Picture credit: Zabed Hasnain Chowdhury/NurPhoto via Getty Images
The Critic Essay

Death throes of a dictatorship?

Amid war and discontent, military rule in Myanmar is faltering

Authoritarian regimes depend on the suppression of individual freedom, but they also require the cooperation of the very people they are engaged in oppressing. Dictatorships need soldiers to man the checkpoints, and secret police to arrest journalists and shoot dissidents. Most of all, autocracies need an effective standing army, to protect the state from its greatest enemy of all: the people. The problem with this is obvious: what happens when the people refuse to put on the uniform? 

In Myanmar (formerly Burma), it is possible that we are about to find out. 

Since it seized power in February 2021, Myanmar’s military — known as the Tatmadaw — has been facing heavy armed resistance from an array of ethnic-minority and pro-democracy militant groups. The coup was mounted following a landslide election victory by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy in November of 2020. Much like they did in 1990, the Tatmadaw declared the result false, threw Aung San Suu Kyi back under house arrest, and assumed power themselves.

At first, the people of Myanmar protested against the coup peacefully, but the situation quickly degenerated into violent clashes between protestors and police. A civil war quickly followed, as the military attempted to suppress the numerous militant groups that emerged in opposition to the junta.

Although the military still controls most major population centres, they are losing ground. The reason why is not entirely military-related: Myanmar’s army is well supplied with Russian and Chinese materiel. A more fundamental problem is afflicting the Tatmadaw: collapsing morale, and an inability to recruit new soldiers.

What happened at Laukkai appears to be less of a military defeat than a mass surrender

In January of this year, Myanmar’s military suffered a decisive defeat in the town of Laukkai, on Myanmar’s border with China. Laukkai was home to one of the Military’s operational regional command centres, but the Army surrendered after a joint resistance group called The Three Brotherhood Alliance captured the town. The strength of the military deployment at Laukkai was significant, and 2,389 personnel reportedly surrendered. Six of those who surrendered were high-ranking officers, who were later pictured enjoying victory drinks with their captors, much to the Tatmadaw’s chagrin. It has recently been reported that three of these officers had been sentenced to death, and the other three to life imprisonment.

Myanmar soldiers patrol in Laukkai. Picture Credit: AFP via Getty Images

What happened at Laukkai appears to be less of a military defeat than a mass surrender. Either way, it was not an isolated incident. At the end of last year, The Irrawaddy reported that nationally, the Myanmar military has lost 19 towns and 303 outposts to armed resistance groups. Desertion is also a national problem for the Myanmar military, with soldiers deserting in various states across the country. Some even flee to join resistance groups. 

Many ex-servicemen cite moral reasons for deserting. In other words: they don’t want to be involved in the murder of their own countrymen. Others cite the brutal culture within the military, and mistreatment of lower ranking soldiers by officers. It remains difficult to quantify precisely how many soldiers have defected or deserted, but there are several indications that the junta views the problem as an existential threat. 

The most obvious symptom is the Junta’s decision to enforce military conscription in Myanmar. In February of 2024, Myanmar state media announced that “men aged 18-35 and women aged 18-27” will be required to perform military service for a period of two years. The penalty for refusal is five years in prison. Another indication of the regime’s desperation is that they’ve promised to pardon deserting soldiers, on the condition that they return to service. 

It has even been reported that the Tatmadaw are resorting to press-ganging civilians into service

Myanmar’s army is also facing a recruitment crisis. It has even been reported that the Tatmadaw are resorting to press-ganging civilians into service by setting up spurious job adverts, designed to appeal to job-seekers of military age. When these men are invited for interviews, they are forced to enlist into the military. Incidentally, this tactic mirrors a similar practice used by Chinese gangs in Myanmar, in which foreign nationals are lured to the country with the promise of a lucrative job, only to be forced into working at online scam labour camps in rural areas.

An army that cannot recruit or retain soldiers will not be an army for very long, and the Junta’s position remains uncertain. I asked Jason Tower — country director for the Burma program at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) — whether he thought it was possible Myanmar’s military would collapse if it continued to lose ground to resistance groups. “I think that is entirely possible at this point if the current trajectory does not shift.” He said. “But in my view, this won’t happen as quickly as some are predicting.”

I then asked him about the impact of the desertions and surrenders on the operational ability of the military in Myanmar. He said the following:

…the Myanmar army is seen by the vast majority of Myanmar people as the enemy and the cause of the country’s collapse into chaos and economic disaster. The military is no longer able to effectively recruit troops, and following a series of humiliating defeats on the battlefield, morale is now at a historical low … The unwillingness of frontline troops to fight and the lack of logistical support has in turn resulted in tens of millions of dollars in arms captured by the resistance forces, giving them more of an advantage on the battlefield.

With respect to the regional importance of Myanmar, Tower emphasised the role of Chinese interests, but stressed that any direct intervention would be unlikely: “China has signalled a strong preference for trusted ethnic armed organisations in its border region and the military regime to cooperate in providing security to Chinese investments. All of these parties in turn have signalled their intentions to ensure the security of key Chinese infrastructure like the China-Myanmar pipeline.” 

As the military continues to decline in power and influence, Tower believes that it is very likely that China will lean more on the EAOs (Ethnic Armed Organisations) to secure its interests. “Direct Chinese military intervention in Myanmar is extremely unlikely,” he thinks:

… as China would worry about how other neighbouring countries might respond to Chinese military involvement overseas. Instead, China is more likely to work through the ethnic armed organisations in its sphere of influence to secure its interests in the event the junta loses control of additional territories along its strategic resource corridor, or in the event of a possible junta collapse.

In Tower’s opinion, the Chinese Government is taking the long view on Myanmar, adopting a pragmatic approach to the possible collapse of the regime in order to safeguard its interests.

It would therefore seem that the Junta in Myanmar is in a precarious position. The real question, as ever, is what will take its place? 

The implosion of an autocratic regime — as was found in Iraq — often leaves a power vacuum behind it. In Myanmar, there are numerous EAOs and pro-democracy groups who would be left with the responsibility of running the country. In this respect, Tower was optimistic about the chances of a post-Junta Myanmar.

While the collapse of the military would leave some uncertainty as to the shape of a future government, it would remove the key source of suffering and oppression, and provide the Myanmar people with an opportunity to chart a new path for the future. The ethnic armed organisations, NUG, local defence forces, and other key political actors have already achieved basic levels of coordination, and local governance structures have emerged in many parts of the country. While there are many disagreements and tensions across different groups, the exit of the military from politics would be welcome by all as a starting point for rebuilding.

He added:

Importantly, none of the resistance actors have indicated any intention of seeking independence — all remain committed to staying under a shared central level government.

It was over a decade ago that Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. I was in my early teens at the time, but I well remember the news reports. I remember how the crowds assembled outside her home in the name of democracy, and how the free world applauded. Perhaps that day will come again.

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