Myanmar faces perfect storm as political stalemate deepens

A man cycles with his son past graffiti in support of demonstrations by protesters against the military coup in Yangon on 12 April 2021. Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images.
A man cycles with his son past graffiti in support of demonstrations by protesters against the military coup in Yangon on 12 April 2021. Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images.

Myanmar faces a political stalemate. The threat of civil war, or at least rising levels of violence, looms large with neither protesters nor the military appearing willing to back down. Meanwhile, the military junta appears immune to Western criticism, and while China is happy to practice ‘non-interference’, prospects for a concerted international response are low.

Against this backdrop, there are few reasons for optimism. A handful of commentators have argued that comparisons with the civil war in Syria are overblown. For one, there is less availability of weapons and international actors have not begun arming numerous protagonists, as happened in Syria. For another, despite criticism of the coup by many of the ethnic armed organizations, the army in Myanmar has proved adept at buying off or dividing many of these groups. A consolidated military response by the ethnic groups is therefore probably unlikely, though were it to occur, coupled with increasingly violent urban resistance, the military could be stretched.

Nevertheless, the potential for a humanitarian crisis on the scale of Syria remains significant. None of Myanmar’s neighbours have any interest in absorbing large numbers of refugees so those opposed to the coup have no obvious flight options. China, Thailand and India have all taken steps to tighten border controls and Bangladesh is already hosting more than one million Rohingya refugees.

The economic collapse, coupled with the pandemic, also threaten to exacerbate the crisis further. Regardless of the civil disobedience campaign, any economy would be in trouble if people were concerned about being detained or even shot on the way to work. Medical staff have similarly faced arrest for protesting against the coup. The Red Cross has described the situation in Myanmar as a ‘perfect storm’ where another wave of COVID-19 infections could coincide with the deepening humanitarian crisis. Collapsing testing rates and treatment capacity mean that if another wave of infections swept through the country, as has happened in neighbouring India and Thailand, an already largely collapsed healthcare system would be highly ill-equipped to cope.

Alongside this, almost half of Myanmar’s population risks sliding into poverty. A recent United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report suggested that, in its worst-case scenario, levels of poverty could double to around 48 per cent of the population by next year. The deteriorating security situation has already harmed supply chains, currency has collapsed to record lows, pushing up import prices, and banks are running out of cash. If current trends continue, the UN’s estimate may well be optimistic.

The collapse of the formal economy could also increase the relative importance of the illicit economy. The smuggling of items, such as gems and timber, along with the production and distribution of narcotics, notably heroin and methamphetamine, may help sustain the conflict by fuelling the power of ethnic groups and the military. Put together, these trends seem likely to make Myanmar an increasingly destabilizing force in the region. While China, Thailand and India may be loath to accept refugees now, they may well have little choice in a few months.

ASEAN’s role as a mediator in the conflict will prove to be pivotal over the coming weeks and months. Although ASEAN’s ability to engage effectively with the regime is certainly questionable, it provides by far the most obvious forum for engagement, not just within Myanmar but to attempt to facilitate constructive engagement from China and the US.  Possibly the best solution would be some kind of counter-coup, although there is little evidence to support such an outcome. While a few soldiers have defected, as of now they are very much the exception to the rule, although their testimony does imply that there are at least some in the army who are loath to attack the population they were meant to protect.

One of the many risks is that Myanmar becomes seen through the prism of China-US competition, which could worsen outcomes within the country. If Myanmar were to act as a battleground for the tensions between Beijing and Washington, the prospect of peace and prosperity would be greatly diminished, particularly if either side began arming ethnic groups. As of now, the idea that China is backing the military while the West backs Aung San Suu Kyi’s disbanded National League for Democracy is overly simplistic. However, if the anti-Chinese elements of the protests intensify – and the military prioritizes protecting Chinese investments – this could become the case.

In the China-US ‘great power’ view of Myanmar, this is about democratic versus more authoritarian systems of government. But for ASEAN, and indeed China along with India, the logic for encouraging General Min Aung Hlaing need not be about the virtues of democracy. On its current trajectory, General Hlaing is leading Myanmar rapidly down the path to becoming a failed state and its neighbours will not be immune from the fallout.

Dr Gareth Price, Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme.

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