Myanmar’s Military Junta Is Losing Power

The impending demise of Myanmar’s military junta illustrates that autocracies can be brittle and that democratic transitions can be resumed. But even though resistance forces will likely overthrow the regime, they will require meaningful support from regional powers to reconstitute a viable pluralistic state.


BANGKOK – As autocratic leaders gain influence, if not power, in more countries than proponents of democracy care to count, Myanmar is a remarkable exception: its military junta appears untenable. In fact, Myanmar’s people are putting their lives on the line to break the generals’ grip on power and reclaim their future.


After nearly a half-century of military dictatorship, starting in 1962, a decade of political liberalization, economic reform, and development progress followed, lasting from 2011 until 2021. But Senior General Min Aung Hlaing seized power from Myanmar’s re-elected civilian government on February 1, 2021, triggering a civil war in which young people, ethnic-minority armies, civilian leaders, and a defiant population have been fighting the regime. More recently, resistance forces – waging what they now call a “revolution” – have scored a series of battlefield victories, turning the tide of the conflict. But it is one thing to defeat Myanmar’s military; it is quite another to reconstitute a viable pluralistic state with popular legitimacy in an ethnically fractious country. Moreover, Myanmar’s deadly internal conflict could drag on for months as the military makes its last stand around major cities and towns, including the capital of Nay Pyi Taw, relying on air power, armor, and artillery to survive. The junta appears more vulnerable than ever. The formerly 500,000-strong military currently stands at around 150,000 troops or fewer and is severely overstretched. Widely known as one of the world’s most battle-hardened armed forces, having fought for decades against militias raised by autonomy-seeking ethnic minorities, the military picked the wrong target this time. To subdue national protests in the weeks following the coup, government soldiers turned their guns on their own people, indiscriminately killing hundreds of ordinary Burmese. Popular anger swelled. The resistance has been largely led by Burmese young people who came of age during a period of openness, improved living standards, and rising expectations. Organized into People’s Defense Force (PDF) units nationwide, they initially took up homemade arms and other rudimentary weapons, but later aligned with and received arms and training from ethnic militias, formally known as the Ethnic Armed Organizations. Operating in coordination with the civilian-led National Unity Government (NUG), the EAOs and PDF squads have used guerrilla tactics as well as conventional warfare to attack regime forces. Just a year after the coup, the war had reached a stalemate. But the determined resistance has increasingly gained the upper hand, as military brutality and outright barbarism provoked a nationwide revolt against the junta, with a vast majority of Myanmar’s diverse population taking part. After being attacked on all fronts, the army has been running out of recruits, reinforcements, and supplies, and faces plummeting morale.

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The point of no return was reached just over two months ago, when the Brotherhood Alliance, comprising the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and the Arakan Army, conducted Operation 1027. Their coordinated offensive in the northern state of Shan, which borders China, seized two dozen towns and hundreds of military outposts. Assisted by other EAOs and resistance columns from the states of Kayah, Chin, Rakhine, and Kachin, and from the Magway and Sagaing regions, this battlefield breakthrough underscored the military’s weakness and boosted the confidence of resistance forces. It now seems like only a matter of time before the junta is toppled.

But while the revolution against Myanmar’s military dictatorship will likely succeed, the resistance is far from unified. The EAOs are a motley collection of traditional adversaries united mainly by their opposition to central authority, while the young people fighting in the PDF units lack experience in government and coalition building. For its part, the NUG is inchoate and has yet to produce a convincing leadership. Kicking out Min Aung Hlaing and his military cronies is only half the battle. The other – and more important – half is moving from a successful rebellion to a workable power-sharing system requiring significant compromises by all sides. It will not be easy to recapture the spirit of Myanmar’s decade-long experiment with democracy led by the reform-minded General Thein Sein and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, now a tarnished icon. But it would be a shame if, after winning the civil war, the opposition squandered the peace. Not only would this lead to dashed expectations, but it might also trigger renewed ethnic conflict and a potential breakup of Myanmar into autonomous statelets that could become hotbeds of drug trafficking and criminal activity – a problem for the local population as well as the wider region. Unfortunately, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, divided over how to respond, has been ineffectual. ASEAN now has a second chance to get back on track by engaging the NUG, the EAOs, and even military elements beyond Min Aung Hlaing and his supporters. The ultimate defeat of Myanmar’s junta shows that autocracies can be brittle and that the path toward democracy can be regained with blood and sacrifice. But completing this transition will require meaningful support from regional powers and the broader international community.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Writing for PS since 2005
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Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, is a senior fellow at its Institute of Security and International Studies.