Myanmar’s Two-Year-Long Conflict Isn’t As Simple As It Seems At First Glance
The best-case scenario is that Russian aid helps the Tatmadaw win enough gains on the ground for anti-government armed groups to agree to a comprehensive Chinese-mediated peace deal which culminates in fair political reforms that ultimately neutralize pernicious Western influence that risks “Balkanizing” the country.
This month marks two years since the latest phase of Myanmar’s (formerly Burma’s) civil war began after the military (domestically known as the Tatmadaw) intervened following allegedly disputed elections. The Western media portrayed that move as a coup against former civilian leader Suu Kyi, whose supporters are now fighting for democracy, while some others have viewed the subsequent violence as a Western Hybrid War aimed at destabilizing China. The reality isn’t as simple as either camp claims.
Myanmar has been in a state of civil war since its independence in 1948 after the authorities failed to abide by the Panglong Agreement that was reached the year prior for managing relations between its ethno-regionally diverse colonial-era population. The intensity and contours of this conflict have changed over the years, but it’s always been driven by the struggle between previously disunited ethno-regional minorities against the centrally positioned Bamar majority over the country’s administrative nature.
The first-mentioned want to decentralize and even in some cases devolve the state, with a few groups flirting with outright separatism at times, while the second want to retain as centralized of a state as possible due to fear of “Balkanization”. It should also be mentioned that the minority-majority regions of the periphery are very rich in mineral and other resources, while the Bamar regions are the country’s breadbasket. The symbiotic relationship between these two sides plays a key role in kindling this conflict.
In the political arena, their competition traditionally took the form of civilian-military tensions, the first group of whom also generally favor a pro-Western foreign policy while the second are largely isolationist. The importance in sharing this oversimplified summary of the world’s longest-running civil war is for readers to appreciate that both sides have legitimate interests and to realize how easy it is for external forces to exacerbate preexisting tensions between them in pursuit of their own interests.
The run-up to February 2021’s events saw Western democracy icon Suu Kyi’s previously banned National League for Democracy (NLD) win a crushing landslide in parliamentary elections several months prior that the Tatmadaw claimed were rigged. Between the NLD’s participation in elections in 2015 and then, when they won an absolute parliamentary majority but were kept in check by the Tatmadaw’s veto power, Myanmar recalibrated its foreign policy away from China towards the US as sanctions were lifted.
The Tatmadaw was forced by the prior restrictions imposed after its second takeover in 1988 into a position of almost complete dependence on the People’s Republic, which military leaders regarded as strategically disadvantageous while some in civil society saw it as very humiliating. These perceptions combined to influence political reforms over the past decade, during which time de facto Prime Minister (“State Counsellor”) Suu Kyi evolved from a pro-Western idealist into more of a pragmatist.
As proof of this observation, she sought close ties with China in contravention of popular expectations at home and abroad, but this might have in hindsight made the Tatmadaw wary. It wouldn’t be surprising if they suspected that her Sino-US balancing act could have been in preparation of Myanmar being sacrificed in any possible New Détente wherein she’d accelerate its federalization via a Panglong 2.0 so that each superpower could then carve out their own economic fiefdoms inside of it afterwards.
To be clear, the abovementioned is a scenario exercise aimed at accounting for the Tatmadaw’s political intervention two years ago in spite of Suu Kyi having by then proven herself to be equidistant between China and the US, who’d been criticized by West for her stance towards the Rohingya Issue. It’s also noteworthy that Myanmar didn’t revert to its prior three-decade-long dependence on China in the aftermath of its intervention destroying ties with the West but once again slipped into isolationism.
At the same time, however, the Tatmadaw remained committed to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). This is one of the Belt & Road Initiative’s (BRI) most strategic projects since it facilitates the flow of energy and goods to and from China without going through the easily blockaded Malacca Strait. Suu Kyi was responsible for clinching related deals with the Tatmadaw’s approval, who then continued it after her jailing for reasons of simple economic pragmatism given their lack of choices.
The US is against CMEC since it undermines its ability to contain Beijing, which is why there’s validity to the claim that the violence that unfolded over the past two years is part of a Hybrid War on China. Nevertheless, there’s also no denying the reality that ethno-regional minorities and supporters of the previous (at least nominally) civilian-led NLD government have legitimate grievances, thus complicating the morality of supporting any given side in this latest stage of the country’s long-running civil war.
China isn’t sitting on the sidelines, however, while the US wages its Hybrid War on CMEC via its support for earlier divided ethno-regional minority militias (some of whom are designated as terrorists by the Tatmadaw) and ethnic Bamar pro-democracy supporters. Interestingly enough, it’s accused of tacitly supporting some of the peripheral forces that were involved in “Operation 1027” as part of the “Three Brotherhood Alliance”, which represents the first major unification of anti-government armed groups.
These two pieces here and here argue that China at the very least gave a wink and a nod to those ethnic Han ones that it’s historically been accused of backing in order to remove cross-border criminal and cybercrime groups that the Tatmadaw is either in cahoots with or hasn’t prioritized dismantling. Unlike the US, which wants to restore the NLD’s rule in order to subvert CMEC per their suspected Faustian deal (not to mention “Balkanizing” Myanmar), China might only want to weaken it to teach it a lesson.
While some might scoff at the notion that China would ever support an anti-government armed group on its own doorstep, let alone while the US’ in Myanmar are on a nationwide offensive that’s since lulled after a Chinese-brokered ceasefire last month, it’s telling that the Tatmadaw allowed anti-Chinese protests in Yangon in November. Ties between those two clearly aren’t as solid as some might present them as being, which lends credence to suspicions that Beijing played some sort of role in recent events.
About them, the “Three Brotherhood Alliance’s” formation was arguably the result of America replicating its proxy war model from Ukraine into Myanmar whereby it armed these groups via neighboring Thailand, provided them satellite and other intelligence on the Tatmadaw, and encouraged them to unite into a national front. This led to their “Operation 1027”, named after its start on October 27, which resulted in the largest-ever anti-government advance at any time since the civil war started.
Before concluding with a couple takeaways about this conflict’s dynamics two years after its latest phase began, it deserves mentioning that Russian-Myanmar ties have reached the best-ever level over this period while Indo-US ones became very strained since late November. Readers can learn more about the first here, here, and here, and the second here, here, and here, but they relate to Russia’s role in preventing Myanmar’s dependence on China and the US’ desire to punish India for its independence.
They’re relevant because Russia has become Myanmar’s top security partner while US-driven unrest risks destabilizing India’s “Seven Sisters” like recently troubled Manipur. It can thus be argued that the US regards this conflict as a proxy one against Russia that could pile more pressure on India too, while China might want to coerce Myanmar back into dependence via its alleged support of certain armed groups together with causing problems for its Indian rival in the Northeast where they have a territorial dispute.
The reader should remember that while the US wants to topple the Tatmadaw in order to turn Myanmar into a puppet state that strategically straddles the Sino-Indo frontier, China’s purely speculative interests as intuited from the earlier cited reports might only be to weaken it to teach it a lesson. The other takeaway is that both domestic camps have legitimate interests, but the Tatmadaw is backed by Russia while the “Three Brotherhood Alliance” is backed by the US and possibly China to an extent.
The aforesaid alliance is meant to function as the US’ battering ram for seizing control of Myanmar, but it also agreed to last month’s Chinese-mediated ceasefire, thus suggesting a degree of pragmatism similar to what Suu Kyi exhibited. The best-case scenario is therefore that Russian aid helps the Tatmadaw win enough gains on the ground for armed groups to agree to a comprehensive Chinese-mediated peace deal which culminates in fair political reforms that ultimately neutralize pernicious Western influence.