Three years after Myanmar’s democratically elected government was ousted by a military coup in February 2021, a brutal civil war has left the country devastated. A United Nations report in December stated that the country is on the brink of a deepening humanitarian crisis, with around 18 million people in dire need.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who was ousted by the coup, is serving a 27-year sentence for Covid violations, illegal importing of walkie-talkies, and electoral fraud. Despite the bleak situation, opposition camp hopes the civil war may be shifting in their favor due to recent victories against the military. However, the junta still controls major cities and towns. Despite international aid, the heavy consequences for Myanmar’s 55 million people will continue for years.
Foreign investors are leaving Myanmar due to the country’s poor economic situation, lack of access to education and healthcare, and a lack of enthusiasm for new investment. While some foreign companies remain, their taxes fund the military, and there is no enthusiasm for fresh investment. Myanmar’s people are poorer and more vulnerable, with less access to education and health services. Many young people have abandoned their studies and careers to fight against the military or plan to escape. Thailand and its neighbors are hesitant to accept large migrant flows.
The opposition forces have made gains in recent months, with the junta experiencing catastrophic losses. In October, the Three Brotherhood Alliance conducted Operation 1027, capturing two border towns and overrunning hundreds of military posts and bases. The opposition forces also attacked military forces in eastern Myanmar and captured a key town in the central Sagaing region. In mid-November, the powerful Arakan Army broke a year-long ceasefire with the military in western Rakhine state, resulting in tens of thousands of displaced villagers.
Myanmar’s military has a significant advantage in air warfare, using jet fighters and helicopter gunships to bomb civilians and insurgents. However, drone technology is also being used by the opposition forces, as seen in the Ukraine war. The Chin National Army has been using drones to attack military forces in the Chin Hills, capturing at least two towns in the border regions. Opposition forces in Myanmar claim to have deployed about 25,000 unmanned aerial vehicles (drop-bombs) since the start of Operation 1027.
A China-brokered ceasefire between the military and the Three Brotherhood Alliance in Shan state highlighted the success of Operation 1027 but is unlikely to last and will likely be used by both sides to consolidate forces in the border regions. China remains the key international player in the civil war, bit it is losing some of its authority due to the rise of new military forces unconnected to China. The question for 2024 is whether ASEAN will support Myanmar’s democratic forces more fully.
The Myanmar crisis raises ASEAN’s coherence concerns, as members balance strategic relations with China and the US, and the victory of anti-coup forces could prompt proactive Southeast Asian diplomacy. Rapid improvements in drones and other battlefield technologies may shift the strategic judgments of Western governments, who might see a low-cost path to success for the opposition.
However, US funding for Myanmar has been delayed due to gridlock in Washington. The junta leaders may seek political compromise, particularly if there are fractures within the military, but it’s unclear if democratic leaders and ethnic armed forces will tolerate the political involvement of those who launched the coup three years ago.