Myanmar’s military dictatorship won’t be around forever

It’s time to start thinking beyond the country’s nightmarish era of military rule and begin planning for a better future

In our decades of interactions with presidents, prime ministers, government ministers and diplomats all over the world, one flawed assumption has underpinned their understanding and approach to our country. That assumption is that Myanmar’s military is somehow invincible.

It’s not a word they use, because the assumption is so deeply ingrained that they don’t even talk about it. The military cannot be defeated—that is their starting point. Their whole policymaking approach stems from this. Over the years, this has led them down paths so convoluted that at some points they have even argued that cross-border aid to ethnic communities fleeing Myanmar army attacks will fuel conflict. 

The false assumption of Myanmar military invincibility led the international community to pressure ethnic revolutionary organisations to engage in the sham “peace process” 11 years ago. We warned them that the military’s claims that it wanted peace were not genuine. For the military, this was just a pause button, not a stop button, we said. But Western governments didn’t listen and instead wasted—and still waste—millions of dollars of aid money trying to convince themselves that there can be peace with the Myanmar military.

The assumption of military invincibility led them to pressure Aung San Suu Kyi to run for election and serve in parliament under the military-drafted 2008 Constitution. 

In the 2000s, the assumption that the military was invincible led some Yangon diplomats to decide that they knew better than the people of Myanmar, who wanted nothing more than to see an end to military rule. Instead, these diplomats argued that sanctions should be lifted and that ways should be found to engage with the military for some imaginary gradual reform process, despite everything we know about the military mindset and behaviour. 

Myanmar soldiers march during a parade commemorating the 77th Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw on March 27, 2022 (EPA-EFE/NYEIN CHAN NAING)

We were told we had to compromise with the military and “dialogue” with them, even as they bombed our villages, schools and clinics. Even now, when we try to defend our people and our land, we are accused of provoking the military and blamed for the attacks against us. 

In largely peaceful Yangon, in the bubble where foreign diplomats and United Nations agencies reside, this false assumption still underpins their approach. They assume that the military is there to stay. From that starting point, they like to talk about “creative” alternatives. They talk about whether there are any members of the military or the junta who are a little more open-minded and suggest supporting a younger, reform-minded generation of the military unhappy with the current situation. It’s the same fruitless debate that diplomats have engaged in since the 1990s. 

Gradually, in the Yangon bubble, diplomats and international agencies are deciding that the military is here to stay, and that they have no choice but to step up their engagement with the generals. They say they have to do so for the sake of meeting humanitarian needs, even as they provide little or no aid to parts of the country that are not under military control and where civil society is ready to deliver life-saving aid. 

Outside of Yangon, there is a very different situation. People are doing everything they can to resist military rule. From boycotts to taking up arms, people know that there can be no human rights, no economic development and no true federal democracy while the Myanmar military holds power. For the first time in decades, the military is losing control of significantly more areas of the country. 

“A Shifting Power Balance—Junta Control Shrinks in Southeast Burma,” a new report released by the Karen Peace Support Network last month, reveals that since the coup, the Myanmar military has lost 62 military bases to Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army and its allies.

On the western and eastern boundaries of northern KNU territory there have been big strategic gains. The KNU’s expansion westwards and southwards also poses a significant threat to the junta’s main road and rail transport artery from Yangon to Naypyitaw, as well as to the Asia Highway trade corridor from Yangon to Myawaddy on the Thai border.

Areas under KNU civilian administration are expanding fast. Schools operated by the Karen Education and Culture Department have tripled to more than 900. Meanwhile, schools operated by the regime’s education ministry in KNU and mixed administration areas have fallen from 370 to zero.

In Sagaing and Magway regions, the military has faced unprecedented resistance, losing large areas to the control of the People’s Defence Force (PDF). The military has ceded administrative control to the Arakan Army in large parts of Rakhine State. In Kachin, Chin and Karenni states, the military is struggling to maintain or regain territory.

We are not claiming that the Myanmar military is about to collapse. We know only too well about the vast manpower and weaponry that it has at its disposal, having both experienced attacks by the military ourselves.  

Myanmar army’s soldiers captured by ethnic armed force Karen National Liberation Army during a battle in 2022 (KNLA)

What we are saying is that there has been a major shift in dynamics on the ground. The military has not faced this kind of pressure in living memory. The appearance of normality in Yangon and a handful of other cities is an exception, not the rule.

The external pressures that the military is facing from the armed resistance and its loss of territory are visible to all. Internal pressures within the military are also increasingly evident, with the regime making sudden and erratic economic decisions and purging and reshuffling its members and other military personnel. 

The shifting power balance in Karen State and other areas should already have prompted governments and UN agencies to reassess their approach, both politically and logistically for the delivery of humanitarian assistance. In the areas where they can be most useful, they remain woefully behind the curve.

History is full of examples of seemingly invincible regimes which no longer exist. Some collapsed suddenly and almost overnight. Some took years of struggle to overcome.

At the moment, the international community seems to have put all its policy eggs in the basket of military invincibility and a long grinding conflict. It seems to have done very little short- or long-term planning for a scenario in which the Myanmar military is, at long last, defeated by the country’s people. 

We can’t say when the military will fall. But fall it will. There is no alternative for our people or our country. What does it say about international policy-making towards Myanmar that so little thought has gone into preparing for the day that the people of Myanmar are working so hard to reach? The defeat of the military is the essential first stepping stone towards a free Myanmar. We—and the world—need to be ready for what comes next.

Naw Wahkushee is director of the Karen Peace Support Network.

Nant Zoya Phan is program director of Burma Campaign UK.

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