Besides other sources of unrest when transitioning to democracy, this Southeast Asian country has had to take into consideration the personalized demands of more than 135 different ethnicities. Many of them –as a response to the horizontal inequalities they’ve endured- have formed extremely violent and varied armed groups. Consequently, Myanmar’s greatest internal threat comes from the presence of these armed militias rooted in ethnic identity politics. Perhaps one of the most internationally known groups is the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which was responsible for the spark of the Rohingya genocide after they killed Burmese police officers in 2017. Nonetheless, the list of ethnic armies is much wider.
Recently, Suu’s government is particularly struggling with the Arakan Army. This is the largest insurgent group in the Rakhine state and they have been fighting for Arakanese nationalism and self-determination for years. However, they have been predominantly violent recently as they have felt the betrayal of Suu’s government. In 2015 they won majority seats in the Rakhine state, but allied with Suu in the hopes that they would be able to nominate their own minister in the region. Nonetheless, the NLD assigned its own and ignored their pleas of autonomy. Consequently, in 2019 they launched an attack and killed 13 officers, to which Suu responded with extreme hostility as she called for the military to “crush them”. She hasn’t been too successful. In fact, Tatmadaw has been humiliated by the Arakan Army’s hybrid and non-exhausting guerrilla fighting. But, to be fair, Suu is fighting many fronts.
Other actively violent groups include the United Wa State Army, which is constituted of more than 20,000 trained troops and is thought to be the largest insurgency group in the country. Moreover, The Kachin Independence Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, or the Ta’ang National Liberation Army have also posed great threats for the Burmese State. Moreover, the complexity of the issue lies in the dynamism of these militia; there are smaller branches of these armed groups, alliances formed between them, as well as some that dissolve and some that are recently formed.
There have been some attempts for peace in the past. In 2015 a National Ceasefire Agreement was signed by 8 armed groups and the government as a way to pave political talks, and this eased the dissipation of groups such as the Karen National Union or the Restoration Council of Shan State. Nonetheless, the government also explicitly left out newly formed groups in the fear that their recognition would promote further armed group creation. This, in turn, caused further anger by the non-signatories, who then formed alliances such as the United Nationalities Federal Council and the Brotherhood Alliance in order to hit the army harder.
And if all this clutter of mutually exclusive notions of identity wasn’t enough trouble, Myanmar’s rising illicit drug market has developed a symbiotic relationship with these armed groups. The instability caused by the violence is the perfect incubator for drug manufacture, which -in turn- provides these armed militias the necessary funds to continue their violent struggle. Before it was undertaken by Afghanistan, Myanmar was catalogued as the largest source of opium and heroin in the world.
It is now a close second that offers a large variety of heroin, methamphetamine and high purity crystal meth. These drugs are mainly produced in areas ravaged by conflict, particularly the Shan State. As of now, the Shan State’s illicit market is so large that it dwarfs the formal sector, and it has become the center of its economic development. But the issues aren’t solely economical. Besides fostering the armed conflict in the country, the illicit drug market has also caused skyrocketing levels of national drug abuse; it is estimated that 30% of the local population consumes either heroin or meth.
For Suu, this has become the “chicken or the egg” dilemma; should she “crush” the armed groups and weaken them enough to stop the violence and thus drug production? Or should she destroy these drug labs to deprive the militias of the funds necessary to continue fighting? Either way, she’s not doing a great job. In fact, the most problematic groups at the moment are those that have recently arisen and those that feel betrayed by Suu’s government since the latest elections. She advocated for democracy and inclusion her entire life, and has given them nothing but repression and violence since she became State Counselor.
Myanmar’s biggest external threats come from its closest geographical neighbors; China and Bangladesh. On the one hand, China seems to be employing “diplo-terrorism” by allegedly supporting some of Myanmar’s national terrorist groups in pursuit of its own foreign policy, and because a weakened Burmese state would force Myanmar to rely more heavely on the risky Chinese economic ties. In sum, the Tatmadaw suspects China to be selling arms to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which operates in the Rakhine State. These allegations come as the Burmese army observes how this terrorist group acts violently against many actors, but have not disrupted any Chinese projects in the region. Moreover, as the army has gradually been able to seize arms from rebel groups, they realized that more than 90% of them were of Chinese origin. Finally, this terrorist group had precedent of receiving aid from other groups in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
On the other hand, Bangladesh (being a Muslim majority country) has faced a lot of tension with Myanmar as it has hosted most of the Rohingya refugees that have fled Myanmar, and it has become one of the many countries to criticize Burmese actions against its people. Burmese-Bangladeshi relations are also in constant turmoil over Exclusive Economic Zone of the Bay of Bengal, which contains high levels of natural gas and where there have been several military standoffs over its control.
Furthermore, Myanmar faces strong opposition from Western countries and its associations, which are reflected in the shape of strong sanctions and condemnation that ultimately affect Suu’s governance. Finally, even though the official quantitative effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on Myanmar has been surprisingly low, the Suu must still face the outstanding effect of having many of its exports reduced to a minimum and several of its industries brought to the verge of collapse.