As the collapse of the military junta begins to seem possible, attention turns to what might be established in its place.
They say there are three possible outcomes to a war. You can win the war and win the peace, as the United States did in Western Europe in 1945, for instance. You can lose the war but win the peace, which the U.S. has arguably done in Vietnam since 1975. Or you can win the war but lose the peace: the U.S. more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is perhaps another option: you can allow someone else to win the war and then you win the peace. That could be the outcome for Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG).
There has been a fair amount of hyperbole from all sides about the Three Brotherhood Alliance’s recently launched Operation 1027, a joint offensive by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Arakan Army that began on October 27. Min Aung Hlaing, the junta leader, has reportedly said that “the three ethnic alliance attacks… will break the country into pieces.” The junta-appointed president, Myint Swe, claimed that “if the government does not effectively manage the incidents happening in the border region, the country will be split into various parts,” an exaggeration of the risk that the ethnic groups will seek independent statehood, which would be economically suicidal.
These are desperate appeals to national cohesion, despite the junta’s coup having produced in the resistance a newfound and radical idea of what national cohesion means moving forward. According to a NUG minister, “We have surpassed the darkest times, and now a new dawn has arrived.” On the other hand, it’s still too early to tell whether, as one analyst put it, the offensive “actually has the potential to bring down a regime.”
Indeed, it could be the moment at which this conflict turns. “Since the country’s founding in 1948, the military has never suffered such significant and widespread battlefield setbacks,” stated Zachery Abuza this week. According to Lucas Myers, “the Myanmar military is more vulnerable than at any time in the past half century.” Hundreds of junta troops have been killed. Battalions have surrendered. Defection rates are promising. The junta’s troops are overstretched. Morale is apparently plummeting.
The Arakan Army launched an attack on junta forces on November 14 in Rakhine, ending a year-long ceasefire and opening up yet another front that the junta has to engage in. The Kachin Independence Army has also joined in. Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State, could soon fall to opposition forces. Key highways, especially those near the China border, have been taken.
Beijing appears to be undergoing a rethink about the junta. Indeed, the offensive hit some of the cyber-scam outfits that are operated by junta-backed cronies, mostly border guard forces and particularly those in Kokang region. Beijing will look favorably upon the Three Brotherhood Alliance if it can put an end to these criminal enterprises, not least since the junta has ignored Beijing’s entreaties to crack down on the border guard forces. The NUG has also raised the issue of Chinese criminal syndicates more often in recent months, perhaps a bid to get Beijing more on their side. (More about the intricacies here.)
For a long time, there have been accusations that the NUG is weak. It cannot control its own People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) or allied ethnic armies. It lacks a proper command structure. It cannot convince more ethnic militias into alliances nor an envisioned federal army. But if the junta falls, the Kachin Independence Organization or Arakan Army isn’t about to march into Naypyidaw and claim dominion over the entire country. Indeed, this war will be ended by political agreement, perhaps a ceasefire by the junta following an internal coup. The ethnic groups know the task of national government after this war will fall to a group supported by the Bamar majority, such as the NUG. Moreover, they know that the NUG is their conduit for talks with foreign governments. So, if the junta falls, the NUG supported (however disloyally) by the ethnic groups is the only option for a national and federal government.
The National League for Democracy-types within the NUG haven’t arrived at federalism by choice. They were content with the power they had between 2016 and 2021 and didn’t even breathe the word federalism until they were run out of office. So, they’ve arrived at the idea by necessity, knowing that the ethnic armies will be the ones doing most of the fighting and dying to defeat the junta. And naturally, the ethnic armies think that many inside the NUG want to go back to the status quo ante.
The best solution for Myanmar is a federal state where the Bamar heartland knows it can no longer boss around the ethnic periphery yet where there is some understanding of a mutual path moving forward. But that requires a competent but weak central power, a difficult balance. Indeed, post-war, a NUG government would need to be strong enough to hold the country together and reform the military but not so strong that it thinks it can reimpose the center’s power over the periphery. It must show it’s ready to govern and, more importantly, ready not to govern; to accept, with humility, its own limitations. Indeed, perhaps to win the peace, the NUG needed not to be the most militarily significant player in this war.
There are other post-war considerations. Is a federal army desirable? It hasn’t manifested so far, and perhaps it shouldn’t. Militarily it makes sense to create a unified army. But, politically, with winning the post-war peace in mind, a unified federal military makes less sense. Indeed, the situation on the ground today reflects the radical decentralization that will be required to win the post-war peace. Wouldn’t a federal army, which requires centralization, go against the spirit of what’s imagined post-war?
Thiha Wint Aung and Htet Min Lwin argued recently that one shouldn’t be “talking about simply replacing the current Burmese siq-taq with the [PDFs]… or a future federal army.” Instead, they wrote earlier this year, “We are calling for the total abolition of the so-called national army and all kinds of armed groups within this territory called today ‘Myanmar’.” That might be a stretch too far. However, post-war, a militia system, which is now in operation, could be coupled with the federalist goals. That would be truly revolutionary.
The article was originally published by The Diplomat.