It is worth reading the article “Rating the Progress of Myanmar’s Resistance Movement” by Lian Bawi Thang, and it is also worth arguing with some of its too quick and unsubstantiated conclusions and with a certain defeatism underlying its “progress rating”.
I would not bother to counterargue some of the conclusions in the article if it were not a serious one that raises many relevant questions—and if the above-mentioned defeatism were not coming from various corners among political intellectuals writing about Myanmar.
In the comments below, I will mainly respond to the following claims made by Lian Bawi Thang.
“An influential and charismatic leader is essential to uniting the populace, motivating followers, gaining international confidence, and waging psychological warfare on the enemy.”
“As the revolution approaches its third year, financial hardship has posed a major challenge to the resistance groups’ continued expansion and even their existence. The passage of the Burma Act [by the US Congress] was widely expected to be a watershed moment in the revolution that would address its financial burden and help the NUG [the civilian National Unity Government] to consolidate more resistance groups under one chain of command. But the implementation of the Act indicates that it is mostly intended to provide moral support to Myanmar’s opposition forces. As things stand, a power vacuum will likely persist with no side able to fill it anytime soon, leading to increased violence and instability and a worsening humanitarian crisis.”
Strong, charismatic leader
Yes, under some conditions it is an advantage to have a strong, charismatic leader (for example, in conditions of relatively homogeneous resistance to foreign occupation or colonialism. Or in conditions of binary struggle with just one major social-political force challenging an unpopular regime). However, in conditions of underlying diversity of sociopolitical groups and with the historic failure of the one strong charismatic leader model (Daw Aung San Suu Kyi failed to provide such a unifying catalyst), the one leader model will not work anymore in the Myanmar context. So, instead of crying over the absence of a strong charismatic leader and spreading defeatism, it is better to be confident and keep on working with a collaborative leadership with all its imperfections.
This is similar to comparing the performance of democracies and authoritarian regimes when they face major crises and challenges. In a moment of crisis, top-down authoritarianism looks more efficient because it is capable of quick, centralized and easy decision-making with a clear command structure. Democracy is slow and messy. It takes time to gear up and consolidate in strategic and focused collective action. But in the end, democracy prevails when confronted with challenges and crises, because it mobilizes more human and other resources, while authoritarianism is self-defeating because wrong decisions are made and the mode of decision-making is not able to correct them. Learn from history and one will find a lot of evidence for that.
Yes, financial hardship is a big challenge, but it has two sides. Financial hardship is a hard burden to carry for the population and the resistance, but it is also seriously undermining the regime. The junta is running out of money as well and, more recently, dramatically so. The regime needs more money to keep its war machinery going and to fund the repressive and corrupt clientelist system on which it depends. So financial hardship is a ticking clock for both the resistance and for the regime. It is not true that time is running out only for the resistance—it is running for the regime as well. It is uncertain and undecided for whom the clock is ticking more quickly, who can endure more and who will reach the breaking and implosion point sooner.
Second, financial hardship is a hard burden to carry for the population and the resistance, but why jump to the (wrong) conclusion that it will cause the resistance to give up soon? There are many historic examples of even bigger hardships endured by liberation movements and populations during protracted struggles—struggles they eventually won against seemingly mighty opponents.
So better not to beat the drum of defeatism, but to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of both the resistance and junta in precise way, and continue to mobilize moral, financial and material resources for the resistance, while cutting down and chopping up, piece by piece, the resources of the regime. This will bring more results than spreading defeatism.
The Burma Act
True, the Burma Act will not be in any way the game changer many hoped and wished for. It will most probably be watered down by the Biden administration and its impact will be symbolic. But so far, outside factors have not helped the resistance in any meaningful way, yet it has has gone from weakness to strength (almost from zero to becoming an increasingly strong force).
So why assume that without outside assistance this trend of self-reliance in the Myanmar people’s liberation struggle against a murderous and predatory military will not continue to develop, from weakness to greater and greater strength, with the ongoing support of the population and the diaspora, and with its own high morale and determination?
Again, why jump to the (wrong) conclusion that without outside support resistance is doomed to fail? Outside assistance will for sure be helpful to accelerate the process of removing the junta. And the effort to get that assistance should not stop. But the fact that it has not started arriving yet does not mean that the resistance will fail. It will not. The resistance is currently gaining momentum, and is not on a declining trajectory. It is the military junta that is on a downward trajectory.
Power vacuum, instability, worsening humanitarian crisis
This is starting to be a very popular claim among diplomats dealing with Myanmar, and among political analysts who are placed between the reality in Myanmar the bubble of foreigners dealing with the country’s crisis.
It is simply wrong to claim that it is a conflict in which “two sides” (the junta and the resistance) are creating instability and a humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. There is ONLY ONE SIDE—the military junta—that is creating instability and which is intentionally creating a humanitarian disaster as its main military tactic! This is the most fundamental reality of the Myanmar crisis and this is something what will not change as long as the military remains strong enough for the junta and Min Aung Hlaing to remain in power. For Min Aung Hlaing, the name of the game is full victory at any cost, for anybody. So he must be removed to reverse the country’s current negative trajectory and if any solution to the deepening crisis is to be found.
The resistance is doing all it can to protect and provide for the civilian population—and it is supported by the civilian population. So if international players put more resources in the hands of the anti-junta alliance, humanitarian suffering will be reduced. If they continue to beg the junta for access, aid will continue to be weaponized. If international players wait for “humanitarian ceasefires” to be achieved so that they can deliver aid, the humanitarian crisis will deepen and be prolonged.
That is why the only solution is to remove the criminal Min Aung Hlaing and his regime and to support the anti-junta alliance.
It is also very important to reject the false assessment of the current situation as a stalemate between the junta and resistance that will generate ever more suffering, so what is needed is to broker a humanitarian ceasefire between the regime and the resistance. This approach will only help the junta in its effort to divide the anti-junta alliance; but as things stand now, it cannot be broken.
A more accurate interpretation is as follows: The besieged and weakened regime is waging war against the population will simply continue to commit atrocities, engage in destruction and cause suffering without the capacity to defeat the stubborn and determined broad—and broadening—resistance.
The futile effort of the regime to survive and stay in power will lead to deepening instability, humanitarian emergencies, ongoing war, economic collapse and a collapse of the country into a failed state with different armed groups controlling different territories.
Instead, assistance to the anti-junta alliance can reverse this negative trend.
Igor Blazevic is a senior adviser at the Prague Civil Society Centre. Between 2011 and 2016 he worked in Myanmar as the head lecturer of the Educational Initiatives Program.