Myanmar in 2024: Junta in ‘Terminal Decline?’
Yet there's uncertainty of how long that will take, and how that collapse will look like
By: David Scott Mathieson
Several weeks after the stunning ‘Operation 1027’ by insurgents of the Three Brotherhood Alliance in Northern Myanmar, the embattled military junta, which calls itself the State Administration Council (SAC), still clings to power. But for how long? The surprise attacks on multiple military targets in Shan State from late October overran over 150 military bases and key border towns with China. Almost certainly, the SAC is in terminal decline, yet there is great uncertainty of how long that will take, and how that collapse will look from one place to another.
The alliance and their allies, younger post-coup resistance organizations such as the Bama People’s Liberation Army (BPLA), captured a mother-lode of weaponry, including heavy artillery pieces and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS), tanks, and seemingly thousands of small arms. Ethnic Kokang fighters of the Brotherhood are closing on the enclave of Laukkai, their key target since being ousted by their rivals in 2009. In sync with Chinese campaigns to clear up border casino scam centers, the Brotherhood clearly had Beijing’s acquiescence to attack.
The offensive was soon supported by renewed fighting in other locations throughout Myanmar by multiple Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) and People’s Defense Forces (PDFs). Dubbing their part of the offensive ‘Operation 1111’, combined Karenni armed forces laid siege to the state capital of Loikaw, which a month later they are still trying to fully capture, being forestalled by the junta’s substantial airstrike capacity. One of the founding members of the Brotherhood Alliance, the Arakan Army (AA) renewed fighting after an uneasy ceasefire with the Myanmar military, attempting to seize towns close to the state capital Sittwe, and overrunning a number of major Myanmar army bases. Chin revolutionary groups also seized border towns along the Indian border.
The combined PDF forces of the National Unity Government (NUG) and Kachin Independent Organization (KIO) seized the Sagaing Region town of Kawlin. On December 3, the NUG announced a declaration assuming administrative functions in the town including public services, local security duties – “three tiers of safety nets” – judiciary, banking services, and assisting some 1,180 civil servants who had been part of the civil disobedience movement (CDM) to resume their duties. In a number of loosely combined operations, the resistance forces achieved the most stunning practical and symbolic victory since the February 2021 coup d’etat.
BPLA commander Maung Saungkha told Myanmar Now, “Operation 1027 is not limited to northern Shan State…(h)owever, we needed a place to start, in order to have a home base of some sort, and it was northern Shan State. After we’re done with northern Shan State, we’ll extend to other areas along with the fighters for the Spring Revolution. These are the things that we, as well as the defense ministry officials of the NUG [National Unity Government] have to work hard for.”
Nevertheless, SAC strongman Senior General Min Aung Hlaing felt safe enough to travel to the city of Lashio, capital of Northern Shan State, to visit wounded Myanmar army soldiers and internally displaced civilians. Yet his ground troops are struggling to retake multiple positions around the city and along the main trade route highway linking Mandalay with the city and on to China.
Already the international response has been uneven, lurching from alarmism to premature celebration. Exuberant commentary emerging from Washington DC, to an irresponsible degree, predicting imminent victory from multiple think tanks and the Washington Post stating the regime is “losing” and on the “verge of collapse.” Alarm from Tokyo, with Japan Times predicting a ‘failed state,’ yet calling for immediate recognition of the rebel NUG. Bemused reactions from China started, calling for a ceasefire and negotiations. Relative calm from Thailand, after disruption to diplomatic efforts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) led by Indonesia in 2023.
Operation 1027 certainly stirred the international media’s attention momentarily from fixation on Gaza and Ukraine, but in a peripatetic moment predictions of anti-SAC forces triumphant could be counter-productive. A National Unity Government leadership largely tone-deaf to these sensibilities is a recipe for future armed conflict when the SAC finally falls. Foreign Minister Zin Mar Aung’s interview with Nikkei Weekly in late November contained multiple contradictions, including that the “military is getting ready to dissolve itself” and delivering confusing observations such as “(w)e are not trying to abolish the entire military” when that is a core aspiration for many ‘Spring Revolutionaries.’
It is disquieting that for many in the international community, the principle solution to a post-SAC Myanmar is the NUG. The exiled government has an important role in planning a new Myanmar, but not a monopoly. The NUG must seek more effective collaboration, as equals, to many of the EAOs and help to build a new country where local aspirations are supported, not squashed. Many ethnic communities don’t want to see a military dictatorship replaced by a new central Bamar civilian dictatorship.
The concept of ‘unity’ is contested in Myanmar. Unity is often perceived by long-persecuted ethnic nationalities as central control, or subordination. The NUG claims to have a central leadership role but, in fact, they are just one, albeit an important one, of many political and military groups that have to cooperate with shared visions of a new Myanmar, but by understanding better each other’s claims for territorial governance and multiple levels of legitimacy. Operation 1027 may have indelibly marked the weaknesses of the Myanmar military, also the shortcomings of NUG coordination.
The future political composition of the country is impossible to predict, even with the widely accepted Federal Democracy Charter (FDC) agreed to in March 2021, but what is certain is that a great deal of innovative planning and action by various groups indicate that ‘bottom-up’ federalism is likely to be the model for many parts of the country moving forward. Models such as ‘confederation’ or ‘subsidiarity’ have joined ‘federalism’ as new ways to conceive of future political units in the country, a patchwork of different approaches to state-level governance. How this will develop once the SAC falls is speculative, but on what has already taken place in areas such as Karenni, Chin, Rakhine, and Sagaing, there are likely to be numerous semi-autonomous enclaves working with a more centralized state. This will require intensive negotiations and the acceptance that different models should be tolerated as long as they act peacefully to pursue local visions of peace and development.
The challenges of cooperation for a future post-SAC peace must be openly and inclusively debated now, as a collective not exclusionary endeavor. The military’s eventual collapse is inevitable, but what comes after it won’t be the utopia some in the NUG and their foreign acolytes pretend.
David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, humanitarian, and human rights issues in Myanmar