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Myanmar’s Military Must Be Shown It Can’t Win

Negotiations are far off, but they are the only way out of a catastrophic conflict.

By , an adjunct fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies's Southeast Asia program.
Protesters in Myanmar
Protesters take part in a torch demonstration against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, on Nov. 18. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Since Myanmar’s military seized control in a February coup, the country has been in crisis. Civilians have revolted against the junta, which has responded with brutal violence. The country’s economy has tanked, with its currency dropping at least 60 percent and growth expected to contract nearly 20 percent by the end of 2021. Basic state services have all but stopped, thanks to both the population’s distrust of the junta and a civil disobedience movement initiated by the public and championed by the National Unity Government (NUG), which includes ousted politicians, activists, and ethnic minority representatives opposed to the coup.

Several foreign officials and observers have called for the crisis to be resolved through peaceful dialogue between the junta and its opponents. But such calls are premature. Neither side has interest in talking yet, and foreign powers can do little right now to bring either of them to the table any time soon.

If the military somehow manages to weaken the resistance significantly, which seems unlikely at this moment, it would have even less reason to engage in talks. Instead, the necessary condition for talks that have any hope of success is a substantial—and clearly recognized—weakening of the military’s position. That’s where the world can play some role, but the critical work will have to come from internal pressure.

Since Myanmar’s military seized control in a February coup, the country has been in crisis. Civilians have revolted against the junta, which has responded with brutal violence. The country’s economy has tanked, with its currency dropping at least 60 percent and growth expected to contract nearly 20 percent by the end of 2021. Basic state services have all but stopped, thanks to both the population’s distrust of the junta and a civil disobedience movement initiated by the public and championed by the National Unity Government (NUG), which includes ousted politicians, activists, and ethnic minority representatives opposed to the coup.

Several foreign officials and observers have called for the crisis to be resolved through peaceful dialogue between the junta and its opponents. But such calls are premature. Neither side has interest in talking yet, and foreign powers can do little right now to bring either of them to the table any time soon.

If the military somehow manages to weaken the resistance significantly, which seems unlikely at this moment, it would have even less reason to engage in talks. Instead, the necessary condition for talks that have any hope of success is a substantial—and clearly recognized—weakening of the military’s position. That’s where the world can play some role, but the critical work will have to come from internal pressure.

As I have written elsewhere, the military has little hope of restoring stability or of governing effectively, because Myanmar is not the same place it was when the junta governed a decade ago: Cellphones now connect Myanmar’s citizens to the world, informing them in their own halls of power. After years of greater freedom, the public won’t lie down easily, even if the junta continues intermittently cutting cell service.

Only once military leaders realize that they cannot succeed, and that their current path is putting them and their families at risk—the opposition increasingly talks about burning the Tatmadaw out root and branch—will there be a chance for peace and movement toward a system of federal democracy that appears to be the best recipe for stability and success.

Such an awakening will not come naturally or easily. The military is an insulated organization, one whose recruits live in isolation from the people they’re supposed to serve and whose elites remain similarly cloistered away in mansions and offices far beyond the rice paddies of the Irrawaddy. And although the situation in Myanmar is currently deteriorating—as evinced by violent anti-junta attacks in cities such as Yangon and Mandalay (such violence usually remains in the countryside)—the Tatmadaw has not shown any signs of understanding that it cannot win. Its leaders have neither extended an olive branch nor expressed any interest in negotiating with either the opposition or foreign powers. Instead, the Tatmadaw, backed by Russia and, to a lesser extent, China, has ramped up its attacks under the conviction that losing would mean total destruction.

Persuading a sufficient number of senior military officers that they cannot win and must change course to preserve the military as an institution might prove impossible. But at a minimum, it will require even more sustained pressure. U.S., European, and other sanctions are a good start, as are continued efforts to deprive the junta of international legitimacy, but they are far from sufficient. No level of sanctions will drive an autocrat out of power alone, as Washington should recognize from its failed efforts to do so in Venezuela and Syria. External pressure alone has proven illusory when it comes to regime change.

What will truly affect the junta, however, is internal pressure. The civil disobedience movement has already affected the Tatmadaw, making clear the regime’s complete failure to govern. To bring the junta to the table, though, the movement will have to continue seriously undermining the state’s functionality, in terms of economics, infrastructure, and a whole host of other fronts, while also continuing to stretch and strain the military itself.

The growing armed resistance is more controversial. But the military has fostered this violence through its brutal response to peaceful protests. This resistance, meanwhile, is putting further pressure on the military, although its methods raise many concerns, moral and practical. Foreign powers need to recognize that this resistance is a reality that is impacting the military, even if democratic capitals prefer to reserve violence as an acceptable weapon only for states.

Meanwhile, peaceful civil disobedience, coupled with armed pressure, could bring the military to recognize its poor position. The constant pressure will further hammer home to the Tatmadaw that it has no hope of governing the country, that the current state of play is untenable and only hurting its own institution, and that the only way for its leaders to literally save their own skins and enjoy the fortunes they’ve amassed is by offering substantial concessions and engaging in talks.

In fact, we’re already seeing a crisis of confidence at the lower level: Some 3,000 soldiers and police have defected to the resistance since the coup. Fractures of dissent are also beginning to appear within the military’s generally unwavering support base.

Yet even if the Tatmadaw might eventually open to talks, it’s not clear that the opposition will reciprocate. Anti-junta forces understandably distrust the junta: Indeed, it was this same military that reneged on the previous power-sharing deal that give it a huge amount of power and influence. There is zero trust among the opposition that the Tatmadaw will keep its word.

But the opposition, like the Tatmadaw, may after months (or even years) of violence and economic disaster come to see negotiations as the only way out. Certainly, the opposition, like the Tatmadaw, wants to win this war outright; yet as that goal proves impossible for both sides, it’s not hard to see NUG leaders coming to see negotiation as the only exit.

If the opposition is willing to come to the table and the military eventually feels sufficient pressure to initiate talks and make significant concessions, one critical question will be: “Talks with whom?” Talks limited to the military and the previous elected government would be wildly insufficient.

Key to any eventual talks will be the inclusion of ethnic minority groups that have borne the brunt of military offensives and horrific human rights abuses for decades. Myanmar’s numerous governments, including the ousted quasi-democratic one, largely excluded and ignored minorities. Not only was this morally wrong, it was strategically unsustainable: Nobody will be able to govern Myanmar unless ethnic minority groups feel they are part of the country, or at least are given some autonomy within it. Including them—and that means ethnic minority civil society and political party members, not just ethnic armed organizations—in talks is key to rebuilding a better, stable Myanmar.

Accordingly, future talks will have to explicitly include the Rohingya community NUG members and Aung San Suu Kyi herself, as well as those who have led peaceful protests, the civil disobedience movement, and other efforts (including armed actions) against the junta. Shoving any of these players to the side is not an option.

Indeed, to play a constructive role in Myanmar’s future, foreign governments will have to not only put aside their disdain for Suu Kyi but also lower their expectations. The Biden administration’s calls for the “restoration of democracy” are well intentioned but out of step with reality. Democracy is not the most pressing issue in Myanmar right now; stopping the violence and chaos by guiding the two sides toward détente is.

Foreign governments, especially the United States, should intensify and broaden the current sanctions imposed on Myanmar’s military leaders and senior junta officials, as very little of the profit generated by military-controlled companies actually trickles down to civilians. They should work to starve the Tatmadaw and other pro-junta forces of weapons and other military assistance, bar their financial institutions from serving sanctioned people or entities from Myanmar, and pressure partners (such as Singapore) to do the same.

Developed countries should offer assistance both to civilian refugees—perhaps even by pressuring India and Thailand, which have resisted, to do so—and members of the opposition hoping to flee. Finally, they should begin seriously engaging the opposition’s non-violent factions, publicly elevating those who are most vocally in support of negotiations.

Taken together, these steps will promote negotiations as a possible salve for both sides, all while making it clear to the distrustful opposition that the United States and its partners are willing and able to play an eventual intermediary role.

But it is not the Americans, Europeans, Chinese, or Russians who will make these decisions about when and between whom talks take place. It is Myanmar’s leading players who will decide not only what this dialogue will look like, but if it ever even comes about.

Charles Dunst is an adjunct fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies's Southeast Asia program. Twitter: @charlesdunst

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