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Almost three years after Myanmar’s military staged a coup against a democratically elected government and plunged the country into civil war, the tide appears to be turning – and fortunately not in favor of the ruling generals. The world needs to think about what would happen after a regime collapse, even if that is still a long way off. That means speaking to the only legitimate pro-democracy force in the country, the Government of National Unity.

Well-armed ethnic insurgent groups have achieved significant success against the military across the country. The latest offensive began on October 27, when rebel groups in Myanmar’s Shan State managed to overrun several townships, military outposts and border crossings with China. Various ethnic insurgents have achieved similar success in the Sagaing region of the northeast, in Chin and Rakhine states.

Unfortunately, the recent shift in dynamics on the battlefield has so far failed to benefit the Government of National Unity, the country’s shadow government-in-exile. The government of national unity is largely made up of jailed and exiled officials from the ousted National League for Democracy party of jailed Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and other activists. The group continues to hold Myanmar’s seat at the United Nations. But for some inexplicable reason, the Government of National Unity has struggled to gain recognition or support, including from the United States.

Countless, often feuding ethnic insurgent groups have plagued Myanmar’s border regions for decades – with their own agendas, weapons and sometimes clandestine support from outside, particularly China. These groups now have the upper hand.

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Most of these armed groups have kept themselves afloat for years through illegal businesses, including human trafficking, drug, timber and wildlife trade. The upsurge in fighting in Shan State was sparked by China’s attempt to crack down on illegal cyber fraud hubs run by Chinese criminal gangs. The attempt to overthrow Myanmar’s junta and restore democracy played little role.

Still, the Myanmar military is weakened, stretched thin and fighting on multiple fronts. Unable to easily move troops on the ground, the military has largely resorted to airstrikes, primarily bombing villages and killing innocent civilians. Rebel groups have also accused the junta of using chemical weapons, which, if confirmed, would constitute an even more serious violation of international law and norms and should be referred to the International Criminal Court.

The civil war in Myanmar has created a humanitarian nightmare. Global attention is diverted by other pressing crises. But the fighting in Myanmar has left nearly two million people displaced within the country and more than a million more living as refugees in neighboring countries. As fighting increased in Shan State, the United Nations said it had received less than a third of the funding it needed to support civilians in need of assistance.

The United States cannot rely on Myanmar’s neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to take the initiative. The regional bloc has proven ineffective and irrelevant, blocked by its stubborn insistence on “consensus” and “non-interference” in each other’s internal affairs. ASEAN is hopelessly divided, with some countries starting dialogue with the Government of National Unity, others still talking to the ruling generals.

In November, the US tightened its sanctions against the regime and disrupted American financial transactions with the state oil company. (Although this move was long overdue – the European Union sanctioned the company in February 2022 – and the United States failed to impose full sanctions on the company, which remains the regime’s main source of foreign income.) Also in October, the United United States joined Canada and Britain in imposing sanctions on three more organizations and five individuals it said had supported the regime’s human rights abuses. Previous sanctions in August were aimed at cutting off supplies of jet fuel to the regime.

The junta is weakened. Further pressure could accelerate a collapse. If this happens, chaos could ensue as rival ethnic armies control different regions, creating a vacuum at the center. China would likely respond by intervening to secure regions along the border; China has already conducted military exercises near Shan State. In a worst-case scenario, Myanmar could become a failed state, exacerbating human trafficking and illegal drug problems.

To avert such eventualities, the United States should promote and prepare the Government of National Unity and begin serious discussions with representatives now. Officials with the group say they want a future Myanmar to be democratic and federal, recognizing ethnic groups and guaranteeing minority rights. These commitments must be adhered to when drafting a new constitution because only they can stabilize Myanmar. The hard planning should start now.

The view of the post | About the editorial team

The editorials reflect the views of the Post as an institution, determined through discussions among editorial board members in the Opinions section and independently of the newsroom.

Members of the editorial board: Opinion editor David Shipley, deputy opinion editor Charles Lane and deputy opinion editor Stephen Stromberg, as well as writers Mary Duenwald, Christine Emba, Shadi Hamid, David E. Hoffman, James Hohmann, Heather Long, Mili Mitra, Eduardo Porter, Keith B. Richburg and Molly Roberts.

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