IN THE NEWS | In Myanmar, new ethnic alliances threaten a junta’s nearly three-year grip on power
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On Nov. 6, a loosely organized coalition of armed resistance fighters in Myanmar raised its flag in Kawlin after capturing the town from military troops. It was the first administrative capital taken by the People’s Defense Force since a military junta deposed the country’s democratically elected government in a coup d’état in 2021.
For nearly three years, the junta has suppressed civilian protests, jailed or executed political opponents following sham trials, and brutally bombed ethnic resistance groups in the north. But as more rebel ethnic forces unite in a nationwide campaign to overthrow the military dictatorship and restore democratic rule, the military junta’s grip on power appears to be slipping.
Crucially, the People’s Defense Force—representing the exiled National Unity Government—took control of Kawlin with the help of a newly minted alliance of ethnic armies.
“The stark truth for the military is simple … it faces too much resistance in too many places and doesn’t have the depth to recover,” says Matthew Arnold, an independent policy analyst on Myanmar, also known as Burma.
On Oct. 27, the Three Brotherhood Alliance—a trio of armies comprising seven ethnic organizations, including the Rakhine, Ta’ang, and the mostly ethnically Chinese Kokang—launched a first-ever joint offensive across the northeastern Shan state. The revolutionary alliance has reportedly killed hundreds of junta troops, including Brig. Gen. Aung Kyaw Lwin, commander of government forces in Shan. If true, he would be the most senior officer killed in combat since the 2021 coup.
The alliance said it has captured more than 100 military outposts and four towns, including a major border crossing point for trade with China. Clashes since Oct. 26 had displaced about 50,000 people, according to a United Nations report on Nov. 10.
For the Oct. 27 alliance to have succeeded, experts say tacit support from China was essential. Ethnic groups have had ties with China because of border businesses. China has been trying to stop Myanmar-based cybercrime activity near its border and prevent trafficking of Chinese nationals who’ve been forced to work in the scamming operations. Ironically, China looked the other way and profited for decades as the criminal activity it’s now trying to stop became entrenched. Shan state is also known as a major producer of illegal drugs.
China tried to shut down the drug and crime syndicates earlier this year. Myanmar’s military generals not only did not cooperate, they allowed border guards to encourage blatant criminal activity. Crimes include laundering billions of dollars a month in funds stolen from cybercrime victims worldwide, including the United States.
Until recently, China has diplomatically supported the Myanmar military and remained disengaged from rebel forces. China’s growing influence with ethnic groups in the region may be a two-edged sword, according to the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). Defeating the military in the region would massively boost ethnic groups’ morale, according to a recent USIP report. But further success could also allow China to manipulate ethnic groups for control.
Tun Myint, political science chair at Minnesota’s Carleton College, is dismissive of concerns over Chinese involvement.
“The ethnic groups will take help from anyone—China, Thailand, anyone—who helps them get rid of the military,” he says. “Their goal is to build an inclusive federalist democracy.”
According to Myint, the Three Brotherhood Alliance ethnic groups were profiting from the border’s drug trade and other illicit businesses. They left that behind, however, and chose to cooperate with China in cracking down on the criminal activities since the junta was also profiting from them. “They would rather die for democracy than keep the status quo,” he says.
He believes as the military crumbles, northern ethnic groups will decouple from China’s influence. Myint’s greater concern is Russia, which conducted three days of joint naval exercises with Myanmar’s military in the Indian Ocean beginning Nov. 7.
Meanwhile, reports of hundreds of Burmese military defections, including whole battalions, increase the likelihood of the ethnic rebels’ success.
The junta-appointed president, Myint Swe, warned during a defense council meeting on Nov. 8 that ongoing anti-military attacks could break apart the country, according to reports in Myanmar’s state-run newspaper.
Tun Myint, the political science professor, estimates about 75 percent of Myanmar’s population opposes the military, and hatred toward it runs deep. Barring Russian intervention, Myint believes the rebel alliance will prevail.
“Personally, I think the military’s days are numbered,” he says. “Collapse is in the making.”
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