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Will Myanmar rebel offensive change EU approach to conflict?

November 29, 2023

As an ongoing offensive by armed ethnic organizations has Myanmar's junta on its heels, Myanmar's opposition wants Western governments to prepare for what could come next.

Armed Myanmar rebels stand in front of a red walled army base entrance
Myanmar rebel fighters pose in front of a seized army base in Shan stateImage: ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance

A sweeping offensive by anti-junta forces in Myanmar hasn't yet produced a major reset of Western thinking about the ongoing conflict in Southeast Asia, although the EU says the offensive could be a "turning point in the crisis."

The "Three Brotherhood Alliance," composed of three ethnic armed organizations, launched "Operation 1027" in northern Shan State in late October, taking hundreds of military outposts and towns before advancing into other ethnic-majority areas of Myanmar. 

Forces loyal to the military junta, which took power through a coup in February 2021, have seen a spike in defections and casualties, while there are also reports that China is losing trust in the junta's ability to maintain order in Myanmar.

According to the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, an independent group of international experts, the junta had stable control over just 72 of 330 townships, or 17% of the country, in September, before the offensive.

EU 'monitoring' a potential turning point in Myanmar

Nabila Massrali, an EU spokesperson, told DW that Brussels is "closely monitoring the development of the military operations launched in recent weeks… which could indeed be a turning point in the crisis."

However, the spokesperson added, that it is "too early to draw firm conclusions on how significant these developments pose to the junta's rule and the balance of power between the ethnic armed organizations dominant in the current fighting and other opposition stakeholders such as the National Unity Government."

Myanmar military junta faces attacks on multiple fronts

The National Unity Government (NUG) is the shadow government setup in the aftermath of the coup by members of the ousted administration, civil society actors and representatives from ethnic parties.

 "We are assessing the most likely scenarios which could stem from the crisis and identify possible options for the EU," Massrali said.

Some commentators think this could be the beginning of the end for the junta that took power in February 2021 after ousting the democratically elected government headed by now-detained Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. 

At least 6,300 civilians have been killed and 2,600 wounded since the coup, according to a Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security report from June.

Tens of thousands of people joined the Civil Disobedience Movement or took up arms for the NUG's People's Defense Forces in support of a "revolution" for a future federal democracy.

The coup also exacerbated tensions between the military and Myanmar's numerous ethnic militias, which dominate regions on the periphery of the country and have waged civil wars against the central government since independence in 1948. 

Although Operation 1027 is currently presenting a major military challenge to Myanmar's junta, Western governments are taking a "wait-and-see" approach to how things play out.

Many are watching whether the NUG can get some of the ethnic armed organizations not formally allied to the shadow government on board, analysts say.

"While some in the West who follow Myanmar closely might agree that the latest developments could mark the beginning of the end for the junta, there is so far no indication that they are resulting in a significant shift in approach by the West," said Scott Marcial, a former US ambassador to Myanmar.

What does the opposition want from the West?

The NUG foreign ministry said it has been "in touch with the EU and kept them informed" regarding the ongoing offensive.

In mid-October, the NUG issued the "Prague Appeal," which is an open letter laying out a vision for a post-war federal democracy and demanding more aid from the EU and greater sanctions on the military government.

Brussels should "recognize NUG and evolving state governments as Myanmar's legitimate governments and other revolutionary forces as democratic institutions," it stated.

As well as supporting efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to resolve this conflict, the EU response has been twofold, said David McAllister, chair of the European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Brussels provides humanitarian aid, with around €68 million released this year alone, "to address the needs of the civilian population as well as the significant increase in food insecurity," McAllister said.

The EU has also imposed seven rounds of sanctions, affecting 99 individuals and 19 entities linked to the military junta, which are now subjected to asset freezes and travel bans, he added. The latest tranche was imposed in July.

"We have been clear that all hostilities must stop immediately," McAllister said. "The military authorities must fully respect international humanitarian law and put an end to the indiscriminate use of force."

In many ways, the EU's language echoes that of the NUG and its allied armed ethnic groups, which say they will create a decentralized, federal democracy in Myanmar once the junta is defeated.

"We firmly believe that sustainable peace and development can only be achieved through an inclusive and democratic federal governance system, addressing demands from ethnic minorities, including Rohingya," said EU spokesperson said.

A pile of assault riles and a photo of Min Aung Hlaing
Seized Myanmar military weapons and a picture of the junta leader seen on display in Shan stateImage: ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance

What comes next for Myanmar?

However, concerns remain about the balance of power within the anti-junta movement. Much of the fighting, including the Operation 1027 offensive, has been conducted by ethnic militias not formally allied with the NUG. 

The EU and European governments say they support inclusive dialogue with all parties, including the ethnic armed organizations.

However, they remain unsure how to deal with the ethnic militias, with which they have had little contact in the past, although that appears to be changing. 

No high-level meetings between the NUG and European officials are planned for the coming months. However, the NUG foreign minister, Zin Mar Aung, and representatives from some EAOs visited Lithuania earlier this month to meet local parliamentarians.

"The only solution is a genuinely inclusive dialogue that includes the ethnic armed organizations but also the NUG," said an EU diplomatic source on condition of anonymity.

"The [military junta] has since the beginning tried to solve this through increasing brutal repression but the results are consistently bad for them and very evident for everyone," they added. 

Edited by: Wesley Rahn