Date first published: 10/08/2023
Key sectors: all
Key risks: political violence; political instability; violent clashes; civil war
On 31 July the military government extended the country’s state of emergency by another six months – the fourth extension since the February 2021 coup d’état that ousted former state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government. The extension effectively postpones an election – aimed to legitimise the military government’s rule – that it had pledged to organise before August. State Administration Council Chairman, General Min Aung Hlaing, cited the ongoing unrest and violence as reasons for the extension, stating that the country had “not returned to normalcy yet”. The crisis continues to be a significant driver of insecurity in the region and the extension is emblematic of the conflict’s intractability.
Why it matters
Throughout successive state of emergency extensions, the military government has intensified its air campaign in fiercely contested areas across the Chin, Mon, Kayah, Kayin (Karen) states as well as the Sagaing, Magway and Tanintharyi regions. The UN-mandated Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) found that between July 2022 and June 2023, the military and its affiliated militias committed war crimes – including indiscriminate bombings of civilian targets, killings of civilians or detained combatants and burning of entire villages – with “increasing frequency and brazenness”. The People’s Defence Forces (PDF) – a loose collection of armed resistance groups allied to the exiled National Unity Government (NUG) – along with numerous powerful ethnic armed organisations opposed to the military have reciprocated in kind, insisting on prevailing by force and further expanding their urban guerrilla operations in the commercial hub of Yangon and the capital Naypyidaw.
On the same day the extension was broadcasted, the military government announced clemencies for Suu Kyi and former president Win Myint – both of whom remained imprisoned under numerous politically-motivated charges. Despite the clemency, the two deposed civilian leaders are still left with decades-long sentences. Critics have derided the partial pardons as a ploy by the military government to elicit goodwill from the international community and from moderate forces within the resistance. However, this can also be seen as an acknowledgement of the sustained international pressure on the military government, similar to how the extension marked a tacit admission of the military’s inability to gain control of vast areas of the country.
With international efforts to tackle the crisis led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region bloc at an impasse and an ever-narrowing prospect for a negotiated political settlement, the conflict shows no sign of abating anytime soon. The military has been able to rely on Russia and China’s continued support to sustain their capacity and capability to fight the armed resistance. With those allies facing their own prospect of increased diplomatic isolation, bilateral cooperation is likely to further deepen. While Western sanctions have had some impact, the military’s control over large swathes of the country’s resources and economy persists. For most of its post-independence history, Myanmar has been able to survive prolonged international isolation under earlier junta rule. Nevertheless, nearly a decade of democratic reforms, economic growth and international engagement has demonstrated a positive alternative to living under military rule. Many believe that alternative is worth fighting for, even at the risk of further prolonging the conflict.