By Aaron Riley
Source: Getty Images
The world is paying attention to the Tatmadaw’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar. With 114 pro-democracy protesters confirmed dead, March 27 was the bloodiest day in Myanmar since the Tatmadaw, the Burmese military, launched a coup on February 1 to “safeguard democracy.” This “day of shame and terror”, as it is being called, brings the death toll to above 500 in 8 weeks with the government confirming a shoot-to-kill policy for its security forces. These actions have brought global condemnation and action.
The coup, the arrest of the country’s living icon Aung San Suu Kyi, and the subsequent brutality of the Tatmadaw should not come as a surprise. The 2008 Constitution created a unique anocratic system which split control of the government between the Tatmadaw and the elected civilian government. Under this agreement, the Tatmadaw maintained control of the security ministries, kept 25% of parliamentary seats for their own members (Constitutional changes require 76% approval), and is unaccountable to civilian leaders. This system has set up a power sharing agreement that has created constant conflict between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military over who would control the country. The overwhelming victory of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party over the military backed Union Solidarity and Development party in the 2020 election confirmed the people’s support for civilian control. The coup marks the end of this agreement and what happens over the next few months will be determinative for Myanmar’s future.
It is important to understand that from here, there is no clear path forward, no return to the uneasy status quo. Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) representing various ethnic groups have been fighting both each other and the Tatmadaw since the country gained independence in 1948. The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), signed in 2015 between the Tatmadaw and eight EAOs, has been the biggest step towards peace the country has undertaken but this process has been fraught with setbacks. Several powerful EAOs, notably those in the Northern Alliance, refuse to take part due to a lack of trust in the military. In recent days, the NCA has begun to fall apart as powerful EAOs who had signed on to the NCA have publicly pushed back against the military due to the Tatmadaw’s violent crackdown against protesters. Due to this coup and the Tatmadaw’s oppression of protestors, Myanmar is quickly destabilizing and putting things right will be incredibly challenging.
Stabilizing the country will require whoever takes power to have the capacity to impose a cost of defection that encourages EAO participation in the new system. The Tatmadaw seems the most likely to be able to do this. They are experienced military campaigners that are getting help from China and Russia. With this support, they would be able to use their resources to pose a simple option to EAOs: join or fight. This being said, the Tatmadaw, with their seeming reluctance or inability to actually destroy an adversary, will likely prefer to co-opt EAOs into a warlord type system that allows each side to profit from the country’s natural resources. This would be a similar, yet more formalized, system to that which they have run since democratization. This process will still lead to conflict with some EAOs simply because the Tatmadaw has no reputational capital on which to lean. EAOs that do not trust the Tatmadaw to hold to their peace agreement will drive a higher price to ensure their cooperation. In turn, this will lead to a higher probability that the military will choose to fight.
For a civilian government, imposing a high cost of defection will be more challenging. Their ability to use coercive force to increase cost of defection will be low as the newly formed civilian government will likely have significantly weakened military force to work with. They will have a significant inflow of international aid to redistribute to EAOs that could help them buy some groups off. Others, seeing a civilian democracy they can participate in, may actually choose to join in and transition from armed groups to ethnic political parties if trust in the system can be built over time. For these groups, the cost of defection from the system is going to be entirely dependent on how much access to money and political power the new system gives them. However, there are EAOs like the Kachin Independence Army/Organization and the Arakan Army with the long-term goal of independence or autonomous confederal status. This is incompatible with either a buy-off or being co-opted and they will eventually choose to fight the government again. EAOs with this goal will see the transition period as the time they have the most relative power, and it would make sense for them to push for independence immediately. For reasons explained by GPS’s own Barbara Walter in her book Reputation and Civil War: Why Separatist Conflicts Are So Violent, this is a process fraught with danger and could drag the country back into years of destabilizing civil war. The diminished coercive power of a civilian government in Myanmar will encourage EAOs with ambitions outside of the proposed power structure to rebel.
Planning for a civilian government to take power soon is incredibly optimistic. There seems to be no doubt that the Tatmadaw would lose autonomous status and undergo significant reform should there be a return to a civilian government, either through a peaceful transition of power or through a civil war. This power shift will likely see numerous high-ranking individuals stripped of their power and status, and some will probably end up in prison if they decide to remain in the country. This makes the rational choice for the Tatmadaw simple: fight to stay in control. There is little reason to doubt this will happen as the Tatmadaw has never bowed to international pressure before. With China and Russia backing the Tatmadaw and working to keep Western interveners out of the country, it is possible the Tatmadaw may actually develop the capacity to suppress, co-opt, or buy off enough EAOs to stabilize their hold on power. Should the Tatmadaw, or an unlikely civilian government, fail to develop the capacity to successfully engage with the EAOs, there is a danger Myanmar succumbs to a massive civil war and becomes a failed state.
Aaron Riley is a researcher on international security issues. His experience lies in the fields of low-intensity conflict and far-right extremism. He is a 2020 graduate of the MIA program at GPS.