Myanmar’s crisis set to be drawn-out struggle

The situation in Myanmar is expected to be a drawn-out struggle, with the extension of the state of emergency, and the opposition groups gaining strength and occupying more townships. Researcher Hein Khaing notes that the Myanmar issue is also troubling for the international community, especially for China and ASEAN, both of which could play a role in resolving the situation.
Protesters step on images of Myanmar's army general Min Aung Hlaing during a demonstration outside the UN office in Bangkok on 1 February 2024, to mark the third anniversary of the coup in Myanmar. (Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP)
Protesters step on images of Myanmar's army general Min Aung Hlaing during a demonstration outside the UN office in Bangkok on 1 February 2024, to mark the third anniversary of the coup in Myanmar. (Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP)

On 18 February, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces and prime minister of the country’s caretaker government, attended the Myanmar Chinese community’s Chinese New Year celebrations in Yangon along with Chen Hai, China’s ambassador to Myanmar. This marks the second consecutive year that Min Aung Hlaing has celebrated Chinese New Year with the Myanmar Chinese community. 

When the Spring Festival coincided with the anniversary of Myanmar’s military coup in 2022, the opposition force staged a nationwide “silent strike”. Caught between the coup and the political resistance, the Myanmar Chinese kept their New Year celebrations low-key.

... it is widely perceived that the mandatory conscription is imposed to serve the Tatmadaw’s civil war needs.

State of panic over conscription

Min Aung Hlaing’s attendance at the festive event this year did not bring much sense of harmony to Myanmar society. That is because on the first day of Chinese New Year on 10 February, his military government announced that the National Service Law drafted in 2010 would come into force effective immediately. 

Under this law, men between the ages of 18 and 35 and women between the ages of 18 and 27 are required to serve up to two years in the military; the upper limit of the conscription age range for skilled personnel, such as doctors and engineers, has been raised to 45 for men and 35 for women, with a length of service of three years. The length of service may be prolonged to five years during a state of emergency. 

Given that the initiative is being launched at a time of constant attrition on the Tatmadaw’s side which is in the midst of a fierce civil war, it is widely perceived that the mandatory conscription is imposed to serve the Tatmadaw’s civil war needs. This has thrown the whole country into a state of panic.

Members of the Myanmar’s military security force patrol a street during a "silent strike" to protest and to mark the third anniversary of the military coup in Yangon on 1 February 2024. (AFP)
Members of Myanmar’s military security force patrol a street during a "silent strike" to protest and to mark the third anniversary of the military coup in Yangon on 1 February 2024. (AFP)

Myanmar’s National Defence and Security Council met on 31 January and announced a further six-month extension of the state of national emergency. This was the fifth extension since the military staged its coup and declared a national state of emergency on 1 February 2021. Given the intensifying domestic situation in Myanmar, this fifth extension by the military was hardly any surprise for the outside world. 

Notably, however, in the acting President U Myint Swe’s publicised summary, it was stated for the first time that “the extension would continue in the future if necessary”. This could be interpreted as an acknowledgement that the turmoil in Myanmar is inevitably becoming a prolonged state of affairs.

... the spreading conflict has covered 221 townships over the last three years. Among them, 141 are in a dire state of insecurity. Meanwhile, at least 35 towns have been taken over by opposition forces.

Situation getting out of hand

When Min Aung Hlaing staged his coup, he did not foresee that the situation would become as unmanageable as it is today. According to Myanmar’s constitution, a state of emergency can last for one year and may be extended “twice under normal circumstances for six months each time”, and a general election must be held within six months after the state of emergency is lifted. 

Sure enough, Min Aung Hlaing announced in the early days of the coup that a general election would be held after one year, and that, in accordance with the constitution, the military would not be in power for more than two years. And yet, when the two-year deadline approached, the military extended the state of emergency repeatedly and continued to rule — all on the grounds that the situation remains “abnormal”.

When the state of emergency was first extended by the Tatmadaw on 31 January 2023, ostensibly due to the “unusual circumstances”, Min Aung Hlaing claimed that only 198 of the country’s 330 cities were safe, with the remaining 132 being insecure. According to the latest statistics from local think tank Institute for Strategy and Policy – Myanmar, the spreading conflict has covered 221 townships over the last three years. Among them, 141 are in a dire state of insecurity. Meanwhile, at least 35 towns have been taken over by opposition forces.

This photo taken on 4 February 2024 shows destroyed buildings and houses following fighting between Myanmar's military and the Kachin Independence Army in Nam Hpat Kar, Kutkai township in Myanmar's northern Shan State. (AFP)
This photo taken on 4 February 2024 shows destroyed buildings and houses following fighting between Myanmar's military and the Kachin Independence Army in Nam Hpat Kar, Kutkai township in Myanmar's northern Shan State. (AFP)

The resistance owes much of its success today to the Brotherhood Alliance’s Operation 1027 in northern Myanmar. On 27 October 2023, the alliance — comprising Kokang’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA) — launched a fierce attack on the Tatmadaw in the northern parts. In the end, not only did the MNDAA regain control of Kokang, the TNLA also captured its targeted territories. 

With China’s mediation, the Tatmadaw and the Brotherhood Alliance held peace talks from 10 to 11 January 2024. The parties agreed to a ceasefire in northern Myanmar. The AA then continued to fight the Tatmadaw in Rakhine State. The AA currently occupies five towns in Rakhine State and one in Chin State.

Encouraged by the Brotherhood Alliance’s victory, other opposition groups such as the various ethnic resistance organisations (EROs) and the People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) also launched strategic military operations, leading to the occupation of at least 35 towns.

After the MNDAA took over Kokang, a short video showing their soldiers smashing up pagodas with hammers stirred up the anger of Myanmar Buddhist-nationalists...

Fragility of revolutionary relations

The EROs, which have existed since Myanmar gained independence, had never won the support of mainstream society outside of their respective ethnic groups. But this changed after the 2021 military coup. 

With their positioning against the military regime, mainstream society began to see the EROs as revolutionary organisations and lend them support. For example, on 25 November 2023, the MNDAA (also known as the Kokang Army) announced that it had received 500 million kyats in donations from five Burman civil organisations. It was the first time an ERO in Myanmar received donations from outside of its own ethnic group.

Nonetheless, support based on “passion for revolution” is very fragile. After the MNDAA took over Kokang, a short video showing their soldiers smashing up pagodas with hammers stirred up the anger of Myanmar Buddhist-nationalists, and people held demonstrations against the MNDAA across the country. 

Since the so-called Kokang people are ethnic Chinese living in the Kokang region, both Myanmar Chinese and the Chinese embassy in Myanmar have been subjected to some pressure from public opinion. The MNDAA is also known to have forcibly recruited able-bodied men in the surrounding areas in the course of the war, drawing resistance from the locals, including the Kokang people. 

Debris is pictured next to a damaged Buddha statue following fighting between Myanmar's military and the Kachin Independence Army in Nam Hpat Kar, Kutkai township, in Myanmar's northern Shan State on 4 February 2024. (AFP)
Debris is pictured next to a damaged Buddha statue following fighting between Myanmar's military and the Kachin Independence Army in Nam Hpat Kar, Kutkai township, in Myanmar's northern Shan State on 4 February 2024. (AFP)

After the Tatmadaw’s announcement that the National Service Law came into effect, a Kokang man lamented to me, "We have already become refugees, and they still want to take us away to serve as soldiers. Who do you think we support?"

Cooperation among opposition

The victory of the Brotherhood Alliance in northern Myanmar has opened a new horizon for the resistance movement in the country. When the Tatmadaw announced the extension of the state of emergency on 31 January, the resistance organisation the National Unity Government (NUG) issued a joint statement with three EROs — the Chin National Front (CNF), the Karenni National Progress Party and the Karen National Union — towards “annihilation of military dictatorship and establishment of a federal democratic union”. 

This was the first time the NUG had issued a joint statement with EROs. And it was only not long before that the NUG’s defence minister and the Kachin Independence Army made a joint inspection of captured territories and armament. 

Prior to all this, with the exception of the CNF (which openly claimed to be working with the NUG), the abovementioned EROs had never spoken of the de facto solidarity among themselves. The joint statement and inspection thus signal that there is now sufficient political trust between the NUG and the four EROs, so much so that they can openly cooperate with one another.

While the civil war in Myanmar has yet to show any sign of turning into a full-scale war, it is nevertheless destined to be a protracted conflict.

Nonetheless, it is still difficult to discern where the resistance movement in Myanmar is headed. This is because there are a considerable number of resistance organisations with their respective goals that are not entirely aligned. Indeed, there are even conflicts of interest between them. A case in point is the fact that the NUG has not won over the Brotherhood Alliance yet. 

An almost empty street in pictured near the Shwe Dagon Pagoda during a "silent strike" to protest and to mark the third anniversary of the military coup in Yangon on 1 February 2024. (AFP)
An almost empty street is pictured near the Shwe Dagon Pagoda during a "silent strike" to protest and to mark the third anniversary of the military coup in Yangon on 1 February 2024. (AFP)

The United Wa State Army, also based in northern Myanmar and thought to be the country's most powerful ERO in terms of military strength, facilitated the Brotherhood Alliance’s Operation 1027, although it denies taking part in the actual military operations. While the civil war in Myanmar has yet to show any sign of turning into a full-scale war, it is nevertheless destined to be a protracted conflict.

China minimising open exchanges

That the Myanmar issue remains unresolved after such a long time is also troubling for the international community, especially for the northern neighbour China, as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member. 

Although China had been long supportive of Myanmar’s military regime since 1988, trust between both sides took a serious hit due to the shelving of a major Chinese-invested hydropower project by the Thein Sein administration, which was formed in 2011 after the dissolution of the military government. In any case, China's huge investments in Myanmar would still need security guarantees from the Tatmadaw. 

Thus, after the military overthrew the National League for Democracy (NLD) government in 2021 and took over, the Chinese embassy in Myanmar declared that both the NLD and the Tatmadaw maintain friendly relations with China, and then avoided bilateral exchanges with Myanmar as much as possible for the next two years. Only multilateral dealings under the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism were maintained. 

This went on until 2023, when a crackdown on telecom scamming activities around the China-Myanmar border led to the resumption of more frequent exchanges between both sides.

... given the bloc’s principle of “non-interference in internal affairs”, it is not easy for ASEAN to deal with Myanmar.

ASEAN’s role

Compared with China, ASEAN as a regional organisation has a more important role to play with regard to the Myanmar problem. As the situation worsened over time after the military seized power in 2021, ASEAN is seen by the broader international community and even itself as the best player to help resolve the problem. However, given the bloc’s principle of “non-interference in internal affairs”, it is not easy for ASEAN to deal with Myanmar.

Myanmar Permanent Secretary Marlar Than Htike (first left) along with other ASEAN representatives and the ASEAN secretary-general pose for a group photo during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' meeting in Luang Prabang on 29 January 2024. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)
Myanmar Permanent Secretary Marlar Than Htike (first left) along with other ASEAN representatives and the ASEAN secretary-general pose for a group photo during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' meeting in Luang Prabang on 29 January 2024. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

On 24 April 2021, ASEAN held a special Leaders’ Meeting in Jakarta at the initiative of Indonesia, and came to a “Five-Point consensus” on the situation in Myanmar: the cessation of violence, the commencement of constructive dialogue, the facilitation of mediation for the dialogue process by a special envoy of the ASEAN chair, the provision of humanitarian assistance, and allowing the special envoy of the ASEAN chair to meet with all parties concerned in Myanmar. 

Unfortunately, Myanmar's subsequent negative attitude towards the Five-Point Consensus forced ASEAN to take certain actions — namely, to bar the leaders of Myanmar's military government at the ministerial level and above from all ASEAN meetings. In addition, it was decided in September 2023 that the Philippines would take over the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN in 2026 in Myanmar’s stead.

The Myanmar military protested against ASEAN’s decisions on the basis of the bloc’s principle of maintaining “ASEAN unity and centrality”. It insisted on not sending any personnel below the ministerial level to participate in ASEAN meetings.

Drawn-out struggle

Three years later, even though the Myanmar military, beset internally and externally with problems, is still responding negatively to the Five-Point Consensus, it sent the permanent secretary of its foreign ministry for the first time to the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat held in Laos from 28 to 29 January 2024. This suggests Myanmar’s desire to “return” to the ASEAN family. 

The “softening” of the Tatmadaw’s stance has offered some hope of an ASEAN solution to the Myanmar problem. Nevertheless, just as Laotian Minister of Foreign Affairs Saleumxay Kommasith puts it, “We have to admit that the issues that are happening in Myanmar will not be resolved overnight”.

Thus, not only for Myanmar itself but for ASEAN too, the resolution of the Myanmar problem is set to be a drawn-out struggle. 

Related: A year on from the coup, Chinese New Year in Myanmar hijacked by politics | Why China has everything to lose from Myanmar coup