Webinar on “Two Years and Counting: What’s Next for Myanmar in 2023?”

In this webinar, five experts offer their thoughts on the broader impacts of the ongoing crisis, and the consequences of the continuing conflict to watch out for in 2023 including domestic sentiments and regional and international interests.


Monday, 27 February 2023 – The ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme convened a webinar under Chatham House Rule to give their assessment of Myanmar two years after the February 2021 coup. Ms Moe Thuzar, acting coordinator of the ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme moderated the webinar. The webinar attracted the interest of 121 attendees. 

Clockwise from top left: Moe Thuzar (ISEAS), Lina Alexandra (Head of the Department of International Relations, CSIS), Mary Callahan (Associate Professor of International Studies, Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington), Khin Zaw Win (Director, Tampadipa Institute), Anthony Davis (Security Consultant and Analyst, IHS-Jane’s) and Show Ei Ei Tun (Independent Analyst). (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Five panellists discussed various aspects of the conditions in the country since February 2021, the possible trajectory of armed conflict in Myanmar in 2023, the nature of armed conflict in different parts of the country, views of various communities in Myanmar towards the anti-military resistance and international responses, and expectations of Indonesia’s 2023 ASEAN chairmanship related to the Myanmar crisis.

Myanmar’s situation and public sentiment towards the international community

  • Two years after the coup, a general atmosphere of turmoil still lingers even though the situation in a major urban centre such as Yangon may seem somewhat normalized. Some other parts of the country also show some degree of stability, though the central dry zone (Anyar) areas are experiencing a level of dissent and anarchy not seen since World War II. Throughout north-western Myanmar, there are only a few roads left where people can travel freely. There is an alarmingly higher risk of landmines. There are more checkpoints held by either the military, local or village defence forces, Ethnic Resistance Organisations (EROs), or even bandits taking advantage of the general deteriorating security situation. At the same time, EROs are also expanding their operations.
  • The future structure of Myanmar will almost certainly be different, with a much greater involvement – and investment of time and attention – in politics by the younger generations in Myanmar, as observed since February 2021. Overall, it is harder to play the ethnic or religion card in post-2021 Myanmar.
  • However, institutions in the country, including political parties, civil society organisations and Buddhist Sangha organisations, are in decline. The coup has affected both institutions and individuals. Public commentators and intellectual discourses inside the country have gone silent.
  • Regarding external relations (under the State Administration Council regime), interactions with various members of the international community have been mostly challenging in the past two years.

Possible trajectory of armed conflict and pushback against military rule

  • A decisive victory or defeat by either the military or the resistance seems unlikely in 2023. However, it is important to monitor the trajectory of armed conflict in Myanmar.
  • At present, the Myanmar military or Tatmadaw is essentially in the defensive position. Some EROs, and a variety of resistance forces, are consciously focused on offensive operations of different types, presenting a surprising capacity and resilience.  
  • However, the resistance movement needs a viable strategy understood and shared by all groups involved, including the non-NUG and the NUG People Defence Forces (PDFs) and EROs. Thus far, low-level guerrilla warfare has been successful due to coordination between the EROs and the mostly n0on-NUG PDFs. To achieve a broader impact, however, resistance forces need to achieve strategic cohesion, with effective command and control. Centralization of command has its downside, though, as it offers greater opportunities for leaks and military intelligence infiltration.
  • Resistance forces will also need to consider destroying the Myanmar military’s manpower and capturing weaponry as a strategy, rather than attempting to capture and hold urban centres. Any attempt to hold ground may result in the military’s retaliatory destructive moves – including airstrikes – on the civilian population.
  • Though the Tatmadaw still seems united and cohesive, with access to considerable military and economic resources, its fundamental vulnerability in the current situation is that its manpower is critically overstretched with too many locations to defend.

Plight of Anyar heartland

  • The Sagaing and Magway Regions in Myanmar are called the Anyar dry zone as they have a drier climate compared to the rest of the country. Located in the centre of the country, the Anyar heartland is essentially a Buddhist-Bamar majority region with most townships listed as 99.5 percent Buddhist Bamar according to data collated by the General Administration Department (GAD) under the Ministry of Home Affairs.
  • The Anyar region is thus the core of what it means to be Bamar, even in the Myanmar military’s narrative. The Magway and Sagaing regions comprise 62 townships (over 11,000 villages), constituting twenty percent of the national population, and are mostly rural.
  • Historically neglected or exploited since the country gained independence in 1948, the Anyar regions have been the hardest-hit areas in Myanmar by military brutalities in the current conflict. Having been left to their own devices for a long time, the current atrocities catalysed an explosion of the simmering anger among Anyar communities.
    • • In the democratic era before the 1962 coup, pocket armies of politicians carried out assassinations as well as land and water access confiscation in Anyar areas.
    • • The Anyar population faced large-scale land confiscation in the 1990s and early 2000s, as the military regime then sought to establish military veteran villages and expand military factories in Magway. These veterans’ villages have now become strongholds or bases of the pro-military Pyu Saw Htee militia groups.
    • • Resource exploitation (gold, copper, teak) by the regime’s cronies and Chinese investors has rendered local communities economically vulnerable. Community welfare associations have filled the gap of social service delivery, revolving around Buddhist monasteries and involving women elders in leadership positions.
    • • Famine in Sagaing in 2003 led to mass migration to urban areas in Myanmar, Thailand and the Middle East.
    • • Anyar population has been left alone for a long time and this led to a lot of anger in the communities.
  • Internet blackouts across Myanmar since February 2021 have been most extensive in the Sagaing areas. In February 2023, the National Unity Government (NUG) sought to bypass regime infrastructure, to provide internet services for some areas in Sagaing under NUG control. The attempt, however, failed.
  • The humanitarian crisis that communities in Anyar regions are facing at present is unprecedented and different from seasonal displacements in south-eastern Myanmar. There is as yet no humanitarian corridor that can reach communities in the dry zone.

Aspirations for an inclusive federal democracy

  • Myanmar’s present crisis is essentially a multi-faceted nation-building crisis.
  • The 2021 coup should not be viewed as an isolated case but as an accumulation of the political problems over the past 75 years. Though initial protests against the coup were peaceful, the military’s extensive and disproportionate use of firepower on civilians triggered the nationwide uprising and pushback.
  • The 2021 coup thus gave rise to a newfound realisation that rather than ensuring stability, the military has been the source of instability in the country for many decades. Myanmar people are calling for an overhaul of the military in its current spirit and form. This call for action should not be misunderstood as total annihilation, but as a call to stop the Myanmar military’s impunity.
  • As such, many in the resistance movement also consider the 2008 military-drafted constitution irrelevant, as the Myanmar people have no appetite to restore the pre-coup situation. Instead, people in Myanmar people have decided to pay a massive price for the historic opportunity to correct the decades-old nation-building crisis revolving around the military’s supremacy.
  • Myanmar is thus going through a profound period of social transformation where people across race, religion, generations, and social status have identified the military as the common threat/enemy.
  • The National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) emerged as a manifestation of this transformation, bringing together political actors and people’s power who had little or no trust in each other before. Though the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) had created the NUCC, the move was also an acknowledgement of the importance of reaching as many stakeholders as possible in the entire resistance movement.
  • In addition to the NUCC, there is now a plethora of state-level coalition efforts, most of which predate the formation of the NUG. State-building efforts are also gaining momentum in tangible ways in several ethnic minority areas.
  • Though Myanmar may seem on the verge of disintegration to external observers, the Myanmar people are prepared to live through the chaos to lay the foundation for a future federal democratic system and those local or state-level coalition efforts should be seen as building blocks of such foundation.

ASEAN’s response to the Myanmar crisis under Indonesia’s 2023 chairmanship

  • ASEAN colleagues have yet to fully grasp the nature of the Myanmar conflict, which is a nation-building crisis involving all stakeholders in Myanmar. The International community needs to help Myanmar’s national reconciliation in an inclusive manner.
  • As Indonesia was among the leading voices in ASEAN calling for a response to the 2021 coup in Myanmar, many in the region and in the international community have placed high hopes on Indonesia even before the 2023 chairmanship.
  • However, ASEAN’s Myanmar response faces two main challenges: the complexity of the crisis, and the lack of a united ASEAN approach.
  • Despite its limitations, the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) remains a valid reference for ASEAN. Even so, ASEAN needs to institutionalise regional efforts under the 5PC framework. This includes expanding the term and mandate of the ASEAN Chair’s Special Envoy to that of an ASEAN Special Envoy, to have continuity of effort beyond the annual rotational chairmanship duration.
  • Previous ASEAN Chairs had attempted different approaches without success; in 2021 Brunei tried to stop the violence, and in 2022 Cambodia sought to establish a humanitarian corridor. In 2023, Indonesia thus needs to come up with an implementation plan for the 5PC as a roadmap for engaging all stakeholders in Myanmar meaningfully.
  • It is also important to differentiate immediate priorities and longer-term responses, as the implementation plan should serve as a roadmap for ASEAN action regardless of the chairmanship rotation each year.
  • Indonesia has recently announced its interest to promote an all-inclusive dialogue with/for Myanmar stakeholders, and Indonesian policymakers are currently exploring ways to create conducive conditions for such dialogue to take place. This includes negotiating ceasefire arrangements and finding ways and means to bring humanitarian assistance to all communities in Myanmar.
  • ASEAN must also understand who are the ‘stakeholders’ in Myanmar. ASEAN governments tend to think the Myanmar crisis is between the SAC and the NUG, but discussions such as this current panel amply highlight that there are at least several other political, armed and unarmed stakeholders with valid concerns and interests. ASEAN needs to understand that and set clear objectives accordingly if its actions are to be impactful.
  • ASEAN also needs to synergize and collaborate with external partners to tackle the Myanmar crisis. The complexity of the crisis has shown that ASEAN alone cannot achieve a comprehensive response without involving or working with external partners.
  • As previous speakers have highlighted, the Myanmar military does not have a track record of ceding easily to external pressure. Pinning hopes on the United States (US) to lead the international response to the Myanmar crisis ignores the reality that countries such as Russia and China have invested considerable time and resources into forging links and communication channels with the Myanmar military, as well as in setting long-term policies on engaging different ethnic stakeholders. Additionally, ethnic armed groups in Myanmar have long memories of promises made, then forgotten, by previous US administrations.
  • Ultimately, change in Myanmar will come from within, and from actors in Myanmar. The Myanmar people will shape the democracy they wish to pursue. Realistically, the efforts of the international community may not be able to “bring back” democracy to Myanmar, but the international community can and should help the Myanmar people by taking in more Myanmar refugees, helping independent media, humanitarian assistance delivered under the principles of neutrality and impartiality and supporting the resilience of local communities in Myanmar, especially women.

Questions posed by the audience to panellists further probed into the future of the pro-democracy movement, the inclusion of the BURMA Act in the 2023 National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA) provisions, how the National League for Democracy (NLD) relationship with the NUG compared to the NLD’s relationship with the former National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma established in the 1990s, specifics of NUG’s armed-resistance coordination, the possible implications of the SAC’s projected elections, local governance issues in Anyar region, China’s view of ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus, and the impact of the 2021 coup for education in Myanmar.