Myanmar’s anniversary of stalemate and shame
The inevitable slew of Myanmar coup d’etat two-year anniversary statements, opinion pieces and social media posturing will all promote defiance and eventual victory even as grim statistics of murders, arson and displacement are arrayed to condemn the criminal rule of the military’s State Administration Council (SAC).
A central theme will inevitably be a call for greater international support, renewed sanctions and resolutions – and in some cases weapons supplies to topple the regime. It’s all as familiar as it is feckless to anyone paying attention.
The low art of episodic, opportunistic commentary (and the inanely misplaced Ukraine comparison, “why arm them but not the anti-SAC forces”) illustrates the global mood over Myanmar is merely an affected bleating from the wainscot of the international conscience.
Silence will resume within days. That canard inflated by pompous talking heads of “it’s time to act” is as equally deplorable as the “deeply concerned” of world leaders: it’s a self-assuaging cliché to appear compassionate.
Just as Myanmar’s civil war is now bogged down in a bloody stalemate, so too the world’s response is at an impasse, and expecting any significant surge in support is simply dishonest exhortation when any greater assistance simply won’t come. This is not a “forgotten war” as some unoriginal media narratives propound: it’s an ignored one.
Yes, the West is obsessed with Russia and gripped by Ukrainian resistance and is sending billions in high-tech weaponry: but Russia threatens Europe, the SAC doesn’t. In Asia, it’s a Western obsession with China and strengthening ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Myanmar is essentially on its own, and has been for two years.
How has the SAC and its grinning psychopath leader Min Aung Hlaing fared? Even by the negative gearing political logic of the Myanmar military, or Sit Tat, the SAC is in a downward spiral.
The coup was a major miscalculation. Most of the country is furious at military control. The abhorrent violence has revolted an entire generation and generated an armed resistance the country has never experienced in 75 years of independence. The economy is in freefall. Anyone with the wherewithal to leave has done so or is planning on it.
Urban warfare may have abated, but there is no predicting what shape or form anti-military violence will take in the future. The SAC will rely on its methods of cruelty, fear, intimidation and the sad spectacle of handing out prizes to lackeys, buying off the Buddhist monkhood and other religious figures.
But if the SAC harbors confidence that, like the Taliban against the US-led coalition in Afghanistan, that “you have the watches, we have the time” and the confidence that heavy firepower, unrestricted warfare and divide and rule is a patient formula for regime consolidation, then they have misjudged the resolve of the people.
Min Aung Hlaing so far has relied on the twisted sense of Sit-Tat omertà, the group cohesion that only complicity in the most egregious crimes can forge. The SAC forces are undoubtedly suffering significant casualties and losing bases, and battling for supply lines and freedom of movement without potential ambush, but the opposition, and the Myanmar media, are enraptured with “body counts” to the point of disinformation.
Defections to the opposition have dried up. It is almost impossible to gauge the scale of desertions and active disengagement. Far from an imminent exsanguination of personnel, the SAC has prevailed through the widespread use of increasingly accurate airstrikes, heavy artillery and their old tactics of atrocity and arson against civilians, and heliborne operations instead of truck convoys.
In an asymmetric attrition war, the SAC is holding on; but that isn’t victory by any measure. No one should expect the Myanmar military to collapse without extreme violence: this is a fight to the death when Min Aung Hlaing and his inner circle don’t care about casualties.
After two years of first peaceful, now increasingly ultra-violent, resistance, the idea of a knockout blow against military rule seems highly unlikely. The civil war is now so multi-fronted, involving hundreds of armed groups across multiple battlespaces, that gains in one place don’t translate to progress in others.
This is attrition warfare, a stalemate where an eventual victor is not easily predicted. One can believe in the inevitability of triumph over the military system; this analyst certainly believes so, but trying to forecast the how and when of victory is folly.
If the purportedly leaked memo from a SAC Counter Terrorism Central Committee meeting at the end of 2022 is to be believed, the regime is feeling pressure on multiple fronts and is certainly seized by its unpopularity and perceived multiple threats.
The parallel National Unity Government (NUG) has made significant gains since its formation following the coup. Yet its pronouncements in 2022 of imminent victory within a year were widely seen as peddling false hopes, and seemed directed more at convincing distracted policymakers around the world than accuracy.
Unconvincing claims of administrative consolidation and battlefield prowess around the country by the NUG and its foreign factotums of the regime only controlling 17% of the country is clear evidence of hubris.
The NUG’s uneven performance on many fronts and its supposed governing body, the underperforming National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), indicate the crippling character flaw of Myanmar opposition politics: ego over effective collaboration.
Genuine revolutionary federalism is being forged on the ground, not in exiled seminar rooms or by broken-record old leaders pontificating in exile.
Will there be planned elections in 2023? If yes, the polls will be beyond fraudulent: they’re the electoral equivalent of money laundering. They won’t be a “flawed but first step” in the feverish imagination of reckless analysts or diplomats, but a criminal erasure of the people’s will from the elections of 2020.
Perhaps in a fraction of township constituencies, urban areas, safe areas around military cantonments, areas with little resistance and heavy security presence such as the Ayeyarwady Delta or Eastern Shan state will be orchestrated to look like a real election. But Sagaing, with all its widespread violence, will be almost impossible to hold anything resembling an election.
The anti-SAC forces have made it clear they will oppose any planned polls. This is both inevitable and obvious. Already there are violent reactions against the elections preparations, against individuals and installations.
Far from establishing a distance from a farce, the parallel government has threatened any person perceived as cooperating with the elections to be charged under the 2014 Counter-Terrorism Law. The apparent irony that so many resistance figures and innocent civilians have been charged under this law is lost on the NUG’s Minister for Home Affairs and Immigration Lwin Ko Latt.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) issued a statement on January 30 rightly denouncing the elections, but included an ominous sentence that anyone involving themselves “will be deemed as accomplices of treason.”
For an opposition movement obsessed with weaponizing the language of rights and accountability, the “rule of law”, these announcements could potentially come back to haunt leaders implicated in command responsibility for war crimes. The NUG has fallen short of moral suasion in lieu of unleashing feral vengeance.
Yet any discussion of EAO or PDF atrocity must start with the uneven nature of the conflict: the SAC and associated security forces and militias are responsible for the coup and a two-year orgy of murder, rape and torture against the entire population.
Killings of suspected informers by urban guerrillas, with all the moral peril involved, is a significantly different step from strafing a school by the air and stealing the bodies to deny evidence. Or burning the town of Thantlang 30 separate times. Or the Christmas Eve Massacre in Hpruso.
Or the state executions of Ko Jimmy and Phyo Zeya Thaw and two other men. Or the daily torture and murder of civilians across the country, the institutionalized sadism of the SAC from Min Aung Hlaing to his foot soldiers.
Any mealy-mouthed moral equivalence argument from critics only serves the SAC and undermines a just resistance cause. Encouraging and enabling the resistance to abide by international humanitarian law should be given further priority. Forget ever convincing the Myanmar military of its obligations. It’s a criminal murder enterprise, not an army.
There is a sadly foregone conclusion that Myanmar’s neighbors will register support for any polls. The support will not be ardent or hopeful, but resigned and cynical. If the baseline “smell test” of any elections is the olfactory equivalent of feces and fish heads, any genuine expectations will be modest.
India, which has spent decades pursuing a failed engagement strategy with the military, will welcome the polls, regardless of how democratic they are. China, Russia, Thailand and Japan will likely endorse them as a necessary step to stabilizing military rule, and pretend to be at least optimistic if deep down dismayed at Min Aung Hlaing’s ineptitude.
The United Nations (UN) has failed Myanmar and its people on every level, and is rushing as fast as it dares to normalize with Naypyidaw, endangering their Myanmar national staff with abandon.
ASEAN’s Five Point Consensus reached in April 2021 has been a diplomatic stillbirth. Such are the narrow options for engagement against SAC imperviousness that Indonesia as the ASEAN chair will not attempt anything bold and shouldn’t be expected to. Why squander diplomatic capital on such an oblivious interlocutor that doesn’t comprehend their craven escape hatch was opened in Jakarta nearly two years ago and ignored by the SAC?
Sanctions continue to be imposed, largely symbolic but important measures to which Australia has belatedly joined. There isn’t much to say about the haplessness of the international community – they’re simply going through the motions of limited options of engagement, and some, reportedly Switzerland and Finland, want to appease the SAC and resume “peace talks.”
The Americans are by far the resistance forces’ closest supporter: but after sanctions, strong words, de-facto recognition of the NUG and the usual misdirection of civil society assistance, that support is essentially limited to a miserly degree. Don’t expect this to change.
Humanitarian assistance is welcome, especially if it is sent more directly to Myanmar organizations and not cud-chewing international agencies. Foreign policymakers privately lament the lack of NUG or opposition planning, underscoring the mendacity of the West who don’t have anything approaching a plan themselves, or the diplomatic attention span to pursue one even if they did.
Images emerging from around Myanmar on today’s two-year coup anniversary illustrate a powerful silent strike in cities and towns, with streets empty of people and cars. It demonstrates both the widespread resistance of the Myanmar people, but also their fear and uncertainty.
It is also a stark reminder that the road to national liberation is forged at home, by a mixture of resistance, endurance, fighting spirit and innovation which has been on such inspiring display since the weeks following the February 1, 2021 coup. It is also a powerful symbol of who the Myanmar regime fears the most: its own people.
David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, human rights and humanitarian issues on Myanmar
Source: Asia Times
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