Is Myanmar Headed for Collapse or Revolution?
May 7, 2021
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held a special leader’s summit on April 24 to discuss the escalating crisis in Myanmar. The country’s military chief, Min Aung Hlaing, who seized power from Myanmar’s democratically elected government on February 1, was invited to the summit. Representatives of the newly formed National Unity Government (NUG), representing the ousted democratic leaders and some ethnic minority parties, were not. The ASEAN leaders surprised their harshest critics by reaching a consensus position on next steps. But in the days since, it has become clear that the organization has little hope of implementing that consensus.
The junta continues its deadly crackdown on the protests, which remain mostly peaceful. But the NUG is gearing up for a sustained and increasingly violent campaign of resistance. Key ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) have thrown their lot in with it. The country, which has been mired in some form of civil war for over 70 years, is seeing its most serious fighting in decades. Washington, London, and Brussels continue their campaign to isolate the military regime and marshal international support for sanctions. But they also want to keep those sanctions targeted at the generals and military-controlled entities, not the Burmese public. That the violence and humanitarian crisis will worsen seems unavoidable. What is unclear is whether the unfolding tragedy will end in state collapse, the return of smothering military rule, or the emergence of a new, potentially more democratic, regime.
Q1: What did ASEAN accomplish?
A1: The heads of government of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam attended the special summit on Myanmar, which was held at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. Laos, the Philippines, and Thailand sent their foreign ministers. The Myanmar junta was represented by Min Aung Hlaing. This, along with their decision not to invite or even engage with the newly formed NUG, prompted criticism that the other nine ASEAN members were legitimizing the military regime. The ASEAN leaders tried to tiptoe around the issue by referring to Min Aung Hlaing as head of the armed forces, not head of state. But that did not change the fact that they were treating him as the de facto sovereign of Myanmar.
The summit ended with a “Five-Point Consensus” released by Brunei as ASEAN chair. It declared there “shall” be an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar, the start of a dialogue between the opposing sides, the appointment of a special envoy from ASEAN to mediate that dialogue, a delegation to meet with all parties involved, and the provision of humanitarian assistance. A demand for the release of political prisoners, including ousted State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, was included in an earlier draft but then abandoned. Whether Min Aung Hlaing endorsed the consensus was ambiguous. Two days later, he cleared things up. The junta issued a press release noting ASEAN’s “suggestions,” which it would consider only “after stabilizing the country.” The military has since continued its violent crackdown on protestors and military offensives against EAOs.
Q2: What is happening on the ground?
A2: According to the well-respected Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, the junta has killed 769 people and is detaining 3,696 as of May 5. Security forces’ increasingly indiscriminate use of live ammunition has quashed large-scale street demonstrations in Yangon and Mandalay. Demonstrators have instead turned to flash mob protests and other forms of disobedience, such as the nightly banging of pots across the cities. Street demonstrations continue in smaller cities and towns. And resistance is turning increasingly violent, with some protestors employing slingshots and Molotov cocktails, while explosives are being set off in cities almost daily.
The nationwide civil disobedience movement, which aims to prevent the junta from effectively governing, continues to enjoy widespread support. The economy is grinding to a halt, with worrying inflation on food and fuel prices. The regime has partially restored broadband internet connectivity after more than 70 days of nightly shutdowns. It is also permitting some access to mobile banking, though mobile internet service in general remains blocked. Government threats and intimidation have compelled some bank employees to return to work. But these moves have had limited effect. The economy faces a massive cash shortage, and the financial system is non-functioning.
Medical workers engaged in the civil disobedience movement have also faced attacks from the regime. This is especially true for those treating wounded protesters. Health officials have meanwhile warned of a third wave of new coronavirus cases in the country. Covid-19 testing and tracing have collapsed since the coup and the government has essentially stopped tracking the pandemic. A UN report released on April 30 warned that the double crises of the coup and the pandemic could push half of Myanmar’s population into poverty.
Q3: How much support does the NUG have?
A3: After the February 1 coup, ousted lawmakers who had avoided detention formed the Committee to Represent Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (the parliament), dubbed the CRPH. This body, consisting mostly of members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), amounted to a semi-formal resistance movement. In early April, they formally disavowed the military-drafted 2008 constitution and released a “Federal Democracy Charter” as a new interim constitution. Then they announced the formation of a parallel government, the NUG, headed by a slate of ministers and deputies who are either in hiding or living in exile. All indications are that this shadow government enjoys at least preliminary support from most citizens, who overwhelmingly oppose the junta.
The NUG also enjoys at least some backing from important EAOs and ethnic political parties. The ministers and deputies recently announced easily constitute the most diverse and nationally representative government in Myanmar’s history. All previous regimes, including the NLD-led government of 2016-2021, were dominated by the majority Bamar (or Burman) population representing the Irrawaddy valley and coast. Most of the NUG officials are non-Bamar, though many are still affiliated with the NLD. Other ethnic political parties are well represented at the deputy level, especially in the Ministries of Defense and Federal Union Affairs. But some voices are still missing. The absence of ethnic Shan and Arakan/Rakhine officials is notable, as these ethnic groups make up majorities in the states that bear their names.
More than a dozen major EAOs control territory along Myanmar’s mountainous periphery, along with an even larger number of small militias of diverse loyalties. Many have denounced the coup, and some are offering at least limited support for the NUG. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) along the Chinese border in the north has been fighting the Myanmar army since 2011 when a previous cease-fire broke down. That fighting has escalated since the coup, which the KIA has loudly denounced. Earlier this month, the group shot down a Myanmar military helicopter after the junta launched several days of air raids. The KIA’s political wing has expressed reservations about the NUG, which despite its diversity is still rooted in the Bamar-dominated NLD. But it has shown solidarity with the anti-junta movement, including supporting protests in its territory, and openness to further dialogue.
Controlling land along the Thai border in the south is the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and its political wing the Karen National Union. The KNLA has been under arms since 1949, longer than any other EAO. It quickly decried the coup and offered protection for those protesting in its territory and fleeing the crackdowns elsewhere. This led to the breakdown of a cease-fire the KNLA signed with the government less than a decade ago. The Myanmar military launched a large offensive, including air strikes, which drove thousands across the Thai border. The KNLA has responded with assaults on government outposts in the area. Like the KIA, it has not explicitly endorsed the NUG, but the Karen National Union has responded positively to its goals.
The KNLA has also begun providing arms training to hundreds of Bamar civilians who have fled to its territory. The NUG recently announced the formation of a “people’s defense force” consisting of these newly trained paramilitaries, along with defectors from the army and any EAOs willing to team up. Whether this force will come together as a coherent force under NUG control is unclear. But it is explicitly meant to be the first step toward forming a federal army—a proposition long supported by many EAOs but opposed by the Myanmar military.
The NUG is still some way from being a true unity government for those opposing the junta. Politically, the absence of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy and the Arakan National Party is telling. They are the only two ethnic-based political parties to enjoy more support than the NLD within their states. Nor does the NUG have the backing of either of the major Shan EAOs or of the Arakan Army, which have all expressed opposition to the coup but remained distant from the NUG. And the most powerful EAO, the United Wa State Army with its close military ties to China, has remained studiously neutral.
Q4: What options does the United States have?
A4: The United States and its partners have so far pursued two goals: an end to the violence and a return to democracy. To that end, the strategy from the West has focused on imposing targeted costs on junta leaders in the hopes of causing them to either back down or break apart. This has meant diplomatic isolation paired with economic sanctions on generals, their families, and military-linked businesses. But the junta is not backing down, and there are no signs of factional splits among the leadership. That could change, but it will likely take months if it happens at all. And in those months, Myanmar will get poorer, hungrier, and more violent. The effort to facilitate a return to democracy and quickly end the violence at the same time has not worked. It was probably never possible.
That leaves a growing tension between the two goals. Ending the violence could be best accomplished by engaging the junta, as ASEAN is trying to do, even though it enjoys almost no popular support or legitimacy. A return to democracy would be best served by ratcheting up costs on the generals and offering greater support for the NUG and civil disobedience movement. That would mean supporting a popular strategy that seeks to deprive the junta of a functioning formal economy and coordinate armed resistance alongside the EAOs. This would stretch military resources and morale in the hopes of causing the armed forces to either seek an off-ramp or turn on itself. It could work. After a costly struggle, a pan-ethnic alliance might bring about a new federal democracy in Myanmar. Or it might end in bloody stalemate, economic collapse, and a failed state.
The United States and its partners have few options. None of them are appealing. ASEAN’s failed effort at mediation shows how little leverage the international community has over the junta in the short term. Washington will be mostly an observer to the deteriorating situation in Myanmar over the months ahead. Min Aung Hlaing has set the country down a violent path toward either revolution, repression, or collapse. The people of Myanmar have overwhelmingly chosen resistance. The best the United States can do is offer them support at the margins, deprive the junta of international legitimacy, and work with partners to ease the humanitarian cost.
Gregory B. Poling is senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Simon Tran Hudes is a research associate with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.