Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 27 May 2024


Myanmar’s Surprising Rebels Deserve a Shot

Anti-junta groups are gaining ground, but their recent cohesion may fray without outside assistance. 

On the march. 
On the march.  Source: AFP/Getty Images


Myanmar’s generals have controlled the country for 53 of its 76 years as a modern state. While the pro-democracy forces elected in 2015 could not hold onto power peacefully, they now have a realistic chance of regaining it by force. The country’s neighbors, and a cautious West, should help them.

The military, which overthrew a civilian government led by former Nobel Prizewinner Aung San Suu Kyi in 2021, has in recent months lost control of vast swathes of territory and key border posts to resistance groups. The rebels now control important infrastructure projects, including Chinese-funded oil and gas pipelines and much of the 1,400-kilometer (870-mile) highway that runs from the northeastern Indian state of Manipur through Myanmar to Mae Sot in Thailand.

Buoyed by mass defections from the army, the swelling ranks of resistance groups are cooperating in ways that have surprised longtime Myanmar watchers. A significant number of ethnic armed organizations are aligning themselves with the shadow National Unity Government, founded by elected members of parliament who escaped after the coup.

As the more established militias have been doing since the 1960s, rebel units have begun delivering social services in areas they control, governing millions of people and laying the foundations for what a federal democratic Myanmar could look like. They are providing everything from humanitarian assistance to police and judicial services, schools, health clinics, and garbage collection.

At the same time, it is clear that the West’s standard tools of sanctions and humanitarian aid will not be enough to change the course of this conflict. The junta retains significant military capability and has shown no qualms about using it, leveling rebel towns with airstrikes as punishment after attacks. Resistance groups need weapons and other resources, as well as significant political support, to preserve their gains and maintain their cohesion.

This should be the cue for the international community to step up support for the NUG, which operates in exile with an office in Washington, as well as some of the more established ethnic armies and the resistance groups formed after the coup. While Western governments may be reluctant to arm the rebels, they can support efforts to build a parallel state by strengthening these emerging political authorities and community-based organizations, as Myanmar expert Morten Pedersen has written for the Lowy Institute.

Even that will be tricky for risk-averse governments and donors more used to working with states, not armed organizations. They will need to identify groups that share values the West can support — those that want to create inclusive, civilian-led structures and who respect human rights and international humanitarian law. They will also need to ensure these groups are interested in building a federal Myanmar, not just cementing control over the areas they hold.

India, China and Thailand — Myanmar’s three biggest neighbors — will also require sensitive handling. China is the most influential outside player in this conflict, engaging with both the junta and the Three Brotherhood Alliance of ethnic armies in the north and west which have led the recent, groundbreaking offensive against the military. The groups — the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army — have signaled support for the NUG.

Beijing-brokered ceasefire in the north in January was a good first step, but it appears to have been an isolated move aimed at containing the fighting in Shan state rather than an attempt to bring an overall resolution to the crisis. China, which has no interest in dealing with a disintegrating Myanmar on its border, can do more. So can India, which has seen the war spill over its frontier into Manipur.

How complex this task will be was underscored by reports this month that the Arakan Army has been targeting the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar’s west with large-scale arson attacks and coordinated killings. This follows the crimes against humanity and genocide committed against the Rohingya by the military in 2016 and 2017 that forced 750,000 refugees to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. (Those events are now the subject of an investigation by the International Criminal Court and proceedings at the International Court of Justice under the Genocide Convention.)

Nor is the junta likely to give up easily. As Pedersen notes, the military is not as close to collapse as some optimists say. To win this civil war and build a new state, the resistance will ultimately have to take the capital, Naypyitaw, which the army will defend with all the heavy weaponry at its disposal. The status quo — where the military keeps losing ground, especially along the country’s borders, but maintains control of the capital and the major commercial centers of Yangon and Mandalay — could continue for years.

Nevertheless, the conflict has reached an inflection point. The world could stand by and wait until the country is truly burning. Or it could act now to help rebuild civil society and strengthen the capacity of local groups to work with each other to determine Myanmar’s future.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ruth Pollard is a Bloomberg Opinion Managing Editor. Previously she was South and Southeast Asia government team leader at Bloomberg News and Middle East correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald.
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