17 December 2023
Burma on the Brink
By Gwynne Dyer
The Burmese army is a leading candidate for Nastiest Army in the World. Even more than Pakistan’s army, it is the tail that wags the dog: rather than the army serving the country, it’s the other way around. Its record for massacring civilians whenever they protest is unmatched anywhere. Yet it’s now losing its war against the people.
There were the usual massacres and mass arrests in the capital when the army seized power back from a fledgling elected civilian government two years ago. The military junta then confidently set about hunting down and eliminating pro-democracy activists who had taken refuge in the country’s many minority regions, and that’s where things went wrong.
Two-thirds of Burma’s people belong to the Bamar ethnic group (that’s where the name comes from), and it’s Bamars who control the fertile lowlands, the big rivers, the coasts and the cities. But this is not some ethnic tyranny: the army is a closed society, and most Bamars are also victims.
Which explains why, when the most recent round of massacres started in Burmese cities two years ago, tens of thousands of Bamars fled to the hills and mountain valleys where the other third of the population lives – and were welcomed there by the Shans, Karens, Mons, Chins and myriad smaller ethnic groups that have long been targeted by the army.
Indeed, some of the minority groups are even helping to arm and train the urban refugees, for the hill peoples have been fighting the Burmese army for a long time. The army’s main excuse for existing is its claim that it is protecting the country’s ‘unity’ from the separatist tendencies of the various ethnic minorities.
Those ‘separatist tendencies’ are usually nothing more than a demand for a federal system that would give them some local control. However, the wars have been going on for decades and by now most of the bigger ethnic groups have their own experienced militia forces.
They were already holding their own against the Burmese army, and the addition of ‘National Unity Government’ forces (pro-democracy Bamar activists) is stretching the junta’s army thin. It’s actually starting to lose battles.
In late October the ‘Three Brotherhood Alliance’, including the armies of three small ethnic groups near the Chinese border, launched an offensive that drove the regime’s army out of a substantial part of Shan State. The ‘Alliance’ obviously needed China’s permission to attack, but it’s not known how far they were told they could go.
It’s too early to predict that the military junta will be driven from power, and it’s not even clear that China has decided to back the rebels in general. The Shan offensive may have been just an action to punish local criminal families who ignored a Chinese order to shut down an operation that used enslaved Chinese-speaking Burmese to scam Chinese citizens.
With Chinese support or without it, however, the various anti-junta armed groups in Burma now have the military initiative, and that sort of thing can spread. The possibility now exists that the Burmese army could actually be driven from power permanently, rather than just negotiating temporary deals to withdraw from power until it regains the upper hand.
What would become of Burma then? The country has not known a day of internal peace since independence in 1948: it’s the world’s longest-running civil war, though mostly confined to the highlands.
Even now the ethnic minorities are seeking to expand their territories with an eye to their eventual boundaries in a federal state – or, perhaps, the borders of an independent one. Some people are writing draft federal constitutions, and others are seeking allies for the coming struggle over boundaries, but it’s all very premature.
The core fact is that China will have huge influence on the outcome – it’s Burma’s biggest trading partner – and China will want a stable, intact country on its southern border. Beijing probably doesn’t mind if post-junta Burma is a democratic country or not, but it definitely doesn’t want half a dozen squabbling successor states, so that won’t happen.
China also doesn’t care if the current junta survives or not, so long as whatever replaces it is friendly. If the Burmese want their democracy back, they’ll have to do the heavy lifting themselves.
And if they want Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi back as the first president of their new democracy, they’ll have to hurry: she’s 78, and her health is not doing well in prison.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 9. (“It’s too…citizens”)
NOTE: I am using the word Burma because it is preferred by most Burmese democrats. Renaming the country ‘Myanmar’ in English was a piece of ‘namewashing’ under the pretext that it was some kind of decolonization. It was the work of the previous military regime, and Aung San Suu Kyi has said explicitly that she prefers ‘Burma’, although she won’t die in a ditch over it.