Myanmar’s junta may be on the verge of ‘collapse’

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For close to three years, Myanmar’s junta has held down the fort. It interrupted the country’s fledgling, imperfect exercise in democracy with its Feb. 1, 2021, coup that threw out a civilian-led government and saw the detention of myriad elected leaders, including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. It withstood the popular pro-democracy uprising that followed, gunning down nonviolent protesters and jailing activists, artists and other dissidents. It shrugged off international censure and opprobrium, long-accustomed to operating on the world stage as a pariah. And it settled in for a multi-front civil war against an array of rebel outfits, from ragtag revolutionaries to the entrenched and well-equipped ethnic armies that have operated for decades in the country’s restive highlands.

For a time, the junta seemed to be keeping threats to its primacy at bay. It adopted brutal tactics, including the indiscriminate bombing of villages full of civilians, that helped contribute to nearly 2 million people being displaced. But it seems the generals are now reeling in the face of an organized offensive by a coalition of rebel factions that’s inspired fresh campaigns by other groups, all of whom sense the tide of battle turning.

On Oct. 27, an alliance of three ethnic armed organizations, dubbed the “Three Brotherhood Alliance,” launched a surprise campaign that overwhelmed the junta’s forces across a swathe of Myanmar’s northern borderlands. “In the span of 10 days, the Three Brotherhood Alliance said it had captured more than 100 military outposts and seized control over several major highways and border crossings, which is expected to hurt the junta financially,” my colleague Rebecca Tan reported a month ago. “Photos and videos posted on social media show rebel soldiers marching triumphantly through townships and posing in front of weapons reportedly taken from military battalions.”

The junta’s opponents, within and outside the country, see a crucial opportunity. “The morale of the military junta and the soldiers is at its lowest in history because they are losing their rationale [for governing],” Zin Mar Aung, shadow foreign minister of the opposition National Unity Government, told Nikkei Asia this week. “We are receiving many defectors and most of the military camps are ready to surrender.” She added that “the military is getting ready to dissolve by itself” and could be “ready to collapse.”

In the jungle with Myanmar’s oldest rebel group amid new threat to junta

That’s a bold claim, especially given the military’s long history of clinging to power in Myanmar. But the pressures are clearly mounting on junta leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who on Monday urged the ethnic armed organizations to “stop being foolish” and resolve their differences with the central government “politically” — an overture dressed up in tough rhetoric that analysts suggest reveals the regime’s growing weakness. It’s losing ground, troops and military materiel by the day.

“The Tatmadaw appears overstretched,” Rahman Yaacob of Australia’s Lowy Institute think tank wrote this week. “Besides engaging the rebels, the junta has to contend with anti-junta forces in areas under its control, demonstrated by the reported assassination of one of the junta’s cronies in Yangon.”

Tan, my colleague, recently reported from the front lines among the Karen National Union, one of Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic armies. She pointed to how these militias, once peripheral both geographically and politically in Myanmar’s fractious scene, now find themselves as key drivers of the resistance to the junta. Some are even drilling and arming dissidents from the majority ethnic Bamar population.

“This combination of newer, pro-democracy insurgents and older, battle-hardened rebels has not occurred on this scale before in Myanmar and it has posed a potent challenge to the military,” Tan wrote. “In the heavily contested regions of Sagaing and Magway, analysts said, the most successful insurgents have been trained by ethnic rebel groups.”

Myanmar rebels claim major offensive, which analysts say threatens junta

Experts are urging the Biden administration and other international actors to reckon with what may come. Analysts forecast a potential thinning out of the military’s ranks, a retreat from its positions outside a major urban centers, a drying up of its funds and even the possibility of an internal putsch that sidelines the current junta leadership.

“It’s time for outsiders to recognize that the Myanmar military is losing strength fast, and an internal collapse—or further major breakthroughs by the opposition forces—could lead to a situation in which the military disintegrates, as has happened in many other countries,” Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote.

“But such a collapse, if not handled properly by both Burmese leaders in the exiled National Unity Government (NUG) and the leading, powerful ethnic militias, could also lead the country to disintegrate into a series of groups, lacking a common enemy, who could easily turn their guns on each other, creating total bloody chaos and completely gutting the remainder of the Myanmar state,” he added.

To avoid that outcome, advised The Washington Post’s editorial board, “the United States should promote and prepare the National Unity Government, starting serious talks with representatives now. Officials with the group say they want a future Myanmar to be democratic and federal, recognizing the ethnic groups and guaranteeing minority rights. They need to be held to those commitments when crafting a new constitution, since they have the only way to stabilize Myanmar.”

On the ground, the NUG’s reach may be limited, or at least circumscribed by the imperatives of the alphabet soup of armed factions operating in across Myanmar’s ethnic-minority borderlands. The Three Brotherhood Alliance is a case in point — comprising a bloc of armies that haven’t necessarily allied with the NUG and have long consolidated their own fiefdoms, some built on criminal operations. The alliance probably embarked on its offensive with the tacit blessing of China, which has a complicated relationship with Myanmar’s junta but also considerable influence over the ethnic militias in northern Myanmar.

Beijing most recently wanted to see action against gangs conducting cyberscams against Chinese citizens from dens that sit across the border in Myanmar. The Three Brotherhood Alliance said squashing these syndicates was one of the goals of its offensive.

China “wields tremendous influence over key opposition actors in Myanmar, and could choose to continue complicating the efforts to achieve a more unified front against the regime,” noted a recent policy brief from the International Institute for Strategic Studies.





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