Myanmar’s path, once heading towards emerging democracy, has tragically deviated into a spiral of intensifying conflict, widespread displacement, and an economy struggling to survive since the military takeover in 2021. At the centre of this turmoil is the military, under the leadership of Min Aung Hlaing. The economic and humanitarian impact is severe and multi-dimensional. The international response to this crisis is fragmented and varied. Western countries have opted for sanctions, aiming to pressure the military, but these measures risk further harming the citizens they intend to protect. On the other hand, regional powers such as China, Thailand, India, and Russia navigate a delicate relationship with the military government, driven by a mix of geopolitical ambitions and the pursuit of resources.
From Coup to Increased Conflict
After two years of crackdowns, Myanmar’s military surprisingly elevated elections to the top of its five-point roadmap in 2023 which was earlier positioned at number five. Though they have conditioned it on the completion of a national census. While the military prioritised elections, it introduced a new political party law which imposed stringent criteria and restrictions, eventually leading to the dissolution of the National League for Democracy along with 39 other parties. The military also sought cooperation with Russia and assistance from China for an electronic identification system for the census, raising concerns about potential intensified surveillance. Notably, the country seems to have forgotten about Aung San Suu Kyi. In 2023, three military officers met her twice in May for peace negotiations with armed resistance groups and also reduced her term from 33 to 37 years, but these were tokenistic measures to appease ASEAN countries. Later, Myanmar’s Supreme Court rejected Suu Kyi’s appeals against her corruption conviction, and she remains isolated from her legal team and family.
In 2023, Acting President Duwa Lashi La of the National Unity Government (NUG) declared the year a turning point in the revolution against the military. Rightly so by the end of the year, the Three Brotherhood Alliance’s under Operation 1027, along with other ethnic armed groups, significantly challenged the military’s control, capturing over 400 bases and several towns particularly in border areas with China and India. The Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) captured key areas such as Namhsan and the 105-Mile Trade Zone near Muse, a critical point for Myanmar-China border trade. Similarly, the AA took control of all bases along the India-Myanmar border in Rakhine State, including the strategically important town of Paletwa, which is vital for India’s Kaladan Multi Modal Project. This shift in territorial control highlights the growing intensity and reach of the conflict, affecting crucial trade routes and international projects.
It has been noted that the Brotherhood Alliance strategically timed their attack following an incident in Laukkaing that tested China’s patience with the Myanmar military. Over the past year, China had been pressuring the military government to close down scam centres. Observing this situation, the Brotherhood Alliance pledged to shut down scam centres as a strategic move to gain favour with China. Furthermore, the military did not fully accept the setbacks and it cautioned of foreign interference in these attacks. The protests in Yangon accused China of supporting ethnic alliances against regime troops, reflecting the military’s displeasure with China’s role in Myanmar. However, the military later downplayed the anti-China sentiment of these protests. As the clashes continued, China attempted thrice to facilitate negotiations between the Myanmar military and the Brotherhood Alliance, but talks failed.
Worsening Economic and Humanitarian Crisis
In 2023, Myanmar faced severe economic and humanitarian crises. The World Bank projected a mere 1% economic growth up to March 2024, with the economy expected to be around 10% smaller than in 2019. Conflict has disrupted trade routes, increased logistics costs and decreased foreign trade. A 29% rise in consumer prices is recorded affecting business operations and reducing the global competitiveness of key industries like garments. The power sector faced a crisis, with widespread power cuts and challenges in achieving universal electricity coverage by 2030.
High-profile corruption cases, governance issues, and economic sanctions further hindered Myanmar’s economic recovery. But the military attempted to control the economy. In an effort to attract foreign investment, the military approved six new projects, mainly involving Singapore, China, and Thailand. Similarly, the central bank relaxed foreign exchange controls, and the SAC also imposed regulations on migrant workers’ remittances to increase inflow of dollars.
The humanitarian situation worsened, with widespread displacement and migration. The 2023 Humanitarian Response Plan for Myanmar, requiring $887 million, was critically underfunded. Human rights abuses by the military, including village burnings and the use of airstrikes and landmines, caused massive displacement. Cyclone Mocha in May 2023 further exacerbated the crisis. The military tightened its control over media and communications, leading to Myanmar becoming one of the worst jailers of journalists globally. The country also surpassed Afghanistan as the world’s largest opium producer, with significant increases in cultivation and yield due to factors like poverty and economic instability.
International Pressures and Shifting Alliances
In 2023, the UN Security Council (UNSC), excluding China and Russia, condemned the Myanmar military’s killing of civilians and ongoing airstrikes. The Council stressed the importance of humanitarian access and reiterated the call for implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2669, supporting ASEAN’s efforts. Western nations, including the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, imposed coordinated and individual sanctions on Myanmar nationals and entities. Significant sanctions targeted Myanmar’s Ministry of Defence, Election Commission, two banks (Myanma Foreign Trade Bank and Myanma Investment and Commercial Bank), and Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). The sanctions on the banks were unprecedented as they were never sanctioned under previous military regimes, and while MOGE wasn’t added to the Specially Designated Nationals list, it marked the first direct U.S. targeting of the enterprise.
Amidst Western sanctions, Russia and Myanmar celebrated the 75th anniversary of their diplomatic relations and strengthened economic, defence, and strategic ties. Trade delegations highlighted investment opportunities, and an MoU was signed to enhance nuclear infrastructure. The delivery of two Russian Su-30 fighter jets to Myanmar was notable, raising concerns about potential military actions against opposition forces and civilians, given the military’s use of jets in operations against rebels. Additionally, Myanmar and Russia conducted their first Maritime Security Exercise (MARUEX), focusing on preventing various maritime threats and enhancing maritime security measures.
While Russia maintained close ties with the military, China’s involvement in Myanmar was multifaceted in 2023, focusing on conflict resolution, economic cooperation, and addressing illegal activities. Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Nong Rong visited Myanmar to urge the military for a ceasefire following Operation 1027. While China negotiated with NUG which eventually led to the publication of a 10 point policy on China by NUG. While the military assured China to restart work on the Kyauk Phyu deep-sea port project.
Furthermore, Myanmar’s military leader, Min Aung Hlaing, was not invited to the third Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Forum, but Myanmar was represented by other officials. During the forum, China proposed collaboration on the “eight major steps” outlined by President Xi Jinping and initiated a survey for a railway connecting Kunming to Kyaukphyu. Chinese Ambassador Chen Hai and State Councilor Qin Gang also visited Myanmar to coordinate efforts against telecom fraud and urged Myanmar to intensify its crackdown on internet fraud. It is also interesting to note that in the first half of 2023, China’s imports of rare earth minerals from Myanmar surged by 70%. Therefore, we see China’s dual policy of appeasing and playing both the military and opposition forces against each other and benefiting from the same. It is also important to highlight that the Myanmar military established diplomatic ties with North Korea in 2023. The nexus of relations with Russia, North Korea and China will have wide ranging impacts in near future.
ASEAN’s Divided Response
In 2023, ASEAN faced internal divisions over its approach to the crisis in Myanmar. Under Indonesia’s chairmanship, which began in November 2022, efforts were made to restore democracy in Myanmar. Myanmar’s military representatives were barred from attending key ASEAN summits and meetings, although they participated in some events, such as the Ministerial meeting on Transnational Crime and non-combat exercises. During the Foreign Ministers meeting in July and September, ASEAN’s divided stand was highlighted. Thailand held consultative dialogues with the Myanmar military and there was a meeting between Thailand’s foreign minister, Don Pramudwinai, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi which surprised other ASEAN countries. To date, the military has not allowed any UN or ASEAN envoy to meet Suu Kyi.
Joint statements from ASEAN meetings emphasised the importance of the 5PC as the primary reference for addressing Myanmar’s political crisis and called for a specific timeline with practical and measurable indicators to support the 5PC. Furthermore, ASEAN introduced a troika system, with Indonesia, Laos, and Malaysia to address the crisis in Myanmar. Myanmar was also denied its turn for the rotating presidency in 2026. Indonesia took steps towards inclusive dialogue by engaging with various stakeholders, including the National Unity Government and ethnic armed organisations. However, Myanmar’s military rejected ASEAN’s statements, accusing the bloc of bias and interference in internal affairs. ASEAN has been criticised for its perceived ineffectiveness in pressuring Myanmar’s military to restore democracy and stop the violence.
India-Myanmar: Cooperation and Concerns
In December 2023, India and Myanmar celebrated the 75th anniversary of their diplomatic relations. In the same month, 20th round of Foreign Office Consultations were held with the two countries discussing border security, trade, connectivity, transnational crime, and India’s support for Myanmar’s transition to a federal democracy. India’s economic cooperation increased in 2023. The Sittwe Port was inaugurated, enhancing connectivity and countering China’s regional influence, although the Sittwe to Paletwa stretch remains incomplete. NTPC Ltd, an Indian state-owned company, also initiated the final phase of a training program for Myanmar’s power sector professionals. Negotiations between the Central Bank of Myanmar and the Reserve Bank of India are underway to finalise the payment mechanism terms and procedures.
However, the conflict in Myanmar has caused significant problems in India’s Northeast, particularly in border towns since Operation 1027. India’s Defence Secretary visited Myanmar to address violence in Manipur, emphasising mutual commitment to preventing illegal activities. The northeastern states of India are increasingly threatened by drug trafficking and refugee influx from Myanmar, with law enforcement agencies seizing significant amounts of drugs and arresting individuals, including Myanmarese nationals. India plans to install an advanced smart fencing system along 100 km of the Myanmar border to manage escalating conflict. However, there are concerns about erecting these fences as it would severely impact India-Myanmar relations as well as close people to people ties.
Myanmar’s Uncertain Future in 2024
The future of Myanmar in 2024 is highly uncertain, with several potential scenarios unfolding due to its complex and evolving political situation. A likely scenario is the continuation of the current stalemate, characterised by ongoing conflict between the military and the National Unity Government (NUG)/ethnic armed groups. This situation may perpetuate the existing humanitarian crisis and economic challenges, although some progress towards dialogue and limited ceasefires might occur. External actors could increase their support for the NUG and ethnic groups, potentially leading to intensified conflicts with the use of advanced weaponry like drones.
ASEAN, through Laos’ influence, might focus on smaller objectives such as prisoner releases, but major political issues may remain unaddressed. Regional powers, especially China, Russia, and Thailand, might deepen their involvement with the military for stability and economic interests, potentially complicating the conflict further. India faces a delicate balance in its relations with Myanmar, considering border security, refugee crises, and drug trafficking. While India must also seek ways to support NUG and ethnic armies without antagonising the military. Overall, a peaceful resolution or decisive victory for any side seems unlikely in the near term. However, small steps towards dialogue and humanitarian aid could mark significant progress in the long journey towards peace and stability in Myanmar.