A year after the coup, Myanmar army faces chaos and resistance
A year after last February’s coup in Myanmar, the country seems to be fast sinking into a state of durable disorder.
The nationwide peace process initiated by elected governments in the last decade – which some see as a democracy dividend – has all but collapsed and most of the country’s powerful ethnic rebel armies are back on warpath. They say the junta, the State Administrative Council (SAC), cannot be trusted to offer any meaningful concession that would take the nation towards federalism, offering more autonomy to minority regions.
The SAC has only been able to strike a fragile ceasefire deal with the Arakan Army (AA) in the Rakhine State, which has grown into a force of nearly 30,000 fighters. But the AA chief recently said that his group was using the ceasefire to establish a parallel administration in as much of the Rakhine State as possible, claiming the AA has been largely successful in its design.
Apart from the ethnic rebel armies, the Burmese military Tatmadaw and other security forces are facing a continuous agitation against the coup. Apart from large-scale street demonstrations, there are continuous strikes in key sectors such as banks, ports, even hospitals. And for the first time, the army is facing a powerful burst of urban insurgency organised by angry Bamars (ethnic Burmese).
New resistance groups such as the People’s Defence Force (PDF) are setting off explosions in factories and mines, particularly those run by Chinese companies. This is because the resistance sees Beijing as the main backer of the Burmese junta. They are also launching attacks on police and soldiers, informers and military collaborators. The SAC dismisses groups like PDF as “mere terrorists” but the National Unity Government (NUG), which claims it is the “real government of Myanmar”, has owned up the PDF as its military wing, lending it legitimacy as a genuine resistance group fighting military rule.
In Myanmar’s long history of military since 1962, never has the Tatmadaw faced such resistance all over the country. The most significant element of that is the emergence of Bamar armed groups, whose recruits are mostly young Burmese driven by anger over the brutal suppression of what initially was largely a peaceful agitation against the February 2021 military takeover. The other significant element in the resistance is the emergence of the NUG, which combines politicians from major political parties like the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, but also representatives from the ethnic groups.
The NUG is conducting internal dialogues and also some with other pro-democracy groups and alliances to work out a new constitution for Myanmar that will institutionalise democracy and federalism and replace the 2008 constitution, which allows the military to retain primacy by being guaranteed one-fourth of the parliament seats and control over the ministries of home, defence and border affairs. In short, the NUG is not just guiding the resistance to military rule but working out the structure of a future polity that is seen as just and fair by all in Myanmar, especially the non-Burman minorities. The NUG is helped and assisted by a plethora of Asian and western groups working for human rights and ethnic justice. The Bamar upsurge has blown the Tatmadaw’s old justification that it must stay in power to ensure national unity. The NUG has put in a place a vision of a future polity that will ensure unity through justice, not force.
Not even many Burmese soldiers are buying the military argument. Nearly 1,600 soldiers, most rankers but some officers like captains and majors, have defected to join the Civil Disobedience Movement. Despite a thick veil of secrecy, reports are emerging of disaffection in the top echelons of the military.
Military strongman General Min Aung Hlaing, who unleashed the coup after failing to get Aung San Suu Kyi to agree to make him president, has brought about major changes in the command structure, replacing many competent officers with loyalists.
Myanmar watchers say the sweeping changes in the military command structure, in three phases in the past year, point to disaffection at the very top. It is not clear whether a group of professional officers is in place to bring down Min Aung Hlaing and take charge, but such a possibility is not ruled out.
In fact, some of the top officers removed from key positions were suspected of clandestine contacts with close loyalists of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is in jail and slapped with ever-increasing charges.
A shadow group of lawmakers claims at least 3,000 Burmese troops have died in clashes with resistance fighters between February and December last year. Even the army admits to 200 military casualties. This, despite the army using heavy artillery and airstrikes against the resistance fighters, both Bamar groups like PDF and ethnic rebel armies like the Kachin Independence Army. But this savage response against a civilian population that is largely unarmed or equipped with traditional weapons has further reduced the Tatmadaw to an occupation force from a national army.
Myanmar’s descent into chaos augurs ill for India. India’s major connectivity schemes like the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport project, which seeks to provide the country’s Northeast an outlet to the sea through road and Kaladan River through Sittwe Port, and the 1,360-kilometre India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, is way behind schedule. The MEA admits only 36 per cent of the highway is complete, two decades after work on it started. Progress on the Kaladan project is also behind schedule. India’s ‘Act East’ through Northeast policy largely depends for its success on peace and tranquility in Myanmar and these connectivity projects are crucial to its completion. So it is anybody’s guess that India’s ‘Act East’ has hit a wall in Myanmar.
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India was also looking forward to Burmese military cooperation to deny its own northeastern rebels their traditional transborder base area in Myanmar’s Sagaing province. This is the only transborder base area for Northeast Indian rebels after Bhutan and Bangladesh forcibly threw them out. But after a brief spell of some cooperation, the Myanmar army seems to be using the Northeast Indian rebels against its own resistance movements.
Angered by that, Myanmar’s Chin National Army recently attacked a base of Manipur’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Senam near the border town of Tamu on January 14. Some Manipur rebels were killed. India might therefore have to look at other options, like using friendly Myanmar rebels to hit its own separatists based in that country rather than depend on the Burmese army.
Delhi had been helped by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the 1990s in denying its northeastern rebels access to China through their area, but after the BJP came to power in 1998, the covert relationship with the Myanmar rebel groups was discontinued. That may have to be reviewed now.
The NUG is also looking for a stronger role for India in pushing the junta towards stepping down. Indian advocates of “pragmatism” in dealing with the Burmese military should wake up to new realities, what with even China starting to deal with the NUG and many other rebel groups to preserve its huge investments.
The Chinese reportedly pushed the junta into desisting from dissolving Suu Kyi’s NLD party before the polls the SAC wants to hold in mid-2023, because Beijing read the danger of aggravated conflict if such a sweeping measure was taken.
Chinese diplomats contacted the NUG after PDF rebels set off explosions in a huge nickel processing plant owned by a Chinese company. The Burmese resistance strategy of attacking Chinese interests seems to be delivering results. No votary of democracy, Beijing is forced to deal with those fighting for it in Myanmar to protect its huge investments.
A long-drawn conflict is bad for India. Not merely will it delay the connectivity projects but also send refugees into its own restive Northeast. So Delhi needs to pitch much more strongly for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar than it has done so far.
(Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC correspondent and author who has worked in Myanmar)
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