When Myanmar’s military launched a coup almost three years ago, snatching back the limited portion of control they had ceded to elected civilian leaders, it looked like the same old story. Once again, the generals were crushing the democratic aspirations of their people.
To widespread surprise, perhaps most of all the military’s, they failed to stamp out the resistance. What began as a courageous campaign of civil disobedience led to tens of thousands of civilians joining armed groups, including people’s defence forces (PDFs) set up by the national unity government formed from the remnants of deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.
Critically, long-running conflicts between the military and ethnic armed groups also reignited, with some aligning with the democratic opposition and helping to train PDFs. Then, last month, the Three Brotherhood Alliance – comprising three ethnic armed groups – launched a massive offensive against regime targets in northern Shan state. Their stunning success, capturing large swathes of territory including military bases and border crossings, prompted a further wave of attacks by groups around the country. The alliance also spelled out its commitment to unseating the junta and restoring democracy.
With the military hitting back, the UN has described the recent fighting as the largest and most geographically extensive escalation since the coup. It is a humiliating blow to the army, and an enormous boost to opposition morale. For the first time, many people in Myanmar are envisioning a future – however distant – without the generals.
Strikingly, most believe that China – which supplies the Brotherhood Alliance members with arms to maintain stability along its borders – must have offered tacit approval. Beijing is thought to have been angered by the military ignoring its complaints about organised crime bases preying on Chinese nationals. It may also have its eye on future access to resources.
While there is now a nascent sense of hope among the anti-military forces, they know that the army tends to launch major attacks around this time of year and is likely to intensify its scorched earth tactics. Schools and hospitals have long been targets. And India, which is increasingly concerned about the border, continues to work with the junta to secure its own interests. Tens of thousands have crossed into Mizoram since the civil war began.
Many also fear that if the military cynically offers a deal, perhaps even replacing its chief, Min Aung Hlaing, the international community will try to push the opposition into an agreement. There is no appetite for a return to the old cycle: people have been cheated enough times. Yet few imagine they can remove the generals easily or quickly, if it can be done at all. And while anti-military forces have broadly agreed to a future federal system, and some see positive signs for long-term collaboration between communities, profoundly differing priorities and conflicting interests could easily lead to a fracturing.
Even if the generals can eventually be ousted, the country would face a deeply uncertain future. But for now, the pressure on the military must be stepped up. Britain, which previously set the pace in imposing sanctions on the regime, has fallen behind. Beyond that, the priority should be the desperate need for cross-border humanitarian support, and help for those who have fled abroad, as fighting intensifies.