September 10, 2021

Asia

MYANMAR: Opposition calls for an uprising, but its capabilities remain limited

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG) this week launched an armed resistance to the junta in Yangon, calling on citizens to “revolt against the rule of the military terrorists.” The NUG also outlined its plans to raise funds to operate an alternative government, which includes procuring vaccines and compensating worker who have been joining protests. The NUG is composed mainly of lawmakers from previous ruling National League for Democracy (NLD); however, its capacity to implement these plans across the country remains largely unknown.

The NUG’s announcement is more for political benefit in the near term, rather than an indication of the opposition having increased its military capability. The NUG needs to rally both public and funding support — the organization likely recognizes that without some semblance of leadership and organization among anti-government forces, including those that have been mounting attacks against military targets, a loss in momentum by the public opposition becomes more and more likely. This would affect not only developments on the ground, where rallies against the coup peaked several months ago and public mobilizations since then have dwindled due to the heightened suppression by security forces, but also improves the chances of the junta further entrenching its de facto status and gaining international recognition.

These so-called “people’s defense forces” (PDFs) that have sprung up in recent months — some possibly even trained by ethnic rebels — have waged low- intensity warfare, using small weapons and improvised explosive devices. Since the NUG announcement this week, there have been around three dozen small attacks throughout the country, including in the two largest cities. But the PDFs are unlikely to yet have access to a flow of weapons or equipment that could allow them to quickly increase their capabilities. Their primary targets have been, and will continue to be, military personnel, equipment and bases, as well as infrastructure openly identified with the armed forces such as the telecoms firm Mytel. Their potential next targets are the more remote energy and natural resources operations of state and military-associated companies.

It is likely that the PDFs will remain an insurgent group for the foreseeable future, with more hit-and-run attacks aimed at generating a sense that the anti-government movement has gained some level of national coordination. The NUG has explicitly stated that it will avoid civilian targets. In response, the military is likely to increase its visibility in the streets, as could already be seen in Yangon and Mandalay in recent days — further increasing the level of militarization. More arrests and raids are expected, as the junta tries to intimidate even low-level NUG supporters; higher-level politicians associated with the NUG have already gone into hiding. What remains to be seen is whether the PDFs coordinate with some ethnic rebel groups in the more remote provinces to generate the impression that they can effectively gain control of territory even if they are still unable to effectively engage the armed forces in open conflict.

Much more difficult to forecast over the long-term is the effect that increased militarization may have on the political conflict in Myanmar. Resentment of the military regime remains high and an increased security response could further raise public anger, but the limitations of the opposition are evident, and if the NUG is unable to establish a viable trajectory for a more coordinated anti-government alternative, then the momentum could again shift in favor of the junta.

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