December 6, 2023

The Myanmar Army Could Actually Collapse—But Are the United States and Other Powers Ready for Such a Scenario?

In recent weeks, the Myanmar armed forces, which have already suffered major losses of territory to ethnic minority armies and the People’s Defense Forces, primarily made up of the majority Burman ethnic group, has faced some of its worst defeats.

In northern and northeastern Myanmar, in the crucial battleground of Shan State, the BBC reports that: “Three ethnic insurgent armies in Shan State, supported by other armed groups opposing the government, have overrun dozens of military posts, and captured border crossings and the roads carrying most of the overland trade with China. It is the most serious setback suffered by the junta since it seized power in February 2021. After two-and-half years of battling the armed uprising it provoked with its disastrous coup, the military is looking weak, and possibly beatable.”

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Indeed, the junta forces are doing so terribly that even the military-installed president of Myanmar, which is not a role that encourages an official to speak freely, has warned that the country could collapse into a range of fiefdoms or a total failed state, due to the army’s losses.

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The military is failing in other ways as well. It is suffering from a rising number of defections according to multiple people who closely follow the rate of defections. Lacking men, the military is resorting to dropping bombs on villages, but such a tactic will never lead it to control territory, and will only further inflame people, possibly leading them to join anti-junta forces. What is more, the Russian planes that the military uses are drying up, as Russia needs its military kit. The junta has begun to look to sources like North Korea for arms, showing its desperation. Other close Myanmar watchers who have followed the military’s finances suggest that it is far closer to bankruptcy than is widely known, and a top general was recently sacked for corruption.

It is also possible that the military will collapse from within. Junior officers are highly dissatisfied with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing’s prosecution of the war, and so another coup—against the top leadership—is not out of the question. Such an action would further divide the military and make it even more vulnerable to collapse.

What’s more, as longtime Myanmar military analyst Anthony Davis notes in Asia Times, were the military to launch a counteroffensive toward the north, they would leave themselves wide open to guerilla attacks from opposition forces. Were the military to retreat from much of the north and just try to protect a few big cities in central Myanmar, including its headquarters in Naypyidaw, it would be a major psychological defeat, suggesting that the supposedly powerful military is now on the run. A counteroffensive also would stretch the military’s ranks even thinner, potentially opening up other parts of the country for the opposition to launch new offensives.

It’s time for outsiders to recognize that the Myanmar military is losing strength fast, and an internal collapse—or further major breakthroughs by the opposition forces—could lead to a situation in which the military disintegrates, as has happened in many other countries. But such a collapse, if not handled properly by both Burmese leaders in the exiled National Unity Government (NUG) and the leading, powerful ethnic militias, could also lead the country to disintegrate into a series of groups, lacking a common enemy, who could easily turn their guns on each other, creating total bloody chaos and completely gutting the remainder of the Myanmar state.

Many U.S. officials still seem convinced that the military could not collapse, and have predicated their thinking about how the conflict will be resolved by assuming that eventually, the military will negotiate some end to the crisis with the coalition of opposition forces. However, there is little reason for the opposition to come to the table if they continue to rack up battlefield victories and the military looks more feeble and internally divided.

Yet there seems to be little planning within the U.S. government for a possible day after the Myanmar military collapses, and how to help the Myanmar people, should such a collapse happen, quickly create a framework for a future, federal and democratic government.

Such planning needs to start now. There will be little time, if the military collapses, in a state that already has been economically devastated and lacks most state services, to broker some path toward a future democratic government, and there are precious few leaders in Myanmar or in the NUG who could foster a compromise to build this path. Aung San Suu Kyi has been in jail during the entire civil conflict and many of her ideas, and her political persona, have been bypassed by a younger cohort in the NUG and other opposition groups.

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