By Arab News
By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
In recent months, Myanmar has been thrust into the international spotlight once again, not for its rich cultural heritage or economic potential, but for the escalating clashes that are pushing the country to the brink of fragmentation. The Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military junta, once the unchallenged force dictating the nation’s destiny, is now grappling with the consequences of its own oppressive rule. The result: a nation on the verge of disintegration and a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions.
The catalyst for this unraveling can be traced back to the Tatmadaw’s February 2021 coup, which ousted the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. This power grab ignited widespread protests, with citizens demanding a return to democracy. The military responded with brutal force, leading to a cycle of violence that shows no signs of abating. The clashes between the Tatmadaw and various ethnic armed groups have not only intensified but have also prompted a surge in the number of refugees fleeing the country.
One of the primary contributors to Myanmar’s descent into chaos has been the Tatmadaw’s inability to control the situation on the ground. The military’s brutal crackdown on dissent has not quelled opposition; instead, it has fueled a resistance that spans ethnic, religious and regional lines. As the Tatmadaw loses control over vast territories, ethnic armed groups have seized the opportunity to assert their autonomy, further fragmenting an already diverse and complex nation.
The exodus of refugees from Myanmar adds another layer to the unfolding tragedy. The UN estimates that more than 1 million people have fled the country, seeking safety in neighboring nations. This mass displacement not only underscores the severity of the humanitarian crisis but also poses a significant threat to regional stability. Myanmar’s neighbors, such as Thailand, Bangladesh and India, are grappling with the influx of refugees, adding strain to their own resources and stability.
The Tatmadaw’s erosion of control has also exposed the fragile unity of Myanmar itself. The country comprises a mosaic of ethnic groups, each with its own identity, aspirations and historical grievances. The military’s brutal tactics have only intensified long-standing ethnic tensions, pushing some regions toward seeking independence or greater autonomy. The dream of a unified Myanmar, once held together by a delicate balance of power, now seems increasingly distant.
However, international analysts must understand that the recent descent into civil war in Myanmar did not happen overnight. Rather, it is the culmination of a series of events and one pivotal chapter is often overlooked — the international indifference to the military’s genocide of the Rohingya. The Rohingya crisis was a stark warning, a red flag that went unheeded, laying the foundations for the military coup that followed and the ensuing civil war that now threatens to tear the nation apart.
In 2017, the world watched in horror as the Tatmadaw launched a brutal campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority. Villages were burned, thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced, leading to one of the most egregious human rights violations of our time. The international community’s response was, however, tepid at best. Condemnations were issued but meaningful action was lacking.
The failure to hold the Tatmadaw accountable for its crimes against the Rohingya sent a dangerous message. The junta, led by Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, learned that it could act with impunity on the international stage without facing meaningful consequences. The lack of robust action from the global community allowed the Tatmadaw to continue its grip on power and emboldened it to take even more drastic steps.
Fast forward to February 2021 and the Tatmadaw staged its coup. The international community, having failed to respond effectively to the Rohingya crisis, found itself ill-equipped to prevent the military’s power grab. The indifference shown during the Rohingya genocide had set the stage for a brazen power play by the Tatmadaw.
The subsequent crackdown on pro-democracy activists and the violent suppression of dissent only fueled the flames of resistance. The lack of robust international action in response to the Rohingya crisis had created an environment where the Tatmadaw believed it could act without consequences. The world’s indifference was a green light for further repression.
As the junta attempted to consolidate its power, clashes erupted across the country. The Rohingya crisis had laid the groundwork for a deeply divided and unstable nation and the coup only exacerbated existing fault lines. The resistance against the Tatmadaw is not just about the return to democracy, it is a collective outcry against the impunity granted to a military responsible for heinous crimes.
The international community must not turn a blind eye to Myanmar’s plight. Sanctions and condemnations alone are insufficient. A coordinated effort is needed to address the root causes of the conflict, facilitate dialogue and provide humanitarian aid to those affected. The focus should be on creating a pathway for the restoration of democratic governance, addressing ethnic grievances and fostering national reconciliation.
The unraveling of Myanmar serves as a stark reminder that autocratic rule and military oppression breed instability. The international community must not only support those fleeing the violence but also work collectively to find a sustainable and inclusive solution to the crisis. The Tatmadaw’s grip on power is slipping and, as it does so, the international community must seize the opportunity to help Myanmar chart a new course toward peace, democracy and unity. Failure to act now risks not only the disintegration of Myanmar but also the destabilization of the entire region.
- Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the director of special initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC. X: @AzeemIbrahim