Why Myanmar’s junta may be nearing the end of the line
News is once again emerging from Myanmar of the army burning entire villages — totaling hundreds of houses — to the ground in its continued quixotic efforts to suppress the pro-democracy movement in the country that has risen in opposition to last year’s coup. In international law, this is a war crime. In Myanmar, this is a routine practice that the army has used against its own people for decades. But the scale of these recent attacks has only rarely been seen and it hints at increasing desperation by the junta.
For context, Myanmar has been a very isolated country since it gained independence from the British Empire in 1948 and, for most of that time, some kind of internal armed conflict has been a normal feature of internal politics. These are usually along ethnic lines between the Burmese central government and the various ethnic groups inhabiting the borderlands outside of the Irrawaddy basin.
But the conflict of the past year-and-a-half is something genuinely new in the country. This is not a localized conflict between individual ethnic communities fighting against the authority of the central government (either for autonomy or for independence). Rather, it is a general conflict between the Burmese military that has captured the central government in a coup and literally everyone else, including the Burmese civilian population in the heartlands of the country.
Because the ethnic militias in the borderlands have the most experience in fighting back against the military, they feature more heavily in the open battles of the current conflict. But the ethnic militias are fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Burmese and with the reconstituted civilian democratic government, the national unity government, to bring genuine democracy to Myanmar and to be full members of the country’s national community. Even for the ethnic militias, this is not an ethnic conflict: This is a battle for democracy against a violent oppressor.
Even for the ethnic militias, this is not an ethnic conflict: This is a battle for democracy against a violent oppressor
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
But if the political dimension of the current conflict in Myanmar is genuinely new, the tactics of the military still reflect the old habits of the putschist generals. Especially in the border ethnic areas, they continue to use the near-genocidal tactic of utter destruction of civilian settlements in order to “break” local resistance — even though this tactic has never worked. It is even less likely to work now that the local fighters are part of a nationwide movement aimed specifically at overthrowing this barbaric regime and finally removing the violent threat it poses to all civilians in the country.
Another thing that is different this time around is that all these actions of the military, which are in flagrant breach of international law, are being carefully monitored and documented with modern technology and various international players are collecting this information with the aim of bringing the perpetrators before international courts in the medium to long term.
In the short term, this may mean that some kind of compromise and political accommodation between the junta and the pro-democracy forces (both the fighters and the political institutions of the resistance movement, such as the national unity government) is not likely. The generals and most of the officers in the military hierarchy have blood on their hands and the only way they can avoid accountability for the crimes they have committed is if they maintain full control over the country.
But the increasing desperation of the tactics they use to try to assert that control indicates that they are feeling vulnerable. Perhaps they feel it more immediately than any of us do viewing the situation from the outside, but the overthrow of the coup and the return of democratic, civilian government to Myanmar may well be closer to reality than we currently dare to hope.
• Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, DC. Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim