Myanmar’s Instability Deepens as the World Watches Silently

Yves here. Lambert posted a deep dive on Myanmar recently, and pointedly did not much discuss foreign, particularly Chinese, influence. From a footnote:

As far as China’s influence, the Myanmar people have views. From Lawfare, of all places:

Politics, though, is not an elite sport… [T]he rules of the game are forged over long stretches of time. In the clash of attitudes, expectations and entrenched interests, it is most important to note that Myanmar’s population is particularly wary (and weary) of Chinese influence. The country, for instance, is increasingly a safe-haven for China’s illicit industries. Over the past decade, Myanmar turned into one of the world’s largest hubs for methamphetamine production. This industry is a breeding ground for transnational Chinese syndicates, a revenue stream for various parties to the conflicts in Myanmar and a source of social unrest as addiction spiked along with the growing trade. Border-town casinos are meanwhile transforming into ‘smart cities’ fully separate from the Myanmar monetary system. Chinese interests are also evangelizing their intertwined notions of development and governance in the country’s largest cities, facilitating a massive surveillance system in Mandalay and pushing for a New Yangon City to house a swelling urban population. China’s development model is a strategic export; demand, though, is nascent, and popular resistance to any form of heavy-handed rule remains resolute across Myanmar. Since the coup, this popular skepticism has turned into speculation and fear-mongering about China’s role in supporting the military, leaving their interests in ever-more doubt. This doubt reached a fever-pitch when two Chinese-owned garment factories were burned earlier this month amid a military crackdown in Yangon’s poorest outskirts.

John Ruehl provides what seems to me to be a very good overview, and also points to waning Chinese influence, for different reasons: historically, they backed multiple power groups, in no small measure to play them off against each other. As the situation has gone more chaotic, that has not been working so well.

By John P. Ruehl, an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, D.C., and a world affairs correspondent for the Independent Media Institute. He is a contributing editor to Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. His book, Budget Superpower: How Russia Challenges the West With an Economy Smaller Than Texas’, was published in December 2022. Produced by Globetrotter

Myanmar’s stability has eroded significantly since the 2021 military coup. But the coordinated attack by multiple separatist and pro-democracy groups in October and November 2023 has seen military outposts, villages, border crossings, and other infrastructure overrun. While the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, clings to control in central and coastal regions populated by the country’s ethnic majority, much of the country’s border areas are increasingly slipping into anti-government control.

This current turbulence is not an aberration but deeply rooted in Myanmar’s history. Since gaining independence from British rule in 1948, the country has grappled with what is commonly described as the world’s longest-running civil war. Initial experiments with democracy witnessed limited clashes between Myanmar’s central government and Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs.) Following a military coup in 1962 that established the junta, more EAOs emerged to challenge government power.

Infighting and splintering among EAOs, coupled with their growing antagonism toward the Burma Communist Party (BCP), itself waging a war on the central government, allowed the junta to implement fragile ceasefires in exchange for limited autonomy. By the end of the Cold War, democratic protests in 1988, the collapse of the BCP in 1989, and free elections in 1990 all suggested Myanmar was cautiously embracing a peaceful future.

Despite losing the elections in 1990, however, the junta did not relinquish power, drawing international condemnation. EAOs and other groups like the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), which split from the BCP, then continued their struggle for two decades until the junta ceded some powers to a civilian administration in 2011. Elections in 2015 and 2020 saw landslide victories for the National League for Democracy (NLD), as well as some progress toward reconciliation.

But in 2021, the Tatmadaw reestablished the junta and plunged the country back into destabilization, culminating in the 2023 autumn offensive by anti-junta forces. In addition to EOAs and a reorganized BCP, the junta has also been forced to contend with People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), loose armed organizations backed by the National Unity Government (NUG), set up by lawmakers and politicians in the aftermath of the coup. Additionally, the role of the Burman ethnic majority and grassroots civil defense forces in opposing the junta has also complicated its response to unrest.

The junta has proven adept at managing its restive elements before, and can also rely on its Border Guard Forces (BGFs) and other pro-government militia groups. But the broad swathes of Myanmar’s society fighting against it have made the junta’s traditional policy of divide and rule far less effective. Myanmar’s Acting President Myint Swe has said the country could “split into various parts”, prompting Myanmar military officials to retreat to the capital, Naypyidaw, a planned city completed in 2012 that effectively serves as a fortress located near the most restive regions.

China’s role in Myanmar has undergone significant shifts since the latter’s independence. Despite Chinese support for the BCP and other communist groups, Myanmar grew closer to China after its isolation from the West in the 1990s. Beijing supported the junta to stabilize Myanmar and prevent adversaries from establishing a foothold on China’s southern border. Other interests included maintaining access to Myanmar’s raw materials and natural resources, as well as infrastructure development to turn Myanmar into a strategic gateway to the Bay of Bengal through the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

China maintained ties to the junta, democracy advocates, and ethnic groups from 2011 to 2021. However, the 2021 coup disrupted development projects and led to attacks on Chinese-run facilities by rebel groups, and the junta’s inability to protect infrastructure exacerbated historical tension between it and Beijing. Four Chinese civilians were killed in 2015 after a Myanmar military airstrike hit across the border into Yunnan, while the junta burned down a Chinese-owned factory and killed Chinese and Myanmar civilians in 2021.

China’s ongoing support to some militia groups, such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and MNDAA, provides Beijing leverage over the junta and a say in the ceasefire processes. Chinese firms also often work with armed groups in “special economic zones” near the border, and some of the anti-junta groups regularly cross the border to China to escape the junta and its proxy forces. Beijing’s tacit approval of their activities may also be partially fueled by wariness that rebel groups were becoming closer to the U.S. prior to the new offensive.

Beijing has nonetheless attempted to sustain a balancing act, arresting a UWSA deputy military chief in October 2023 and initially ignoring calls for assistance from the rebels after the launch of their offensive. But following the steady string of defeats suffered by the junta, China has since altered its outlook. China’s affiliates now form some of the most powerful groups operating in Myanmar, and China’s foreign ministry has called for a ceasefire.

Myanmar’s porous borders have not only allowed armed groups to flourish but also facilitated the expansion of organized crime networks. Increased cooperation between militant and criminal groups in recent decades, known as the terror-crime nexus, has elevated the power of these groups worldwide.

American efforts to counter communism inadvertently helped develop drug networks in Myanmar during the early Cold War, while transnational organized crime in Southeast Asia burgeoned in the 21st Century. The COVID-19 pandemic further established Myanmar as a hub of criminal activity, expanding the funding networks available to the country’s armed groups. Both local and international criminal networks operate in Myanmar’s special economic zones, engaging in human and wildlife trafficking, slavery, cybercrimes, money laundering, communication fraud, illegal casinos, and online gambling centers.

The relationships between these entities and governments are intricate, with shifting alliancescommonplace. Beijing and transnational Chinese gangs play central roles in Myanmar’s heightened criminal activity. The junta has also had close ties to criminal networks for decades, and since the 2021 coup has become increasingly reliant on criminal activity to finance itself and offset international isolation.

China, while entangled in Myanmar’s criminal underworld, has grown steadily more concerned with rising illicit activity on its border with Myanmar and the willing and unwilling participation of Chinese citizens. China’s signals to the junta to address the forced-labor networks since May 2023 went unheeded, leading to China issuing arrest warrants for junta allies and the UWSA to raid online scam compounds and trafficked labor centers in border regions.

However, the resilience of regional criminal groups became evident after the NLD failed to disrupt their activities during the decade of partial democratic rule from 2011 to 2021, and they have only grown financially stronger since. And despite their interweaving with regional elites, criminal networks and their militant partners have developed newfound agency and an ability to act independently from governments since the 2021 coup.

Additionally, while the junta styles its current campaign as a counterinsurgency, Myanmar’s armed groups possess significant military capabilities. Minority groups such as those belonging to the Karen ethnic group were prominent in Myanmar’s armed forces during the British colonial administration, gaining valuable experience. As in Ethiopia, certain ethnic groups have developed and maintained well-equipped forces capable of both insurgency and conventional warfare.

Like other anti-government forces around the world, Myanmar rebel groups have also embraced new technologies and strategies in recent years. This includes crowdfunding initiatives, which have expanded significantly since 2021, to offset the junta’s control over the central bank and other national economic levers. Large-scale application of drone warfare has also made a marked difference on the battlefield, even before the current offensive by the rebels.

Myanmar’s militant groups have also worked with European criminal groups to obtain weapons, and groups like the UWSA have proven capable of manufacturing weapons since 2008. The use of 3D-printed guns by Myanmar rebel groups, just ten years after the first 3D-printed gun was produced, also marks a distinctive feature of the current conflict. The NUG has meanwhile been busily setting up local civic administration and public services and People’s Administrative Teams (PATs) in PDF-controlled or contested areas, indicative of their state-building capabilities.

Hindered by international isolation, increasingly powerful rebel groups, and a growing dependence on a Chinese leadership willing to support multiple sides, the junta’s outlook appears bleak. But it does maintain some other allies abroad. Russia grew closer to the junta throughout the 2010s and despite being tied down in Ukraine, Moscow has offered more support for Myanmar since the coup, including the first ever Russia-Myanmar joint naval exercise in November 2023. Bordering states Laos and Thailand also maintain friendly ties to the junta, and Laos, holding the chairmanship of ASEAN since September 2023, has shielded Myanmar from greater institutional isolation.

Myanmar’s other neighbors, India and Bangladesh, are also wary of additional instability and the potential emergence of a failed state on their borders. India has already seen tens of thousands of refugees (as well as soldiers from the junta) cross the border since 2021, while Bangladesh has seen close to one million Rohingya refugees enter the country since 2016, and India has recently shown it is still willing to engage with the junta despite its vulnerability.

Efforts to further unite anti-government forces meanwhile face obstacles due to differences in strategies, objectives, and allegiances. Several organizations have been set up to encourage greater coordination, but infighting is still common. Some EAOs, like the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), are still open to adhering to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) while others consider a federal system a viable alternative to complete independence. Perceived indifference to the Rohingya crisis in 2017 on behalf of the democratic government at the time also reveals the persistent ethnic tensions among Myanmar’s population despite alternative leadership.

Convincing criminal and militant groups to give up their lucrative illicit networks, as well as untangling their links to the junta-dominated economy, will also prove challenging. And with the U.S. diplomatically tied down in Ukraine and Israel and ASEAN’s divided approach to the crisis, China enjoys relative freedom to manipulate the situation on its border. Yet despite positive relations across Myanmar’s political spectrum, Beijing’s reluctance to intervene more directly only amplifies the persistent uncertainty surrounding Myanmar’s future.

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  1. Gully Foyle

    And how many people can point it out on a map?
    Eight BILLION people in the world.
    About 350 MILLION in the US.
    I can find at least seven hot spots in the world right now.
    Meanwhile I borrow this from Moon of Alabama

    Muhammad Shehada @muhammadshehad2 – 19:52 UTC · Dec 7, 2023

    Israel killed Prof. Refaat al-Areer, one of Gaza’s most prominent writers, poets & activists who spent his life trying to get Gaza’s voice to the outside world.

    He was killed in a targeted airstrike on his sister’s home that also killed his brother, sister & her 4 kids…

    His last Tweet, so sad and I can’t copy it.

    ( Thinking in the abstract how many of those 8 BILLION should I care for and help? People die every day from poverty and sheer stupidity. Which nations/leaders should we take pitchforks and torches to? Anyone have a real solution other than just handing everything over to the AI’s and removing the power mad sociopaths regimes fueled by greed, Nepotism and Cronyism? How does one prevent the NEXT sociopath from taking power, anyone feel safe yet?)
    “”The universe is basically an animal. It grazes on the ordinary. It creates infinite idiots just to eat them.””

  2. Detroit Dan

    Myanmar is perhaps the most interesting political situation in the world right now It has twice the population of Ukraine and six times the population of Israel. Sandwiched between China and India, it is a former British colony. It appears to be in the middle of the new Cold War. The best outcome would be for the Cold War powers (Russia, China, and US) plus India to discuss this and map out a unified strategy. Failing this, China is probably best situated to enforce some sort of peace.

  3. Roger

    “American efforts to counter communism inadvertently helped develop drug networks in Myanmar”, yes the country that became an Empire by accident and “inadvertently” keeps doing bad things! Just like it “inadvertently” spiked poppy production after gaining control of Afghanistan after the Taliban had pretty much wiped out poppy production. After 20 years of US occupation and increasing poppy production, the Taliban came back and wiped out the cultivation again.

    The links between the CIA, the Vietnam War, the so-called War on Drugs, the Contras etc. and vast heroin and cocaine dealing are extensive. As an academic I would say that “inadvertently” is doing a lot of work in that sentence. Also, in the article there is no mention of other players such as the Indians, the US and others. They are really not stoking things up there for their own benefit?

    The author seems to be a very mainstream US policy advisor, especially if he actually believes that Russia’s economy is smaller than Texas! It’s actually bigger than Germany’s when measured properly (on a PPP basis).

    1. catchymango

      this article has a lot of interesting and useful points re: china, and the author is clearly well-versed on the subject, but I agree that their naive interpretation of that history casts doubt on the their analysis, particularly wrt the weakness of the junta. I found it helpful to read it against this recent piece, which posits that a renewed western-directed campaign of subversion is being unfurled:

      Together, the two pieces offer a decently comprehensive portrait of the dilemma facing chinese diplomats, namely the effort to inflame a long running civil war on its doorstep, a war which China has until recently successfully managed.

  4. Susan the other

    Maybe both producers and consumers will get creative and set up Myanmar to be the Fentanyl capital of the world, complete with its own Dope Bank and Dope Exchange, and then impose an excise tax. What else? Sea level will probably wipe out neighboring Bangladesh’s rice production and bring a mad race to the bottom to the Bay of Bengal where any clapboard corporation will be welcome to set up shop. And etc. It makes sense of Aung San Sun Kyi’s staunch nationalism because there will most likely be some even more extreme political chaos. Not to even mention Russia’s need for warm water ports and China’s determination to use the BRI to maintain some definition of social cohesion and self defense. Currently and for some time, probably because of the drug trade, Myanmar’s own politics have been synonymous with “herding cats.” And expelling starving barefoot Rohingyans.

  5. Al

    Lot of the articles ignore many reports of the brotherhood alliance being armed with Chinese weapons, drones and Huawei satellite phones. Chinese social media is crawling with reports and pictures. Reports also coming in of young, Chinese appearing fighters spotted with the rebels (possible PLA special ops helping coordinate attacks?).

    There is more the meets the eye happening there.

    As for Chinese influence, it seems to wax and wane. End of the day they will still remain neighbors.

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