Guest Column

Myanmar’s Democratic Resistance Can Win—the World Needs to Support It

By Matthew B. Arnold 7 March 2022

The world needs to support Myanmar’s democratic resistance because it can win, and it’s the right thing to do. It has now been more than a year since Myanmar’s military staged a coup to grab power, but it still hasn’t consolidated control over the country. In that time widespread armed resistance has emerged while the military commits atrocities day after day trying to quell it. The strength of the military has long been overestimated. Analysts have all too flippantly cited its estimated 350,000 members and concluded it simply cannot be defeated. The military can be defeated because the generals managed to provoke a nationwide uprising. Myanmar is a country that is at war against one institution, the military. This is not a binary civil war with a neutral population watching both sides. It is a national uprising of the population against the military.

The coup was a strategic blunder by the generals of existential proportions. Self-defense groups, locally known as People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), are arming up. Resistance spans key states and is now entrenched in Bamar-heartland regions, plus the major cities of Yangon and Mandalay. Momentum has shifted against the military as Myanmar’s national uprising continues to escalate. By my calculations, attacks on the State Administration Council (SAC), as the junta is officially known, increased nearly 25 percent in January alone. Since February of last year, over 250 out of the country’s 330 townships have experienced at least some attacks on the military. In its own country, the military has been reduced to a foreign occupying force desperately trying to quell an uprising that gains strength daily.

The military is simply not designed to counter a national uprising across multiple fronts. Key conflict dynamics are not running in its favor.

First, armed resistance to military rule is now self-sustaining in terms of resourcing, safe havens and personnel, and cannot be easily extinguished by the military. The military has had no success forcing key ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) to sign ceasefires or to break their burgeoning relationships with the civilian National Unity Government (NUG) and PDFs.

Second, PDFs are now firmly entrenched across the length of Myanmar. PDF attacks on SAC forces are widespread up the entire Ayeyarwaddy River valley, but particularly so in northern Magwe, Sagaing and Mandalay regions. PDFs are also firmly entrenched around Yangon and Bago cities as well as increasingly in southern Magwe. This is one of the biggest strategic threats that the SAC regime faces—entrenched armed resistance across the majority Bamar heartland regions.

Third, PDFs and EAOs have now established very consistent partnerships. Key to armed resistance has been the increasing assertion and steady expansion of the PDFs as well as steady military actions by a core group of EAOs, notably the Karen National Union (KNU), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and Chin National Front (CNF). In Chin, northern Sagaing, Kayah, Karen, Mon and Tanintharyi, PDFs engage in routine joint operations with EAOs to attack military forces. Chin and Kayah states have seen remarkable partnerships form between new groups, notably the Chin Defense Forces and the Karenni National Defense Force, and long-established EAOs, the CNF and KNPP respectively. Moreover, the KIA is extensively partnered with PDFs across northern Sagaing, while the KNU is also effectively partnering with PDFs in Mon, Bago, Karen and Tanintharyi.

Fourth, as the military-controlled state apparatus has weakened, resistance actors have put more emphasis on local administration because this is key to controlling territory along with military power. Achieving control in the context of national uprising depends on popular support as well as local knowledge and networks in addition to military force. This is crucial to resistance actors because they enjoy much stronger local relations and support than the junta but are outmatched in terms of conventional military force. They are therefore able to establish at least partial control even in areas where they are weaker militarily.

In response to increasing armed resistance, the military is implementing a strategy of systematic violence against the Myanmar people. The military has sought to establish its authority by using extreme violence against all civilians it believes to be supportive of resistance forces. This is evident across the country today, where the military has responded to the presence of resistance actors by burning villages, livestock, rice stores and even people to sow fear and clear out entire populations. These trends are escalating because the junta believes the world is distracted by events in Ukraine. However, the military’s atrocities should not be confused for battlefield successes.

Too much of the world’s strategic calculus of Myanmar’s prospects have been based on flawed assessments of the military’s strength and durability. If the nature of the conflict can be maintained as a national uprising, the military balance favors the resistance. Moreover, the international community has also, at times, slipped into the trap of believing the military’s claim that it is holding the country together, despite over six decades of misery and civil war it has inflicted on the country. The current crisis should be viewed as a unique window to support the emergence of a stable democracy, one that is no longer a constant cause of regional instability and both an embarrassment and distraction for ASEAN.

Myanmar’s democratic resistance should not ask for international assistance based just on calls to support democracy and protecting human rights. Fundamentally, assistance should be asked for, and given, because the resistance, led by the NUG and the wider resistance coalition, has a tangible pathway to victory and can demonstrate the competence to deliver it.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted a simple truth. There is no shame in supporting a people to rightfully defend themselves from barbarity and dictatorship. There is also perfect reason to be cautious about supporting foreign wars when they have no end in sight. The world is right to support Ukraine’s resistance with arms, but it must do more for Myanmar. The Myanmar people have shown more than enough courage and determination—i.e., a willingness to fight for themselves and their own country—to merit such support. They have a pathway to victory and that means ousting military dictatorship once and for all so the country can seek a more peaceful, prosperous future.

Matthew Arnold is an independent policy analyst. He has been researching Myanmar’s politics and governance since 2012.

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