Achieving the Best Outcome in Myanmar’s Civil War
The acting president of Myanmar’s National Unity Government, the parallel civilian government which is fighting the junta that took power in a 2021 coup, recently claimed that resistance forces now control half of the country. Their goal is to take power in the coming year and install a federal democracy to replace the junta’s brutal dictatorship. Will they succeed, and what are the alternatives if they do not?
There is little likelihood of the junta winning militarily or negotiating a power-sharing agreement. The National Unity Government, by contrast, has demonstrated growing potential to be victorious if it can successfully broaden an ethnic coalition and build its armed resistance capacity. Yet if a decisive outcome is not reached in the coming years, stalemates could lead the revolutionary movement to retreat, and the war could shift into a protracted low-intensity conflict. This would be a minor victory for the junta and a setback for all those who hope to see a stable and democratic Myanmar.
To prevent this outcome, the United States, regional partners, and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations should work more strategically with the National Unity Government and ethnic armed groups. While military aid is off the table for many countries, more can be done to strengthen the opposition’s political strategy and local governance. Engaging more effectively with ethnic armed groups to improve inter-ethnic relations is also critical to prevent fragmentation and help build the unity that the opposition needs to prevail.
The Junta Wins Decisively
The junta’s coup reordered Myanmar’s international relations. The country now faces economic sanctions from the United States and other western countries but retains political and military support from Russia and China. The junta’s Commander-in-Chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, recently met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on his third trip to Russia since the coup. China has also cozied up to the regime after a period of ambivalence. Beijing declared in April 2022 that its support would continue “no matter how the situation changes” while also encouraging more “major construction projects” under the Belt and Road Initiative in order to maximize China’s geographic connectivity and access to the Indian Ocean.
China’s support to the junta signals an acceptance of them as the post-coup government and a likely expectation they will gain some control over the resistance, the state, and the economy, all of which is highly unlikely in the coming year. While support from Russia and China is significant in terms of armaments and political cover, it has not been able to protect the junta against resistance groups and the degradation of its own forces.
Analyzing relative strength metrics alone, the junta should have defeated resistance forces in weeks. Opposition armed groups, known as people’s defense forces, are decentralized with only nominal strategic coordination and limited weaponry consisting of small arms, bladed weapons, and improvised explosive devices. Yet the morale, local support networks, and regenerative capacity of resistance groups — many of which align with the National Unity Government — have proven significant. The junta’s military, spread between multiple theaters, faces rising defections and depleted resources.
After more than one year of successfully fighting the junta, resistance groups now have a higher likelihood of surviving. Indeed, more than 50 percent of military victories for incumbent governments over rebel groups in civil conflicts happen in the first year. Fully defeating an insurgent group gets harder over time.
Since Myanmar’s independence in 1948, it has been plagued by insurgencies, most of which have failed to end decisively. Rather than ending in military victories or peace agreements, many have transformed into low-intensity conflicts and long-term ceasefires, leading conflicts to either die off or fizz and pop at different times. In some cases, rebel or insurgent groups have strengthened or weakened over time or splintered into entirely new groups.
Myanmar has the most non-decisive outcomes from its insurgencies compared to all other countries affected by internal armed conflict between 1946 to 2020, according to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program. This figure speaks to the military’s inability to compromise and negotiate political settlements and its history of not winning wars decisively, often inspiring new insurgencies and allowing armed actors to regroup, mobilize, and embed in communities as governance providers.
Today, multiple ethnic-based conflicts in frontier areas are converging with an armed revolutionary movement across the interior, where the military used to recruit most of its members from the country’s ethnic Bamar majority. While there will continue to be some battle-level wins for the junta’s forces, the military is highly unlikely to achieve a strategic-level victory against the new resistance.
The National Unity Government Wins Decisively
The National Unity Government remains optimistic about its impending victory and has requested lethal aid from the West. Many local and foreign observers echo this optimism, describing a dynamic and successful insurgency.
However, comparative data suggests that decisive military victories by rebel groups over incumbent governments are rare, globally accounting for around 9 percent of civil conflict outcomes in the last seven decades. Moreover, Myanmar’s rebels lack some of the advantages that historically contribute to victories: resistance forces lack resources, a command structure, horizontal coordination of small units, sponsorship, weaponry, and supply chains.
Yet with any new insurgent group, war-making capacity starts low and increases with battle experience, knowledge of the adversary, and improved resource mobilization strategies. The polycentric nature of the resistance movement, comprised of over 250 units, also brings advantages. The junta, spread thin by hunting down civilian fighters, has not been unable to target and capture a core armed leadership.
In one year since taking up arms against the junta, resistance forces and the National Unity Government have reshaped the country’s conflict landscape through violent and political tactics. They continue consolidating territory and are quick to create new governance arrangements by offering education and health services. They have won legitimacy in the eyes of local populations, who are known to greet returning soldiers by lining the streets and throwing flowers.
Yet not all of Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups support the National Unity Government. Some established armed groups are aligned with it. Other groups are skeptical. They are unwilling to accept the Bamar leadership of the National League for Democracy — a central part of the Unity government — and see the fallout from the coup as an intra-Bamar contest for power.
For the National Unity Government, creating a broad coalition of ethnic armed groups behind an inclusive vision of democratic federalism is critical to defeating the military. This, in turn, requires Bamar leaders from the National League for Democracy to relinquish some power and accept that majoritarian electoral success is only one form of legitimacy. Many ethnic armed groups retain legitimacy in the eyes of the local populations they have served for decades.
Given inter-ethnic tensions and political challenges, the National Unity Government can still achieve victory, but it is by no means imminent. For the West, a National Unity Government victory is preferable to the junta slowly crushing the resistance, which will set the clock back to a period of isolation, brutal dictatorship, protracted conflicts, and dependence on China. The opposition also offers a far better government partner for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations members. For decades, the junta has been a thorn in these countries’ sides. It has created conflict and chaos, stretching the principle of non-interference with its 2007 crackdown on protestors, the 2017 Rohingya genocide, and the 2021 coup.
A Political Settlement
There is currently no bargaining space between the Myanmar junta and the National Unity Government, which both seek to defeat each other militarily and have irreconcilable visions for the future of the state. There will not be a grand track-one negotiations process mediated by third parties or the United Nations anytime soon.
The United States and ally countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan — as well as China — have supported the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in seeking a political solution to the crisis. The group’s leaders continue to flog a five-point consensus on Myanmar, featuring a cessation of hostilities and dialogue among “all parties,” which one prominent analyst called “dead on arrival.” Given numerous bargaining problems and commitment challenges, there has, unsurprisingly, been no traction.
It is crucial for countries on the sidelines to learn from the peace process which took place in Myanmar for 10 years before the coup. This process spent years on life support and failed to transition the country from its military-designed hybrid system of unitary government to a civilian-controlled federal democracy, as desired by the many groups involved and their constituents. During this process, the military proved incapable of moving outside its own constitutional framework and self-serving interests to remain in politics. On the one hand, they played an obstructionist role, trying to inflame factional divides and exercise a veto over negotiations. On the other hand, they broke ceasefires, carried out assaults, and committed genocide against the Rohingya population.
Negotiating with the military for power-sharing is a plane that has already crashed into a hill. To shift the junta’s current warpath, significant institutional, cultural, and leadership changes are necessary to align the military’s vision for Myanmar with that of the population’s. This normative revolution from within is not going to happen anytime soon.
High-level diplomatic meetings with the junta’s Commander-in-Chief emphasizing the rule of law, human rights, and dialogue will not transform the policy of an institution designed for coercive control of populations, organized violence, and war-making. Western diplomats and regional leaders should only aim to deal with the junta later when it is politically and militarily weakened or closer to being unseated.
Several Western countries are already offering some level of aid and support to the National Unity Consultative Council, a coalition bringing together a complex array of stakeholders, including the National Unity Government, some ethnic armed groups, and civil society. This process has demonstrated promise, using national and subnational dialogue to design a democratic federal charter. Yet it is also struggling to bring together many ethnic groups. On the whole, it is unlikely a single process will solve all of Myanmar’s state-building and nation-building challenges. Many different peace dialogues and efforts will be needed.
State Failure and the ‘Balkanization’ of Myanmar
Numerous papers and articles have vaguely cited the possible “Balkanization” of Myanmar, stemming from state collapse or failure. While total state collapse is a rare event globally, cases of institutions collapsing and the state failing to perform its essential functions have plagued Myanmar for decades under military rule. Currently, the military cannot consolidate its control through subnational and local governance due to resistance from within state institutions, including boycotts by civil servants and defections from the security sector, not to mention armed attacks and citizens refusing to pay taxes.
In the “Balkanisation” scenario, a weak or collapsed center would lead to fragmentation and multiple separate ethnic states or fiefdoms. However, it is unlikely that any of the ethnic armed groups seeking independence would gain the type of foreign sponsorship necessary to pursue formal independence, as in the case of Kosovo, Timor-Leste, or South Sudan. Most countries on the sidelines of this crisis wish Myanmar would sort itself out and have no interest in making a complicated situation more challenging.
However, in the coup’s aftermath, ethnic armed groups have broadened and strengthened their control of territory. It is conceivable that existing ethnic fiefdoms could gain further autonomy and refuse to join a future civilian-led central government. Some armed groups that are already running de facto independent statelets and not aligned with the National Unity Government — such as the United Wa State Army, the ethnic Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and the Arakan Army — may continue to stay outside of the proposed federal charter. Groups may even “declare” independence without formal recognition.
In short, while full Balkanization is unlikely, fragmentation is a constant risk in Myanmar politics. This highlights the need for reconciliation between leaders from ethnic minorities and the Bamar majority.
Protracted Low-Intensity Conflict
There is one more scenario to consider. It is also possible that after several years of battles without a decisive outcome, the revolutionary movement could transform into a protracted, low-intensity conflict alongside the other ethnic conflicts in Myanmar. In this scenario, a military and political stalemate would lead both the National Unity Government and the military to retreat without a strategic or decisive outcome to the conflict.
While such stalemates can sometimes be opportunities for political negotiations, the Myanmar military has shown that they prefer to have infrequent fighting than commit to any form of power-sharing. Without the demands of an intense armed conflict, rebel groups often evolve. Full-time forces may be reduced to reserves and some armed actors may seek out other economic opportunities.
A long stalemate or low-intensity conflict in the Bamar heartland would be a minor victory for the military. This would mark a return to the status quo, with multiple conflicts that the junta could manage in sequence. Resistance forces and ethnic armed groups should work strategically to prevent this by stretching the military’s resources as far as possible and for as long as possible while better integrating their own supply chains.
What can the United States and its regional partners do to support an opposition victory? Given the risks of a costly quagmire with Russia and China, they are unlikely to provide lethal military assistance. Instead, they can provide the National Unity Government with more aid to build its civilian institutions and direct aid to support opposition political structures in the most conflict-affected parts of the country. Foreign countries should also reinvest political capital in dialogue platforms to improve elite relations between ethnic armed groups and Bamar civilian leaders, and support discussions on governance systems to manage Myanmar’s complex ethnic jigsaw.
The year ahead is a critical time for the National Unity Government, its armed allies, and ethnic armed groups seeking to create a federal democracy in Myanmar. If the United States and its Asian allies want a strategic partner instead of a chaotic pariah state, now is the time to take greater risks and engage more effectively with the opposition government and rebel groups.
Nicola Williams (@MsNicolaSW) is a Ph.D. scholar at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, working on a dissertation book project, “How Civil Conflicts End.” She has 14 years of professional experience in international development specializing in governance, conflict resolution, and fragility, including half a decade working in Myanmar.