World

Myanmar is on the brink of civil war

14 April 2021

11:53 PM

14 April 2021

11:53 PM

For more than two months now Myanmar has been convulsed by a burgeoning civil war. The confrontation between the country’s military and large parts of the country has little prospect of an early resolution unless China and Russia withdraw their support for the junta, which jettisoned a five-year power-sharing arrangement with Aung San Suu Kyi’s party.

The country’s armed forces evicted the National League for Democracy from office in February but have failed to consolidate the coup d’etat. The younger generation of Myanmarese have tasted a decade of democracy and freedom — they show little sign of buckling. The men in uniform ruled oppressively from 1962 for nearly half a century, seeing off challenges to their brutal authority. The Burmese people seem unwilling to submit once more.

Gautam Mukhopadhaya, India’s former ambassador to Myanmar, observes: ‘The resistance will mutate but continue, shift to the countryside or neighbouring countries, turn to armed resistance or conflict or a digital struggle… But the Tatmadaw [military] will not prevail. And there are green shoots pointing towards a federal democratic union.’

More than 600 civilians, including children, have been gunned down since the coup. So, the protesters are forging alliances with disgruntled armed ethnic groups in Myanmar’s less trodden areas. Meanwhile the military shows little sign of stepping back. A sustained conflict is looking ever more likely by the day, wreaking utter ruin on a nation rich in natural resources.


The West has so far refrained from imposing sanctions on government departments administering energy, minerals and infrastructure development, which generate revenue for the regime. Breaking ties with military-owned companies is surely the first step in weakening the despotic generals.

Japan has also avoided destabilising its deep roots in Myanmar in the hope of currying influence over the troublesome dispensation. India, much weakened in the region under Narendra Modi and wary of encouraging the Tatmadaw’ssupport for secessionists in its north-east, cannot be expected to act with decisiveness. The ten member Association of South East Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a constituent, is hopelessly split in its response.

Those countries seeking to restore Myanmar’s democracy must balance the need for humanitarian assistance with active support to the resistance. In order to tighten the screw, they must be prepared to grant diplomatic recognition to a committee of Myanmar’s MPs, formed after the coup as a counterpart to the military to lobby global organisations and diplomatic missions.

‘The Tatmadaw should be guided to a new role as the professional core of a federal army’ argues Mukhopadhaya. Besides, mainstream parties and regional ethnic groups need to reach a new political compact. Elements from the successful 2011-15 interim administration of U Thein Sein, who retired from the army to steward the original transition from dictatorship, could be invited to encourage the process.

While the Russians may have a vested interest in selling weapons to Myanmar’s defence and security services, it’s only the Chinese (ironically not very popular with the Myanmarese on the street) who enjoy decisive leverage on their southern neighbour. China reportedly did not support Suu Kyi’s overthrow but is likely to stand by the militaryuntil perhaps China’s vast economic interests in the country suffer an intolerable assault.

The regime’s terror tactics have failed to deter defiance. There is daily, escalating unrest in the cities. Swathes of the civil service and public sector refuse to heed the dictatorship. Banking and businesses are paralysed. Vital supply chains are disconnected. People are penniless; starvation looms. A health catastrophe is hovering as hospitals have virtually closed amid a boycott by medical staff. The treatment and vaccination against Covid is vanishing. Panic-stricken people are fleeing to Thailand and India.

Militant ethnic dissidents striving for autonomy or secession have abandoned ceasefires to exploit the military’s difficulties elsewhere. The Myanmarese government, even during Aung San Suu Kyi’s rule, were not fully in control of the nation’s natural resources. With the state increasingly losing control, criminal cartels are eyeing further riches.

Richard Horsey, a Myanmar expert at the International Crisis Group, told the UN recently that ‘Myanmar stands at the brink of state failure’. He believes the military’s ‘own policy failures or the deliberate actions of the civil disobedience movement’ will determine what happens next. At the same time, co-ordinated action by like-minded countries could have an important effect.

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