Myanmar remains in crisis months after the military staged a coup on February 01, toppling the democratically elected government. The coup was met by mass protests against the military junta across the country from the remote ethnic areas to the major cities in the heartland.
The brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters that has resulted in the killing of more than 1,200 civilians has given birth to hundreds of civilian defense forces. These have different names along geographic locations and ethnic lines. For instance, most of civilian forces are known as Chinland Defense Force (CDF) in Chin State. Similarly, Guerrilla groups are widely used in larger cities in the mainland Burman areas, whereas the majority term is known as People Defense Force (PDF).
The economy already weakened by the COVID-19 has come to a near-collapse as the ongoing political crisis has left around half a million people in extreme need of humanitarian assistance within the country.
Myanmar’s junta continues its brutal military operations against local grassroot resistance fighters in Chin, Magway, Sagaing, Karen and Kayah regions to retain power amid the increasing escalation of violent resistance movements.
The civil war has claimed numerous lives, amongst them hundreds of innocent civilians, but also military informants and the junta’s sponsored militia known as Pyu Saw Htee group and over thousands of junta soldiers since mid-2021.
With so much uncertainty, it is difficult to predict to which direction the country is heading to, yet the country appears to have two choices – one is a total defeat of the terror of the military institution or the submission under the tyranny rule of the coup d’état junta. The latter option seems off the table for the people of Myanmar.
In the past two coups the Tatmadaw did not experience the extent of the unconventional wars facing them now, including widespread attacks on multiple fronts by the people who have long supported the Tatmadaw and viewed it as a national guardian.
The takeover of people’s power by force has made all national systems such as health, education and the economy come to a collapse, creating human-made disaster, and ultimately leading to a civil war.
Politics: What happened and what will happen?
The February 01 coup began when democratically elected members of Myanmar’s ruling party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) were overthrown by the powerful military called as Tatmadaw, which is vested ultimate power by the 2008 Constitution.
The 2021 coup is the third by the military junta since 1962, making the Tatmadaw a crucial institution for the majority Burman ethnic group and considered by many as the only national guardian from external invading forces, while designating ethnic armed groups as illegal rebels and the state’s enemies.
There were little people support for previous opposition to coups and political turmoil, such as in the Students’ Uprising in 1989 and Saffron Revolution in 2007, although thousands of civilians and hundreds of Buddhist monks were killed and disappeared at the hands of the junta.
This crisis was met with a new front – the entire people’s revolt against the military mission of retaining power above the law.
Almost everyone now understands that the Tatmadaw does not serve the people’s interest but its top generals; more importantly, the current military institution is a threat to the future prosperity of Myanmar.
As the battle over the Myanmar seat at the United Nations intensified in 2021 and viewed as a win for National Unity Government, 2022 will bring a new twist of turns as neighbouring countries, namely China, Cambodia, India, and Thailand have been openly dealing with the military junta.
ASEAN’s stance on Myanmar will be slightly changed as the regional bloc is chaired by Cambodia, currently led by Prime Minister Hun Sen who has military roots in his background and is apparently attempting to engage with the military junta as soon as Cambodia is given the chairmanship of ASEAN. It is an immediate turnaround from previous chair of the bloc – Brunei – who stuck to the five-consensus principle agreed in April in a special meeting convened on Myanmar, which the coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing attended.
As the United Nations has systematically failed in the case of Myanmar, the U.N remains paralysed by autocratic countries – China and Russia will continue to just monitor the situation in Myanmar in 2022.
Ten months into the coup in which civilians are burned alive, brutally murdered and nearly a thousand residential properties burned down, the people of Myanmar, who cry out for democracy and are fighting to return to democracy, has learned the hard lesson about how dysfunctional the United Nations is and how unrealistic hope for ordinary people in countries like Myanmar is.
Ethnic Armed Organizations vs the birth of Civilian Defense Forces
The Myanmar military has had two major armed conflicts with the Kachin Independence Army (since 2011) and Arakan Army (2019) in the last ten years. Over the last 40 years, the Tatmadaw has made offensives against one armed group while it attempted to negotiate with another group, a rather successful divide-and-conquer strategy that allowed them to retain and increase their power.
In Sagaing region, parents have brought their children aged above 18 to local rebellion groups to have military training – which reflects the current reality of how people hate the military and its institution. This demonstrates the serious determination by many people to oppose the regime.
The ethnic armed organizations have mainly supported People Defense Forces and provided them with military training and weapons through the armed wing of National Unity Government (NUG).
The NUG will make serious efforts to unite all local grassroot rebellions and build its alliance to operate under one chain of command in 2022. Much has been successful so far in this effort yet uniting all forces will pose a great threat to the military regime.
That being said, it is likely an impossible mission for the People Defense Forces and local grassroot rebellion groups alone, to win the war without the significant involvement of ethnic armed groups. The four ethnic armed groups – Chin National Army, Karen National Union and Kachin Independence Army and Karenni Army are not showcasing their full offensive against the junta in 2021 and what they will do in 2022 will be interesting.
What is obvious is that the coup has strengthened many ethnic armed groups as thousands of youths flock to join ethnic armed organization (EAOs), including Chin National Army that now has a thousands strong army from just few hundreds.
The Generation Z (GZ) joining ethnic armed groups and People Defense Force has brought a significant paradigm shift in terms of information technology and the creation of innovative weapons, which the ethnic armed groups never experienced before.
With Chinland Defense Force and People Defense Forces in Magway, Sagaing, Chin State, Karen and Karenni successfully stretching the military thin, it is not enough yet to win the war without the decisive involvement of other major ethnic armed organisations such as Arakan Army and Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and United Wah State Army (UWSA).
However, involving UWSA and RCSS in this Spring Revolution appears to be unlikely expectation. Recent reports about the Commander-in-Chief of Arakan Army General Tun Mrat Naing going to the frontline instructing his soldiers in the battle in Kachin State appears to be a good sign, opening the doors for Arakan Army to join hands with National Unity Government.
So far, the war has apparently left the Tatmadaw with few choices, especially as they seem unable to find new recruits. As a result, reports indicate that the military has taken steps such as ordering the wives of military personnel as well as their minor children to have military training at the military bases.
Soldiers and police stations at traffic sentry check points in Yangon and Mandalay have been left emptied and the build-ups for protection at such sentry posts have all gone across the two cities – signalling the full extent of how much the military is being affected upon by the civilian defense forces.
Until the end of 2021, People Defense Forces staged their attacks as a hit-and-run style in major cities while more offensive against the military targets in Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Magway, Sagaing have been initiated.
While the ongoing defection of military and police is an additional blessing for National Unity Government, local People Defense Forces in Sagaing and Magway are starting to produce more advanced weaponry such as 60-mm artillery and IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) and other weapons.
People Defense Force (PDF) backed by the ethnic armed groups will be a lethal force and what many believe could topple the powerful Tatmadaw.
While National Unity Government does not release the number of registered People Defense Forces across the country, it is believed that the PDF has more than 30,000 personnel.
On the other hands, providing equipment and weapons for the PDF and its alliances is a mounting task for NUG and they will struggle to fully provide all grassroot rebellion groups in 2022, unless certain assistance is provided by foreign governments.
Economy: The collapse and its recovery
The U.N Development Program (UNDP) said Myanmar was set to return to levels of deprivation not seen since 2005. “A slide into poverty of this scale mean the disappearance of the middle class – a bad omen for any rapid recovery from the crisis,” Kani Wignaraja, the director of the UNDP bureau for Asia and the Pacific said in a statement.
Fitch Solutions, a U.S credit rating agency predicted there will be a – 4.4% contraction for Myanmar for 2022 while World Bank had forecasted Myanmar’s legitimate economy would decline by 18% in early of the year 2021.
Currently, many areas in Chin State, Magway, and Sagaing are not able to harvest their crops due to the continued military operations.
Severe famine is believed to be unavoidable in many areas in Myanmar as international humanitarian assistance did not reach 95% of IDPs in 2021 – due in part to the military junta blocking access, as well as the international agencies not properly working with local grassroot communities and committees.
Building up the economy is not in the interest of military junta and the economy will be getting worse in coming year – 2022. So will the war.
Looking ahead: The support for Democracy in Myanmar
Key Point 1: Politics:
Myanmar’s civil war will be bloodier and get more brutal in 2022. It is learned that the military junta does not hesitate to use airpower against People Defense Forces and ethnic armed group as soon as the rainy season is over.
Urban fighting in large cities will be raging in new year, but the hit-and-run style attack will be similarly organised like in 2021. Greater offensive against the military junta in large cities will depend on the successful supply of weapons to People Defense Force by National Unity Government.
Ethnic and regional areas such as Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Magway, Sagaing, Tanintharyi will remain the hotbed of armed conflicts. There will be many civilians killed and murdered by both sides – the junta and the grassroot rebellion groups.
Much of the gain out of this revolution is awakening of Burma ethnic majority, understanding the military institution is cancerous to the country as it only serves the interests of its top generals – not the nation. Moreover, the mainland Burman youths have taken arms to revolt the military dictatorship.
The involvement of major ethnic armed organizations, including Arakan Army will be critically vital in this decisive war.
Political negotiation is unlikely to happen under the military council as armed conflict will be more intensified until the start of rainy season.
Key Point 2: International Affairs
Myanmar diaspora communities across America, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand will continue to be the backbone of many local grassroots movement in the fight against the military regime.
Though United Nations and ASEAN are not hopeful for Myanmar, United States and European countries will be key supporters of the democracy movement and their support appears to remain unwavering in 2022.
The United States will be the leading voice to return Myanmar to the path of democracy, and likely to open doors for National Unity Government to access greater assistance – which the U.S does not provide in 2021.
China and its neighbouring countries will be coy in making efforts to support the Tatmadaw when they realize Tatmadaw is losing more controls and power – this could be a shift of a new dynamic change for the country in 2022.
Key Point 3: The military
According to our sources inside the military, many soldiers of the junta want to run away and defect to ethnic armed groups or People Defense Forces. However, security has been doubled, with all military bases and camps sealing off the gates with wire and loyal guards.
The morale of Myanmar’s army has been tipping to the lowest, causing huge losses throughout the clashes even with local grassroot rebellions who do not have proper weapons.
In 2022, more countries are predicted to be recognizing the acts of Myanmar’s Tatamadaw as that of terrorist organization. More importantly, the western democracy nations of which some of the countries that have been hesitant in responding to the military coup and subsequently its human rights violations will come to acknowledge the threat of Tatmadaw to the future peace and prosperity of Myanmar.
Key Point 4: Social and Economy
As stated above, severe famine will be taking place in the making in many areas of the country. Poverty will sink into more than 28% predicted by World Bank as many international agencies are not able to get enough resources in 2021.
One of the predictions is hundreds of civilians are expected to die of hunger as the result of severe famine. Thousands will face critical health challenges due to lack of medicine in the jungle as more than 200,000 civilians remain trapped in the jungle – not knowing anywhere else to go as their villages and towns have been burned down by the junta.