More than a year after Myanmar’s military junta seized power in a coup, the military’s concerted offensive operations have failed to crush anti-regime resistance forces and consolidate power in rural areas. The violent deadlock between the military government and multiple opposition groups shows no signs of easing, and the people of Myanmar remain trapped in an escalating political, economic, and humanitarian crisis.
According to the latest report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the country has exceeded one million, basic services have collapsed, and more than 14 million people have humanitarian needs.
APARC’s Southeast Asia Program and Asia Health Policy Program bring attention to the political context of the civil conflict in Myanmar and the implications of the multidimensional crisis in the country. This past spring quarter, the Southeast Asia Program dedicated one of its webinars to examining the opportunities and challenges faced by the opponents of Myanmar’s military regime. The virtual discussion featured two experts: Nyantha Maw Lin, an analyst with extensive experience in government affairs, public policy, and political risk assessment related to Myanmar, and Scot Marciel, a career diplomat and former U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar who now serves as a visiting practitioner fellow on Southeast Asia at APARC.
A Shifting Civil Conflict
Nyantha described the evolution of the anti-coup movement in Myanmar from its beginnings with protests and civil disobedience campaigns by government workers and civil servants to its current state of armed resistance movement aimed at bringing down the military regime. Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) have played a pivotal role in this shift. These non-state actors have fought the Myanmar military for decades in the borderlands and hold parts of the country under de facto control, sheltering and training tens of thousands of young people.
These resistance groups now present a powerful front of grassroots-level insurgency that is hampering operations by the coup regime. In this collection of self-organized groups, some are working with the National Unity Government (NUG) shadow administration, others with more decentralized networks, but all share the conviction that armed struggle is the only option for dealing with the military regime.
The power dynamic between the military and anti-regime resistance forces is now existential for both sides. “We are looking at what will most likely be a protracted civil conflict in Myanmar,” says Nyantha.
What are the paths toward a better future for Myanmar? One possibility is a shift in the military’s calculus, though it would necessitate a leadership change. Another possibility, according to Nyantha, is that the array of opposition actors can come together and use multilateral platforms to facilitate unprecedented forms of cooperation beyond resistance against the military to establish areas of territorial control and self-governance. “If they can emerge from this process with a new political vision and a roadmap for a more tolerant and inclusive Myanmar, then there is a chance the balance may tip against the military.”
These platforms include the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), which includes representatives from multiple opposition groups. Depending on how dialogues within the NUCC continue, it could generate a new political dynamic in the country and lay the groundwork for a future federal democratic union, notes Nyantha.
Historical Grievances, Future Visions
But there remains a lot of work to do to build trust among Myanmar’s traditionally fractious ethnic groups, Ambassador Marciel stresses. This mistrust has historical roots in decades of political disunity among Myanmar’s ethnic minorities amidst struggles for autonomy and self-determination, and in their longstanding grievances toward the state that has privileged the majority Burmans (also known as Bamar). Thus, possibly the biggest weakness of the resistance movement is the lack of a unified vision for establishing civilian rule. “I do think that it is hugely important to bring about more unity to the movement that is resisting the military regime,” says Marciel.
The international community should better understand the complexity of the civil conflict in Myanmar and recognize that the spontaneous revolt underway is not only a resistance front against the military but also a movement demanding dramatic social and political change, Marciel emphasizes.
He, therefore, cautions that the traditional tools of conventional diplomatic thinking – ceasefire, peaceful negotiations, and dialogue — do not currently apply to Myanmar. “At this point, there is no realistic scenario of dialogue leading to some compromise deal. As long as the military is in power, Myanmar is not going to enjoy peace or stability.” The people of Myanmar have suffered for far too long at the hands of the military, and the resistance forces are not interested in a compromise deal that would allow the military to maintain substantial political power, Marciel says. At the same time, the military is also not interested in negotiating.
According to Marciel, the international community should focus on supporting the resistance movement efforts. He also expressed this point in a recent interview with The Irrawaddy. “[T]he best possible scenario is for the military to face so much pressure that they then begin to look for a way out […] I think that maximum pressure on the military, both internally and externally, whether it’s by sanctions or other means, is the best chance of achieving progress, though it won’t be easy.”
A Deadly Syndemic
Even before the coup, Myanmar had one of the world’s weakest health systems and one of the least prepared for addressing epidemics and pandemics, according to the 2019 Global Heath Security Index. The devastating effects of the coup have coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, combining into a perfect storm that has brought the country’s already-fragile health system to collapse.
The coup and the post-coup conflicts interact with the pandemic and Myanmar’s fragmented health system in ways that resemble a syndemic, says Phyu Phyu Thin Zaw, a medical doctor, epidemiologist, and health systems researcher now based at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health. The term syndemic refers to the synergistic nature of health and social problems affecting vulnerable communities and contributing to an excess disease burden. It helps explain the dire crises gripping Myanmar’s health system, explains Dr. Thin Zaw.
Thin Zaw, a former visiting scholar at APARC, spoke at a webinar hosted by the Asia Health Policy Program about the impacts of the devastation caused by the coup and the COVID-19 pandemic on Myanmar’s health system and the current opportunities and challenges for response and recovery. She was joined by Nay-Lin Tun, a medical doctor who manages programs that help vulnerable communities in remote and conflict-affected areas of Myanmar to get access to health services.
Since the coup, hundreds of medical personnel and health care workers have been dismissed and subject to violent attacks. Many have escaped to areas under the control of anti-junta forces, leading to a severe “brain drain” or rather “brain hemorrhage” in the health system, Thin Zaw notes. When the third wave of the coronavirus struck Myanmar in July 2021, it hit like a tsunami. Immunization plans were severely interrupted, no quarantine or contact tracing measures were taken, and with shortages of health workers, medicine, and equipment, the health system was soon overwhelmed, with thousands of infections and rising deaths.
“To fight a pandemic, collective action is needed. Instead, Myanmar has faced a collective trauma,” says Thin Zaw. “The coup destroyed the reciprocal trust both horizontally among people and vertically between people and the government.”
Challenges for Humanitarian Response
Myanmar needs humanitarian assistance in every area, but grueling challenges hamper humanitarian relief delivery. International aid groups grapple with shuttered access, high-cost and high-risk operations, and ethical and political dilemmas: Should they stay or exit? Through which channels should they deliver aid? How can they advocate and work with the military junta? How should their money be spent under the military regime?
Dr. Tun, providing a grassroots medical humanitarian perspective on what is happening in Myanmar, described the multiple problems facing providers and patients on the ground. These include a severe shortage of health workers on the frontline, difficulties getting patients to hospitals, lack of essential medical supplies and equipment, COVID-19 infections, and overall increased mortality and morbidity among IDPs. He presented the results of a mixed-methods survey of health care workers conducted in non-military-controlled areas and conveyed their urgent requests for help.
A Way Forward
With Myanmar’s health system in collapse, this is a time to focus on strengthening primary health care and leveraging the silver lining of the post-coup softening of ethnic tensions to build a federal health education system for inclusiveness, said Thin Zaw. She pointed to the collaboration between the NUG and EAOs-controlled healthcare groups as an encouraging step towards creating a federal health system.
She urged international actors to be realistic about the limits of their influence over the military junta and to create flexible and politically sensitive aid programs with contingency plans. Yet international organizations must continue all efforts to support the delivery of critical services to the people of Myanmar, especially in areas such as food security, emergency health, and COVID-19 response, she said. “Please don’t forget the people of my country,” she pleaded.