Myanmar: The Drift Within

Smruti S Pattanaik | 25 May 2023
No image

The conflict between the military, ethnic groups and political parties has affected Myanmar’s stability

The UN Special Rapporteur published a report last week detailing arms transfer to the Myanmar military junta by countries including China and India. The report comes at a time when air strikes by the Myanmar Army killed more than 100 people who had gathered at the opening of the National Unity Government (NUG) office in Saigaon. Though this incident created an international uproar, Tatmadaw, as the military junta is known, played it down and justified the raid as ‘limited airstrike’ against terrorists. The unrest in Myanmar has affected neighbouring countries as well, as several ethnic minorities and political activists have sought refuge across the border in India, Bangladesh, and Thailand among others.

ASEAN approach

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, delayed condemnation of Myanmar by two days after the attack on civilians and asked the junta to implement the five-point consensus of 2021 in continuation of ASEAN approach of consensus and non-interference in Myanmar. While ASEAN has not been effective in exerting pressure, international sanctions on the regime have also failed, as the international community remains divided and geostrategic factors allow Myanmar to remain beyond the sanction loop. Moreover, Myanmar has been under sanction for longer periods, and the military generals are not wary about international public opinion. The regime, in any case, pursues an isolationist policy.

To persuade Myanmar, Jakarta hosted an emergency leadership summit in April 2021 and made Gen Hliang accept the five-point consensus. Later, the junta rejected the demand to hold dialogue with all the groups, especially so-called National Unity Government (NUG) and People's Defence Force (PDF), whom Tatmadaw has labelled as terrorists. In October 2021, ASEAN had decided not to invite Myanmarese top general to the ASEAN summit and invited ‘non-political’ representative Chan Aye, veteran diplomat, to attend the summit. Myanmar had strongly reacted to the ASEAN decision to allow a non-political representation to attend the ASEAN meeting. ASEAN is also divided over the issue, and it was demonstrated when Cambodia, during its Presidency of ASEAN, met Gen Hliang. As a result, ASEAN's move to pressurise Myanmar by not inviting the junta to the summits has not delivered the anticipated results.

Experiment with ethnic reconciliation

Myanmar saw a brief interlude with democracy in 2011, when the military rule was officially ended and a military-dominated transitional Parliament constituted. President Thein Sein carried out limited reforms to retain the military’s dominance in politics, having 25% members from the military and having the rights to appoint defence, home affairs and border affairs Ministers. The 2008 constitution enabled the military to retain power. Though Sui Kyi could not become President due to a provision in the 2008 constitution, U Htin Kyaw, a close confidant of Suu Kyi’s, was sworn in as the new President.

The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), consisting of 16 ethnic armed groups, entered into Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the government. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won the 2015 election and the government announced a policy of national reconciliation to address issues of ethnic identity. Already, the ethnic minorities had found representation in Parliament and Speaker and deputy speakers were from both majority Burman and non-Burman groups. In 2016, she opened up a dialogue with several ethnic groups but the United Nationalities Federal Council, which represents six armed groups. Groups like the Karen National Union and the Restoration Council of Shan State also withdrew from the talks. Her efforts to bring other groups to accept the ceasefire did not work, as EAOs, mainly the Kachin Independence Army Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army, continued with armed attacks.

While the world pinned its hope on the democratic transition in Myanmar and looked forward to Suu Kyi steering the country to the path of democracy, Myanmar saw one of the worst ethnic cleansings when nearly one million Rohingyas were forced to seek refuge in Bangladesh. Suu Kyi faced severe international condemnation for standing by the military and not criticising the action. In spite of her complete support, her party, the NDF, could not retain power after winning the 2020 election in which the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) lost. The democratic transition was expected to bring peace in Myanmar that would have a salutary effect in the border areas.

Tatmadaw had different plans in place, as they took over power on February 1, 2021, alleging that the election was rigged. Suu Kyi was imprisoned and several charges were brought against her. Six months after the coup, General Min Aung Hliang declared himself the Prime Minister and announced his government as caretaker government, and formed the State Administration Council, announcing that elections will be held. Myanmar has banned around 40 political parties, dimming the prospect of its return to democracy.

Ensuring iron grip on power

After the military takeover, the National Unity Government (NUG) is formed by the elected lawmakers. They have formed the People's Defence Force, which is fighting the Tatmadaw. Nearly 2,000 people have been killed in brutal repression, and several hundred activists and journalists arrested. The military government has been fighting several ethnic armed groups opposed to the military takeover. The military is holding dialogue with some of these ethnic groups while others are aligned with the NUG while maintaining their autonomy as political groups. The border region is controlled by these EAOs, and around 20 of them dominate the political space and oppose the military regime.

There are frequent clashes that have rendered the border region volatile, and refugees have fled to neighbouring countries. In fact, Myanmar’s longstanding conflict continues to affect its stability. But the Tatmadaw has dug in and is prepared for a long haul. Several companies from around the world have also invested in military-controlled companies. In spite of rising poverty and malnourishment, Tatmadaw is completely defying international concerns and criticisms while trying to fight the EAO and the NUG within. Its international stakes are low while its internal stakes are high, and this has primarily guided the military’s response to the challenges it faces on its way to consolidate power.

Smruti S Pattanaik is a research fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, India.

This article was originally published on The Kathmandu Post.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.