Webinar on “Myanmar in 2024: Expectations and Realities”

In this webinar, two long-time experts on Myanmar shared their thoughts on the current situation and possible trajectories of the country’s ongoing crisis, now entering the fourth year of military rule after the 2021 coup.


Friday, 2 February 2023 – The Myanmar Studies Programme at ISEAS invited Mr. Min Zin, Executive Director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy Myanmar, and Dr Mary Callahan, Associate Professor of International Studies at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, to discuss the broad outlook for Myanmar in 2024, assessing the aftermath and implications of Operation 1027, the State Administration Council’s (SAC) recent extension of the state of emergency rule, and the SAC’s moves to proceed with a census and election amidst ongoing instabilities. The session, moderated by Moe Thuzar, Coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme, attracted interest from 266 attendees. The two speakers’ observations covered the following key points:

Clockwise from top left: Ms Moe Thuzar (moderator), Dr Mary Callahan and Mr Min Zin. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

What’s next for the Myanmar military after Operation 1027

  • Operation 1027 revealed the SAC’s incompetence and China’s significant influence in the Myanmar conflict, with the Myanmar military losing territorial and functional control in Central Myanmar.
  • The Myanmar state’s control is diminishing, evident from fewer towns receiving SAC-provided utilities (like water and electricity), fewer operating police stations, and whether civil servants are on the SAC payroll.
  • The Myanmar state/military is facing a worsening situation. The military is still seeking pre-coup normalcy despite its role in post-coup atrocities.
  • Increasingly, however, senior Myanmar military officials acknowledge an unprecedented threat, feeling humiliated by the vulnerability of their long-standing military institution. Operation 1027 underscores that their failures are largely self-inflicted.
  • This humiliation could lead to a transformation of the Myanmar armed forces, potentially through disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) and security sector reform (SSR), or towards an extreme Bamar Buddhist nationalist armed force.
  • SAC troops, traumatised by prolonged combat with resistance forces and seeking justice for mistreated comrades, still adhere to the Myanmar military’s unbroken hierarchy, potentially leading to a radical and violent transformation.

Interests of the Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs)

  • The success of Operation 1027 bolstered the overall resistance efforts. At the same time, it also created a new conflict landscape where different groups vie to establish ethnocentric enclaves, focusing on territorial control, economic opportunities, and identity politics.
  • Increased militarization has led to mini-state building, as seen in Kayah State, where over 10 percent of its 300,000 population is now armed and engaged in conflict.
  • Before the 2021 coup, EAOs saw limited support from their communities, but the spring revolution resistance movement significantly boosted their legitimacy and inclusion. The EAOs are aware of the need to sustain this wider support, as seen with the Three Brotherhood Alliance (3BHA) statement announcing Operation 1027.
  • The public and international community thus hold some leverage over the EAOs through this newfound legitimacy, yet this advantage remains underused. The current focus on military successes may overshadow the potential for non-violent conflict resolution and the need to consider more balanced approaches.

External responses and attitudes to the Myanmar crisis

  • Successive Myanmar administrations, including the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, have maintained that conflict resolution in Myanmar should be Myanmar-owned and -led, as the conflict(s) in Myanmar (and therefore solutions) are homegrown.
  • Despite this, China has officially mediated a ceasefire between the 3BHA and the SAC, primarily focused on de-escalating tensions in Northern Shan state.
  • ASEAN, with its non-interference policy, favours facilitating a political solution. ASEAN and “friends of Myanmar” can still find creative ways to meet its facilitation aims. Neighbours such as Thailand can potentially play a key role in facilitating ASEAN’s humanitarian assistance priorities for Myanmar and in regional diplomacy efforts towards a political solution.

Narratives and Economic/Social/Political Realities

  • The increase in disinformation and hyperpartisan nature of narratives within Myanmar’s resistance alliance complicate objective data analysis. Currently, most reports focus on combat intensity. Scarce and/or unreliable data sources hinder a comprehensive understanding of the situation.
  • Data reliability in Myanmar has been and continues to be a concern. Past censuses saw numerous attempts to manipulate official data, often due to high demands and limited resources. This trend may persist in the ongoing voter registration efforts for the SAC-led elections (if they take place).
  • A prevailing narrative on Myanmar since the 2021 coup is that “Cities are bustling while the countryside burns.”  The reality is more nuanced. The “bustling” scene does not extend beyond major cities like Yangon and Mandalay, and only applies to a few. The booming nightlife that some expatriates and the wealthy enjoy in major urban centres is often associated with money laundering, while the impact of the SAC’s economic mismanagement has been felt uniformly across the country. Most people face job shortages, rising commodity prices, electricity outages, and fuel scarcity. Even in urban centers, many are either coerced into military service, or eke out living in fear of being accused as spies/informants (dalans). These conditions are reminiscent of Myanmar’s situation twenty to thirty years ago.
  • Lack of investment in basic social services such as healthcare, and lack of an infrastructure of support in Myanmar’s Dry Zone (central) areas, has added to challenges that many communities in Myanmar face. The unreported, but likely high, death toll of the elderly in rural areas during the worst COVID outbreak in 2021 removed traditional household relationships in which grandparents provided childcare. As a result, there is added pressure on women to take on income and childcare challenges, amidst rising gender-based violence. Networks of support along religious and community lines have emerged more strongly, while more people are migrating (internally and outward) in search of employment opportunities.
  • Myanmar’s narrative has also mostly been focused on the Buddhist-Bamar lowland history/story. The upland areas count some of the most poor and precarious areas in the country, and at least half a million of Myanmar’s displaced population are from these upland areas, facing bleak prospects of returning to abandoned homesteads.
  • High hopes for the National Unity Government (NUG) continue, but there are also some distrust/concerns related to centralised systems of government. The Sagaing Forum, aimed at establishing local autonomous units in the Sagaing region (in Central Myanmar), has strained relations with the NUG. Many People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) in that region remain unaffiliated with the NUG, while some previously affiliated groups have withdrawn due to insufficient support.

Over thirty questions and comments were raised, seeking speakers’ views on the role of China in the Myanmar conflict, the effectiveness of sanctions, emerging trends of competing ethnocentric enclaves, deepening poverty, independent/unbiased news reporting, the future of more realistic federal arrangements, and the future of Myanmar beyond the SAC.