From Peaceful Protest to Civil Conflict in Myanmar

Resistance to the 1 February, 2021 military coup in Myanmar is symbolised by a recent video: Images of young protesters killed by Myanmar’s Security Forces are accompanied by lyrics: “We are ghosts. We are already dead. If we die again today, in this life and the next, we will haunt you forever.” The video marks how dramatically the situation in Myanmar has evolved. Moving away from peaceful mass protest, Myanmar is on a trajectory to prolonged civil conflict. Both the living and the dead will continue to fill the streets.

Protest in Myanmar against the military coup on 14 February 2021. MgHla (aka) Htin Linn Aye via Wikimedia Commons

Prelude to the Coup

When the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, transferred power to a quasi-civilian government in 2011, it acted from a position of strength. The Tatmadaw was never defeated, nor forced by circumstances into negotiations with an opposition group. Rather, the Tatmadaw acted on its own terms, following a roadmap to “disciplined democracy” constructed over two decades, then transferring power into constitutional, governance and economic arrangements designed to preserve its power.

Liberal democracy was never the Tatmadaw’s intended destination. In its fundamentals, the Tatmadaw is unreformed. It was, and remains, the self-appointed guardian of the nation, and the arbiter of Myanmar’s interests and destiny. The Tatmadaw has never ceded this role.

Yet the 1 February coup was an act of weakness, staged by an institution under threat. Ten years and three elections after transition, the Tatmadaw concluded that the path to future electoral success was closed. With its position threatened, the Tatmadaw worked to reverse the November 2020 election results, and the overwhelming victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD).

Without producing evidence, the Tatmadaw announced that it had uncovered eight million cases of potential voting fraud. Its campaign unsuccessful, on 1 February 2021 – the day that NLD was to form its second consecutive government – the Tatmadaw seized power.

The likely strategy was to stay in office long enough to change the rules of the political game and secure its preferred election result. Yet it is hard to imagine what kind of “reform” would be sufficient to install a Tatmadaw proxy into elected office. A quick exit for the Tatmadaw, therefore, is not possible. Official statements already suggest that the Tatmadaw expects to remain in power indefinitely.

The “Soft Coup” is Over

It began as a “soft coup”. During first weeks, the Tatmadaw tried to maintain the façade of “government as normal”. The official newspaper, the Global New Light of Myanmar, featured photos of the State Administrative Council earnestly meeting to resolve the nations’ problems; cadmium contamination in fish stocks, revitalisation of the tourism sector, repairs to Yangon’s Circular Train. However, Myanmar society responded to the “new normal” with a mass uprising.

The Security Forces initially restrained themselves to the use of non-lethal force and intimidation. They appeared to believe that resistance would blow over. It didn’t. The Tatmadaw adapted with its own escalating repertoire of suppression as the protests gathered momentum during February; “non-lethal” munitions, internet cuts, arrests, tear gas and stun grenades. The first deaths from lethal munitions appeared targeted to send a warning, but were not mass casualty events.

The tipping point came on 26 February. Citing the “deterioration of public security, the rule of law, and community peace and tranquillity”, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing declared that “severe action” would be taken against the “anarchic mobs intending to harm the majority of the people wishing for stable and peaceful living.” The announcement signalled entry into a “hard coup” phase, and the use of lethal force.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, the number of civilians killed by Security Forces climbed to 710, including 50 children, by 12 April. The association warns that these are confirmed deaths, and the real number is likely higher. The most violent day was 27 March – Armed Forces Day – when Security Forces killed at least 158 persons. The most common cause of death is now gun shots to the head or chest, intended to be fatal. The UN Special Envoy for Myanmar warns the Tatmadaw’s actions likely meet the standard of crimes against humanity.

Four Takeaways from the Situation in Myanmar

The crisis in Myanmar is set to deepen, with no visible prospect for a resolution. Neither the Tatmadaw nor its opponents are likely to back down or prevail in the near term. The trend points towards a further escalation of violence, economic damage and a humanitarian crisis, with COVID-19 surging in the background. Myanmar observers can monitor the following dynamics:

1. Civil protest nation-wide, persistent and evolving in tactics and sophistication

The resistance to military rule is nationwide. Protest is driven by Myanmar’s Generation XYZ. Coming of age after the 2011 transition, youth are not ready to give up their hard earned freedoms. Public solidarity with the protesters is strong. Communities are providing material support and protection, at high risk to themselves. From spontaneous protests, three broad strategic lines of resistance emerged in weeks following the coup:

Deny legitimacy to the Tatmadaw, with large scale, national and sustained protest. The increasingly harsh crack down on protest has hardened the resolve of protesters. The sheer scale of opposition has stripped away any pretence that the Tatmadaw enjoys constitutional or popular support, or that the regime’s State Administration Council can govern as “normal”.

Disrupt State and private sector functions and make the Tatmadaw ungovernable. Mass protests began spontaneously, communicated online but largely without leadership or coordination. Different organising platforms have since emerged. Among them, a nation-wide Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). The CDM roused millions to reject the military takeover, and inspired public servants to refuse compliance with regime directives. General Strike Committees and General Strike Committees of Nationalities (GSC and GSCN) also formed in late February, to focus cooperation across the emerging opposition movement and in the private sector.

The combined efforts of mass protest, the CDM and GSC/N have disrupted the normal functioning of public institutions and the economy. Public service delivery has largely ceased. Denial of service began among state medical personnel, expanding to other parts of the civil service, local administrations and professional communities. An increasing number of townships, wards and village tracts are bypassing the regime administration and forming parallel governance structures. In the private sector, international trade has ceased stop, factories are closed and the banking and financial systems do not function, among other impacts.

Deny the Tatmadaw access to resources from its state and non-state sources. A 2019 United Nations’ report concluded that the Tatmadaw’s ability to draw upon alternative sources of revenue, outside the official military budget, contributes towards it operating without civilian oversight. The opposition seized on this issue, effectively targeting the Tatmadaw’s financial interests. Actions include a boycott of military-owned companies and products. One social media app (Way Way Nay, which translates as “stay away”) lists 250 military-linked companies, in the communications, entertainment, banking and finance, beverage, health and education sectors.

2. Peaceful resistance is giving way to “self-defence” tactics

Repression is closing the space for peaceful resistance, and pushing communities to adopt to defensive tactics. Barricades and community self-defence groups slow the entry of Security Forces into townships. Makeshift shields, burning tires and firecrackers provide cover for egress. With great risks to themselves, communities collaborate to hide or cover the escaping protestors, many of whom are the youth of their own families and neighbours. Traditional and improvised firearms, knives, slingshots, gas grenades and Molotov cocktails are used more frequently, but against the battle tactics and lethal munitions of the Security Forces.

There is also evidence of some activists seeking self-defence training from Myanmar’s Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAO), conducted in the EAO’s areas of control. This opens the possibility for organised violent resistance in urban areas, with or without an alliance of EAOs.

The adoption of “self-defence” shifts the tactical focus away from peaceful civil disobedience and disrupting the State institutions and economic capacity – areas where the opposition had a certain tactical advantage – into the realm of force. Here, the Security Forces have an overwhelming advantage. The immediate effect is to escalate civilian casualties. Eighty-two civilian deaths were recorded on 9 April in the town of Bago alone, as Security Forces responded to protesters bearing homemade rifles with artillery and sustained automatic weapons fire.

3. Myanmar’s political dynamics are being transformed

For the last 30 years, Myanmar politics have been dominated by two axes of conflict. The first, intra-Bamar tension between the National League for Democracy and the Tatmadaw, both Bamar nationalist in orientation. The second, between the majority Bamar ethnic group and Myanmar’s numerous ethnic minorities. The February coup was, in large part, a manifestation of the first axis. The second axis was reflected in the relative alignment between the Tatmadaw and the NLD in peace negotiations with Ethnic Armed Organisation, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s defence of military action against the Rohingya minority. Here, the NLD and the Tatmadaw found common purpose within Bamar nationalism.

These axes have brought Myanmar to ruin, and a new dynamic is emerging. The position of regime opponents has been for restoration of a democratic system, and of the government duly elected in 2020. Yet opposition to the regime does not implicitly translate into support for the NLD. Many opponents, especially from ethnic and religious minorities, are calling for a form of federal democracy based on a new constitution that breaks the Tatmadaw’s hold on power.

These positions are aligning the opposition toward a new political configuration that exists beyond the two historical and Bamar-centric axes. It has the possibility of a generational and cultural re-imagining of what the Myanmar “nation” can be, as young activists take the lead without looking to traditional sources of authority for approval.

An indicator of change is the NLD’s relationship with the opposition. Paralyzed by the detention of senior party leadership, the NLD did not play an early leadership role. The party has re-asserted itself as the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), comprised of Members of the Parliament from the 2020 election. The committee seeks recognition as the “provisional government” of Myanmar until Aung San Suu Kyi and others are released and to reverse the coup, taking Myanmar back to the pre-coup status quo of 31 January.

The CRPH has support from within the traditional NLD base. Yet it lacks the capacity to lead, in part a consequence of the party’s centralisation around the persona of Aung San Suu Kyi. The committee functions in exile, operating from territory controlled by an Ethnic Armed Organisation, and depending on that EAO for protection. It can only operate through collaboration with other elements of the opposition, including among ethnic minorities, and must build consensus with them.

This dynamic requires the CRPH to adopt positions that do not align with previous NLD policy. The committee has supported constitutional reform, the establishment of new federal union in Myanmar, and creation of a new federal army. It also endorsed the right of protesters to self-defence, sanctioning the move to armed resistance.

The effect is a shift within the NLD towards acceptance of positions long held by ethnic communities, and traditionally rejected by the NLD. The future shape of the party, and the role and influence of the imprisoned leadership, are unclear.

4. A Humanitarian Crisis is Deepening

Myanmar was already one of the least developed economies in the ASEAN region, a legacy of the country’s isolation during six decades of military rule. Progress achieved during the post-transition decade was set back by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the combination of regime violence, civil disobedience and general strikes are causing the economy to collapse.

The banking system has not functioned for two months, bringing economic activity to a stop and provoking a crisis that will impoverish millions. Many people have lost their income or their access to cash. As production and supply chains break down, people are unable to buy what food or essential goods remain in local markets – which is less each day. The health system and other public services have also effectively collapsed.

These are systemic breakdowns, affecting the entire country. Violence, poverty and hunger are already causing large population displacements. People are on the move because they have lost their livelihoods, because they are escaping violence in the cities, or because of renewed fighting between the Tatmadaw and EAO’s in ethnic areas.

A Prognosis for Myanmar

Absent decisive international action and a domestic political alternative, the prognosis for Myanmar is alarming. Events are driving Myanmar to a form of state failure or collapse. The Tatmadaw has the “power” to violently supress the opposition but it lacks “control”: the legitimacy and the institutional means to effectively govern. This is a fundamental change from the previous era, when the state still functioned and delivered services during times of crisis.

Reason for hope may be found in the breakdown of the old political dynamics that have dominated Myanmar since independence. The coup is uniting Myanmar society in ways that post-transition (quasi) civilian governments failed, or did not attempt to achieve. These are the outcome of dialogue and cooperation among the Tatmadaw’s Bamar and ethnic opponents.At the same time, the Tatmadaw’s use of violence is closing the space for peaceful opposition to military rule. The shift to self-defence, entry of EAOs into the conflict and the absence of any intervention – domestic or international – that might constrain escalation all suggest that Myanmar is entering into a protracted civil war and humanitarian crisis.

Yet the opposition lacks the power to force the well-armed and resilient Tatmadaw from power. It does not have the coherence to articulate how resistance might become real political power, or what it intends to accomplish should the Tatmadaw either be forced from power or into negotiations. The importance of this articulation is a hard-earned lesson from popular uprisings in other contexts, the Arab Spring first among them.

A protracted crisis that collapses the Myanmar state should be of grave concern to its neighbours. No country will benefit from a large, violent and ungoverned area in the heart of the ASEAN region. Myanmar’s instability is also likely to intersect with geopolitical dynamics in ways that are inevitable and unpredictable. Yet there is no evidence of a determined and coherent international response that would force the Tatmadaw to reverse its position.


  • The author is a Myanmar national and political analyst, specializing on Myanmar’s ethnic and sectarian armed conflicts, civil-military relations, and China’s growing role in Myanmar. Andra MongMao writes under a pseudonym.
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Kyaw Kyaw Win

“Absent decisive international action” – for reasons I am sure you know all too well, there will never, ever be any international action. Burma has been ungovernable since she gained her Independence in 1948 and, more than 70 years on, there is no sign that anything can – or will – change. Certainly not in the forseeable future.

David Gairdner

Excellent but grim summary. Especially the analysis of new political dynamics.

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