The Myanmar Spring Revolution, born out of the military’s coup on 1st February 2021, has unfolded over the past three years, evolving from initial peaceful protests to a widespread armed uprising. While neither side can claim a definitive victory, as we mark this milestone, it is evident that distinct winners and losers have emerged and are analyzed to anticipate future developments.
Once ranked 12th globally in terms of troop numbers and considered too big to be defeated, it has been crippled by decades of corruption, nepotism and greed morphing into a mafia-like armed organization primarily serving the interests of generals who are more focused on amassing wealth than safeguarding the well-being of the people. Along this trajectory, it not only lost public support but also witnessed a precipitous decline in the quality and morale of its troops.
The military’s decline is evident in various aspects, including its intelligence services. For instance, the Arakan Army, established in 2009 with a small group of Arakan youths in Laiza, Kachin state, had, by 2020, grown into a 20,000-strong fighting force in Rakhine state, all under the watch of Myanmar military intelligence. Despite allegations of arms being transported from Kachin state through Chin state into Rakhine, military intelligence failed to recognize or intercept these shipments.
The operational shortcomings became glaring during Operation 1027, launched by the Three Brotherhood Alliance (3BHA). Despite the movement and deployment of 3BHA troops near strategic Myanmar military outposts, the military was ill-prepared for the impending assault. The use of drone warfare by 3BHA troops caught the Myanmar military off guard, leading to astonishing outcomes. Within the initial two months of the assault, the military lost over 300 outposts, numerous major bases, and a dozen towns in northern Shan state. Several battalions were either annihilated or surrendered, with close to 2300 troops and six brigadier generals surrendering at Laukki Regional Command. Additionally, two brigadier generals were either killed or arrested. The absence of effective strategic planning resulted in no counteroffensive during this period.
The military’s losses extended beyond northern Shan state, with setbacks in Chin State, Karreni State, Kachin, Arakan, and northern Saggaing regions, though not on the same scale. According to the admission of those who surrendered, most rank-and-file Myanmar soldiers are demoralized.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing
Being the head of the Myanmar junta, known as the State Administration Council (SAC), unsurprisingly he is considered a loser but also faces additional embarrassment and snubs. In October 2023, during the Belt and Road forum hosted by China to commemorate the tenth anniversary of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), leaders from nearly 130 nations were invited to Beijing, excluding Min Aung Hlaing, despite the existence of BRI projects in Myanmar. Similarly, he was prohibited from attending the biannual ASEAN Summit meetings in both 2022 and 2023. Even among military supporters, his popularity has been on the decline. Within Burmese language social media groups that back the military, many have begun to criticize his leadership, with a few openly suggesting that he should step down.
Social media influencers supporting the junta
Social media influencers supporting the junta are experiencing a decline in trust and support due to their repeated inaccurate predictions and excuses amid ongoing military defeats. Even among military supporters, their credibility has diminished. For instance, Moe Hein deactivated his account and vanished from social media, while figures like Kyaw Soe Oo, Kyaw Myo Min, Maung Maung, Nay Chi (Bullet Hla Shwe), Minkin Maung Myint and others face constant criticism from their former supporters, becoming the target of persistent trolling. Consequently, some influencers are subtly altering their tone, offering suggestions to the junta that thinly veil their criticisms of the leadership.
United States of America
The USA missed a crucial opportunity to shine as a beacon of democracy globally by not taking a firm stand in support of the Myanmar uprising. The past year began with promise as President Biden signed the FY 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which included a revised version of the Burma Act. However, the administration fell short in actual implementation. The country was grappling with internal turmoil, with Congress on the brink of shutdown multiple times. US foreign policy attention was diverted by the Ukraine and Israel-Palestinian conflicts, leaving little focus on Myanmar. Notably, the USA, despite its promises, failed to deliver any significant aid, be it lethal or humanitarian, to the internally displaced people (IDPs) in Myanmar. This failure has eroded the faith and trust of most Myanmar people in the USA.
According to Myanmar observer Dr. Byrd, Myanmar has become America’s single largest strategic blind spot. The USA needs to recognize that the collapse of the Myanmar military junta is imminent. By providing a little more assistance, the US could have garnered significant goodwill in the region and acted as a hedge against China’s complete dominance over Myanmar in the future. The sanctions imposed by the US seemed halfhearted, lacking the design to effectively dismantle the junta’s foreign currency earning entity, Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). In summary, the US failed to seize the low-hanging fruit that could have yielded substantial returns in the long run.
Mr. Kyaw Moe Tun
Quietly and steadfastly, he secured his position as the Permanent Representative of Myanmar to the United Nations (UN) for the third consecutive term. Initially appointed by the civilian government in power before the coup, he boldly addressed the UN assembly, denouncing the coup and affirming his continued role as the representative of the legitimate former government. Simultaneously, he pledged support to the newly formed National Unity Government (NUG) of Myanmar. Despite the junta’s unsuccessful attempts to replace him with its own representative, he has skillfully navigated the past three years, persuading the UN credentialing committee to renew his position annually through adept diplomacy and discreet campaigning. As a result, the junta-led State Administration Council finds itself without official representation in the UN.
EROs including 3BHA, AA, KIA and Karenni
The Three Brotherhood Coalition Alliance (3BHA) has gained widespread recognition as a prominent Ethnic Resistance Organization (ERO) following recent successes on the battlefield. Also known as The Northern Alliance, it is a collaboration of troops from three EROs: the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). Established around 2019, its earlier formation in 2018 included a fourth member, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which continues to be a robust ally and collaborator with 3BHA. Both TNLA and KIA have played pivotal roles in training and supporting the newly formed People Defense Forces (PDFs).
At the commencement of Operation 1027 on October 27, 2023, initial expectations were not that high. The MNDAA had previously engaged with the Myanmar military in 2009 and 2015, experiencing defeat. Meanwhile, the TNLA had not undergone significant testing in major confrontations. However, 3BHA executed effective strategies, capitalizing on the Myanmar Military’s engagements with PDFs and other EROs across the country. By launching simultaneous attacks on multiple fronts, 3BHA curtailed the Myanmar Military’s usual advantage in deploying reinforcements. The Myanmar military found itself unprepared for 3BHA’s widespread use of drone warfare, reminiscent of the crucial role played by drones in the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict.
After two months of conflict, 3BHA has gained complete control of the northern Shan state, secured major border trade routes with China, and eradicated cybercrime cartels in China-Myanmar border towns. This has positioned 3BHA favorably in China’s view. Additionally, 3BHA achieved its political objective of reclaiming control over historical ethnic territories in Kokang and Ta’ang (Palaung) regions.
In a different region of the country, Karenni EROs now exercise control over nearly all of Karenni State, with the exception of the state capital, Loikaw. With this near-total territorial control, the Karenni State Interim Executive Council (IEC) was established in June 2023. This marks the first instance in post-coup Myanmar where a state level governance has become operational, laying the foundation for a future federal democratic union of Myanmar.
Despite the recent ceasefire facilitated by China in northern Shan state, the AA and KIA continue to engage in and win significant battles in their respective areas. Notably, the KIA has seemingly discovered effective strategies for countering the junta’s air assets, thereby eroding the last advantage the junta possesses — air superiority.
China has consistently positioned itself to exploit instability and undemocratic rulers in Myanmar, a stance that persisted after the coup. Due to the strategic importance of the Malacca Strait, which could become a chokepoint, China has prioritized securing its access to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar. As Myanmar’s largest trade partner, China takes advantage of the country’s renegade state. Banned by Western countries, Myanmar Military’s arms were predominantly supplied by China. Utilizing its veto authority in the UN, China, along with Russia, has thwarted numerous resolutions that could have taken action against the military junta. However, China maintains a hedging strategy.
China also is a primary supporter of several Ethnic Resistance Organizations (EROs) fighting against the military, especially those located near its border. These EROs, situated in landlocked regions of Myanmar, rely entirely on China for fuel, supplies, and arms. But over the past decade, cyber scams and money laundering centers proliferated in border towns, some controlled by Myanmar military-affiliated militias while others are under the control of certain EROs supported by China. When many Chinese citizens fell victim to these centers, China sought their closure, and through Operation 1027, it achieved this objective.
Despite the current junta’s incompetence and lack of trustworthiness, China appears to prefer it over a strong and genuinely democratic government in Myanmar. With a hands-off approach from Washington, China is currently winning in Myanmar and poised to emerge victorious regardless of how the revolution concludes. China has become a major player in Myanmar affairs, almost acting as a kingmaker in the region.
The National Unity Government of Myanmar (NUG)
It might be surprising for some to find the NUG listed among the winners. In its three years of existence, the NUG has faced the harshest criticisms in 2023, some of which are valid, while others are not. The main criticisms include the fact that the NUG has not been recognized as either a de facto or a de jure government by any country. Additionally, the NUG has not provided solid evidence that it has gained the trust and full support of EROs. Some of its ministers frequently overpromise and exaggerate the capabilities of its military wing, the PDFs. This has become particularly evident since Operation 1027. Compared to the 3BHA’s enormous battlefield success, the NUG’s achievements are modest at best. The balance sheets of the NUG are opaque and unaccountable. However, the NUG deserves credit for not disclosing its funding sources or expenses, considering the challenges it faces and the clandestine nature of operations it has to carry out.
In terms of international relations, while EROs have admirable achievements, they lack international representation compared to the NUG, which is the face of the revolution to the rest of the world. Certain EROs, such as MNDAA, AA, and even KIA, historically receive heavy support from China, making it challenging for the West to accept them without going through the NUG. Behind the scenes, the collaboration and mutual understanding between EROs and the NUG are deeper and stronger, yet they avoid displaying excessive affection to avoid unnecessary scrutiny from China. Walking a tight rope, the NUG released its first formal China Policy in early January 2024, pledging support for Beijing’s “One China Principle” and other olive branch gestures. Despite lacking formal recognition, the NUG has gained momentum internationally, engaging with several governments at high levels. Its foreign ministry now has a physical branch in Washington, D.C., and at the UN, it is represented by Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun. The NUG has gradually shed its Rohingya baggage and demonstrated genuine inclusivity, appointing Rohingya activist Aung Kyaw Moe as its deputy human rights minister in July 2023.
Another noteworthy success is found in its Ministry of Planning, Finance, and Investment (MOPFI). Without financial support from foreign entities, the NUG and revolutionary forces rely entirely on donations from the people of Myanmar, both within the country and abroad, along with funds raised by MOPFI. Initially facing challenges in accepting funds due to a lack of financial infrastructure, MOPFI responded with creative fundraising strategies. These include the sale of NUG bonds, the Spring Lottery, the End of Dictatorship Project (where future land rights are sold), the NUG Pay app for fund transfers, and the establishment of the Spring Development Bank, a neo bank powered by blockchain technology. Its minister, Tin Tun Naing, has emerged as one of the capable leaders and technocrats within the NUG government. While the NUG still has room for improvement, it undeniably stands within the winners’ circle.
The People Defense Forces (PDFs)
The PDFs emerged in response to the 2021 Military coup and comprise civilians who turned to armed struggle due to the military’s harsh suppression of peaceful protests. They narrowly secured a place in the winners’ circle, a commendable feat considering how they first started the fight against the formidable Myanmar military armed only with homemade single-shot rifles, yet managing to avoid a complete defeat. However, their operations still function on a local, small-scale basis with limited coordination. This limitation has hindered their ability to launch large-scale military offensives, unlike the ones from the EROs, that are essential for effectively eliminating the military. The majority of their engagements involve ambushes and hit-and-run tactics. Notably though, troops from Bamar People’s Liberation Army (BPLA), Mandalay PDF and some troops from People’s Liberation Army (PLA), all considered PDF troops and predominantly consisting of Bamar ethnic individuals, fought along 3BHA during the operation 1027. The widespread activity of PDFs across the nation has effectively pinned down the junta troops. This, in turn, has allowed EROs like 3BHA to operate more successfully compared to their previous assaults against the military.
THOSE WHICH HAVE BECOME IRRELEVENT
Those include National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) and Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
NUCC was intended to be the guiding light of the revolution, serving as the intellectual force behind it. It was envisioned to formulate a framework, if not an interim or transitional constitution, for the future federal democratic nation of Myanmar, garnering support from major players in the revolution, including prominent Ethnic Resistance Organizations (EROs), Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), and political parties. Unfortunately, the NUCC has failed to produce anything meaningful beyond the release of the Federal Democratic Charter in March 2021. At its current pace, it seems to be heading toward the dustbin of history.
Similarly, ASEAN finds itself in a comparable situation. Over the past three years, it has failed to offer any meaningful assistance in resolving the Myanmar crisis. Despite the good intentions of some member countries, ASEAN remains toothless. Its efficacy is hindered by the ulterior motives of certain member countries and the Myanmar junta’s adept exploitation of this weakness. The negotiating vehicle known as the Five Point Consensus Plan, despite being proposed, has been conveniently ignored by the junta, and no further proposals have been put forth.
However, perhaps the most inspiring winners, though unnamed, are the people of Myanmar who have demonstrated incredible resilience and creativity in the midst of severe hardships and brutal oppression by the military junta. As we look forward to 2024, the fight for democracy continues. The stakes have never been higher – for the losers, the winners, and the unfinished struggle for freedom.