Days before Myanmar ’s February 1 coup last year, mixed signals from the military over its planned course of action had prominent observers and journalists in the Southeast Asian nation scrambling for answers. With murmurs circulating that the military chief, Min Aung Hlaing, was deeply unhappy with civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi because of supposed “voter fraud” in the preceding November’s polls, local journalists on January 26 pressed his top spokesman Zaw Min Tun for a “yes or no” on whether a coup was imminent. “What I want to say is that we do not say the military will seize state power nor do we say the military will not seize power,” Zaw Min Tun told the gathered press at a weekly news conference. Not helping matters was Min Aung Hlaing himself, who afterwards remarked that Myanmar’s constitution had to be “revoked” if it was not abided by. On January 30 – less than two days before troops rounded up Suu Kyi and other leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in a Monday morning dawn raid – the military issued a clarification, saying the general’s remarks had been misinterpreted. With the junta distracted, Myanmar’s Arakan rebels cement control The respected independent political analyst Richard Horsey subsequently tweeted that while it appeared the military had “stepped back from its coup threat”, there were inadequate behind-the scene details to decipher “what it means for stability going forward”. A year later, there can be no misinterpretation of the perilous state the country has been plunged into following the coup. It appears that Myanmar military has stepped back from its coup threat and will “follow the constitution”. How to interpret that, and what it means for stability going forward, depends on the behind the scenes details that aren’t clear yet. But any imminent putsch seems unlikely. — Richard Horsey (@rshorsey) January 30, 2021 The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a January 17 report that some 320,000 people across the country have been internally displaced by clashes, adding to the estimated 340,000 who were already living in “protracted displacement” before the coup. The agency’s figures also showed that 2,200 houses and civilian properties had been burnt down and destroyed since the February military takeover. Almost 1,500 civilians have been killed and over 11,000 arrested in the post-coup crackdown, according to a local monitor. The economy – already Southeast Asia’s poorest – is likely to have shrunk by 18 per cent in the last 12 months according to the World Bank, and is expected to grow by just 1 per cent this year amid a rapid rebound among its neighbours. Across much of Myanmar’s 330 townships, meanwhile, a national armed rebellion by anti-junta forces allied with decades-old ethnic rebels has forced the formidable Tatmadaw, as the country’s military is known, from a position of undisputed dominance. It is now just one of several players in what one veteran military analyst described as a “balance of chaos”. Horsey, who is a senior adviser for the International Crisis Group, said in a commentary this week that the country was likely to “remain in a state of tumult for the foreseeable future”. “Resistance groups are getting more sophisticated at targeting regime forces, and increasingly cooperating with various ethnic armed groups, some of which have significant military capabilities,” he said. “While these trends are likely to continue, actually toppling the regime – which is fearful of the retribution it would face from a furious nation – is much more difficult for resistance groups to achieve,” Horsey added. “With neither side in a position to deliver a decisive blow to the other, a protracted and increasingly violent confrontation appears inevitable.” Diplomatic progress What happens next? Despite continued opacity surrounding Min Aung Hlaing’s intentions, in multiple webinars and published commentaries, leading Myanmar observers have sought to answer the question. A common refrain was there’s no silver bullet – either in the diplomatic sphere or on the battlefield – that’s likely to bring the junta chief to the negotiating table to discuss the resumption of democracy. For much of 2021, the international community pinned its hopes on the so-called Five-Point Consensus peace plan that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations forged with Min Aung Hlaing in a special summit three months after the coup. But the senior general has since prevaricated on adhering by its terms, and while Asean later resolved to effectively banning him from future summits pending progress on the plan’s implementation, the grouping’s efforts have so far been panned as inadequate when set against what is needed. Myanmar army’s landmines at oil, gas pipelines near China ‘likely to backfire’ Still, Marzuki Darusman, the former chair of a United Nations fact-finding mission on Myanmar, said Asean’s actions had to be appreciated as it contributed to the “delegitimisation” of the junta in the eyes of the Myanmar people. “You have to appreciate that in Asean, governments rely heavily on legitimacy of delivery and responding to the needs of the people … if there is any diminishing of the legitimacy, then it affects a full frontal assault on that government,” he said. The tenuous status of the military administration in the eyes of Myanmar’s immediate neighbours was a boon for the shadow National Unity Government, which is made up of NLD backers and other anti-junta figures, Darusman said in a Thursday webinar. Asean’s foreign ministers are expected to convene in person for the first time sometime in February, after an earlier meet was postponed amid a row over whether the grouping’s current chair Cambodia had the right to invite the junta’s foreign minister. Cambodia’s strongman leader Hun Sen had earlier indicated he planned to depart from last year’s decision to isolate junta representatives until there was progress with the Five-Point Consensus. Following sharp reactions from counterparts including Indonesia ’s President Joko Widodo and Singapore ’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong , the Cambodian leader this week sought to walk back his earlier position – saying Min Aung Hlaing would be invited to top summits only if there was progression in implementing the peace road map. Another diplomatic course of action that has come into focus ahead of the coup’s one-year mark is the possibility that the UN Security Council could finally take punitive measures against the Tatmadaw, taking into account growing evidence of the military’s brutality against its opponents. The 15-nation Security Council – tasked with maintaining global peace and security – has met multiple times in private to discuss Myanmar, but there is no consensus within the group on punishing the generals. China and Russia , veto-wielding Security Council members, are seen as averse to approving any such measure. Myanmar military’s massacres mount as activists call for arms embargo China’s UN envoy Zhang Jun said in April last year that sanctions and other “coercive measures” would only “aggravate tension and confrontation” in the Southeast Asian country. With the council convening again on Friday to discuss Myanmar’s situation, the Southeast Asia-focused rights group Fortify Rights said it was high time for a change of tack that would at least prohibit the sale of weapons to the junta. “The situation throughout Myanmar right now is dire,” said Ismail Wolff, the group’s regional director. “There’s no defensible reason to sell weapons to the junta as it attacks civilians with impunity … The Security Council should finally take action and vote on a resolution that would mandate an arms embargo. Any failure to do so at this point amounts to complicity.” ‘Balance of chaos’ Outside diplomacy, what happens on the battlefield will have an equal, if not greater, impact on the junta’s prospects this year, analysts say. At present, the Tatmadaw is engaged in battles with a loose alliance of some 50 anti-coup rebel groups from the majority Bamar ethnic group called “People’s Defence Forces”, as well as some of the country’s myriad ethnic armed groups fighting for greater self determination. Fighting has been particularly fierce in areas such as Sagaing near Mandalay, where the now-detained Suu Kyi and her NLD enjoyed huge popularity during their time in power from 2016 until last year’s coup. Fierce fighting with rebel groups in Kayah, Chin, Shan and Kayin states has also been reported, with the Tatmadaw using air strikes in some instances. Political legitimacy, political credibility has essentially evaporated – if you like, the emperor has no clothes Anthony Davis, security analyst Anthony Davis, a security analyst with Janes, the defence publishing group, predicted that the Tatmadaw would hit out “as hard as it can” during the dry season that lasts until May – particularly in the Bamar heartlands in central Myanmar where most of the insurgency is currently concentrated. The current “balance of chaos” is likely to continue through 2022, with any outright defeat of the Tatmadaw unimaginable short of an external intervention, Davis said in a webinar organised by Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute on Thursday. The session was held under the Chatham House Rule preventing participants’ identification, but Davis gave This Week in Asia permission to publish his comments. The veteran analyst predicted that the Tatmadaw would utilise more heavy firepower in the shape of armoured vehicles, artillery, aircraft and drones on the front lines. The “psychological perspective” of the military was also something to keep an eye on, he said. “My sense is very much that, at the top, denial is still the order of the day. They may well still imagine – possibly because they’re not getting enough unvarnished information from the field – that they are still in a position to somehow put Humpty Dumpty back together again.” Chinese firms urged to exit from Myanmar mines amid escalating violence Ranking officers lower down the chain of command, however, were likely to have a better sense “that this is not working out as planned and we are in deep trouble”, Davis said. He suggested that among the key consequences of the coup – and the subsequent crackdown – was the Tatmadaw’s loss of “institutional credibility and legitimacy”. The Bangkok-based analyst noted that throughout the post-independence years the Tatmadaw had always retained “undisputed legitimacy” despite being unpopular, and its centrality to the state was “a given for the Burmese people and the international community”. “I think what has changed now is that that situation is now gone … political legitimacy, political credibility has essentially evaporated – if you like, the emperor has no clothes,” he said.