Accessibility links

Breaking News

Experts Weigh In on Expanded Myanmar Civil War Prospects Amid ASEAN Plan

Anti-coup protesters hold a banner that reads "What are these? We are Yangon residents!" as they march during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar, April 27, 2021.
Anti-coup protesters hold a banner that reads "What are these? We are Yangon residents!" as they march during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar, April 27, 2021.

Myanmar remains on the path to an expanded, nationwide civil war unless there is a coordinated response from all parties concerned, according to experts.

Since February’s coup, large waves of Myanmar’s population have opposed the takeover, with street protests and strikes against the military.

In response, the armed forces have detained thousands of people, including National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi, while hundreds of protesters and bystanders have been killed.

Myanmar has seen three major revolts against the armed forces since 1988, but in its ethnic states, conflict has been rampant for more than 70 years.

“Armed Forces Day” in the country recently saw one of the bloodiest days since the coup, leaving at least 100 dead. But days later on March 31, the army promised a one-month cease-fire. Humanitarian groups in the country’s ethnic states, however, have reported that military attacks are continuing, which have killed dozens and displaced tens of thousands.

In a bid to solve the crisis, an emergency high-level summit commenced last week between ASEAN leaders. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is a 10-member union and political regional group promoting economic and security cooperation.

A conclusion to the meeting saw a five-point consensus agreed upon that includes the immediate cessation of violence, dialogue for a peaceful solution, meditation and humanitarian assistance provided by ASEAN, and a visit by the union’s special envoy to Myanmar to all parties concerned.

But protesters in Myanmar have vented their opposition to the five-point plan. Nyinyi Lwin, a political analyst, insisted the proposal must involve Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG), ethnic minorities and the Rohingya people.

“The ASEAN resolution of a five-point road map may change the political landscape if it is supported by the people of Myanmar,” Nyinyi Lwin told VOA.

Nyinyi Lwin, now based in Washington, and the chief editor of Arakan News, a Myanmar news site, added: “The people do not trust ASEAN leadership. ... As long as people doubt ASEAN, the civil war is still on the grounds.”

First open election in 2015

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was governed under military rule until 2011. In 2015, the NLD won the country’s first open democratic election.

But the Myanmar military contested the results of last November's general elections, claiming unsubstantiated electoral fraud. On February 1, the military, also known as Tatmadaw, took control of the country.

As anti-coup protests commenced, the junta deployed armored vehicles and fired live ammunition at demonstrators. Martial law and daily internet shutdowns have also been implemented.

The pro-democracy campaign, the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), has seen thousands of professionals go on strike against the military regime.

In April, the NUG was formed, claiming to be the legitimate government of Myanmar, existing in parallel with the junta, officially the State Administrative Council.

The recent summit in Jakarta came after the United Nations said that Myanmar's strife could become on par with the conflict in Syria.

Key difference

Josh Kurlantzick, a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent think tank in New York, said international action is the key difference between Myanmar and Syria.

“I don't see it as exactly similar to Syria," he told VOA. "I think Myanmar could, indeed, have a wider civil war, one that stretches across the country and involves not just the ethnic armed organizations but areas of armed resistance in central Myanmar, in Burman, or Bamar-dominated Myanmar.

The Syrian civil war began in 2011 when pro-democracy demonstrations calling for the removal of the Syrian government met with a violent response from the Syrian army. This sparked an armed rebellion by opposition forces and rebel groups. Foreign intervention also has been rife, with the U.S, Russia, and Iran all involved. More than 500,000 people have been killed or are believed to be missing, with millions as either refugees or internally displaced, according to a BBC report.

“There are parallels, in terms of Myanmar potentially becoming a failed state, leading to massive refugee outflows, civil conflict, but I don't think there are real analogies in the international involvement angle in a Myanmar civil conflict,” Kurlantzick added.

Analysts say Russia is increasing arms sales to the Myanmar military, however, and it is standing by the junta.

Political analyst Aung Thu Nyein said it’s difficult to see direct international intervention from neighboring countries, as ASEAN “has no history of intervening in the affairs of its members.” But he admitted Myanmar could be buffeted as it finds itself in the “middle of a storm” amid sustained tensions between the U.S. and China.

“The civil-military relation is the worst ever in Myanmar history, and people not only have lost trust in the military, but they also hate it," he said. "The animosity will not be dying down soon, and as I said, it could lead to limited violence, spiraling downward to a failed state. I said an implosion, rather than an explosion, because the CPRH [parallel civilian government] and the opposition government have little opportunity to receive external aid,” he added.