BANGKOK – Nearly 80 days and 800 deaths after the military coup of February 1, two divergent trendlines have emerged to define the future contours of Myanmar’s crisis: brutal reassertion of control by the military junta over a political and economic wasteland; or descent into civil war pitting the junta against a nascent coalition of forces fighting for federal democracy.
Less noted and earlier in the crisis dismissed as quixotic, there is also however a third wild-card scenario involving action aimed at deflecting both of those two disastrous trajectories: foreign intervention to engage Myanmar’s generals in the only language they have ever understood or respected – military power.
Impelled by the looming prospect of state collapse and humanitarian catastrophe as an inflexible Tatmadaw ratchets up its repression, the logic of external intervention in the form of US missile strikes against military targets is assuming a compelling momentum.
As one well-placed Singapore-based analyst conceded: “We’re in such dire territory now that almost nothing is off-limits.”
In the weeks following the putsch through February and into March many, including this writer, saw reassertion of control by the junta, known as the State Administration Council (SAC), as the most probable outcome.
The argument was based on an assessment of four salient facets of the Tatmadaw as a military organization: its ample resources, institutional cohesion, proven ruthlessness and unblinking sense of mission. All of these characteristics had been amply demonstrated in earlier periods of popular protest.
Where the assessment fell down was in underestimating the extraordinary courage and resilience of ordinary citizens. Led by a youthful vanguard armed with modern communications technology, hundreds of thousands who saw their future being torn away by the same military that between 1962 and 2011 had reduced their country to an economic basket case took to the streets in peaceful protest.
This sustained outpouring of anger forced the military to move from relative restraint in the first weeks after the coup to a more characteristic resort to battlefield violence involving first targeted killings using rifles and finally open massacres with machine guns, grenades and rocket launchers.
The savagery of a military whose history is steeped in excessive violence against weaker enemies has inevitably seen many protesters seek to defend themselves using air rifles and Molotov cocktails, and forming local self-protection groups behind makeshift barricades.
Notwithstanding the rising tempo of violence, it still remains possible that the Tatmadaw will prevail. Its imposition of control would mark a catastrophically Pyrrhic victory over a sullen population and a crippled economy. It would though leave the military in power and able to resort to the tactics of political and military divide-and-rule that have characterized its domination of Myanmar since at least 1958.
Internationally shunned and sanctioned by democratic states, the junta would need to rely overwhelmingly on regional powers driven by simple raison d’etat: the need to engage with a viable center of state power in Myanmar that, however morally repugnant, controls the national heartland while speaking the language of fresh elections and reconstituted democracy.
Myanmar’s largest neighbors are the two most important. China remains focused on stability on its southern flank and a geostrategic goal of connectivity to the Indian Ocean via its ambitious China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). Having assiduously courted the Tatmadaw over the past decade with a view to balancing China’s rapid advances, India will, if anything, be even keener to excuse the Tatmadaw its transgressions and support its wider rehabilitation.
And to the east, Thailand’s position as the gateway to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) along a porous border and its reliance on Myanmar’s natural gas for much of its power generation will also demand engagement with the junta. For Thai generals, whose bloodless 2014 coup and subsequent experiment with praetorian democracy arguably provided a model for the Myanmar putsch, collaboration will not be difficult.
The Tatmadaw’s Pyrrhic victory is far from assured, however. In recent weeks three central factors have emerged as major obstacles to junta control.
The first was a sharp escalation of hostilities with ethnic armed forces in the north and east of the country that threatens wider war in the borderlands. Then came the April 16 establishment of a National Unity Government comprised of toppled elected parliamentarians and other anti-junta representatives that directly challenges the legitimacy of the Naypyidaw regime.
Finally, apparently growing resistance to the military by local groups using bombs, grenades and crude firearms suggests that the tactics of low-level guerrilla warfare may further undermine regime claims to a restoration of normalcy.
Set against the military and political weight of state power, all three challenges to junta rule face stark limitations. But due as much to happenstance and momentum as to planning and coordination, these currents could equally well converge on a landscape of spreading chaos.
Against the backdrop of this spiraling downward trajectory, external military intervention represents the sole option that realistically stands any chance of impressing on Myanmar’s generals the need to step back from a brink they either cannot see or prefer to ignore.
More swiftly and more forcefully than protracted regional diplomacy, its impact would underscore with explosive immediacy the need for Naypyidaw to turn to the good offices of the ASEAN to negotiate with representatives of the democratic opposition a cessation of violence and a new balance in the nation’s civil-military relations.
Self-evidently the United States is the only state with the proven military capability and possible interest to undertake such an intervention. And few analysts have any doubt it is already one option among several open to debate in Washington’s National Security Council, albeit likely low on the list.
Were the Biden administration to turn to military action, its shape is not difficult to predict. From offshore platforms – submarines or destroyers — in the Bay of Bengal, it would involve the deployment of cruise missiles aimed at military facilities dear to the junta’s calculations. In short, “Tomahawk diplomacy.”
In the first instance, Tomahawk missiles would likely target Myanmar Air Force bases from which strikes against Kachin and Karen ethnic resistance are being launched and where civilian collateral damage would be kept to a minimum.
Implicit in a first round of Tomahawk strikes would be the threat of further airbases or even naval assets being hit in follow-on attacks. Nor could Tatmadaw generals be confident that their own offices in Naypyidaw might not also be visited.
Even in the face of predictable Russian and Chinese vetoes at the United Nations Security Council, 22 years of controversy surrounding the NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999 suggest that what is clearly legitimate might redefine what is lawful.
In Myanmar’s case, the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) would be the basis of a response to crimes against humanity which the security forces have been committing on a widespread and systematic basis.
After almost three months of blood-soaked inaction and rising global frustration, citing R2P would almost certainly gain bipartisan support in Washington and broad international acclaim. It would also emphatically answer impassioned pleas on protesters’ banners calling for foreign intervention under R2P.
Ultimately, however, US military intervention in Myanmar could owe nothing to moral outrage and everything to a hard-headed assessment of American national interest. Even with its stated emphasis on democracy and human rights in guiding foreign policy choices, the calculus for the Biden administration would be complex.
Domestic political considerations and geostrategic repercussions in the wider Indo-Pacific region would weigh more heavily than the future of democracy in Myanmar – a country that many Americans would struggle to find on a map.
To date, at least, the administration’s approach to the Myanmar crisis has been marked by what one diplomatic analyst described to Asia Times as “stunning disinterest.” In the context of a diplomatic focus that in recent weeks has centered on breathing vigor into the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, Washington has been broadly content to leave the crisis to ASEAN, which on April 24 will convene an emergency meeting in Jakarta.
Whether the Biden administration evinces any greater interest following that conclave remains to be seen. The realization that ASEAN’s consensus-fixated diplomacy is simply incapable of arresting Myanmar’s slide into an abyss might act as one factor in refocusing US attention.
Another might be a need to reassert American resolve — and muscle — in the Indo-Pacific following the April announcement that US forces will quit Afghanistan by September, effectively abandoning a fragile Kabul government to the mercies of a reinvigorated Taliban.
But trumping almost all other factors will be the impact of events in Myanmar on America’s relationship with an assertive China. As some analysts argued to Asia Times, US planners might see benefit in the very Asian stratagem of killing the chicken to scare the monkey: using limited intervention in Myanmar to send a not-so-veiled message to Beijing that the US is not only back in the region but is also prepared to use military force in support of a democratic government under attack.
In the context of China’s escalating military intimidation of Taiwan, the implications of that message would require no footnotes.
Calculating China’s likely reaction would require deft diplomacy. At a level beyond predictable and pro forma diplomatic outrage, Beijing might well see advantage in any move aimed at pushing a dangerously isolated and irrational Tatmadaw into political negotiations.
Certainly, it is difficult to see how China’s CMEC-centered geostrategic interests could be advanced in the context of either of the other likely outcomes – a descent into wider conflict or ongoing Tatmadaw suppression of a popular movement that is adopting an increasingly anti-Chinese tone.
Driven by anger over Beijing’s diplomatic hedging at the UN over the coup, arson attacks on Chinese-owned factories and threats to sabotage China’s oil and gas pipelines have already provided a worrying pointer to further potential trouble.
Nor are Chinese diplomats likely to have many illusions over ASEAN’s capacity to prod Naypyidaw’s generals to any serious reassessment of their strategy.
In this context, kinetic action by the US would permit Beijing to mount angry rhetorical salvoes at Washington while sparing it the need to activate its own sharp-end assets in Myanmar. The 30,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA) stands as the most powerful among several ethnic armed organizations in Myanmar’s northeast armed and sustained by China.
Were, however, Tomahawk strikes viewed less as a goad to negotiation and more as the first salvo in a wider US intervention, the calculation in Beijing would be entirely different. Any perception that the US was seeking to advance a containment strategy along China’s southwestern flank with support to pro-Western “democratic forces” would inevitably trigger a decisive response.
With plausibly deniable ethnic forces such as the UWSA and its allies already armed up and in the field that reaction would risk in turn a swift descent into Sino-US proxy war.
Uncertainty and risk also cloud the calculus surrounding the Tatmadaw. Missile strikes would undoubtedly command the generals’ undivided attention, but what might then follow is far less clear.
Some analysts who spoke to Asia Times believed that confronted with the progressive degrading of their military capabilities, the potential fracturing of command-level cohesion, and even a threat to their own lives, Tatmadaw chiefs would agree with alacrity to a halt to suppression operations and ASEAN-brokered talks with the opposition.
Several other observers argued with equal conviction that missile strikes against military assets would drive the Tatmadaw to hunker down in major cities where US targeting would become far riskier and continue the fight against an emboldened opposition.
In that scenario, Tomahawk diplomacy might only serve to accelerate the descent into a Syria-like free-for-all in which a truncated national army operates as one of several players on an increasingly violent board.
Given the real prospect of unintended consequences, the risks for Team Biden in a theater that ultimately is not of critical strategic importance to the US are significant.
Indeed, for realists in Washington the massive and perhaps irreparable damage that the Tatmadaw has inflicted on China’s strategic objectives in Myanmar arguably already amounts to a significant win without a finger lifted.
In the wider geopolitical context, watching the metastasizing of a Southeast Asian disaster on China’s border without risking direct entanglement may have much to recommend it.