Myanmar’s U-turn: Implications of the Military Coup on Strategic Competition in the Indo-Pacific

  • Published
  • By Dr. Miemie Winn Byrd

Since Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in November 2010, many people feared the possibility of a U-turn by the Myanmar (previously known as Burma) military: the Tatmadaw. This fear materialized 1 February 2021, when the military seized control during the dawn hours and arrested civilian leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation’s democratically elected leader.

Since then, the country has devolved into chaos, and people have risen up in mass demonstrations to demand that democracy be restored and the results of the November 2020 elections respected. The NLD won the election in a landslide, as it did in the 2015 election. As protests spread across the country, the Tatmadaw unleashed its signature brutality on peaceful protesters and arrested people at home in night raids. In less than a year, more than 1,300 civilians were killed by inhumane torture at the hands of the security forces and through its use of weapons. The Tatmadaw had arrested more than 11,000 as of 17 December 2021 according to a human rights organization Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.1

As the international community voiced justifiable outrage regarding the human rights violations in Myanmar, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) used the crisis to further its economic, foreign policy, and military interests by throwing a lifeline to the embattled military junta.

China’s Quest for Control

The military coup put the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in a difficult position. The PRC found Myanmar’s civilian government, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to be more reliable than the Tatmadaw because the leaders prioritized poverty alleviation and job creation, which aligned with the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative scheme. Beijing was in the process of permanently securing bilateral ties with the civilian-led government when the coup occurred.

Although the PRC preferred dealing with the civilian government, at “the end of the day, the Chinese believe that the Burmese military holds the ultimate power because they have weapons. They have the guns. They are not really questioning the Burmese military's capability to prevail in the end,” Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, a Washington, DC–based think tank, told National Public Radio.2 Beijing’s pragmatism and the transactional nature of its relationship with Myanmar will rule the day. The PRC refused to condemn the coup and blocked meaningful United Nations Security Council resolutions against the military junta.

The PRC has viewed Myanmar as a land bridge to the Indian Ocean. Therefore, safeguarding and controlling the Myanmar corridor was of vital importance for Beijing’s foreign policy. This recognition and ambition dates to the early Chinese explorers, who searched for a route from China’s landlocked provinces (such as the modern-day Yunan area) via Myanmar to the sea.

Additionally, Myanmar provides a strategic alternative to the PRC’s Malacca dilemma. China’s dependency on the narrow Malacca Strait, through which most of its shipping and energy supplies travel, creates a significant vulnerability in its strategic competition with the United States. Beijing sees unfettered access to the Myanmar corridor as a key to remedy this vulnerability. Furthermore, having access to over 2,000 kilometers of Myanmar coastline (strategically located at the western entrance to the Malacca Strait) with direct access to the Indian Ocean would give China an enormous commercial advantage over its competitors.

If these developments come to fruition, the PRC will be able to control the strait’s eastern portion via the artificial features it has built in the South China Sea and the western part via Myanmar. After the US Congress passed the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, which levied heavy sanctions on the previous military regime in 2003, the PRC used the opportunity to pressure Myanmar to allow China to build the deep seaport known as Kyaukphyu on Myanmar’s western coast and an oil and gas dual-pipeline from the port to the PRC’s Yunan province. This was a significant breakthrough for the PRC, delivering the basis of a vital strategic alternative to the Malacca dilemma for the first time.

Myanmar Lost

After a relatively short period of Western reengagement from 2012–17, Myanmar again landed on the West’s pariah list. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was blamed for the Tatmadaw’s ruthless assault on the Rohingya Muslim minority, and international sanctions that further isolated the country soon followed.

The PRC viewed the condemnation of the Tatmadaw’s atrocities as an opportunity. Beijing regained influence and access to Myanmar with a considerable boost from Western countries’ concerted pressure on Myanmar. A clear indicator was CCP’s General Secretary Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar in January 2020 on the eve of the International Court of Justice ordering Myanmar to prevent the genocide of the Rohingyas. Beijing’s desire to establish a back door through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean was growing closer to becoming a reality.

Then came the military coup early on 1 February 2021, ending Myanmar’s experiment with democracy, just as the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi–led NLD prepared to take its seats in the Parliament that morning. Election fraud was the official reason given for the coup. The West’s criticism had damaged Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s ability to counter the military. The original reason for the military’s willingness to flirt with democracy in 2010 and tolerate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was its need to reduce dependence on the PRC. Military leaders believed that by releasing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and going down the path of “disciplined democracy,” Myanmar could attract Western engagement to diversify away from the PRC.

However, when Western support waned for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the PRC stepped back in, the Tatmadaw saw the end of her usefulness and of the pretense for democracy. Despite previous military regimes allowing construction of the Chinese dual-pipeline and dams and the depletion of forests while also giving away rights to much of Myanmar’s land to the PRC’s extractive industries, the current military perceived that it would be superior to the civilian-led government at managing the PRC. Additionally, the military leadership handsomely benefited from such China-backed projects in the past, while they did not under a democratic government.

As the anti-coup protests continued, the military brought back its strategy from previous uprisings: jailing the leaders, brutally beating and killing protesters into submission, creating fear in the populace and clearing troublemakers out of cities and into border areas or out of the country, if possible. Once the cities were clear, the military would consolidate its efforts and conduct clearance operations in the border areas. This strategy worked before, and the military is continuing to follow the same path in 2021.

Pro-Democracy and Anti-Coup Movement

Three days after the coup, the Myanmar people, led by the young adults of Generation Z, took to the streets to protest. They brandished the three-finger salute, a symbol of resistance made famous by The Hunger Games movies. Millions of people in cities, towns, and villages publicly and peacefully asked for the military junta to respect their votes and restore democracy. Although many carried NLD flags and wore logos, the focus was not on party politics but on restoring the democratic system and denouncing military authoritarianism. Many civil servants went on strike in the form of a civil disobedience movement, initially led by the health care and education sectors before spreading across the entire bureaucracy and even parts of the private sector, bringing the economy to a halt.

As nationwide protests ensued, the Tatmadaw deployed lethal tactics and conducted nightly raids in residential areas. The indiscriminate killings and arrests awakened a sense of injustice and anger among the populace. “Opposition to the junta is deep and widespread. I have never seen anything like it,” reported Tom Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar. It has “unified the country to a degree that I have never seen, people of all ages, all ethnicities, all social and economic groups, united in opposition.”3

Uniting Ethnic Groups

The security forces’ relentless onslaught caused protesters in urban areas to flee to border areas controlled by ethnic armed organizations (EAO). Many of them sought training and arms from the EAOs to counter the Tatmadaw’s brutality.

More than a dozen of Myanmar’s parliamentary members, lawmakers, and cabinet members escaped arrest during the first week of February 2021. This group formed the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) and National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), with many of its members operating from EAO-controlled areas under the protection of the EAOs. The crisis created extraordinary cooperation and unity among the Burman majority and ethnic minority groups, as Andrews noted.4

Larger armed groups–such as the Karen National Liberation Army, the militia under the Karen National Union, and the Kachin Independence Army, the militia under the Kachin Independence Organization—went from being seen as separatist insurgent groups to legitimate self-defense forces by the Burman majority. EAO combined forces are estimated to total over 80,000.

If all EAOs can conduct coordinated operations within their occupied territories, with explicit political support from the Burman majority, it could overwhelm the military’s capacity to effectively respond. There has never been such an opportunity presented in Myanmar’s post-independence history. The CRPH and NUCC also formed an inclusive government, the National Unity Government (NUG), with an unprecedented level of ethnic representation in the leadership positions. The NUG has prioritized its efforts to gain international recognition and to lead the process of restoring democracy and building a “federal democratic union.”

Future Prospects

The outcome of the crisis is difficult to predict with so many variables and actors. However, after a decade of democracy and freedom, protesters have more capabilities, awareness, and networks throughout the world than Myanmar citizens did in the past. They can mobilize people and resources domestically and internationally to support their efforts. The unprecedented cooperation among ethnic and religious groups is also changing the dynamics in favor of the people. Women are playing larger and leading roles in the pro-democracy and anti-coup activities. The Myanmar diaspora is providing technical knowledge, political advocacy, and economic support. The Tatmadaw is also experiencing an unparalleled level of soldiers joining the civil disobedience movement and defecting. Such defections are contributing to the growing crisis of morale inside the military. Many defectors are joining the resistance forces as well.

The Tatmadaw has never seen this level of opposition from inside and outside the country. The NUG, with critical assistance from the Myanmar diaspora, has been successful in persuading the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the UN, and many countries to not recognize the military regime as legitimate. If the NUG gains additional recognition from the wider international community, it would boost the organization’s legitimacy and further isolate the military junta.

Even as Western countries levy sanctions and isolate the military regime, such actions are not enough to force the regime to release political prisoners, stop the killings, and restore democracy in the short term. The PRC, as Myanmar’s largest investor and northern neighbor, is the only major power that has leverage over the military junta. As the junta becomes more isolated, the Tatmadaw must depend on the PRC even more. Recently, the regime announced that Myanmar will be using Chinese yuan to settle cross-border trade, which is valued at 2 billion yuan (approximately $314 million USD), to lessen financial pressures and to go around the declining foreign currencies.5

Although the coup is an opportunity for Beijing to pull Myanmar tighter into its grip, a huge wave of anti-China sentiment is gaining momentum within Myanmar and among its diaspora. People have called for destroying Chinese-owned businesses and infrastructure investments in Myanmar and for boycotting Chinese products. Chinese-owned factories on the outskirts of Myanmar’s capital, Yangon, were torched in March. Many from the Myanmar diaspora have demonstrated outside Chinese embassies throughout the world. China has a serious public relations problem with the Myanmar people.

Strategic Competition Stakes

The PRC’s problem presents an opportunity for the United States. If the Myanmar people can force the Tatmadaw to restore democracy, the PRC will be the loser in the long run. However, should the military regime win or Myanmar descend into a fractured failed state, the PRC will benefit. Despite the military regime’s belief that it can better manage the PRC, this perception is not supported by historical reality. If the Myanmar people prevail and democracy wins, the shockwaves will reach Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the various members of the Milk Tea Alliance pro-democracy movement. Myanmar is the last remaining democracy on mainland Southeast Asia. That is why Myanmar is the front line for democracy in the Indo-Pacific.

Dr. Miemie Winn Byrd

Dr. Byrd received a BA in economics and accounting from Claremont-McKenna College and holds an MBA with emphasis in Asia-Pacific economics and business from the University of Hawaii. She earned her doctorate in education leadership from the University of Southern California. She retired from the US Army after 28 years of distinguished service. Highlights of her military career include serving as the deputy economic advisor, civil-military operations plans officer, and interagency operations officer at US Pacific Command in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. She also served as a linguist and cultural advisor to the US delegations attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum, POW/MIA recovery negotiations in Myanmar (Burma), and Operation Caring Response to Cyclone Nargis, and US–Myanmar (Burma) Human Rights Dialogues. Dr. Byrd joined the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in 2007. She researches, teaches, and publishes in the areas of US–Myanmar (Burma) relations; security dynamics in Southeast Asia; economics and security linkages; rising inequality and its implication on security; the roles of private-sector, women, and education in socioeconomic development; civil-military operations; leadership; organizational development & innovation; women peace & security; and transformational learning and adult education.

1 Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, “Daily Briefing in Relation to the Military Coup,” 16 December 2021, https://aappb.org/.

2 Quoted from National Public Radio, “China's Relationship With Myanmar's Military: It's Complicated,” All Things Considered, 29 March 2021, https://www.npr.org/.

3 Quoted in “MYANMAR CRISIS: Stand with the people and protect them, urges UN rights expert,” UN News, 19 April 2021, https://news.un.org/.

4 “MYANMAR CRISIS,” UN News.

5 “Myanmar to use yuan as settlement currency,” PIME Asia News, 16 December 2021, https://www.asianews.it/.

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