Three years since a military coup ousted Myanmar’s democratically elected government on February 1, 2021, a brutal civil war has left the country devastated.
In December, a United Nations report on Myanmar’s humanitarian needs said the country “stands at the precipice [of] a deepening humanitarian crisis”, with a third of the population (around 18 million people) estimated to be in dire need.
Aung San Suu Kyi, whose elected government was toppled by the coup, is currently serving a 27-year sentence on trumped-up charges that include breaching Covid public safety regulations, illegally importing walkie-talkies, inappropriately hiring a helicopter, violating the Official Secrets Act and electoral fraud. She has appealed the convictions.
Despite this bleak picture, there is some optimism in the opposition camp that the civil war may be shifting in their favor, thanks to recent battlefield successes against the military. The junta’s forces look stretched and vulnerable.
Nevertheless, there will be no quick victory. The junta still controls the levers of government, the main cities and most larger towns.
Democratic governments from around the world might shorten the conflict by supplying the opposition forces and more progressive ethnic armed groups with aid and military support. But little has been forthcoming so far.
Sadly, regardless of whether opposition forces make further military gains in 2024, the heavy consequences of this bloody conflict for Myanmar’s 55 million people will continue to be felt for years to come.
What is life like under the military junta?
Economic conditions have deteriorated sharply since the coup. Myanmar struggled during the first year of the Covid pandemic, but unlike other countries, it has yet to see a recovery. The economy is estimated to be 30% smaller than it would have been without Covid and the coup, while real gross domestic product per capita is about 13% below 2019 levels.
Many other parts of society have been transformed for the worse by three years of jolting political violence. Educational institutions, healthcare providers, civil society organizations, news and other media outlets, and technology companies have all faced incredible challenges. Many limp along, a pale facsimile of the vibrant and outward-looking teams that did such impressive work before the coup.
Many foreign investors, understandably, have headed for the exits. Myanmar is now a disaster for anybody wanting to adhere to robust environmental, social and governance requirements. Some foreign companies remain, such as Japan’s Suzuki, South Korean bedding manufacturer Pan-Pacific, as well as various banking and energy conglomerates from Singapore and Thailand.
These keep people employed and families fed. But many companies do business with the junta and their taxes help fund the military. There is also no enthusiasm for fresh investment.
In day-to-day life, Myanmar’s people are poorer and more vulnerable than before, with less access to education and health services and fewer chances to improve their economic circumstances. Many young people have abandoned their studies and careers to fight against the military, or are plotting their routes to escape. Thailand and other neighbors continue to reluctantly absorb large migrant flows.
For those who choose to fight, life is perilous. Enemies of the regime are hunted mercilessly by police and security forces tasked with protecting the top generals.
What gains have been made by the opposition forces?
While the military and opposition have been in a stalemate for most of the last three years, there have been rapid developments on the battlefield in recent months, with the junta experiencing catastrophic losses.
In October, opposition forces known as the Three Brotherhood Alliance conducted Operation 1027, capturing two border towns in northern Shan state and overrunning hundreds of military posts and bases.
The offensive was accompanied by attacks on military forces in eastern Myanmar by ethnic Karenni and Karen resistance forces. And in the central Sagaing region, the People’s Defence Force, the armed wing of the exiled opposition National Unity Government, captured a key town.
Then, in mid-November, the powerful Arakan Army, part of the Three Brotherhood Alliance, broke a year-long ceasefire with the military in western Rakhine state. They seized border guard posts and attacked regime forces in four major townships, resulting in tens of thousands of displaced villagers.
In January, the group claimed control of the key western town of Paletwa near the border of India and Bangladesh.
Myanmar’s military has an overwhelming advantage in the air. It has used its jet fighters and helicopter gunships to indiscriminately bomb civilians and insurgents alike. But as the war in Ukraine has also shown, inexpensive drone technology is starting to win battles for the opposition forces, as well.
The insurgent Chin National Army, whose main area of operations is next to Rakhine state, has been using drones to attack military forces buried in the Chin Hills. This has helped them seize at least two towns in the border regions.
The opposition forces in Myanmar claim to have deployed about 25,000 unmanned aerial vehicles, or “drop-bombs”, on the battlefield since the start of Operation 1027.
A China-brokered ceasefire announced in mid-January between the military and the Three Brotherhood Alliance in Shan state only highlighted the success of Operation 1027 and the difficulties facing the military.
However, it is unlikely to last and will probably be used by both sides to consolidate their forces in the border regions.
While China remains the key international player in the civil war, it is also losing some of its authority. The rise of new military forces unconnected to China, such as the democratic People’s Defense Forces, have further fractured an already complex battlefield that is becoming increasingly difficult to influence.
What will 2024 bring?
The big question this year is whether the region’s most influential body, ASEAN, will move to support Myanmar’s democratic forces more fully.
Thus far, ASEAN has taken a cautious approach. But it may find that keeping the coup makers in charge serves to delay the rebuilding of a shattered society and could further destabilize the region.
The crisis in Myanmar also raises challenging questions about ASEAN’s coherence at a time when many members are seeking to balance their strategic relations with both China and the US.
With elections looming in Indonesia, a new government in Thailand, and increasing dissatisfaction with Myanmar’s status quo in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, there is a chance the victories for the anti-coup forces on the battlefield could lead to more proactive Southeast Asian diplomacy.
Rapid improvements in the use of drones and other battlefield technologies may also shift the strategic judgments of Western governments, who might see a low-cost path to success for the opposition. But as with the conflict in Ukraine, US funding for Myanmar has been delayed due to gridlock in Washington.
The generals are also vulnerable to ongoing legal pressure. There is a case before the International Court of Justice accusing the Myanmar military of genocide in its treatment of the Rohingya, which received international support in November.
The junta leaders may eventually seek some kind of political compromise, particularly if there are fractures within the military. It’s not clear, however, if the democratic leaders and ethnic armed forces will again tolerate the political involvement of those who, three years ago, launched such a misguided and devastating coup.