A More United, Better-Armed Opposition Can Bring Democracy to Myanmar

Myanmar’s rocky democratic transition ended abruptly in a army coup on February 1, 2021. Yet, the generals have kicked a hornet’s nest. The nation’s Bamar majority has lengthy dominated Myanmar, however an assortment of over 20 ethnic armed organizations have contested this case for many years, and a few have taken up arms as soon as extra to oppose the coup. Most crucially, confronted with junta gunfire, the largely Bamar-dominated pro-democracy motion additionally made the grim choice to arm itself and struggle the army.

The story of post-coup Myanmar is now one among a devoted standard democratic resistance gaining momentum in opposition to a robust army machine armed with Chinese and Russian tools. This resistance is essentially led by the predominantly Bamar National Unity Government in a free coalition with some ethnic armed teams, ousted parliamentarians, and activists. They have shaken the junta to its core, efficiently seized rural areas throughout the nation, and enjoined a number of of the nation’s ethnic armed teams to straight help them within the struggle.



Yet, the chances in opposition to them stay steep. The National Unity Government lacks important Western help — most notably within the type of arms — and nonetheless struggles to carry distrustful ethnic armed teams right into a consolidated resistance motion. Currently working as a diffuse and underequipped insurgency preventing what quantities to not less than seven discrete conflicts, anti-junta forces lack strategic-level unity as effectively. While remarkably efficient in quite a few tactical skirmishes, the poorly geared up National Unity Government’s long-term prospects are, subsequently, lower than supreme. The junta’s army, generally known as the Sit-Tat, is affected by overstretch and low morale, however nonetheless holds key cities and strategic areas with its superior airpower, armor, and artillery.

Nonetheless, the revolution can obtain victory. Resolving the elemental mistrust between the National Unity Government and ethnic armed organizations could also be sufficient to overcome political and army roadblocks. This would require creating a shared political goal and an efficient “coalitional” army technique. It will even require persuading non-aligned ethnic armies in addition to the Chinese authorities to improve the circulation of arms, so anti-junta forces can launch coordinated offensives to take and maintain territory. These steps might immediate the Sit-Tat’s collapse, or not less than compel the junta to permit a return to democratic rule.

The Current Situation

Over the previous few months, the National Unity Government’s army momentum has slowed because the junta deployed its air energy and heavy weapons, locking down cities and stopping the rebels from consolidating their good points. In locations like Mindat, Chin State, and Lay Kay Kaw, Karen State, the junta’s troops ousted poorly geared up People’s Defense Forces. In traditional “authoritarian counterinsurgency” trend, the junta continues to use unanswered firepower to displace flippantly geared up items with little concern for escalating civilian casualties.

People’s Defense Forces and newly based autonomous protection forces have been profitable in recruiting roughly 100,000 personnel, however solely about 40 p.c of them have any small arms in anyway. Many of those weapons are rudimentary, both domestically produced, solid off by the junta, or obtained on the black market from China and Thailand. Stealing weapons isn’t viable at scale. And whereas Chinese-supported ethnic armed teams have weapons like FN-6 man-portable air-defense programs that would dent the junta’s air and armor, they’re reluctant to share them.

Politically, the extremely various ethnic panorama in Myanmar has offered the National Unity Government with quite a few potential armed allies, but it surely has additionally hampered anti-junta unity. Many ethnic teams have historic grievances and legit considerations with a Bamar-dominated pro-democracy motion, which ends up in restricted cooperation past the tactical and operational ranges. Some teams, such because the highly effective United Wa State Army, search to protect their very own pursuits whatever the wider motion’s destiny — particularly if the National Unity Government’s odds of victory stay low.

Yet regardless of its issues, the National Unity Government and the broader pro-democracy motion can not simply be crushed and present little intention of give up. The junta has failed to cow the populace into submission, retake rural areas, or persuade the ethnic armies to be a part of its facet. While Myanmar has skilled quite a few unsuccessful anti-government conflicts, and the Sit-Tat is usually described as a formidable pressure, this time is totally different. As proven most lately throughout its 2019-20 preventing with the Arakan Army, the junta has struggled to defeat standard insurgencies. In the present spherical of battle, the Sit-Tat has not solely failed to prevail, in a number of locations it can not enterprise out into rural areas with out struggling critical losses due to small-unit tactical failures. Moreover, the Bamar majority is now actively difficult the junta in a way unseen because the Nineteen Eighties, and preventing has unfold all through the nation.

This leaves the Sit-Tat overstretched, overburdened, and quick on morale. A complete army victory for the pro-democracy forces led by the National Unity Government will nonetheless be tough to obtain, however it’s likelier now than it has been in a long time. To date, the junta has made clear that it’s going to not negotiate with the National Unity Government. Thus, whereas army victory is a protracted shot, the pro-democracy motion has no different choice however to ramp up army strain to both overthrow the junta or compel it to hand energy to a civilian authorities.

The Need for Unity

Despite conducting a sequence of negotiations, the Bamar-dominated National Unity Government is struggling to discover widespread floor with the ethnic armed organizations to construct a mutually acceptable democratic federal state. Some dominant pro-democracy political entities nonetheless maintain the dismissive views of ethnic actors that marked the National League for Democracy’s rule after 2015. Meanwhile, many ethnic armed teams pursue their very own parochial pursuits. In addition to just a few smaller outfits, probably the most highly effective ethnic armed organizations on the National Unity Government’s facet are the Kachin Independence Army within the north and the Karen National Union to the east. Both have supported the resistance motion since its inception and ceaselessly launch offensives inside their very own territories, however they’re hesitant to make investments scarce assets in battlefields past their management.

Beyond the ethnic armed teams, solely about 60 p.c of the People’s Defense Forces and smaller Local Defense Forces are literally below the National Unity Government’s direct operational command. Moreover, the lengthy hoped-for “federal army” able to uniting the disparate ethnic armies and the People’s Defense Forces stays out of attain. While lots of the ethnic armed teams reject peace talks with the army, they seem reluctant to wholeheartedly again the pro-democracy forces and a few are open to junta outreach. This primarily splits the battle into seven separate theaters with little overlap. It additionally permits the junta to “divide and conquer” and focus mass in opposition to remoted resistance pockets, as they’ve efficiently achieved all through their historical past.

The National Unity Government’s People’s Defense Forces have quickly and successfully established themselves within the type of a mobile, horizontally networked guerilla pressure. Now the teams aiming to overthrow the junta want to bear a sequential transition from a loosely organized motion to a extra structured and centralized pressure. Martin C. Libicki and Ben Connable declare that networked armed actions “have lost significantly more often than they have won,” whereas hierarchically organized insurgencies have a greater document. As Régis Debray, an affiliate of Che Guevara, claimed: “The lack of a single command puts the revolutionary forces in the situation of an artillery gunner who has not been told in which direction to fire.” Centralized command and management is important to subject a pressure able to taking city settlements and strategic laborious factors.

Thus, the National Unity Government wants to consolidate its personal chain of command and persuade the fiercely unbiased ethnic armed organizations to settle for a shared army technique. It has tried to achieve this by way of the institution of a Central Command and Coordination Committee, however the ethnic armed teams have been loath to subordinate themselves to National Unity Government management. To overcome this, the National Unity Government will want to kind a coalition round mutual targets so as to attain a consensus on an overarching technique. This means forging a shared political goal earlier than efficient strategic army cooperation can happen.

Currently, the National Unity Government’s purpose is to seize the central state equipment, whereas the ethnic armed teams largely intention to consolidate their very own autonomy. Persuading the ethnic armed organizations that it’s of their curiosity to overthrow the Sit-Tat would require actual inclusion and commitments to giving up some central authority in a federal democratic future. It would even be an actual departure from Aung San Suu Kyi’s practices and certain would require transferring past her legacy to construct a extra inclusive one. Any political association have to be conducive to real cooperation between the pro-democratic political forces and the ethnic armed teams. Most importantly, the National Unity Government should make the case to the ethnic armed organizations that the autonomy they search can solely occur below a democratic federal construction.

To be certain, the pro-democracy resistance motion has taken the precise steps to advance this unity. It has created a National Unity Consultative Council, which could possibly be a real political platform bringing collectively the nation’s various stakeholders. Likewise, the Central Command and Coordinating Committee might create a army command construction that will enhance collaboration. If the National Unity Government can display its sensible cooperation with the ethnic armed teams, and the National Unity Consultative Council forges a powerful alliance round a federal democratic future, they might be a powerful magnet for uncommitted ethnic armies. This would additionally undermine the junta’s personal efforts to co-opt ethnic armed teams. Just lately, the National Unity Government met with the at present uncommitted Arakan Army of Rakhine State in a transfer that’s positive to flip heads in Naypyidaw.

If and as soon as the National Unity Government persuades the ethnic armies to purchase right into a shared political goal, it may formulate a more practical army technique and launch operations to take additional territory. Based on her research of latest U.S. coalitions, Patricia A. Weitsman argues that “even in the absence of a unified chain of command, effective staff integration” is feasible. Considering the reluctance of ethnic armed teams to embrace a “federal army” or absolutely cooperate with the National Unity Government, pro-democracy forces ought to not less than work on shoring up the Central Command and Coordinating Committee and integrating high-level officers from its constituent coalition members inside each itself and aligned ethnic armed organizations to formulate technique and conduct operations throughout all seven theaters in Myanmar. This doesn’t essentially require subordination, however quite compromises and a shared understanding of national-level technique. Without this, the motion will stay vulnerable to the junta’s efforts to divide and conquer it.

Tackling the Military Problem

The different downside going through the National Unity Government is its ongoing lack of arms and tools. The downside is especially acute for People’s Defense Forces positioned exterior territory held by ethnic armed organizations, or in areas equivalent to Sagaing and Magway which might be distant from Myanmar’s porous borders. In the early days of the battle, do-it-yourself rifles and ancestral looking weapons have been sufficient to drive again the junta’s demoralized troops. But now, with the Sit-Tat’s forces supported by air energy, trendy small arms, mild armored autos, and artillery, the sheer firepower introduced to bear on the People’s Defense Forces is inflicting them to scatter to keep away from direct confrontations. Thus, whereas they haven’t any lack of enthusiastic recruits, they’ve been unable to transfer past rural guerilla ways. The ethnic armies, with their higher tools and extra dependable entry to arms have carried out considerably higher in opposition to junta offensives. For instance, the Kachin Independence Army took the strategic Alaw Bum hill quickly after widespread preventing broke out in early 2021, and has held the world in opposition to ferocious efforts to retake it with air energy and artillery.

Once larger political unity is established, the People’s Defense Forces’ lack of kit might be mitigated considerably by way of cooperation with ethnic armed teams. Many of the ethnic armies, particularly these alongside the Chinese border or aligned with the United Wa State Army, obtain Chinese weapons and tools, together with anti-air programs. Other ethnic armies reap the benefits of longstanding ties to smugglers in Thailand and China to receive black market weapons or have important arms-making industrial capability of their very own. However, persuading the China-backed ethnic armies to promote extra weapons straight to the pro-democracy resistance probably means getting Beijing on board as effectively. Given China’s rising help of the junta, that is no simple process. Yet, China isn’t the utterly unitary actor that it’s typically assumed to be, and Beijing additionally has a historical past of hedging in Myanmar. If the National Unity Government can win over the ethnic armed teams, display its capability to govern territory, and, crucially, keep away from angering China, then a realistic Beijing or native officers in China’s bordering Yunnan Province might acquiesce to a livelier arms commerce. Given Western reticence in the direction of arming the People’s Defense Forces, this can be their solely choice.

The End of the War?

The pro-democracy motion’s political and army issues could also be urgent, however they aren’t insurmountable. The National Unity Government can relaxation assured of its foremost strengths: public help, sturdy dedication from allied ethnic armies, and quiet cooperation from the unaligned ethnic armed organizations. From this base, it ought to first unite the collective efforts of all anti-junta forces in pursuit of a real federal democracy, then craft a joint army technique. In newly liberated areas, the National Unity Government and ethnic armed organizations ought to collaborate to set up efficient parallel governance mechanisms to elevate funds, guarantee humanitarian help and ship stability. This will display to the worldwide neighborhood that the pro-democracy motion is the individuals’s authorities that it claims to be. From there, army victory or the return of civilian rule could also be doable.



Ye Myo Hein is the manager director of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies and a public coverage fellow with the Wilson Center. His analysis pursuits embody civil-military relations in Myanmar, the nation’s armed battle, and its politics. The views expressed are the writer’s alone, and don’t signify the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center.

Lucas Myers is a program coordinator and affiliate for Southeast Asia on the Wilson Center. His work focuses on Southeast Asian geopolitics, Chinese international coverage, and Indo-Pacific safety points. The views expressed are the writer’s alone, and don’t signify the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center.

Image: Karen National Union



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