Analysis by Noël van Bemmel, De Volkskrant, January 2, 2023
In Myanmar, hundreds of armed groups are stubbornly resisting the junta army, which staged a coup almost two years ago. Why do the generals – despite their military supremacy – fail to suppress this insurgency?
Many Dutch people by now know the eastern Ukrainian towns of Bakhut and Kreminna, where there was also heavy fighting last week. Hardly anyone knows the Myanmar towns of Momauk and Alaw Bum, where the junta army has been trying for months with bombers and artillery to recapture a strategic hilltop fort from the Kachin Independence Army.
Western media wrote massively about the website Signmyrocket, where for 150 euros you can have a New Year’s greeting applied to a grenade shot in the direction of Russian lines, but Project Dragonfly, through which a Myanmarese influencer is raising millions of euros for portable anti-aircraft missiles, goes virtually unnoticed.
The hilltop and Project Dragonfly are details of a civil war that has been raging in south-east Asian Myanmar for almost two years. Since General Min Aung Hlaing sidelined the democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021 and imprisoned key politicians and activists – fearing a further erosion of his position and a possible prosecution – millions of Myanmarese have revolted.
Myanmar has been embroiled in civil wars since independence in 1948, but this time is different, assure observers. The resistance is more cooperative, better directed and financed, and active across the country. Over roughly half of Myanmar, the United Nations estimates, the junta is no longer in control. In some provinces, resistance groups levy their own taxes and offer (some) healthcare and education. There, the government army still rarely ventures outside the barracks.
It begs the question: why do the generals fail – despite their military supremacy – to break the resistance in Myanmar?
Seven thousand civilian deaths
The situation just under two years after the coup: more than a million Myanmarese have fled to Thailand, Bangladesh or Malaysia, according to the UN, and another 800 000 are living in refugee camps at home. The promising economy (textiles, tourism) has collapsed, and those who speak out against the government run a high risk of being arrested. There are regular civilian deaths, including children, when the army invades a village or the air force bombs an alleged rebel camp. Myanmar think tank ISP put the number of civilian deaths at over seven thousand in late October.
The essential difference from previous uprisings: this time the Bamar, the largest population group (68 per cent of the population) dominating the southern lowlands, is also taking part. Previously, the army fought some 20 ethnic minority militant groups such as the Shan and the Karen, who have been waging guerrilla warfare in their mountainous home regions for decades. Since the coup, hundreds of militant groups have been active, with an estimated 60 per cent of them cooperating with the shadow government-in-exile, made up of deposed parliamentarians.
Recruits plenty, the Bamar’s new People’s Army alone numbers 100,000 volunteers, but only 40 per cent of them have a weapon. It is a fraction of Myanmar’s army, which on paper has four hundred thousand soldiers. But that army is “overstretched and poorly motivated”, writes Myanmar analyst Ye Myo Hein, who fled to the United States and is now attached to the Wilson Center, a Washington D.C.-based think tank. He notes that the chances of a victory over the junta have never been higher.
Successful fundraising efforts
This is partly due to successful fundraising campaigns by the resistance movement. These started rather openly with Facebook videos of soldiers being ambushed, and below them the bank account number of the local militant group. Later, more discreet fundraising campaigns followed across the country and among Myanmar’s vast diaspora.
The international think tank Crisis Group writes in a recent report that the pro-democracy movement has raised “potentially hundreds of millions of euros” since the coup. That money is mainly used to buy weapons on the black market in Thailand or China. The shadow government has recently been experimenting with digital kyat (its own crypto currency) and donors are increasingly paying through the informal hundi system: this involves trusted intermediaries moving money and bypassing junta-controlled banking. The Crisis Group does fear that revenues will decline in 2023, due to the global recession and donor fatigue among the diaspora.
It will also be an interesting year as the junta has promised elections in which multiple parties may compete. Analyst Ye Myo Hein expects a stalemate in 2023: he says the junta army will not regain control of the country, but on the other hand, the militant groups have too few people, resources and coordination capabilities to defeat the army. ‘A central command structure is necessary to capture cities and strategic positions.’
Before the various militant groups accept that, Ye Myo Hein argues, they must agree on a common political goal. ‘Right now, the shadow government mainly wants to take over the state apparatus, while the ethnic fighting groups want to consolidate their autonomy.’
A joint offensive first requires agreements on a future Myanmar, according to the analyst. With a democratic federal structure in which minorities enjoy some form of autonomy. ‘So that goes beyond Aung San Suu Kyi’s legacy: it requires a more inclusive society.’
26 + 7 years in prison
Former government leader Aung San Suu Kyi was given a 7-year prison sentence by a Myanmar court on Friday. That sentence comes on top of the 26 years she had already been given in a series of trials that began after the military deposed the Nobel laureate 18 months ago in a violent coup. The 77-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi has since been in solitary confinement and has been convicted of corruption, sedition and illegal possession of a walkie-talkie, among other charges. The UN Security Council last week called on Myanmar’s generals to release her and other political prisoners.
Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)