Myanmar, one year later

One year after the military coup that overthrew the legitimate government, the situation in Myanmar is more instable than ever. While the military is doing anything in their power to keep Ms Suu Kyi behind bars, Ethnic Armed Organisations may play a crucial role in the future and it is not clear where China stands

Last February 1st marked the first anniversary of the military coup in Myanmar. Under the leadership of general Min Aung Hlaing, the Tatmadaw - the Burmese Army - took full control of the central government and arrested many representatives of the NLD. Among those, the most relevant figure still is Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi has been the most prominent voice for democracy in Myanmar since the late 80s. Repeatedly put under arrest for most of her political career by the Burmese Army, her dedication to freedom won her a Nobel Prize in 1991. Even after the relative easing of military control on the Government in 2010, Ms Suu Kyi was denied the role of President by a law almost ad personam (which forbids anyone who has foreign relatives access to the presidency). In turn her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) which dominated Parliament after the 2015 election, created a new position ad hoc for her: State Counsellor. However, Ms Suu Kyi lost most of her international consensus after her justifications of the Army’s atrocities against the Muslim Rohingya minority before U.N.’s International Court of Justice, even though some believe she acted this way to avoid any violent reaction of the Tatmadaw. Presently, Ms Suu Kyi is again under arrest, facing ridiculous charges, such as smuggling walkies talkies for her security staff, breaking covid rules, and abusing the benefits of a government helicopter, which stacked together, will lock up the most important democratic voice for around 120 years.

Nonetheless, the junta and general Min Aung Hlaing’s position is anything but secure. In fact it can be said that Myanmar has been in a constant state of civil war for the last seventy years, with the numerous ethnic minorities at the peripheries of Myanmar territory struggling against the central government, predominantly representative of the Bamar ethnicity – to which belongs 68% of the population. Many ethnicities have formed Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs), which frequently control large portions of land and are openly hostile to Naypyitaw. Some EAOs (although just the smaller ones) had agreed in 2015 to sign a ceasefire with the central government – known as the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NAC) – which was readily thrown out the window by the Tatmadaw after the coup.

Therefore, the Army is now engaged on multiple fronts: on one hand, the renewed hostilities with the various ethnicities of Myanmar, on the other hand the National Unity Government (NUG) – that is the surviving representatives of the ousted government, most of which are now in exile – and its armed organisation, the People’s Defense Force (PDF). Some highlight the divisions that fracture the Tatmadaw enemies, for example that the EAOs do not fully trust the PDF, because of its Bamar ethnicity, and that most of the parties that did not sign the NAC have assumed a cautious stance, waiting to see if the Army is willing to broke a favourable deal with them. Nevertheless, some good signs of cooperation are emerging among the factions opposed to the generals, such as a more tolerant position of the NUG towards other ethnicities. After all, it is clear that only a united front would be able to overthrow the much more military powerful Tatmadaw.

In the international arena, the US and the West are set on a four pillar approach, that consists of pressure on the regime, support to the democratic opposition, humanitarian aids to the population, and coordination with allies and partners in the region. On the other hand, China has assumed an ambiguous stance, as the difference in judgments that Chinese media are giving about the situation reflect: international newspapers downplay the significance of the coup, stressing the importance of peace and stability, while local media are much more critical of the Tatmadaw. Before the coup, in fact, Chinese relationships with the Government of Myanmar were cordial and many Chinese do not understand how the coup could be justified. But naturally China has to trade carefully, both because it shares more than 2000 kilometres of border with Myanmar and instability easily spills over, and because it needs to maintain its influence in the region against an expansion of the US. For now, Beijing believes that the Tatmadaw has got the upper hand and therefore it mildly supports the Army. But it is not hard to see that if the balance of power would tip over to the NUG, Chinese official will waste no time in changing their sympathies.

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