The Myanmar Junta Is Losing Its Foreign Backers

Recent Features

Features | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

The Myanmar Junta Is Losing Its Foreign Backers

Increasingly, the junta has no one to lean on except for a distracted Russia.

The Myanmar Junta Is Losing Its Foreign Backers

In this photo released from Myanmar Military True News Information Team, senior officers from Myanmar Navy, right side, welcome officers from the Chinese Navy Escort Task Group, left side, upon arrival at Thilawa port in Yangon, Myanmar, Nov. 27, 2023.

Credit: The Military True News Information Team via AP

In February 2021, the world watched the people of Myanmar revolt as yet another military coup brought a decade of democratic reforms to an abrupt end. While attention has faded in the three years since, the fight has not. Mass protests transitioned into a full-scale armed rebellion. But with the military regime supported by Russia, China, and other states, the pro-democratic front struggled to gather momentum.

On October 27, the Three Brotherhood Alliance launched its dry season offensive against the military junta’s forces (known as the Sit-Tat or Tatmadaw) in northeastern Myanmar. The immediate success of “Operation 1027” inspired similar offensives around the country by other ethnic armed organizations and the National Unity Government’s forces. 

The junta, once considered indomitable, is now engaged on all fronts and losing ground.

Since the launch of the offensives, more than 300 military-controlled bases and towns – including crucial border crossings with China, India and Thailand – have been taken by anti-junta forces. The number of regime soldiers who have surrendered is approaching 700. For the first time since the 2021 coup, an end to military rule looks not only plausible, but feasible.

This dramatic shift on the battlefield has reverberated through the international relations of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s military regime. In turn, the junta’s precarious situation has revealed the weaknesses of Russia and its junior role to China in regional affairs.

The Junta Looks for Support

After the 2021 coup, Moscow decided to support the junta and bet on its survival. Motivated by an anti-democratic foreign policy, Russia has been keen to support autocrats looking to firm up their grip on power, from Egypt and Syria after the Arab Spring to Kazakhstan in 2022. In Myanmar’s case, what has followed is an intensive bilateral cooperation spanning transfers of arms and counterintelligence know-how, joint army and naval exercises, and diplomatic cover, with Russia vetoing United Nations Security Council resolutions against the Sit-Tat.

As Russia’s full-scale invasion against Ukraine unfolded since 2022, Moscow began to lean more on Myanmar for regional influence. Notably, in 2022, the junta’s representative at ASEAN was widely believed to have blocked Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from speaking at the annual summit. Since July 2023, reports have emerged of the junta supplying arms to Russia. Russia provided a third of all international arms transfers to Myanmar’s military when counting from 1992, so the Tatmadaw has additional stocks compatible with Russia’s systems. In November 2023, Russia’s navy carried out separate joint exercises with Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar, projecting power and compensating for the loss of training space in the Black Sea.

The Sit-Tat has few options besides building relations with Moscow. Already diminished by the international condemnation of the Rohingya genocide, Myanmar’s military regime today is shunned by the international community. It has been barred from participating in ASEAN summits and stripped of its turn to chair the regional bloc in 2026. Naypyidaw is even unable to change its ambassador to the United Nations. Budding relations with the West in the 2010s, notably with the United States, were dashed as comprehensive sanctions were reintroduced. Today, Myanmar is among the world’s most sanctioned countries. 

Regional affairs are also not favorable to the Sit-Tat. While India and Thailand have scarcely interacted with the anti-coup opposition, the junta sees all neighbors as potential shelters for the various rebel groups operating in the country. Bangladesh, for instance, is regarded as the origin of Myanmar’s disenfranchised and persecuted Muslim population. Myanmar’s military rulers also see Thailand as a recurring harbor for opposition groups in the south, though the 2014 Thai coup d’etat brought the two juntas closer together. Thailand’s current government has sought to rehabilitate Myanmar within ASEAN, amid its own crackdown on democracy. Malaysia, meanwhile, consistently calls for the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

China is Myanmar’s key neighbor, the largest in terms of economy and population. Ties between the two countries are cooperative but complex. On the one hand, China is Myanmar’s largest trade partner and has made sizable investments in Myanmar as part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, a subset of the Belt and Road Initiative. On the other hand, China has been building leverage in the country through patronage of and arms sales to ethnic insurgent groups, notably the United State Wa Army and the members of the Three Brotherhood Alliance. 

The 2021 coup d’etat destabilized the China-Myanmar relationship. Beijing had enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the democratic government under Aung San Suu Kyi, so it had little to gain from the coup. Despite that, anti-junta protesters blamed China for the coup and set ablaze Chinese factories in the country. Beijing initially attempted to mediate between the civilian and military authorities, but the latter denied China’s envoys access to Aung San Suu Kyi. 

With Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s July 2022 visit to Myanmar, Beijing signaled its disposition to cautiously cooperate with the junta. Similar to Russia, China has been supporting the junta to prevent an onset of democracy. 

By the end of 2022, the junta enjoyed active military cooperation with Russia and positive relations with China. Yet, the biggest shift came in 2023 with the Sit-Tat’s deteriorating fortunes on the battlefield.

The 2023 Turning Point

While cooperation steadily built with Russia, the Myanmar junta’s ties with China soured again in 2023. During a May 2023 visit, Foreign Minister Qin Gang expressed China’s disappointment at the junta’s inability to control the border area between the two countries. What apparently tipped the balance for Beijing was the proliferation of online scammers and human-trafficking operations in the northeast of Myanmar. These criminal enterprises are run by Chinese criminal organizations and Sit-Tat-aligned local warlords, some of whom are now in Chinese custody.

Qin advocated for a crackdown on these operations during his visit, but to little avail. Beijing began to signal its distrust toward the junta by late autumn. In October, China established a border control zone in Yunnan province. More crucially, there are indications that by October the ethnic armed organizations patronized by Beijing were no longer under pressure from China to restrain their operations against the junta. Thus Operation 1027 became possible. 

In response to China’s growing signs of dissatisfaction, in November the Sit-Tat attempted to reconcile with Beijing by handing over 31,000 people suspected of cyber crimes. Simultaneously, however, the junta authorized anti-China protests in Naypyidaw. A week later, China’s military conducted drills along the border. The junta’s tune then changed, with its spokesperson emphasizing the “fraternal” connection between the two countries. 

Shortly thereafter, the Sit-Tat began pressuring China to mediate a ceasefire with the Three Brotherhood Alliance. The limited pause was short lived. The rebel offensives in Myanmar’s north further demonstrated the junta’s lack of control over the area. The resumption of intense conflict along its border has thus dually served as boon and bane to China’s interests.

The Rise and Fall of the Junta?

The new dynamics in Myanmar must provoke a return to reality for the international community. The junta cannot provide stability and it is in no state’s interests to support it. By no means will the Sit-Tat be completely abandoned, but this is an emergent opportunity for international actors to defuse tensions among themselves and prevent greater instability.

For China, the junta is a liability, unable to control their shared border and unwilling to crack down on crime. While a pro-democracy government is far from Beijing’s ideal in the global ideological balance, it is preferable to what would be a permanent state of instability under the junta. Beijing will also remember that the previous government under Aung San Suu Kyi was quite amenable to friendly ties with China.

The largely absent United States must now decide whether to follow through on its stated policies. Congress watered down its Myanmar policy authorizations earlier this year, which was partially attributed to reluctance from the Biden administration. If the U.S. wants to “promote a free and open Indo-Pacific,” there is no better time to demonstrate this commitment than the present.

Myanmar’s internal power shift creates an opportunity for China and the United States to cooperate, rather than consider Myanmar a point of ideological contention. Not only could promoting stability in Myanmar by abolishing the junta help reduce tensions between the two powers, but it would relieve related, escalating problems. The renewed fighting has created an acute humanitarian crisis that will only be heightened as the junta literally runs out of gas. While aid is needed immediately, the sooner the junta is gone, the sooner the crisis ends. Further, opium and meth production has boomed this year, a growing regional concern.

Russia alone will not abandon the junta. Moscow has failed to resolve Beijing-Naypyidaw tensions, while the rebellion’s recent military successes and China’s growing discomfort jeopardize Russia’s investment in the military regime. Despite these challenges, Russia’s support will remain; the demands posed by its invasion of Ukraine have pushed it even closer to other international pariah states, such as Iran and North Korea.

While the Sit-Tat will not be fully abandoned, Operation 1027 has created the best opportunity to internationally isolate it into extinction.