Myanmar's Precipice: The Stalemate and Internal Strife Compelling the Military toward an Election

When the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, overthrew the elected civilian government in February 2021, the coup plunged the nation into unprecedented upheaval. Under the aegis of the State Administrative Council (SAC), the junta’s tenure has been riddled with a web of security and economic quandaries. A comprehensive examination of these intertwined complexities reveals that the conflict stalemate and a corruption-induced internal upheaval might be the catalyst pushing the regime to an election.

Myanmar’s security landscape cannot be conveniently encapsulated into a singular narrative. Several overlapping components influence the overall schema, from the unity (or the lack thereof) among anti-coup factions, the postures of Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs), the labyrinthine network of weapon supply chains, to the overarching strategic objectives of the Tatmadaw.

Consider the variegated scenario in Kayah State. Despite its size as the smallest state in Myanmar, Kayah has emerged as a significant theater of military operations. The Tatmadaw, keenly aware of Kayah’s proximity to the nation’s capital, Nay Pyi Taw, and its potential corridors to Thailand, deployed a larger reinforcement here than in other, more geographically expansive regions. On the other end of the spectrum, the isolated Chin State, lacking in key strategic assets, witnesses only occasional military confrontations. In fact, military clashes in Kayah outnumber those in Chin by a factor of seven, according to the dataset maintained by Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, even as the military retains dominance over urban centers in both states.

Karen State is a mosaic of complexities, defined by the varied positions of the Karen National Union’s (KNU) brigades on ceasefire agreements and other Karen EAOs and militias. Brigades 5, 3, 2, 1, and sections of 6, which have taken control of all 24 military posts, tend to adopt an anti-coup posture. In contrast, Brigades 4, 7, and some elements of 6, show a preference for upholding the ceasefire. This divergence is also evident in their interactions with the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), which are aligned with the National Unity Government (NUG), an opposition parallel government.

The Kachin Independent Army (KIA) initially intensified attacks on military posts after the coup in Kachin State but subsequently shifted focus to supplying weapons and training to PDFs in Sagaing. There was a noticeable decline in direct combat with the regime in the Kachin State from 2021 to 2022—a drop of 200 percent in clashes, according to Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project data. To coerce the KIA into curbing support for anti-junta forces in Sagaing, the military launched a new offensive by deploying approximately 1,500 troops close to KIA headquarters in Laiza since July.

Sagaing and the western Magwe regions in the central plain symbolize a burgeoning Burman rebellion against the military, with over 80 percent of rural areas experiencing armed resistance. The military conducts “clearance operations” using small units and airborne troops against the resistance, burning down villages and executing perceived PDF supporters. Despite the vast fighters the resistance boasts, they failed to fend off the military’s small units because of inferior firepower. However, the military’s limited troop capacity hampers its ability to maintain control after these operations, leading to the resurgence of resistance forces.

While the verdant rural expanses of Myanmar remain contested, its urban bastions are largely under the junta’s control. Although the resistance forces were able to deny the regime administrative control in conflict-affected rural areas and a few towns, the anti-coup fighters have yet to secure and hold territories, except in remote regions under the oversight of seasoned EAOs.

A shift in power dynamics is constrained by factors like neighboring countries’ security concerns, limited weapon supplies due to EAO stances, and a fragile unified action among EAOs. China, India, and Thailand perceive Myanmar’s instability as a potential threat. China has explicitly voiced concerns, leading to the United Wa State Army, the largest EAO and a nexus in the supply chain, maintaining a truce with the military and limiting weapon supply, especially accessibility of heavy weapons, to opposition forces. Additionally, Thai and Indian authorities frequently thwarted weapons smuggling, a potential lifeline for the resistance.

Moreover, factionalism and limited coordination among EAOs obstruct a shift in the balance of power. A mere 4 of the 15 ceasefire EAOs have recommenced fighting, with influential entities such as the Arakan Army adhering to a de facto ceasefire. Confrontations waned between the military and groups like the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) post-coup, although these entities provided support to anti-coup groups.

The internal divisions of the resistance movement amplify the intricacies. With a tapestry of armed groups asserting autonomy—often at odds with each other—the endeavor for a unified command becomes Sisyphean. Initiatives like the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) have emerged, aiming to coalesce political perspectives, yet they encounter hesitation from key EAOs to participate. The recent “Sagaing Forum” exemplifies such efforts; 170 resistance groups convened to fortify alliances, conspicuously excluding the NUG. Adding to the fray, influential commanders like Bo Nagar have diverged from the NUG, spearheading the Bamar National Revolutionary Army, buttressed by specific EAOs.

The prevailing conflict impasse, while posing a significant threat, appears unlikely to result in either the overthrow of the regime or negotiations with the opposition toward a resolution. Rather, the specter of economic instability looms ominously over the regime's internal unity, potentially compelling the military to contemplate an election as a potential exit strategy.

The economic arena may well be the junta’s Achilles’ heel. Following the military coup, exacerbated by a surging third wave of Covid-19, the economy shrank by 18 percent. A consistent depreciation in the exchange rate underscored a dwindling foreign currency reserve. To remedy this, the regime imposed a hasty measure in April 2022, mandating the conversion of bank-held USD to the Myanmar kyat. Far from alleviating the issue, this ill-advised policy only intensified currency depreciation vis-à-vis the official rate and triggered an exodus of capital among the affluent.

The SAC instituted the Foreign Exchange Supervisory Committee (FESC) to monitor USD flows, particularly those tied to import permits. Spearheaded by Lieutenant General Moe Myint Tun, chair of the influential Myanmar Investment Commission, the FESC greenlit currency exchanges for businesses. This move inadvertently created avenues for rampant corruption. By September, Tun and his inner circle found themselves incarcerated amid allegations of trading-related bribery. A parallel dramatic development saw the dismissal of Lieutenant General Soe Htut, former home affairs minister, over purported family graft ties.

While high-ranking officials facing corruption charges under the SAC were not a novelty, exemplified by the imprisonment of SAC-appointed Yangon chief minister and economic affairs minister in December 2022, the recent 20-year sentencing of Tun and his associates carries significant repercussions within the upper echelons. Tun, once rumored to be the next commander in chief, and Htut, who enjoyed the trust of Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, were formerly regarded as linchpins in the coup and its aftermath but now find themselves ousted.

The subsequent appointments to fill these vacancies with Lieutenant General Yar Pyae and General Mya Tun Oo, surprised many observers, as they were not necessarily in the inner circle of the commander-in-chief. Such moves hint at a possible waning of the military leader’s core support.

Currently, a formidable corruption inquiry, the most expansive since 1988, is underway. Spearheaded by military intelligence and bolstered by Home Affairs, over 120 business figures were either interrogated or detained, including two of Tay Za’s sons, who were sanctioned by the United States for their alleged role in suppling equipment to the military, sources close to the regime said.

The investigation has unleashed Pandora’s box. This probe risks unmasking a slew of other top-ranking officials, magnates, and commanders, entangled in various corrupt practices, including illicit naval trading. Naval Chief Admiral Moe Aung, along with several naval officers, have been questioned regarding Myanmar Navy’s facilitation in unlawful trade.

Min Aung Hlaing, who initiated the investigation with backing from his deputy Soe Win, recognized for his integrity among military officers, now faces a challenging predicament. Retreating from this crusade could be politically unfeasible, especially if the probe ensnares other close confidants. Any leniency toward implicated aides or family members would not only imperil his leadership stature within the military but also stoke dissent, as other officials face punitive measures.

The pervasive nature of corruption leaves many officers feeling vulnerable and unprotected, possibly undermining the bedrock of allegiance within the Myanmar military. Such an atmosphere might deter senior officers from taking risks in decision-making, fearing repercussions if outcomes are not favorable.

Despite the brewing internal discord, the possibility of significant defections to the opposition remains remote. Yet, the way Min Aung Hlaing navigates the aftershocks of the anti-corruption campaign could be pivotal to his political longevity.

The full ramifications of this anti-corruption endeavor remain to be seen. Min Aung Hlaing may grapple with the choice between championing anti-corruption and retaining loyalty. Either path poses significant challenges, potentially intensifying scrutiny and dissent toward his leadership, even from supposed allies like the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Several USDP stalwarts project a 2024 electoral timeline, suggesting a preference for a swift transition from military governance. They likely anticipate a resurgence of the USDP’s influence, especially if the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy remains sidelined.

Given the mounting challenges—security threats, economic downturns, and internal tensions—the military may view elections as a viable escape from the prevailing turmoil. Preparations are underway, with the SAC eyeing a 2024 nationwide census as an electoral precursor. However, the actual timeline for the elections remains ambiguous. Any such electoral endeavor in the present climate is prone to paralyze credibility, potentially igniting further unrest.

In the face of these evolving challenges, it is imperative for the international community to maintain a push toward an inclusive peace process integrating EAOs, NUG, NLD, and other key stakeholders, irrespective of potential electoral events. Considering the conflict’s potential to linger for years, international assistance will be crucial to strengthen civilian protection in conflict-affected areas.

Min Zaw Oo is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Min Zaw Oo
Adjunct Fellow (Non-Resident), Southeast Asia Program