Junta’s Coup Was Declaration of War Against the Myanmar People

By The Irrawaddy 11 January 2022

The Irrawaddy speaks to David Scott Mathieson, an independent researcher on conflict and peace in Myanmar, about the junta’s decision to stage its coup and how the Myanmar people are resisting the military’s takeover by both non-violent protest and armed resistance. He talks also about the junta’s attempts at divide and rule among the ethnic armed groups and whether the Myanmar military is losing the battle against the People’s Defense Forces, as well as discussing China’s role in the crisis and whether the Myanmar people can expect any substantial help from the international community.

What are your thoughts on the situation in Myanmar since the coup?

I think the current situation is the most desperate since Myanmar became independent after the Second World War. Basically, the February coup was a declaration of war by the military against the Myanmar people. Since then, we have seen fighting throughout the country, especially in Sagaing and Magwe regions and Chin State, the sort of conflict that we haven’t seen before. And then there is the violence in Yangon, Mandalay and Ayeyarwady regions, as well as lots of heavy fighting in Karen and Shan states. Myanmar is a country that the military is trying to destroy so that they can control it. That’s the way I see it. The Myanmar military want a situation where they can say that they are the only ones who can keep the country together. The military say they are trying to prevent the Union from disintegrating, but they are the ones who are destroying the Union. They are the main culprit for what is happening. So they shouldn’t be surprised that a parallel government, the National Unity Government (NUG), has emerged along with the armed resistance groups, the People’s Defense Forces (PDF), even if not many people are actually under the control of the NUG. It is no surprise that the PDF’s are fighting back because they are fighting injustice.

In December, the Myanmar people held a silent strike in protest at the junta. Is there space for a non-violent resistance movement in Myanmar?

I think since the coup what we’re seeing in Myanmar are multiple forms of resistances. Not everyone is going to the jungle to pick up a gun. Not everyone is resisting through violence. People are reacting to the coup in many different ways. The Civil Disobedience Movement and the silent strike are very powerful ways of protesting the regime because they send a very clear message to the military that the people have not forgiven the army for staging the coup. There are other people who will resist by writing poems, or who are still working for businesses or even the government, while doing everything they can to sabotage the junta. It’s not just about picking up guns and fighting, there are lots of different ways to resist the coup and that is OK. People should not be branded as collaborators or anything like that without proof, just because they are not fighting with a gun.

The military regime is trying to negotiate with some ethnic armed groups in the north. They met with some last month in Mong-La in Shan State. But the regime is also attacking some ethnic armed groups in the south, in Karen and Kayah states. What do you think the junta is trying to do?  

On the one hand, I think it demonstrates that the junta can’t be trusted. And that anything they say is a lie. They’ve done this so many times before. The northern ethnic armed groups will not be fooled by this. It’s like you talk peace with us, while you attack others? Everyone knows that you can’t trust the Myanmar military. I think this is a very cynical move to try to take some of the northern groups out of the equation, maybe by offering lots of concessions. But a lot of those northern group have not been fighting the military since the coup. They’ve been fighting each other. I think the regime is acting out of desperation because they don’t want those groups to take a side. They don’t have to join the NUG to do that. If they stop fighting each other and put pressure on Myanmar military, that could cause a lot of damage. We’ve seen that with the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army in Kokang. They’ve been fighting the military quite a lot in the past couple of months. I think this is the Myanmar military once again trying to divide and rule. To me, it’s an act of desperation. I think it shows that the military are very weak and desperate to make some kind of progress.

What will China do about the situation in Myanmar?

Coup leader Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

I think China doesn’t particularly like putting direct pressure on its neighbors, even if it does apply a lot of pressure. China should realize that its economic interests, and the stability of Myanmar, depend on getting rid of the military. But China doesn’t really want to do that because it will be messy. But China does very much want stability so that they can have access to an Indian Ocean port and so that its economic projects can prosper. All of that is now in danger because of the coup. China doesn’t really care if Myanmar is a democracy because Beijing doesn’t care about democracy. I think behind the scenes they are putting a lot of pressure on the military. The question here is does the coup leader Min Aung Hlaing really care? He doesn’t, because he knows that China wants something out of this more than he wants something from China. I think that’s how it will play out. Min Aung Hlaing is just waiting because he knows that eventually the United States, Europe, Japan and China will all come back and make a deal. It’s just patience. That’s all it is. It’s just a waiting game.

There are a lot of military fatalities being reported in Sagaing Region and Chin, Karen and Kayah states. Do you think the military is losing the battle?

I think the military lost the battle for Myanmar by staging the coup. Even if they can hold on to power, people will hate them for what they did and they are not going to stop resisting. I don’t personally agree that body counts, the number of dead soldiers, is a measure of success. But it’s clear when you look at where the fighting is that the military is really suffering quite a lot. And it’s their fault. They picked the fight, they declared the war, and the generals are the ones throwing away the lives of ordinary soldiers. If something positive comes from this tragedy, it is that maybe ordinary soldiers will see that this is not good for them and their families, and perhaps they will grow sick of fighting and dying everywhere around the country. But simply counting how many deaths the military suffers is not going to be the primary metric of success or failure.

The military has a lot of experience of fighting, whether against ethnic armed groups or the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). What is your opinion of the military’s capabilities?

The military in the 1960’s, 70s and 80s was very tough and very experienced because they were fighting in so many areas of the country. They were fighting the CPB, the Kachin Independence Army, the Karen National Union. What happened in the 1990s was that they signed ceasefire agreements. After that they became softer and more greedy and lazy and they started fighting other groups. For example, they lost a lot of soldiers fighting with the Karen and they didn’t want to die to keep Karen State in the Union. And then you had the fighting in 2009 with the Kokang and that showed that they weren’t prepared for this kind of fighting. And the war in Kachin State, they lost potentially thousands of men. We’ve seen fighting with the Arakan Army and others. Their equipment is OK but they don’t seem to be very good. So now they are relying more on heavy firepower and it’s not working. I also think there is a bigger gap between the real soldiers and the officers now. The officers are particularly well trained, the soldiers not so much. The military is not as tough and determined as it used to be.

How do you rate the PDF’s capabilities? Are they improving?

PDF fighters active in Karen State. (96 Soldier-PDF)

When you look at the skills of the PDF’s, it’s important to recognize that seven months ago they were not PDFs. This is a brand new phenomenon: the fact that they’ve been staging attacks in different areas and are still going. And they are getting better weapons, as well as designing and manufacturing their own weapons. Seven months ago, they had nothing and now they are making mines and rockets. They are attacking a lot of convoys. If the sophistication of their attacks increases with the sophistication of their weapons, they can inflict a lot more damage, especially with improvised explosive devices. If the PDF’s actually reach the point where they can attack targets like military bases and large concentrations of soldiers, then that should really worry the military. What will happen when the PDF’s actually know what they are doing and have better weapons?

The Myanmar people were hoping last year that the United Nations (UN) and the international community would help them. Do you think that any help is going to come?

I would give up hope that any help is coming. That was obvious back in March 2021. The UN cannot help in this situation, apart from giving humanitarian assistance. I think mediation, even with the best of intentions, won’t be effective. If Min Aung Hlaing doesn’t want to talk to you, he’s not going to talk to you. He is also a liar. So whatever promises he gives shouldn’t be believed. Whether you are the United States, China, the UN or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, he’s going to lie to you because it’s his nature. I don’t think that there’s really much help that the outside world can give. They can make more noise on Russia and China, and countries like Pakistan and Israel, for selling weapons to the military. That’s really important.

Thailand is playing a very delicate balancing act. They’ve got to absorb all the bad things that are happening in Myanmar. They probably don’t like Min Aung Hlaing, but they’ve got to deal with the junta. So I wouldn’t look to the outside world for any kind of assistance. It is important to keep pressure on western donors to support the internally displaced persons, the refugees, and to keep providing humanitarian assistance and COVID-19 relief because all of those things are really important.

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