After seizing power from an elected civilian government on Feb. 1 last year, Myanmar’s military junta under the State Administration Council (SAC) has fallen short of the four categories that constitute the definition of a sovereign state.
As post-coup Myanmar has degenerated and spiraled into an open guerrilla-style civil war between civilian-led opposition forces and the SAC, the legitimacy and credibility of the military government in Naypyitaw are in doubt. Unless the SAC can demonstrate that it has the wherewithal to represent a sovereign state, its regional neighbors and the broader international community need to reassess and locate an alternative authority to engage with.
By definition, sovereign states are required to have a population, territory, government and ability to engage with sovereign peers elsewhere. The SAC is beset with shortcomings in every category.
First, it oversees a population who are in a nationwide armed revolt against military rule. In other words, Myanmar’s military, known locally as the Tatmadaw, does not have the acquiescence and acceptance of those over whom it is trying to rule. The evidence of its lack of popular acceptance can be seen in the results of the last two national elections, which overwhelmingly returned the civilian-led National League for Democracy (NLD) under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to office, trouncing the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party by large margins. It is no wonder the vast majority of the civilian population are fighting back. As their voices were denied and they were robbed of their democratic rights, they are fighting back to reclaim what is theirs.
Second, the SAC may not be facing external aggression and threats to its territorial integrity from outside. But it does not control much of the territory inside the country. The anti-military opposition alliance—under the umbrella of the National Unity Government (NUG), comprising the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and the People’s Defense Force (PDF)—have maintained control in many areas. As armed opposition wings, the EAOs and PDF have fought back and made some territorial gains, including open battle victories and targeted assassinations of junta-linked government officials and military officers.
Third, the SAC-led government still has questionable international legitimacy. Myanmar’s United Nations ambassador is still U Kyaw Moe Tun from the NLD-led government.
The UN has not recognized the coup government. ASEAN, now under Cambodia’s chairmanship with Prime Minister Hun Sen in the lead, also excluded the junta leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, from last year’s ASEAN summit. While Hun Sen accommodated by visiting him in the Myanmar capital last month, ASEAN’s backing of the current military government is still in doubt. On the other hand, the NUG has made some inroads in its engagements with foreign governments and international actors.
Finally, the SAC will be hard pressed to promote relations with other governments around the world. The US and European countries are unlikely to sit and deal at the same table with Myanmar’s military government. On the contrary, countries like the US have imposed sanctions on the regime in Naypyitaw. Thus the junta may have diplomats and personnel at its disposal, but it will not always have a seat at international meetings.
All these shortcomings derive from the nature of Myanmar’s latest coup. The Tatmadaw took power by force but it has been unable to impose control over the country and consolidate its authority. The junta holds authority in Naypyitaw but it is losing control elsewhere. Myanmar’s fate and political future are now being determined in various battlefields in an engulfing civil war.
Contrary to proponents of power politics and coup apologists who have advocated acceptance of the junta as the “power in being” to be engaged and dealt with, Myanmar’s military takeover a year ago is evidently not a done deal.
This putsch was unlike its forerunners in 1962, which led to nearly five decades of military dictatorship and relative autarky, and in 1988, which put down a popular pro-democracy uprising. When the Tatmadaw eased its grip to benefit from foreign investment and economic growth, and allowed political liberalization and economic reforms in 2011, the ensuing decade spawned profound and indelible changes. People’s expectations heightened, opportunities widened, and access to the outside world opened up, resulting in a powerful collective awakening that no junta can roll back.
To be sure, Myanmar’s decade of democratic opening was not without its shortcomings and challenges. The civilian-led government produced mixed results, weighed down by policy inertia, bureaucratic red tape and top-down control away from the decentralization that was needed. Although most of the ethnic rebel armies signed on to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, some kept up their armed resistance for greater autonomy against the Tatmadaw. Myanmar was a hybrid of fledgling peace and internal conflicts.
Yet despite such problems, the decade of reform and opening up was always going to be better in the eyes of the Myanmar people, particularly the younger generations, than the misery and hardship of previous decades. For Myanmar’s youth, one decade of patchy reforms and limited progress, propelled by ICT and new opportunities, were enough never to return to the dark past.
The battlefield balance in the people’s war in Myanmar is shifting. While the Tatmadaw’s top brass dig in for the long haul, its forces are overstretched and outmanned by anti-junta fighters, and rank-and-file morale is questionable in view of reported desertions and defections. The increasing frequency of Tatmadaw airstrikes further suggests the military is on the backfoot in the ground war. On the other side, armed opposition is gaining strength, training with sustained commitment to see through their fierce vendetta to bring down the generals who robbed them of their self-determination in the November 2020 election. If the anti-junta alliance can get their hands on anti-aircraft capabilities, their chances of overcoming the military on the ground will be even more promising.
As Myanmar’s post-coup military government can hardly claim to be a sovereign state, the more pro-democracy ASEAN governments and like-minded countries further afield should widen their engagement with the opposition alliance, from the NUG to emerging leaders in the PDF and some of the EAOs. Time is not on the side of Myanmar’s junta.
The big challenge for the opposition, as the SAC loses more control, is how to maintain unity and come up with an actionable agenda to offer a viable vision for the future, perhaps using the decade of reform that was taken from them a year ago as a benchmark.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is a professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science. He earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognized for excellence in opinion writing from the Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.
This article first appeared in The Bangkok Post.
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