It’s no secret that one of the major flashpoints between Washington and Beijing is the current status of Taiwan and the potential conflict that may break out.
Many thousands of km away from the contested island, the conflict in Ukraine is impacting strategies that involve the defence of the island.
However, another concerning situation that could cause contention between the two powers is festering in Southeast Asia – in Myanmar. The country has had a long history of autocratic governments led by military officers ruling from 1962 to 2011 with a decade of a civilian-fronted government that lasted for a decade. It has been a problem for decades even though it had a brief façade of democratic governance that was removed by a military coup in February 2022.
Traditionally, one of the main backers of the juntas in Myanmar has been China. Whether it’s providing weapons or even flaunting an international sanctions program by conducting trade, Beijing has often provided support for the juntas at the United Nations as well.
Conversely, the policy of Washington has been to support the pro-western civil society in the country. There was a moment of optimism when Au San Suu Kyi was elected as president, which quickly faded when the Rohingya crisis broke out and her government defended the crackdown against this minority group.
Although it does not get the coverage in most international media outlets as the plight of the Rohingya, Myanmar’s military has also cracked down against the ethnic groups that also practice Christianity. There are several steps that have been taken that should raise some concerns.
First is the extension of martial law in the Sagaing region of the country. So far, during the month of February, the total number of townships under direct military rule now rests at 40 across 8 regions and states. Speaking earlier this month to the National Defense and Security Council, the current leader of the junta Min Aung Hlaing stated that security needed to be tightened in 65 out of the 330 townships in the country to restore order.
The junta announced on February 14th that it will grant gun licenses to loyal citizens, specifically government employees and veterans with the caveat that they comply with orders from local authorities to participate in security or law enforcement activities. This act reverses a policy that went into force after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising when the Junta revoked all gun licenses and ordered civilians to turn in their firearms.
This will actually increase the concerns of an all-out civil war breaking out in the country instead of just isolated pockets of insurgency, since there is no clear unified command among the various groups that have taken up arms against the military, despite the increasing frequency of attacks, this has to remain a valid concern.
The gun license decision is interesting. Is the current strategy working? That appears to be a resounding no. This could also be a sign that Myanmar’s military casualty rate is higher than they are informing.
Basically, this means the junta is losing right now.
So what happens when the junta goes to its major ally China? The Chinese have already been involved in talks with ASEAN regarding the role of Myanmar in the bloc, so a sudden decision to support the junta should not go unnoticed in Washington, which is beginning a new series of measures regarding Myanmar that were enacted by Congress and signed into law last year.
This will continue to need more scrutiny.