On 1 February 2021, Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, staged a coup d’état and placed key leaders of the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD), including President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, under arrest. The Tatmadaw declared a 12-month state of emergency with the Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, in control.
In the four months since then, according to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 840 people have been killed and 5,541 arrested by the Tatmadaw. Increased military action against armed ethnic groups has forced over 75,000 refugees across Myanmar’s borders, with tens of thousands more internally displaced. The security situation has deteriorated significantly across the country, with increasing risk of civil war moving beyond the borderlands.
The Centre for Humanitarian Leadership has prepared a scenario analysis to support humanitarian actors in anticipating and preparing for the unfolding situation in Myanmar, setting out three plausible scenarios for the future of Myanmar from June 2021–December 2022. You can access the report here. As an introduction to the scenarios, Associate Professor Anthony Ware and Associate Professor Costas Laoutides of Deakin University provide this contextual analysis, highlighting the key assumptions likely to prevail, and the dynamics between the major actors who will likely shape the future of Myanmar.
Situation since 1 February 2021
The mass civil disobedience movement (CDM) resisting the military takeover has deeply impaired the functioning of the Myanmar state. This means the Tatmadaw has very limited control over anything but the main seats of power and the security apparatus, but also that state services and other functioning teeter on collapse. Large numbers of civil servants refuse to work, and significant numbers of civil servants (and other workers) have been sacked or suspended. Health and education, in particular, are heavily affected. For example, at least 125,900 school teachers have been suspended, well over a quarter of all teachers nationally, and large numbers of students say they will not attend school until the Tatmadaw step down or is removed from power. As a result, much of the work that the government would usually undertake is not occurring, and the lack of functioning educational and health services poses frightening long-term risks for the country.
The coup has likewise dramatically affected trade and commerce, with the very real possibility of a financial system collapse. Between striking CDM workers and fears of a run on the banks, only two banks are currently offering any services, with reduced hours and most branches still closed. Many people report difficulty accessing their money or paying staff, with limited access to bank tellers, branches only serving a small number of customers per day, and online banking impacted by internet and banking disruptions. ATM machines are rarely stocked, and others impose daily limits of 200,000 kyat (A$157); even so, they are emptied within hours. As a result, public trust in the banks is very low and even workers not on strike have reduced access to cash. At the top end of town, it is almost impossible to transfer money into the country, several large international investors have put their projects in Myanmar on indefinite hold, others are withholding payments to the junta, international shipping is impaired by both CDM and COVID-19, and international shareholder activists are mobilising, all threatening wider economic impacts.
There has been a significant increase in food insecurity and immediate impoverishment for people who cannot access cash or other forms of capital. The UN World Food Programme warns that hunger will sharply rise as a result of the coup, and that this will be particularly acute in the cities. Many workers who were living in urban centres are migrating back to their rural villages, increasing strain in rural areas.
A 2021 UNDP report warns that the coup will drive poverty back to 2005 rates, reversing Myanmar’s substantial improvements in human development, with half the population below the poverty line by the end of the year.
The coup has also resulted in a significant tightening of the civil space in which local and international NGOs operate. The Tatmadaw has cracked down on some NGO operations and staff, who they perceive as being CDM activists and sympathisers, and most have put projects on hold and directed staff to remain at home.
There are several aspects of the current situation that are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Particularly pertinent are that the Tatmadaw will continue to exercise considerable power over the economy via their multitude of business interests across the country. Poverty will continue to increase; as such, economic grievances will add to political ones. Nonetheless, unless the Tatmadaw is able to disintegrate the newly formed National Unity Government (NUG), some forms of protest are likely to continue as strong allegiance to the NUG fuels the CDM. Structural inequalities will persist and marginalisation of vulnerable groups is likely to intensify. Likewise, the rapid decline of state functioning and increased poverty is increasing Myanmar’s vulnerability to shocks. The impact of any additional, unexpected catastrophe, such as a severe increase in COVID-19 cases or the onset of a major cyclone, earthquake, flood, or other disaster, could be devastating. Deepening this vulnerability is the constrained capability of the NGO sector to respond.
Dynamics inside Myanmar
The dynamics between the Tatmadaw, NUG, CDM, general public, ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), and other actors are complex and multifaceted.
National Unity Government (NUG)
The NUG was established on 16 April 2021 and is comprised primarily of second-tier leaders of the NLD party and representatives from ethnic groups, most of whom are in hiding as the organisation has been deemed illegal by the Tatmadaw. The NUG has pushed ahead with attempts to regain legitimate governance in Myanmar. As the NUG is largely comprised of elected representatives, they are widely recognised as the rightful leaders of the country. The connections between the NUG and CDM are strong, with NUG encouraging acts of civil disobedience.
The NUG wish to remove the Tatmadaw from power, and their statements and actions to achieve this diverge significantly from previous NLD policy. Without direct control by the NLD’s first-tier leaders (who are in detention), they have adopted a set of positions openly adversarial to the Tatmadaw. Most notable examples of the break from previous NLD policy are their intention to rewrite the constitution, their creation of a People’s Defence Force with the support of EAOs (and declared intention to turn this into a Federal Army unifying Tatmadaw and EAOs), consideration of granting International Criminal Court jurisdiction to prosecute Tatmadaw officers for crimes against the Rohingya in 2017, and other offences. The Tatmadaw’s reaction to these actions has been to securitise the NUG and condemn them as a terrorist group. Although it always was problematic, the relationship between the NUG and Tatmadaw is much more directly confrontational than it has been between the NLD and the Tatmadaw for a decade. This risk of civil war between the two sides, or at least organised use of force by both sides, is escalating.
Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH)
The CRPH was formed by the NLD and other members of the national parliament elected on 8 November 2020. It has been accepted internationally by the Inter-Parliamentary Union as the legitimate parliament of Myanmar. It works closely with the NUG as the parliamentary wing of a shadow government and NUG Ministers work closely with it.
Civil disobedience movement
Violence by civil society is also escalating. CDM began with peaceful protests. Met with increasing violence, and unarmed civilians being shot by Tatmadaw-controlled forces, CDM has moved to more creative means of civil disobedience, along with increased willingness to respond with force. Alternative forms of protest have involved writing large slogans on roads and taking photographs of themselves gathered in rural areas and uploading them to social media, often wearing interesting clothes to grab the audiences’ attention and demonstrate solidarity.
The Tatmadaw’s control over communications, which has included intermittent and nationwide network shutdowns, make organising and sharing the results of these protests challenging. The Tatmadaw ordered Myanmar’s communication service providers to install intercept spyware giving them the capability to surveil and limit people’s communications, rendering social media platforms insecure. Civilians are finding workarounds and bypass Tatmadaw control through Bluetooth messaging and virtual private networks. Pre-emptively, the Tatmadaw are confiscating and destroying people’s satellite dishes, perceiving them as no longer primarily for watching television, but for engaging in satellite communications beyond their reach.
As well as transitioning to alternative means of peaceful protest, the CDM has allegedly been moving to more violent attacks, including the use of improvised explosives. Bomb blasts can be heard daily in Yangon, including at the offices of the ward administration councils appointed by the junta. In response, the Tatmadaw swiftly securitised these actors, calling them terrorists and targeted them as enemies of the state. Explosions in schools and universities have also been commonplace, suggesting both sides are engaging in such attacks. A noteworthy indicator of the growing divide between civilians and security forces, akin to a civil war climate, is the fact that in the aftermath of explosions, many civilians demonstrate positive sentiment about any uniformed casualties.
EAOs and ethnic minorities
Many ethnic groups are aligning themselves with the NUG and CDM, and minority politicians have been granted active positions in the NUG, which has tried to include more ethnic groups than any previous government. Some EAOs are providing shelter and even training to dissidents who flee into their territories, and some have mounted protection for CDM street protestors or marched alongside protestors. Also indicative of the synergies is the fact that EAOs have taken on the training of NUG’s People’s Defence Force recruits.
However, the dynamics between EAOs and other actors are complex, volatile, and extremely variable across the country, with diverse views of self-determination and federalism. While the NUG has included members from various ethnic groups, they are still accused by some of being pro-Bamar and not representing the interests of all groups. Some EAOs, notably the Arakan Army (AA), argue the CDM and NUG distract from their cause. Hence, people in northern and central Rakhine State, at least, are more likely to perceive the CDM–with its NUG links–as Bamar-oriented. In a relevant aside, the AA had been locked in combat with the Tatmadaw for three years until a ceasefire was agreed in November 2020. Post-ceasefire, the AA were delisted as a terrorist organisation. The AA continues to withhold support from the NUG and CDM, whilst simultaneously developing parallel administrative systems, including local administration, taxation, and judicial mechanisms.
Significantly, some Bamar youth, civil society actors, and CDM supporters have begun calling on the NUG to open its policies to accept and include Rohingya Muslims, arguing that Myanmar needs to become fully inclusive to move forward.
These calls for inclusivity include bestowing citizenship and collective rights on the non-Kaman Muslims. Perhaps as a result of this growing support, many non-Kaman Muslims are visible on social media doing the three-finger salute in solidarity with the CDM. Meanwhile, the NUG treads carefully on the issue of non-Kaman Muslim rights.
While there have been several defectors, including some high profile ones who have spoken fairly openly from outside of the country, the dynamics within the Tatmadaw are largely unknown and speculative. Defectors claim that many Tatmadaw personnel do not support the coup and would like to leave, but that leaving comes at a great personal cost. Defectors endanger themselves and their families, as well as forfeiting their housing, pensions, and livelihood. It is clear that the Tatmadaw is not monolithic. Many of the people involved in the NUG and CDM have family members in the Tatmadaw. These relationships were visible when troops refused to carry out Tatmadaw orders to use force against peaceful protestors, and protesters gave food, drinks, and flowers to the forces. The Tatmadaw leadership resolved the issue by redeploying troops from different areas, to reduce soldiers’ feelings of unease about the use of violence. The defections and unwillingness of some soldiers to use force against peaceful protestors raises questions about the extent of support for the coup from within the Tatmadaw. Potentially, there are senior military personnel exploring alternatives to try to lead the current situation in different directions, whether by force or influence, but this is purely speculative.
The Tatmadaw’s stronghold over institutions and business has several implications for the scenarios and for international responses to the coup. The Tatmadaw own some of the biggest companies in the country and produce many high demand everyday products including beer, coffee, rice, and cigarettes. While civilians have been boycotting Tatmadaw-owned products as part of the CDM, it is difficult when they are so ubiquitous. Further, the Tatmadaw’s economic interests are unlikely to be significantly harmed by international economic sanctions, given they grew those interests during the previous sanctions era, and thus will continue regardless of shifts in power or politics. Additionally, any impact that broad economic sanctions may have on Myanmar can be cushioned by neighbouring countries, like China, that can mend broken links in supply chains.
The collapse of basic services and rapidly rising poverty, as well as minimal Tatmadaw control over the country, is fertile ground for the expansion of the shadow economy and illegal activities. Some of this shadow activity is simply unauthorised trade across borders, but it is likely other serious criminal activity is growing, particularly in the less controlled borderlands. Based on past record, the Tatmadaw is likely implicated in much of this illegal activity, with precedents of ceasefire capitalism via economic concessions to stabilise the situation with armed ethnic groups. Reports claiming smuggled shipments of jade to China from Kachin mines have tripled since the coup may be an indicator of this increased illegal activity, and notably the Tatmadaw controls a large stake of this industry—which contributes a significant percentage of the country’s gross domestic product, despite most of the profits avoiding taxation.
Dynamics within the international context
The coup has mobilised the diaspora into action and, although they are far from unified, they have become politically active around the world, protesting and raising significant amounts of money to support the CDM. Several high profile Myanmar ex-patriots have voiced their refusal to accept the Tatmadaw as the legitimate leaders and have shown their support for the NUG and CDM. As well as the diaspora, transnational advocacy networks are linking with CDM and internal advocates to collect data on deaths, detentions, and attacks on protesters and leading the push to refer individuals in the regime to the International Criminal Court.
The international community voiced early calls for targeted sanctions against key junta officials and their interests. There has also been significant discussion about using Responsibility to Protect (R2P) protocols to institute such sanctions, and to document crimes to pressure those officials by commencing collection of evidence that could lead to future criminal trials. To this point, countries such as the US and Canada have targeted 16 Tatmadaw officials for sanctions, including four members of the regime’s government, the State Administrative Council (SAC).
Tatmadaw control of the economy runs deep, with partnerships and involvement in numerous foreign investments. While a few foreign companies, such as the Japanese brewers Kirin, have cut ties with Tatmadaw-controlled businesses since the coup, and other multi-billion dollar projects are on hold or cancelled, many other foreign investors have opted to maintain their interests in Myanmar, and most foreign investment is continuing with business as usual. As these foreign businesses have their profits tied up in Myanmar, this has reduced international pressure, especially from Western countries, on the Tatmadaw. Many of these companies rationalise their presence in Myanmar around provision of services to civilians, and their role as observers.
There appears to be few decisions on change to foreign aid yet, with funds still allocated to the country although little if any of it currently flowing. The biggest impacts include projects on hold, cash flow issues that make transfer of funds and withdrawal of funds extremely difficult, and close surveillance of the civil society space.
Regional actors have voiced minimal dissent against the coup, with most seeking to avoid even the appearance of interference in Myanmar’s sovereign affairs. Myanmar’s relationships with China and Russia, amongst others, while complex, means that most likely arms supplies and military needs are secure and would not be interrupted by Western sanctions.
On the multilateral stage, ASEAN invited coup leaders to a special summit on the situation in Myanmar, from which the NUG was excluded. It is worth noting that General Min Aung Hlaing was not seated as Head of State, but as Commander in Chief of the armed forces. ASEAN has been instrumental in the past in facilitating changes of direction in Myanmar, for example, facilitating aid flows after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, and repatriating non-Kaman Muslims after Operation Pyi Thaya in 1992. However, despite its potential catalytic influence, ASEAN is restrained by member states with their own authoritarian tendencies and domestic political issues. Additionally, their disagreement over the non-Kaman Muslim issues has rendered them less cohesive than usual. It is thus unlikely ASEAN will act against the Tatmadaw with sanctions or other measures. Similarly, the vetoing power asserted by China and Russia in the UN Security Council prevents the possibility of international military intervention, and the US, UK, and other European powers will not act unilaterally in Myanmar.
At the international governance level, NUG maintains Myanmar’s representation at the UN in New York, and CRPH represents Myanmar at the Inter-Parliamentary Union. UN Specialised Agencies appear to be refusing to accept the accreditation of the Myanmar regime in its assemblies, and Myanmar’s seat stayed empty during the recent World Health Assembly. A similar outcome is being predicted for the next Specialised Agency assembly meeting (International Labour Organisation, due 7-19 June 2021 in Geneva).
There is a wide expectation in Myanmar that the Tatmadaw will not be able to hold power in the medium to long term in Myanmar, but also that the NUG will not displace it. In the meantime the economic and humanitarian situation may go from bad to worse and then to worse again.
See the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership’s report Myanmar: Post-coup scenarios and implications for humanitarian actors for analysis on how these factors may play out in the coming 18 months, and what it might mean for humanitarian response.
Myanmar: Post-coup scenarios and implications for humanitarian actors