptation to changing circumstances is crucial for survival and eventual success. The PDF- and NUG-affiliated Local Defense Forces (LDFs) were born out of the immense need to protect civilians from the Tatmadaw’s cruelty without receiving any international aid. The presence of well-established EAOs has been crucial in terms of providing technical and moral guidance for the PDF and LDF.
With technical support and limited materiel from EAOs, these groups have grown in numbers, manufactured military equipment, built strong coordination, built an operational structure, and developed a military code of conduct. They have attracted defectors from the security forces, with or without arms, through financial rewards and promises of protection. They have modified commercial drones and employed them on the battlefield in a variety of ways, including taking security footage, transporting equipment, and dropping improvised explosive devices. Their fierce drive and endurance gives them an edge over their enemies, who fight for money and power alone.
A Strong Chain of Command (6/10)
The coup and its subsequent bloodshed led to the establishment of approximately 309 armed groups as of November 2021, the troop number in each group could range from less than 50 to more than 1,000. After failing to create a much-anticipated Federal Army, uniting the newly formed armed groups with existing EAOs under a coordinated and cooperated chain of command, the NUG created the PDF as a precursor. As of April 2022, the NUG claimed to have consolidated an estimated 50,000–100,000 troops into its armed wing, while more than 30,000 troops are estimated to be operating outside of their chain of command. As security analyst Ye Myo Hein stated in 2022, more than 100 LDFs, or around 25 percent, had joined the NUG.
The obstacle to further mergers is the NUG’s inability to provide substantial aid. A few groups have refused to join for ideological reasons, seeing the NUG as under the NLD’s dominance. When it comes to military affairs, the NUG relies heavily on partner EAOs to set up an effective chain of command and reinforce its authority over PDFs. However, EAOs are also focusing on strengthening their parallel influence over PDFs or LDFs with technical support and arms supplies. Ye Myo Hein argues that “alliance politics in the resistance movement are still fluid and unstable,” though there are some improvements in military cooperation on the ground.
Myanmar’s decade-long democratic transition during the 2010s produced greater political freedom, economic prosperity, and a new educated generation, all of which have contributed to strong resistance against the return of military rule by any possible means. Resilience and determination are what have kept the revolution moving forward, in contrast to the regime soldiers, who frequently surrender or defect when faced with a crisis.
As the revolution approaches its third year, financial hardship has posed a major challenge to the resistance groups’ continued expansion and even their existence. The passage of the Burma Act was widely expected to be a watershed moment in the revolution that would address its financial burden and help the NUG to consolidate more resistance groups under one chain of command. But the implementation of the Act indicates that it is mostly intended to provide moral support to Myanmar’s opposition forces. As things stand, a power vacuum will likely persist with no side able to fill it anytime soon, leading to increased violence and instability and a worsening humanitarian crisis.