Prolonged bouts of violence are likely in the coming month. The military has in the past few days shot and killed several dozen people at protests in major cities. This is a clear sign that it sees violent suppression as a way to consolidate its power. Its tactics are so far proving ineffective at deterring protesters, however.
This assessment was issued to clients of Risk Advisory's Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 4 March 2021.
The military will probably continue this approach in the coming weeks. While still outlier scenarios, we assess that greater use of violence would make a foreign intervention and a counter coup somewhat more likely.
The army is escalating the use of deadly force as its main tool to suppress demonstrations. Over the past few days it has fired live rounds into crowds of activists in Mandalay, Magwe, Monywa, Myingyan and Yangon. At least 54 people have died during confrontations so far, according to the UN. Social media posts by local journalists also suggest that the military is now attacking ambulances and using snipers to shoot on protesters.
The continued momentum of mass demonstrations after four weeks probably led the army to engage in more violent tactics. In 2007 the military suppressed peaceful protests in a similar manner after they had been ongoing for several weeks. And there have been at least three local press reports over the past several days of soldiers defecting and joining the anti-coup protest movement. This has probably also prompted the security forces to switch tactics and intervene more forcefully.
The escalation of violence by the military is prompting activists to modify their tactics rather than halting their protests. Several hundred to a few thousand people are still gathering in major cities. But they seem to be using attrition tactics to wear down police. Activists in Yangon engaged in a back and forth with police of erecting barricades, dispersing, and rebuilding them after police tore them down. They were also wearing self-made shields to protect themselves, based on footage on social media.
The military is very likely to escalate its violent suppression of protests yet further in the coming days. A UN official reported on Wednesday that the military has said it will withstand any economic pressure. This and its antagonistic rhetoric towards activists suggest it is unlikely to back down. As it engages in further violence, it will probably target people taking footage of protests. The US Embassy in Myanmar warned its citizens today that ‘it is illegal to take photos or videos of security force operations or military facilities’.
Activists will probably not be discouraged by the violent crackdown in the coming days. This is based on their determination in the past few days to continue their protests despite the high death toll. And this means that there is still a reasonable possibility that under rising foreign pressure, particularly by the EU, the US, ASEAN and China, the military will eventually de-escalate its response to protests and shift towards a strategy of waiting until demonstrations peter out.
There is also some potential for this to evolve into a scenario of foreign intervention. While we do not assess this to be likely, the more the authorities escalate their use of force, the more likely such an outcome would become. This would probably involve humanitarian intervention, most likely in the form of UN peacekeeping deployments. But violence in the country would probably need to reach a point that China no longer trusts the army to restore stability.
Significant splits in the security forces leading to an attempted counter coup remains a credible outlier scenario, albeit still improbable. Defections so far seem to have been in low numbers. But if the military pushes the army and police to use extreme force against civilians, we would anticipate more defections and localised mutinies.