For decades, Myanmar’s military junta has withstood both foreign pressure and an array of armed rebel groups opposed to its dominance of the country. But over the past two months, the generals’ aura of invincibility has been significantly dented at home. Resistance forces galvanized by the junta’s coup in 2021 — which seized power from a democratically elected government — have made unprecedented gains, seizing a growing number of towns, more than 400 military outposts and the strategic initiative.
These gains, achieved without significant international support, bring Myanmar to a critical point in the long struggle to throw off the yoke of the junta. It is imperative that the United States and its democratic allies provide real help to the resistance and start preparing for a future free Myanmar.
The military seized power in 1962 and has dominated Myanmar ever since, committing gross human rights abuses and imposing a self-isolation on the country that has led to some of the lowest living standards in Asia.
The United States, which under the Biden administration has elucidated a vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, should have a clear interest in supporting Myanmar’s resistance. Strategically located, a democratic Myanmar could better stand up to increasing Chinese and Russian influence, strengthen the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — which is perennially torn by divisions over how to deal with both China and Myanmar — and strike a blow against authoritarianism, a fight that Mr. Biden has put at the center of his presidency.
But the international community has long ascribed to a pessimistic narrative about Myanmar. It goes something like this: This moment is no different from past uprisings that were crushed, and divisions among Myanmar’s many ethnic groups will be impossible to overcome and could ultimately thwart any real democratic progress. Viewed in this light, the junta is often seen as the only force capable of preventing Myanmar from fragmenting. The United States has been far more supportive of democracy in Myanmar than most other countries have, but there is still concern in U.S. foreign policy circles over whether the resistance can defeat the military and the post-junta outlook.
The resistance’s success shows that those notions must be put aside.
It’s true that the junta enjoys military superiority over the rebels in terms of weaponry, such as heavy artillery and warplanes, which it has used in attacks that have laid waste to civilian areas. But the regime is under pressure across several fronts, and low troop morale has contributed to high rates of attrition, defection and desertion; whole battalions have reportedly surrendered.
By contrast, the resistance movement has been gaining ground, and the successful offensives launched by more than a half dozen rebel groups since late October have displayed a degree of military integration and coordination not seen before. There are signs that this is shifting the balance in their favor.
No longer is Myanmar’s conflict fundamentally about a number of ethnic minorities fighting separately against domination by the Bamar, the country’s majority ethnic group. It has become a shared struggle across ethnicities against a small cadre of Bamar ultranationalists in the military government who ignore the country’s diversity and desire for democracy.
Since the coup, the resistance movement has grown into a loose coalition that includes ousted members of Parliament from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and other parties, civil society actors, ethnic armed groups that have fought the junta for decades and, crucially, a younger generation that was raised with the hope that Myanmar was moving toward true democracy — until the coup snatched that away.
To be sure, there is as yet no consensus within the movement on a future political framework beyond a broad desire for an inclusive, federal democracy. Reaching such a consensus will be critical if the junta eventually falls — and will take great effort. But the battlefield coordination that we have seen in the past two months bodes well for a future of working together and may indicate that the risk of fragmentation is overstated. At any rate, it is a risk that countless people in Myanmar have shown they are willing to take to finally topple the generals.
The recent successful offensives took months of planning and consultation between the National Unity Government, a civilian shadow government that was formed to oppose the junta after the coup, and ethnic armed groups. Importantly, there has also been integration at the tactical level between People’s Defense Forces — largely comprising disaffected Bamar who took up arms in the wake of the coup — and the long-established ethnic militias. In recent fighting in northern Shan State, drone operators under the command of the National Unity Government fought alongside ethnic Kokang, Palaung and Rakhine units. A key challenge ahead for the resistance will be to build on this cooperation and avoid being split by the junta’s longtime divide-and-conquer strategy of playing off ethnic groups against one another.
China also is a potential threat to unity in the resistance and another important reason the United States should get more involved. Beijing has long pursued a strategy of hedging its bets in Myanmar, maintaining political, economic and military ties to the junta while also wielding influence among rebels along its border. It wants to maintain leverage in Myanmar to ensure border stability and safeguard its multibillion-dollar plans for an economic corridor that would run through the country, linking southwestern China with the Indian Ocean.
But China, which has stepped up its backing for the junta over the past year, may have become worried that the continuing rebel offensive had been too successful. Earlier in December, China used its influence to get representatives of the Three Brotherhood Alliance — which includes groups that operate near the Chinese border and spearheaded the recent offensives — to sit down for peace talks with the junta. Alliance members subsequently reaffirmed their commitment to defeating the military junta, and fighting has continued. But China could weigh in more forcefully if the resistance scores further gains.
A U.S. framework for supporting the resistance already exists in the BURMA Act. Passed last year, it calls for supporting the struggle for democracy, imposing sanctions on perpetrators of the coup and human rights violations, providing nonmilitary aid for pro-democracy forces, and it authorizes Congress to appropriate necessary funding. However, follow-through has been slow, disappointing many in Myanmar.
Washington must meet the moment provided by the rebels’ success by fulfilling the pledges of the BURMA Act and persuading Myanmar’s neighbors Thailand and India to facilitate provision of more aid across their borders. The United States should also engage China with the message that the junta is the fundamental source of Myanmar’s instability and encourage Beijing to view resistance success favorably. The United States can also play an important role in funding and facilitating political discussions across the groups opposed to the military’s rule to ensure that they work toward a mutually acceptable framework for future government.
If the United States is serious about a free and open Indo-Pacific, then doing what it can to ensure the success of Myanmar’s growing resistance is not only the right thing but also a vital American interest.
Ye Myo Hein @YeMyoHein5 is a fellow with the United States Institute of Peace and Wilson Center who researches Myanmar’s politics and its armed conflict. Lucas Myers @Lucasdeanemyers is senior associate for Southeast Asia at the Wilson Center, focusing on Indo-Pacific geopolitics and security and Chinese foreign policy.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, X and Threads.