By Eric Vandebroeck and co-workers

As reported on 9 May, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar has warned of "mass deaths" from starvation and disease in the wake of fighting between rebel groups and junta forces in the east of the coup-stricken country.

AFP images from Kayah state have shown villagers manufacturing guns in makeshift factories as local defense groups go up against Myanmar's battle-hardened military.

The independent rights expert, who reports to the Human Rights Council, emphasized that the lives of many thousands of men, women, and children were under threat from indiscriminate attacks, on a scale not seen since the 1 February coup, “that likely amount to mass atrocity crimes.”

Back in December 2012  and then again in 2015, during my personal visit, I already reported about the problems in Kayah (earlier called Kachin) state and its relationship with important energy projects.

As was reported recently that there is fierce fighting in Demoso, Loikaw, and Hpruso townships. The regime has carried out airstrikes on civilian resistance fighters and used artillery on civilian areas. It has also brought hundreds of reinforcements into Kayah State.

About 10 junta soldiers were reportedly killed and 10 wounded during a shootout with civilian resistance fighters in Kani Township, Sagaing Region, on Wednesday afternoon. The Kani’s People Defense Force ambushed five military vehicles carrying around 70 troops on the Monywa-Kalewa highway, according to residents.

When (posted on 5 April 2021) we asked does Myanmar now face civil war, it looks now that Myanmar is at a point of no return. The army’s February coup, meant to shift power within the existing constitutional framework surgically, has instead unleashed revolutionary energy that will be nearly impossible to contain.

Over the past four months, protests and strikes have continued despite the reported killing of more than 800 people and the arrest of nearly 5,000 more. On April 1, elected members of parliament from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), together with leaders from other political parties and organizations, declared a “national unity government” to challenge the authority of the recently established military junta. And through April and May, as fighting flared between the junta and ethnic minority armies, a new generation of pro-democracy fighters attacked military positions and administrative offices across the country. However, the Rakhine communities say that Myanmar’s  National Unity Government’s (NUG) policy on Rohingya does not represent the Rakhine people.

The NUG, formed by elected lawmakers in mid-April to rival the military regime, on June 3 said it would replace the 1982 Citizenship Law with legislation offering the Muslim community citizenship and scrap the National Verification Cards that identify the Rohingya as foreigners. The Muslims in Rakhine State identify as Rohingya but are labeled ‘Bengali’ by many to imply they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. They are denied citizenship and freedom of movement by the authorities.

The All Arakanese Solidarity Committee (AASC), a Rakhine State-based network of civil society organizations, community leaders and politicians, and the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), has released statements in opposition NUG’s Rohingya policy.

The junta could partially consolidate its rule over the coming year, but that would not lead to stability. Myanmar’s pressing economic and social challenges are too complex, and the depth of animosity toward the military too great for an isolated and anachronistic institution to manage. At the same time, the revolutionaries will not be able to deal a knockout blow anytime soon.

As the stalemate continues, the economy will crumble, extreme poverty will skyrocket, the healthcare system will collapse, and armed violence will intensify, sending waves of refugees into neighboring China, India, and Thailand. Myanmar will become a failed state, and new forces will appear to take advantage of that failure: to grow the country’s multi-billion-dollar-a-year methamphetamine business, to cut down the forests that are home to some of the world’s most precious zones of biodiversity, and to expand wildlife-trafficking networks, including the very ones possibly responsible for the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in neighboring China. The pandemic itself will fester unabated.

The task now is to shorten this period of state failure, protect the poorest and most vulnerable, and begin building a new state and a freer, fairer, and more prosperous society. A future peaceful Myanmar can only be based on both an entirely different conception of its national identity, free of the ethnonationalist narratives of the past, and a transformed political economy. The weight of history makes this the only acceptable outcome but also a herculean task to achieve. The alternative, however, is not a dictatorship, which can no longer achieve stability but rather an ever-deepening state failure and the prospect of a violent, anarchic Myanmar at the heart of Asia for decades to come.


Myanmar is a colonial creation

Myanmar is a colonial creation. Over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the United Kingdom conquered the coastline from Bengal to the Malay Peninsula, the valley of the Irrawaddy River, and then the surrounding uplands. Myanmar, then called Burma, was forged through military occupation and governed as a racial hierarchy that is partly carried over to the present.

Modern Burmese politics emerged a century ago, and at its core was an ethnonationalism rooted in the notion of a Burmese-speaking Buddhist racial identity. After winning independence in 1948, the new Burmese state tried to incorporate those non-Burmese peoples of the country also deemed indigenous, such as the Karens and the Shans, but within a Burmese racial and cultural supremacy framework. Those peoples categorized as “aliens,” such as the more than 700,000 people from the Rohingya Muslim community viciously expelled to Bangladesh in 2016 and 2017, have fared worse. Myanmar’s nation-building project has failed for decades, leaving behind a landscape of endemic armed conflict and a country that has never truly been whole.

For example as tensions peaked between Karen and Bamar in early 1949, Burmese irregular forces committed a series of mass killings on the outskirts of the then-capital that have never been officially acknowledged.

The Burmese army has been the self-appointed guardian of this ethnonationalism. It is the only army in the world that has been fighting nonstop since World War II: against the British and then the Japanese, and, after independence, against an extraordinary array of opponents, including Washington-backed Chinese nationalist armies in the 1950s, Beijing-backed communist forces in the 1960s, drug lords, and ethnic armed forces struggling for self-determination, all the while taking as well as inflicting enormous casualties. Since the 1970s, most of the fighting has been confined to the uplands, where the army became an occupation force imposing a central rule on ethnic minority populations. But now and then, the army would descend into the cities of the Irrawaddy River valley to crush dissent. The ranks of the armed forces have grown to over 300,000 personnel. In recent years, the military has acquired new Chinese and Russian combat aircraft, drones, and rocket artillery. It is led by an officer corps that cannot imagine a Myanmar where the military is not ultimately in control.

For four decades after independence, successive civilian and military governments embraced socialism in response to colonial-era economic inequalities. The main opposition to ruling governments was communists. During the 1960s, the military junta combined the nationalization of major businesses with extreme isolation from the rest of the world. But that orientation shifted in 1988, when a new army junta seized power, rejected socialism, and began encouraging private business, foreign trade, and foreign investment. Over the following years, however, Western countries began to impose sanctions in solidarity with a nascent democracy movement. At the same time, the army’s principal battlefield enemy, the Beijing-backed communist insurgency in the northeast, collapsed, making a trade with China possible for the first time in decades. The net result was Burmese capitalism intimately tied to China’s giant industrial revolution next door.


Illicit narcotics syndicates

The political economy that emerged during the 1990s and early years of this century were the most unequal since colonial times. Illicit narcotics syndicates flourished, especially in areas where the junta had reached cease-fires with local militias. Timber and mining (especially of jade) enriched a cohort of generals, militia leaders, and business partners, who invested these profits in real estate in the country’s biggest city, Yangon, sending housing prices millions of dollars. By 2008, newly discovered offshore gas fields provided the junta with over $3 billion a year, money that those with the right connections could access at ludicrously low exchange rates. Not all army officers accumulated much wealth, but all enjoyed access to patronage networks to transform power into wealth.

No one paid taxes, and the state provided next to no social services, with the World Health Organization listing Myanmar’s health system at the absolute bottom of its table of national health systems in 2000. The army confiscated land on an enormous scale from ordinary people. Then, in 2008, a cyclone killed 140,000 people. Landlessness, the cyclone, and other environmental threats relating to climate change fueled an epic migration from west to east, from lowland ethnic Burmese areas to Yangon and upland minority areas, and from everywhere around the country to Thailand, where three million to four million unskilled laborers from Myanmar work today. Myanmar’s ethnic demographics became further jumbled, separating identity from a place.

Ethnonationalism had no ideological rivals. In 1989, the generals changed the name of Burma, a geographic term used by Europeans since the sixteenth century to mean the area around the Irrawaddy valley, to Myanmar, an ethnonym for the Burmese-speaking majority. Socialism and communism had been discredited. In their place came a nationalist narrative rooted in a country's conception as a union of indigenous “national races,” with the Burmese-speaking Buddhist people, the Myanmar people, and their culture at the unquestioned center.

A decade ago, reforms came about not because of sanctions or diplomatic engagement but because the country’s aging autocrat, General Than Shwe, believed that a new constitutional setup would help ensure him a safe and comfortable retirement. He didn’t want to hand power to a new military dictator, who might one day turn against him, and he believed the more prudent option was to split power between an army under a younger cohort of generals and a government led by the pro-army party he had created, the Union Solidarity and Development Party. But in 2011, the reformist ex-generals leading the USDP went off script, releasing political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, ending media censorship, freeing the Internet, and ushering in a level of political freedom unknown for half a century. Western governments, hoping democracy might be just around the corner, rolled back sanctions, and the country’s economy boomed. The opening of the telecommunications sector sparked a revolution in connectivity: in 2011, almost no one in Myanmar had a phone; by 2016, most people had smartphones and were on Facebook. 

The army, however, was left in its own universe. When Than Shwe retired, he promoted a relatively junior officer, Min Aung Hlaing, to be the new commander in chief, with the explicit task of safeguarding the army’s preeminence. But Min Aung Hlaing and the new crop of generals below him were decades younger than the men of the old junta, and they had little access to the moneymaking networks of prior decades. At the same time, the reforms begun in 2011 shrank the army’s role in the economy considerably. It lost its privileged access to foreign currency and corporate monopolies. Its share of the national budget was reduced. Moreover, the army no longer had a say in economic policy. Some of its former business partners lost out to newly arrived foreign competition; others thrived in the open environment. But few companies were any longer dependent on the military’s largess.


The generals wanted to upgrade their weaponry

In the 2010s, the army placed less emphasis on moneymaking and more on the exercise of violence. The generals wanted to upgrade their weaponry and become, in their own words, a “standard modern army.” They dreamed of ending the country’s endless internal armed conflicts on their own terms, using a mix of pressure and persuasion to disarm and demobilize the many and varied forces fighting on behalf of ethnic minority communities. Over the past ten years, their focus has been campaigning against new ethnic minority forces, particularly the Arakan, Kokang, and Ta’ang armies, all linked to China and the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. To some extent, their uncompromising stance found support among the public, as Burmese ethnonationalism flourished on social media and among Buddhist organizations that saw Islam and all things foreign as threats to the conservative order they espoused.

From 2011 to 2015, the army shared power with the reformist ex-generals of the USDP in what was more or less an amicable relationship. But in 2016, after Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD won a landslide election victory, they found themselves in government with their longtime political foes. Under the constitution, the army held three ministries, Defense, Home Affairs (which controlled the police), and Border Affairs, and a quarter of the seats in parliament. But Aung San Suu Kyi enjoyed real power. Her supermajority meant she could pass any law she wished and control the country’s budget and the entire range of government policy apart from the security issues directly under the military’s purview.


Aung San Suu Kyi’ and the generals shared conservative values

She and the generals shared conservative values, including respect for age, self-discipline, and the Buddhist establishment, and had a similar ethnonationalism worldview. They were united in believing that the Western reaction to the Rohingya expulsions was unfair. In 2019, Aung San Suu Kyi acted out of conviction, not expediency, when she went to The Hague to defend the army before the International Court of Justice. But her relationship with the generals was testy at best. The NLD feared a coup. The army feared a conspiracy between Aung San Suu Kyi and the West to remove it from the government altogether. Min Aung Hlaing worried that Aung San Suu Kyi might one day throw him under the bus to placate her erstwhile international supporters, many of whom had disavowed her after the violent displacement of the Rohingya.


The tipping point

As political tensions grew, the country’s economy reached a tipping point. In 2016, the central bank, following advice from the International Monetary Fund, introduced new prudential regulations for Myanmar’s private banks at a time when as many as half of all loans in the country were nonperforming, and the once white-hot real estate market had just nose-dived. Aung San Suu Kyi suddenly found that she had leverage over a business class that many of her supporters loathed. The cronies who had become rich under the old junta now vied for her attention. Her technocrats pushed for further liberalization. At the same time, Beijing, which had nurtured close ties with Aung San Suu Kyi, proposed multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects through its Belt and Road Initiative, including the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, which would stretch from China’s southwestern province of Yunnan to the Bay of Bengal.


The COVID-19 pandemic

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Its impact on public health was minimal, but lockdowns and disruptions to foreign trade sent the economy into a tailspin. The government’s response was anemic at best, offering virtually no cash support to those hardest hit. According to one survey conducted in October 2020, the proportion of the population living in poverty (those making less than $1.90 a day) had risen from 16 percent to 63 percent over the previous eight months, with a third of people polled reporting no income since August 2020. However, public trust in Aung San Suu Kyi only grew as she appeared on Facebook for the first time, live-streaming conversations with healthcare workers and others. Millions didn’t blame her for the economy’s ills and instead felt that they finally had a leader looking out for them.

But alarm bells were already ringing, especially outside the Burmese-majority heartland. After the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims, an entirely new dynamic emerged in Rakhine State, in the west of the country: the rise of the Arakan Army, set on achieving self-determination for the state’s Rakhine-speaking Buddhist community. In 2018, the Arakan Army began large-scale attacks on government positions. It was the most significant armed insurrection in Myanmar in a generation. By late 2020, it had pinned down several army divisions and had gained de facto authority over vast swaths of the Rakhine countryside.

At the other end of the country, the methamphetamine industry, which supplied markets as far afield as Japan and New Zealand, was thriving as never before. The drugs were produced in areas controlled by militias near the Chinese border, with the bulk of profits going not to anyone in Myanmar but too powerful transnational syndicates, such as the one headed by the Chinese Canadian Tse Chi Lop, who was arrested in January in Amsterdam and is purported to have made as much as $17 billion in revenue annually. Drugs encouraged a growing ecosystem of money laundering and other illicit industries, with over a hundred casinos in the northeast, near the Chinese province of Yunnan, and plans for a giant gambling and cryptocurrency hub on the border with Thailand.

National elections took place last November in the feverish context of rising conflict and economic woes. But people still voted overwhelmingly for Aung San Suu Kyi. The army leadership was shocked, having believed that the NLD would fare poorly, given the state of the economy, and that the military top brass would have at least a say in choosing the next president. Instead, Aung San Suu Kyi, thanks to the scale of her win, seemed set to be more powerful still. Efforts by Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing to reach an understanding went nowhere. He fixated on allegations of electoral fraud and demanded an investigation into the election. She refused to consider this. The army felt humiliated. But ordinary people, thrilled by her victory, could only imagine better times ahead.


The army seized power

On February 1, the army seized power, arresting Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders. It was billed not as a coup d’état but as a state of emergency under the constitution. The new junta is composed of several political parties (other than the NLD) and top generals. Min Aung Hlaing stacked his cabinet with senior technocrats and, in his first public appearances, promised to prioritize the post-pandemic economic recovery and even suggested a multibillion-dollar stimulus package. He seems to have thought that he could take over without much of a fuss, sideline the NLD, focus on fixing the economy, and then hold fresh elections skewed to his advantage. If so, he completely misread the public mood.

The reaction to the coup was spontaneous and visceral. Within days, hundreds of thousands of people poured onto the streets demanding an end to military rule, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders, and the restoration of the elected government. At the same time, a civil disobedience movement began, with medics leaving government hospitals and quickly spread across the public sector, from ministerial departments down to local administrative bodies. On February 22, a general strike shut down businesses, including banks, all around the country. And a campaign on Facebook meted out “social punishment” in the form of orchestrated public attacks on any person or business thought to have links to the army or the junta.

The army cracked down mercilessly. It had held back at first, perhaps in the hope that the protests would melt away on their own. But over the last week of February, battle-hardened troops of the army’s elite light infantry divisions, including the units responsible for the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, began moving into Yangon and other cities. A campaign of terror accompanied the lethal use of force: as night fell, the Internet went dark, and soldiers began firing indiscriminately in residential neighborhoods, setting off sound grenades, breaking down doors, and hauling people away. The large crowds dissipated, but smaller and even more determined protests persisted. Young men and women erected makeshift barricades and wielded shields and occasionally improvised weapons to defend themselves against the soldiers’ automatic fire. On March 14 alone, dozens were killed in Yangon’s industrial suburb of Hlaingthaya. On March 27, over a hundred died as the army opened fire on crowds across Myanmar.

The carnage radicalized the resistance. With videos of the beating and killing of civilians shared over the Internet, the popular desire to reverse the coup transformed into a determination in some quarters to see an end to the army altogether. Protesters raised signs calling for “R2P,” referring to the principle of “the responsibility to protect,” which obliges the international community to intervene in a country to defend its people from crimes against humanity, even if such action violates that country’s national sovereignty. For a while, many in Myanmar genuinely expected that the world would save them from a new dictatorship. But by late March, with no armed international intervention in sight, many young protesters turned to armed insurrection. In Kalay, near India, residents resolved to fight back as the “Kalay Civil Army,” arming themselves with homemade hunting rifles, killing several soldiers, and holding out for ten days before the army overran their positions. Dozens of new groups, locally organized and lightly armed, began appearing in different parts of the country over the following months. In May, another militia called the Chinland Defense Force held the town of Mindat, in the rugged western uplands, for three weeks before the army, using artillery and helicopter gunships, forced them to withdraw. All the while, hundreds of young men and women made their way to territories controlled by ethnic minority armies to receive training, including in explosives. By late May, there had been dozens of arson and other attacks on police and administrative offices and nearly a hundred small bombings against junta-linked targets, including in Yangon.

These new guerilla movements can certainly keep the junta off balance. But the insurrectionists will not build a new army to challenge the existing one without significant help from a neighboring country, which seems next to impossible. And nothing in the history of Myanmar’s army suggests that a sizable chunk of its forces would break away and join a rebellion. That leaves the ethnic minority armies as the only other possible agents of a broader uprising. The Kachin Independence Army and the Karen National Liberation Army have already mounted new army positions in the far north and southeast of the country. Other groups, too, may move from statements of political support to armed action. But even the combined might of the ethnic armed organizations, numbering perhaps 75,000 fighters in total, would be no match for military with far superior artillery and a monopoly on airpower. Moreover, the most powerful ethnic armed organization, the United Wa State Army, with 30,000 troops, has deep links to China, having emerged from the old communist insurgency. It will heed the advice of Beijing, which has no love for the Myanmar army but does not want to see an all-out civil war.

The United Wa State Army (UWSA) is a non-state armed group that administers an autonomous zone in the difficult-to-reach Wa Hills of eastern Myanmar. As China expands its geopolitical interests across Asia through the Belt and Road Initiative, the Wa has come to play a pivotal role in Beijing's efforts to extend its influence in Myanmar:

More than anything that happens on the battlefield, it is the ongoing implosion of the economy that will turn Myanmar into a failed state. Industries on which ordinary households rely, such as tourism, have collapsed, as have other sources of income, such as remittances from overseas, which totaled as much as $2.4 billion in 2019, a result of income lost by migrant workers abroad during the global pandemic. The garment industry employed over a million people, many young women, and was a success story during the past decade. Still, it has been devastated as orders from Europe have dried up. The future of the agricultural sector, the biggest employer in the country, remains uncertain, with logistics disrupted by strikes and China now closing border crossings out of fear of COVID-19. The most critical is that the financial sector has been paralyzed by a mix of strikes, the unwillingness or inability of the central bank to provide added liquidity, and a general collapse in confidence. Closed banks mean no cash at ATMs and thousands of businesses unable to make payroll, taking trillions of kyats (equal to billions of dollars) each month out of circulation. The knock-on effect across all sectors has been catastrophic.

As for the current state of Covid, Local media reports Myanmar military gov has been preparing a quarantine center in Yangon as the COVID-19 outbreak hits the country, see picture. The regime forcibly shut down Q centers with full medical facilities by the civilian gov right after the coup.

The economy may be on its knees, but the junta will likely not suffer. Revenues from natural gas and mining will continue to flow into its coffers. The army-owned conglomerates provide at most a fraction of the $2.5 billion, or so the military receives annually from the regular budget. So foreign sanctions on those firms won’t have much effect. In any case, the junta now controls the country’s entire $25 billion budget: the first cuts won’t be to defense in any fiscal squeeze.

But the people of Myanmar will suffer enormously. The UN Development Program expects half of Myanmar’s population of 55 million to fall into poverty over the coming six months. The World Food Program worries that 3.5 million more people will face hunger. Lifesaving medicines and treatments are in extremely short supply. Over the course of 2021, 950,000 infants will not receive the vaccines that they would normally get for diseases such as tuberculosis and polio. Those who suffer most will include those who have always been the most vulnerable, including landless villagers, upland farmers, migrant workers, the Rohingya, people of South Asian descent, and the internally displaced. The economy will collapse not with a bang but with a whimper as a new generation grows up severely malnourished and uneducated.

Myanmar as a failed state may look something like this: The army holds the cities and the Irrawaddy valley, but urban guerilla attacks and a spreading insurrection prevent any firm consolidation of junta rule. The strike's end, but millions remain unemployed, and the vast majority of people have little or no access to basic services. Some ethnic armed groups can carve out additional territory, while others come under withering air and land assault. In Rakhine State, the Arakan Army expands its de facto administration, and in the eastern uplands, old and new militia groups strengthen their ties to transnational organized crime networks. Extractive and illicit industries become a bigger piece of Myanmar’s economic pie. As armed fighting intensifies, Beijing, fearing instability above all, feels compelled to increase its sway over all territories east of the Salween River. Myanmar becomes a center for the spread of disease, criminality, and environmental destruction, with human rights atrocities continuing unchecked.


Successful change must come from within

Myanmar’s future need not be totally bleak, however. Successful change must come from within, and there is absolutely no doubt, given what has happened since February, that Myanmar’s young people are determined to alter the course of their country’s history. It is they who must chart a path forward. But global action now could alleviate some of the sufferings in the country and help it more swiftly escape impending disaster.

First, the international community needs to agree to a resolution in the UN Security Council that clearly demands a quick and peaceful transition back to an elected civilian government. China must be on board; there is simply no substitute for China’s involvement because of its economic clout in Myanmar and its deep ties to many of its ethnic armed organizations. International sanctions that do not involve China may be symbolically important, but they will be just that: symbolic. The junta can survive with just China’s tacit support. But Beijing can play a constructive role. It has always had difficult relations with the generals, is wary of instability, would prefer a return to civilian government, and remains uncertain of its next moves. Diplomacy between Beijing and Washington will be essential in achieving a Security Council resolution and thereby providing the needed framework for international cooperation on Myanmar. Several countries in the region are important, especially India and Thailand, Myanmar’s other key neighbors, and Japan, whose aid and investments have been a big part of the country’s economic growth over the past decade. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the regional body, is far less significant; it initiated dialogue with the junta in April that has yet to bear fruit.

Second, outside powers must support and encourage all those working not only for democracy in Myanmar but also for the broad transformation of Myanmar politics and society. That includes serious efforts, possibly through an expanded UN civilian presence in Myanmar, to monitor human rights abuses and negotiate the release of political prisoners. However, it is critical not to raise false hopes by offering people in Myanmar the chimera of international salvation; that would only steer energy away from building the necessary and broadest possible coalitions at home.

Third, outside help needs to be based on an appreciation of Myanmar’s unique history, one in which past army regimes have withstood the strictest international isolation and the unique psychology of the generals themselves, molded by decades of unrelenting violence. The international community’s usual carrots and sticks won’t work.

Fourth, foreign governments should assist poor and vulnerable populations as much as possible, perhaps focusing initially on providing COVID-19 vaccinations. But such assistance must be handled with tremendous political skill and designed in collaboration with healthcare workers themselves, not inadvertently to entrench the junta's grip. Many of the junta’s opponents have wanted to crash the economy to help trigger revolution. Still, as weeks stretch into months and years, it will be necessary to protect the civilian economy as much as possible, to prevent a worsening humanitarian disaster. Responsible global firms that do not do business with the army should be encouraged to stay in the country. A healthy and well-fed population will be better able to push for political change.

Governments must try different initiatives with as much flexibility and international coordination as possible. There is no magic bullet, no single set of policies that will solve the crisis in Myanmar. That’s because the crisis isn’t just the result of the February coup; it is the outcome of decades of failed state-building and nation-building and an economy and a society that has been so unjust for so long to so many. The outside world has long tended to see Myanmar as a fairy tale, shorn of its complexities, in which an agreeable ending is just around the corner. The fairy tale must now end and be replaced with serious diplomacy and well-informed, practical strategies. 



The Tatmadaw is far from being defeated. Even if its opponents band together, as the shadow government hopes, its 350,000-odd soldiers would still dwarf the rebels’ combined forces of around 80,000. Over the past decade, it has built up an arsenal of sophisticated weaponry, enabling it to mount combined land and air offensives. A resolution passed on June 18th by the UN General Assembly, calling for an end to arms sales to Myanmar and an end to violence and the release of detainees will make little difference. The Tatmadaw’s two biggest suppliers, China and Russia, abstained.

There have been hundreds of defections from the army since the coup, but it is doubtful that enough would abandon the force to influence the conflict’s outcome. Plus, their fortunes may change with the weather. Hostilities with ethnic rebels, who live in the country’s uplands, are usually suspended when the monsoon arrives. If that annual pattern holds this year, the Tatmadaw may redeploy troops to the heartland.

The shadow administration, known as the National Unity Government (NUG), is trying to knit the disparate anti-regime forces into a standing army. But different ethnic rebels are wary of one another, past efforts at co-operation have failed, and of the NUG, which a Bamar political party formed criticized before the coup for ignoring the grievances of ethnic minorities. Even the Chin National Front, the only ethnic militia formally allied with the NUG is worried that Bamars will dominate their coalition, says Salai Lian Hmung Sakhong, the front’s vice-chairman and the NUG’s minister of federal affairs. Some rebel groups have no interest in taking on the Tatmadaw. They include the biggest, the United Wa State Army, with 30,000 troops. Others, such as the Arakan Army, which had engaged the Tatmadaw in fierce fighting until last November, saw an opportunity to extract concessions from the army while under pressure.

But the fragmented nature of the resistance also makes it more difficult for the Tatmadaw to root out insurgents. The Tatmadaw’s brutality has turned the entire country against it. For the first time since some students took up arms after the bloody suppression of an uprising in 1988, Bamars joined ethnic rebels in their war against the army.



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