Listen to this story
Just days after the first anniversary of the February 1 coup d’état that forced Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) from power, a sharp debate has emerged among commentators and academics—whether or not Myanmar’s generals, who once held a formidable grip on power in Myanmar by constitutional design and through brute force, are now losing.
While I had held the position that the Tatmadaw, a force of more than 250,000, even under pressure from within would be difficult to dislodge—let alone deemed losing after just one year—and was highly improbable. In this primer, I now contemplate the alternative position, that it is entirely possible and that defeat may indeed be inevitable.
General Min Aung Hlaing, the mastermind of the Myanmar coup, has a lot going for him, particularly in the corridors of ASEAN. A five-point plan barely agreed to this past April has not led to much traction diplomatically, and the ASEAN Special Envoy, provided by Brunei has gotten off to a slow start, in part by a lack of leverage by member states or necessity by the ruling generals. Thailand’s recalcitrance within ASEAN and its personal relationships with the junta’s generals undermine its own national security and Cambodia’s disastrous “cowboy diplomacy”, offering engagement with Myanmar’s military leadership have added to ASEAN’s woes.
In some ways, international pressure has been inconsistent and rapid adjustments to bilateral relations have not unnerved the junta. The Biden Administration, while quick to condemn the junta, hasn’t been willing to extend military options in Southeast Asia, as it would likely give China added arguments about U.S. aggression and drive a wedge between attempts at improved bilateral relations with Thailand. Japan, while roundly criticized early on for its inaction, clingings to the idea of quiet diplomacy, as it seeks to maintain investments in the country and compete with China on key infrastructure projects. India, another neighbor of Myanmar, must also tread lightly due to security concerns. Insurgent groups such as the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) have used Myanmar’s porous borders to conduct strikes in the Indian states of Nagaland and Manipur.
Defeat is also unlikely to come from an internationally brokered no-fly zone, which would prevent the Tatmadaw from using its Russian and Chinese-made military aircraft from striking civilian and rebel targets from the air. This option was first mentioned shortly after the coup, when Myanmar’s own UN Ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun proposed the option, along with the Karen National Union (KNU) last year. While the UN Security Council on the anniversary of the coup released a statement condemning violence, it stopped short of potential action. The international community has been focused on diplomatic efforts and using economic sanctions as a means of applying pressure on Myanmar’s generals. It is unlikely that the United States would implement this option anytime soon, unless the crisis causes a dramatic upswing in civilians pouring across the borders into neighboring Thailand or India. Efforts at the Security Council could be met with resistance by China and Russia, who have veto powers.
The most likely cause of defeat is a combination of defection and economics. As the anti-coup movement, which has nearly unified the country becomes more entrenched—and is willing to use force to dislodge the Tatmadaw, the likelihood of defection will increase. As of November, more than 1,300 Tatmadaw soldiers have been killed, many by the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF) and some calculations have the overall number of casualties ranging much higher. The result is an internal assessment of personal security by soldiers that were previously unfailingly loyal to the junta. A part of that calculation comes from the constant pressure put on them by other defectors, who run a programme in collaboration with the National Unity Government (NUG), working via social media to give support to those wishing to cross over. While the rate of defection may be slow, it is having a negative effect on recruitment. The New York Timesreported that the Myanmar Defense Services Academy, the most prestigious military academy in the country, for the first time in its long history, failed to fill all of the seats for the 2021 Freshman class.
Another component is the fact that the Tatmadaw is not the same military as it was prior to the February 1 coup. The Tatmadaw used to be able to buy the loyalty of soldiers under its command with lavish gifts and high salaries, as well as shares in the Myanmar Economic Holdings Public Company (MEHL), a multi-billion dollar military conglomerate run by Myanmar’s top generals. According to Amnesty International, between 1990 and 2011, MEHL paid its shareholders $16.6 billion, with some of that used to reward or punish bad behavior within the rank and file. Western pressure on multinational corporations have decimated the military-backed enterprise. The United States in March 2021 sanctioned MEHL and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), targeting “the economic resources of Burma’s military regime.”
The European Union soon followed suit. Foreign companies like Japanese brewer Kirin Holdings, terminated a joint venture with MEHL, after being named and shamed into action by human rights groups following the coup.
Closely related and contributing greatly to undermining regime legitimacy is the negative impact that the coup has had on Myanmar’s economy. A confluence of events—the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the impact of boycotts and protests that crippled many sectors of the economy have flatlined economic activity in the country. Just days after the coup, the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) was created, organizing a large-scale labor strike, targeting the most critical aspects of military-owned enterprises. Combined with the other contributing events, the World Bank estimated that Myanmar’s economy contracted 18 percent in 2021 and is only set to grow—if at all—at a paltry 1% clip in 2022. International pressure has led to even the most stalwart partners, Total Energy and Chevron leaving their long-standing business ventures in the country, dealing the junta a crippling blow in terms of revenue.
While more targeted sanctions and alternative options, such as the sanctioning of jet fuel are promising, it’s very unclear if they will become reality. In 2019, the United States sanctioned a firm that was providing jet fuel to Russia in the Syrian civil war. There are a number of initiatives that are pushing the UK government to enact similar measures, but the reality is that Chinese companies, such as PetroChina, have sold 13,300 tonnes of jet fuel and 4,000 tonnes of gasoline to the ruling junta. Achieving a complete ban or closing off opportunities for access to fuel seem less than ideal.
For Myanmar’s generals to fully lose their grip on power, what needs to occur is more of the same, over a longer period of time. Coups never succeed without some of the support of a country’s population. The 2016 failed coup in Turkey provides evidence, as some of the population stood up when several factions within the Turkish military launched operations to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A united population is key, and the advantage of time is an asset.