It wasn’t too long after Myanmar’s military took over in a coup in February 2021, that it appeared as though the country was back to a grim sort of “business as usual”.
The Tatmadaw, as the armed forces are known, had, after all, run the country ever since Gen Ne Win took over in 1962, remaining the power behind the throne even during the years after 2010 when Myanmar had elections and appeared to be becoming a democracy.
The overthrowing of the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi put paid to that experiment, a change that the world would have been far more outraged about had Ms Suu Kyi’s government not been complicit in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in the country’s west, primarily from late 2016 onwards.
The Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean), to which Myanmar was admitted in 1997 with at least the expectation that moving towards democracy was the quid pro quo for joining, came up with a Five-Point Consensus within two months of the coup in 2021 – which counts as extremely swift action for a regional grouping often criticised for moving with the alacrity of a tortoise.
It was a sensible plan, calling for an immediate cessation of violence, constructive dialogue, the appointment of a special Asean envoy, and the sending of humanitarian assistance by the group. By this July, however, Asean was still insisting that the Five-Point Consensus must be the basis for peace, even though there had been next to nothing to show for it so far, while the UN estimates that nearly two million people have been internally displaced since the coup and thousands have been killed.
It appeared as though some form of status quo ante had returned. The Tatmadaw had always seemed to be so strong and so brutal that they were the only national institution that could keep the country together, or as together as it ever was with an array of ethnic armed independence movements conducting insurgencies on and off ever since independence in 1948.
So when the country’s military-appointed President, Myint Swe, warned in early November that an offensive against the Tatmadaw last month by the recently formed Three Brotherhood Alliance could lead to Myanmar being “split into various parts”, some thought this was a self-serving call for support for the junta. It may have been that. Of far greater significance was what the country’s President did not say: that the Tatmadaw was not just facing its greatest challenge since the 2021 coup.
No, according to the analyst and former political prisoner Wai Moe, “2023 may be recorded as the worst year experienced by the Myanmar army since the 1960s”. Another longtime Myanmar watcher, David Mathieson, put the date even further back: “I think that this is probably the most dire situation the military’s faced ... since independence in 1948.”
What happened on October 27, when the alliance of three armed ethnic groups launched co-ordinated attacks in the north of the country, may have set rows of dominoes in motion.
The Three Brotherhood Alliance, which is “dedicated to eradicating the oppressive military dictatorship”, took over nearly 150 outposts, capturing weapons and ammunition, and killed hundreds of Tatmadaw soldiers. Rebel militias in the west, east and south-east have also launched attacks, including at least one, the Arakan Army, which broke a ceasefire with the junta to do so.
Since then, it has been reported that hundreds have been deserting from the state military, which in any case was by this year only estimated to control about 50 per cent of the country’s territory.
“Most regime troops have lost the will to fight. They choose to throw down their weapons in the face of our co-ordinated attacks,” read a statement issued by the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, part of the Three Brotherhood Alliance earlier this month.
With the ethnic armed groups increasingly aligned with the opposition National Unity Government, the ruling military is under pressure as never before.
Its leader, Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing, may count on longstanding ties with Russia, but Moscow was so preoccupied with the war in Ukraine that it failed to intervene on its ally Armenia’s behalf in the fight over Nagorno-Karabakh in September. China has the capacity to exert almost certainly decisive pressure, but it had good relations with Ms Suu Kyi’s government, and after the 2021 coup its ambassador to Myanmar said that current developments were “absolutely not what China wants to see”.
Change from within – which is what international opponents of Myanmar’s various military governments always hoped for – may be closer than ever, although Min Aung Hlaing has promised counter-attacks and has already ordered air strikes on rebel positions.
It may be too soon to predict the imminent demise of the junta. The Tatmadaw leadership will be determined to reassert control, and it will fight to whatever end it comes to.
But Asean and the UN need to be prepared for a different future, for a Myanmar possibly without the force that has always been determined to bind together the “Union of Burma”, as it used to be known. The country would also be in need of a huge exercise in reconstruction and national reconciliation.
Lessons could be learned from the experience of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia, which was set up in 1991 with the aim of restoring peace and a civil government after decades of civil war.
Whatever happens, as a country that has arguably suffered far longer from internal strife, Myanmar certainly deserves peace – and a government that all could agree deserves the description “civil”.