The uprising against Myanmar’s junta can be successful

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By Zaw Tuseng June 20, 2021

A year after the 2015 National League for Democracy victory, as I strolled through the vast Tatmadaw Museum in Naypyitaw, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the extent of the military’s gratuitous ode to themselves. It extends over numerous caves that cover the details of its history. Hidden in its mass is a room dedicated to the “victories” of the Tatmadaw. What it claims to be historical triumphs are battles for control of hilltops. While this presentation is important in relation to individual counterinsurgency campaigns, it obscures a reality.

The Tatmadaw does not win wars. It may win some battles, but ultimately it attracts and strives for truces.

Some recent analyzes have argued that resisting junta rule is difficult, almost impossible, given that the Tatmadaw has around 350,000 soldiers. The use of this number is an oversimplification and gives the false impression that the Tatmadaw is in an inherently strong position. This couldn’t be further from the truth for one reason: the generals managed to provoke a nationwide uprising against the Tatmadaw. There are few comparable examples of such an event since World War II and the period of the anti-colonial wars. What will happen in Myanmar is not predetermined, least of all the survival of the Tatmadaw. The coup was a historic turning point in the country and a strategic mistake of existential proportions by the generals.

A more apt number to focus on is that Myanmar has a population of over 52 million, almost all of whom the Tatmadaw instinctively hate. It is this context that the generals face. They have essentially reduced their military to a foreign occupation force that is desperately trying to suppress almost the entire population of Myanmar. Wherever their soldiers look, they see hostility. Apart from their immediate representatives, particularly the police and the Union Solidarity and Development Party, there are no significant sections of the public who support them.

The Tatmadaw’s reaction to this uprising was predictable. His tactics of violence, privation and cooptation were refined over decades of dictatorship. There is a calculation within the Tatmadaw that it can outlast public anger, the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and a collapsing economy while isolating all insurrections. The Tatmadaw believe that they have a longer window of perseverance than that of resistance. The generals will try to separate the public from the government of national unity (NUG), the CDM and the most ardent democracy activists in the country. They will endeavor to sow ethnic divisions, uphold ceasefires with ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), and prevent proxy militias from overflowing. They will sell the land to China cheaply.

Whatever successes the Tatmadaw may claim, they come at a high cost in terms of soldiers and resources. That it failed to free the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) from its strategic gains in March or to decisively suppress the escalating revolts in Sagaing, Chin and Kayah is a sign of weakness. Isolated in its specially built capital, hidden in schools in the cities and in large convoys through the Bamar heartland, it would be foolish to believe that the Tatmadaw is currently in a good position. Their troops seek to quell revolts before they spread, all the while worrying that their inadequate militias will desert and their truces will collapse when the time is right.

Essentially a light infantry unit, the Tatmadaw is spread across the country in numerous small bases. In the context of a national uprising, this could well be a strength if the Tatmadaw were well equipped with good logistics chains and strong mobile units. It is poor and under-equipped and has neither. Individual units are coming under increasing pressure as their supplies are becoming scarce and the local population is harassing them. Logistics will continue to be pressured during the rainy season and Tatmadaw’s base will be demoralized as millions openly cheer their battlefield losses on social media.

Having long advocated a “people’s war” doctrine that relies on the population to help repel foreign invasions, the Tatmadaw now face numerous local self-defense militias. Many of them are People’s Defense Force (PDF) militias instigated by the NUG, but there are others, like the Chinland Defense Force, local collectives formed to provide security to threatened communities. This trend will escalate.

In order to properly assess the prospects of the resistance, the most important thing is to focus on the military balance in relation to its trajectory. The anti-junta movement should not be judged by its composition at any snapshot, but by the speed with which it is advancing.

Revolutions never begin with a well-armed, fully staffed and technically competent resistance. Successful people have a steep learning curve in terms of effective leadership, tactical development, and rush to acquire weapons. From this perspective, events are not moving in the junta’s favor. It is under pressure across the country, including areas that have not produced sustained revolt in living memory, like southern Sagaing, but increasingly in other regions all the way down to Ayeyarwady as new PDFs emerge.

The Tatmadaw must increasingly feel like a foreign occupying power among a hostile population. Its soldiers face a range of threats – local attacks, limited supplies and suffocating social exclusion. They have to be forced to spread even thinner. Increasingly tired, innumerable small attacks can pester and fragment them.

The Tatmadaw can always win the tactical firefights it prioritizes, but will struggle to develop a viable strategy against a national insurrection. This would be difficult for any military subject to a near universal revolt. The key to the success of the resistance is unity. Battlefield victories against the Tatmadaw will do more than anything to catalyze national solidarity. Kani, Mindat and Demoso must set precedents for broader collective action, while the whole country is grateful to the KIA for its dauntless attacks on the armed forces of the State Administration Council and the Karen National Union for the provision of safe havens.

If the character of the conflict as a national insurrection can be sustained, the military equilibrium favors a revolution through sheer numbers and willpower. Many analysts have noted the persistence of military rule in Myanmar. Such defeatist attitudes serve the status quo of domestic self-interest waiting for others to pay the cost of crowding out the Tatmadaw or cynical foreign observers who fail to see how much the Tatmadaw is loathed. Many have also subtly upheld the Tatmadaw’s claim that it holds the country together despite years of the military dividing local armed groups into rival factions and utterly refusing to include leaders outside their circle in any meaningful political decision-making process, generation after generation.

There are also clear lessons to be learned from the country’s experience in 1988 and beyond. The NUG sees itself more as a revolutionary movement than as a “government in exile” and has made significant efforts to build a national coalition on the basis of federal democracy. These efforts are just beginning and need to be continued.

In addition, it is important that armed resistance is not only carried by ethnic minorities, but also includes the majority of the Bamar as a matter of principle. It is crucial that the resistance include the regions and cities. Resistance here severely threatens the Tatmadaw’s viability. The generals would like to go back to “normal” just fighting EAOs. “Tag teams” emerging between EAOs and PDFs in Chin, Sagaing and Kayah show how powerful they can be. The NUG’s ominous warnings of impending “D-Day” national measures should frighten the military more than anything.

When you leave the Tatmadaw Museum, you get the feeling that such a massive complex is supposed to hide an actual inferiority complex. This is a military desperate to show that it is central to keeping the country together, always the benevolent Guardian. Any notion that this will be accepted by the public is long gone as the country has risen in turmoil. The Tatmadaw is widely regarded today for the barbaric national disgrace it is. Basically, this is a crisis that only Myanmar can solve. International action will clearly be secondary. The people of Myanmar should find comfort in knowing they have the means and the moral right to overthrow a military that has devastated the country for too long.

Zaw Tuseng fled Myanmar at the age of 17 after participating in the student protest to restore democracy. He spent the following seven years as an exile in a refugee camp on the Indian-Myanmar border, where he continued to take part in the Myanmar democracy movement. He holds an Executive Master of Public Administration from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a BA in Political Science from Delhi University.

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