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Report of Monday Morning Meeting on Myanmar at Crossroads: Three Years of Coup and Civil War

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  • February 26, 2024
    Monday Morning Meeting

    Mr. Om Prakash Das, Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, made a presentation on “Myanmar at Crossroads: Three Years of Coup and Civil War” at the Monday Morning Meeting held on 26 February 2024. The session was moderated by Cmde. Abhay Kumar Singh (Retd.), Research Fellow, MP-IDSA. Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy, Director General, MP-IDSA and the scholars of MP-IDSA attended the meeting.

    Executive Summary

    As the junta regime completes three years in power since the 2021 coup d’état, Myanmar finds itself embroiled in an increasingly destructive civil war. Although armed resistance has taken shape over the years, the country has experienced a significant surge in violence since October 2023. An unprecedented level of strategic coordination between several armed groups has won the rebels 35 towns since the launch of Operation 1027. The position of the junta becomes increasingly tenuous as the Myanmar military incurs loss of troops and territories. The enforcement of the People’s Military Service Law has led to further chaos among the general populace. Large-scale displacement and pervasive violence have precipitated a humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. Influx of civilians and defectors across the porous India-Myanmar border has necessitated a discussion on the future of the Free Movement Regime.

    Detailed Report

    The session commenced with opening remarks by Cmde. Abhay Kumar Singh (Retd.). Cmde. Singh provided an overview of the current crisis in Myanmar. Myanmar has been in a state of civil war since the overthrow of the civilian government by the Tatmadaw in 2021. Cmde. Abhay acknowledged 27 October 2023 as an inflection point in the democratic struggle of Myanmar. He observed that while the periphery of Myanmar has always been unstable, the core Bamar region is also beginning to see violence. The spread of violence across large swathes of the country has caused massive loss of human lives on both sides of the conflict.

    Mr. Om Prakash Das commenced his presentation with a couple of maps aimed at geographically locating Myanmar within the broader region, as well as visualising the 7 politico-administrative divisions and the ethnic composition of the country. Among the 8 major ethnic groups of Myanmar, Bamar are the largest and most dominant ethnolinguistic community. A map visualising the spread of conflict across the country was also presented. The complex nature of territorial control and integrity in Myanmar is demonstrated by the fact that 40-50 percent of the country is currently controlled by various ethnic communities.

    Having rejected the legitimacy of National League for Democracy’s victory in the 2020 general elections, the Burmese military launched a coup d'état less than three months later. The military takeover has since been met with widespread civilian and armed resistance, as well as international condemnation. An estimated 6000 civilian deaths have occurred within the initial 20 months of the coup. Latest reports indicate the detention of more than 26,000 Burmese nationals as political prisoners since the military coup. Burmese resistance at the highest level has taken an organised political form through the establishment of the National Unity Government- Myanmar’s government in exile. The NUG coordinates with the People’s Defence Forces (PDF)- an umbrella term for the various local militias that have emerged since the coup.

    Mr. Das noted Operation 1027, an offensive against the junta in the northern Shan state, as a milestone in the anti-Tatmadaw resistance. Operation 1027 is a coordinated armed rebellion by the Three Brotherhood Alliance (3BHA), comprising of the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). 3BHA’s initial areas of influence were limited to Myanmar’s borders with India, China, and Bangladesh. The Arakan Army has a strong hold over the peripheral state of Rakhine. Several other Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAO) throughout the country have engaged the military in combat since October 2023. The Karenni Nationalities Defence Forces (KNDF) in the Kayah state, for example, launched Operation 1111 in November 2023. An unprecedented level of coordinated military strategy by the hitherto disparate factions has yielded significant victories for the rebels across two-thirds of the country.  Conversely, defeats at the hands of the armed rebels have led to low morale and weakened unit cohesion among the military troops. Over 14000 soldiers of the Myanmar army have defected since the 2021 coup. 4000 soldiers have reneged since the launch of Operation 1027 alone.

    There also exists the case of an unfolding humanitarian crisis. The United Nations figures indicate the displacement of close to 2.6 million people within Myanmar. The civil war has also triggered the emigration of over 8 lakh Burmese nationals. Around 60,000 Burmese nationals are estimated to have taken refuge in India.

    The junta government is currently contending with escalating casualties and defections amidst an unpopular war, compelling it to contemplate contentious measures such as mandatory military service to address manpower shortages. However, this initiative entails significant political risks, as evidenced by incidents of backlash among young adults in response to enforced mandatory military service. In this scenario, Mr. Das states that the throne of junta is shaking, as the periphery and southern regions are virtually out of control of the military.

    The military strongly believes in a unique national narrative of its crucial guardian role. It employs both ideological loyalty and financial incentives to maintain the dedication of its officers. There had been no significant internal dissent that threatens the stability of Myanmar military until the 2021 coup.

    Mr. Das also discussed the contradictions within the anti-junta forces. Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) and PDFs have different visions for the future of Myanmar and could face challenges in power-sharing and moderating their respective ideological positions.

    After the coup, all the democratic forces came together and tried to structure their aspirations – including ethnic minorities. They published a new Federal Democracy Charter the main objective of which was the removal of the military dictatorship and abolishment of the 2008 constitution which gave the military a political role in the parliament. This charter deals with the questions about how certain issues need to be approached and highlights legal and political considerations to support interim institutions' constitution-building efforts.

    Reflecting on India-Myanmar relations, Mr. Das emphasised on the fact that Myanmar has been an important country for India’s Look East, Act East and Neighbourhood First policies. He highlighted that Myanmar is an important member of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Mekong-Ganga Cooperation, and that Myanmar is India’s gateway to South-East Asia.

    He highlighted India’s investments in various infrastructure projects, including the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Project that provides an alternative route to the significantly important Siliguri Corridor. Due to the civil war, the area from Sittwe to Paletwa (that falls in the Rakhine state) has now been captured by the Arakan Army. And the area between Paletwa to Mizoram border falls under the Chin State, and thus the project has reached a state of stalemate.

    India has displayed a balanced approach towards Myanmar’s junta and to the pro-democratic movement, while officially advocating for the restoration of democracy in the country. India has also engaged with the junta, while creating a delicate balance between supporting democracy while maintaining pragmatic ties with the Junta to secure interest.

    Concerning China’s role in Myanmar, Mr. Das said that, the latter is important for China to improve its strategic presence in the Indian Ocean and for China’s long-term Blue Ocean objective. Myanmar also serves as a trading outlet to the Indian Ocean for China’s inland province of Sichuan.

    The speaker concluded by saying that the probability of the junta regaining its lost territories is very low. The junta, now in a defensive position, is trying to protect the supply routes. Although international actors may push for a negotiated reset, the democratic forces have shown inclination towards negotiating with the military.

    Questions and Comments

    Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy, Director General MP-IDSA, complimented Mr. Om Prakash Das for his presentation on a topical issue. He remarked that the international community has long had great expectations of Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi had moved the country towards greater democratic impulses, the United States wanted to normalise relations, and there existed interest in Myanmar’s economy. The air of optimism lasted five to seven years before the country descended into cyclical chaos. Amb. Chinoy identified two facets to the internal instability: The Junta’s difficulty in pacifying the periphery, and the pervasiveness of the PDFs that are engaged in action and counter-action against the junta. China has long had interests across the border. Amb. Chinoy opined that any kind of land connectivity, within the Kaladan multi modal project, is difficult to attain because of the sectional progress and changing situation on ground. He suggested that there may be merit in bypassing Myanmar through maritime routes if the land corridor is deemed infeasible in the finite future. According to Amb. Chinoy, hardening of borders in the last mile areas should be a priority. Identifying the different types of transgressions across the India-Myanmar border, he argued for centre-state government convergence on the future of the Free Movement Regime (FMR).  Amb. Chinoy invited Dr. Pushpita Das to shed some more light on the FMR and the challenges of fencing the border.

    The MP-IDSA scholars posed a wide array of questions ranging from the cultural linkages between India and Myanmar to whether the growing unrest in Myanmar would have a bearing on separatist movements in Northeast India. Reference was made to the displacement of Rohingyas. The prospect of an outreach to the local ethnic groups, similar to the Chinese policy, was also discussed.Mr. Om Prakash Das provided insightful answers to the questions and comments raised by the Director General and the MP-IDSA scholars.

    Report prepared by Ms. Aditi Dhaundiyal, Intern, Southeast Asia and Oceania Centre, MP-IDSA.