Spotlight - Myanmar: July 8, 2021

During the five months since his ill-conceived February 1 palace coup in which he deposed the civilian side of the nation’s Union Government, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has transformed Myanmar into a failed state. Ironically, this may bring about the very outcome the military, or Tatmadaw, has long feared – the fragmentation of the country into several sovereign states.

As the summer begins, Myanmar’s civilian population continues its massive Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) in opposition to the coup. In addition, several of the larger ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) have escalated the nation’s decades-old civil war, and more than 80 local militias, known as People’s Defense Forces, have inflicted heavy casualties on the Tatmadaw in Chin State, Mandalay Region, and Sagaing Region. The military-led State Administrative Council (SAC) is unable to control the government; the economy and the provision of basic social services have collapsed. Sizable sections of the traditional homelands of the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Rakhine, and Shan are effectively governed by EAOs, not the SAC.

The opposition, however, has been unable to form a viable alternative to the SAC. Supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi created a self-declared National Unity Government (NUG) but have failed to gain the support of the major EAOs and the CDM organizers, largely because of their unwillingness or inability to address the long-standing grievances of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. In addition, many of the EAOs appear more concerned with obtaining the best outcome for their ethnic communities than defeating the SAC. This dynamic raises the possibility that Myanmar may fragment into several sovereign states, with portions of Myanmar’s seven states breaking off to form new nations.

Such an outcome may be one of the few paths to peace. The original Union of Burma was established in 1948 based on an arbitrary British colonial administrative system that tied together historically separate ethnic states. For more than 70 years, Myanmar’s ethnic communities have been unable to agree on the governance of the nation. Perhaps going their separate ways would be the most peaceful and viable future.

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

Michael Martin
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program