Myanmar’s Coup and the Inevitable Return of the ‘Failed State’ Rhetoric

Stefan Bächtold argues that calling Myanmar a ‘failed state’ could reinforce the Tatmadaw’s narratives and undermine the protest movements.

Writing about abstract concepts like statehood feels out of place in light of the violent and brutal acts that the Tatmadaw – as the Myanmar military is known – commits against the country’s population on a daily basis. More direct, practical accounts seem warranted to raise awareness for Myanmar’s suffering and to call upon ASEAN, China, the international community – anybody, really – to act.

Without doubt, such calls are important. But how we make sense of Myanmar’s plight matters, too. As critical scholars have reminded us countless times [1], the way we problematise a situation – the words, concepts, narratives we use – shapes the options we have available to respond. In view of the recent trend among even well-respected and knowledgeable observers to refer to Myanmar as on the brink of becoming a ‘failed state,’ this article cautions against the dangers that come with looking at Myanmar through a ‘failed state’ lens. I argue that the notion of the ‘failed state’ is a heavily securitised one that risks reinforcing the Tatmadaw’s own narrative; it overly relies on a Euro-centric, Western understanding of statehood that occludes the political nature of (state) service delivery; and its inherent conservatism and focus on upholding ‘order’ risks undermining the efforts of the protests and the national civil disobedience movement (CDM).

Uncanny similarities: ‘Failed state’ or ‘disintegration of the Union’?

Looking at the historic usage of the notion of the ‘failed state’ in other places shows that it is not a politically innocent term. Denoting certain places as ‘failed states’ became prominent after the 9/11 attacks, and during the subsequent ‘War on Terror’ [2]. ‘Failed states’ were invoked to urge the international community to ‘do something’ about places that were portrayed as rogue, lawless, and uncontrollable pockets of ‘unrest.’ Accordingly, the interventions typically proposed by the proponents of the ‘failed state’ rhetoric have mainly relied on military means to impose order – either through (armed) intervention by external powers or by strengthening the grip of local security forces on the territories in question.

 Needless to say, neither of these options typically gave much weight to the interests, well-being, or suffering of the people living in these areas. What they were concerned with were narrow security considerations: bringing a strong-handed order to uncontrolled territory, and(/or) preventing places from becoming ‘breeding grounds’ for extremist groups or illicit economies.

To anybody with knowledge about Myanmar’s recent history, such a narrative will sound uncannily familiar: a country threatened by descent into uncontrollable chaos, on the brink of disintegration, and in need of a strong hand to keep order – this is the story the Tatmadaw tells about its own raison d’être. It is the same story the Tatmadaw told the world (and itself) to justify the more than 70 years of war it waged against Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. It is the same story the Tatmadaw told to justify its atrocities against the Rohingya in Rakhine state from 2016 onwards, when it claimed to fight against ‘terrorists’ establishing a foothold in Rakhine. The military campaigns that the Tatmadaw justified with these narratives have displaced over 700,000 people into neighbouring Bangladesh and are currently being investigated as genocide by the International Court of Justice [3].

The ‘failed state’ rhetoric, warning that chaos in Myanmar could destabilise the whole region, certainly creates urgency to act. But it also securitises [4]: it constitutes security considerations – rather than human rights, or even human life – as the foremost problem in the current situation. By using such a securitised rhetoric, international pundits thus risk inadvertently reinforcing and legitimising the Tatmadaw’s own securitised narrative of the current events. After soldiers use live ammunition to fire on protesters, the military regularly claims that security forces were merely responding to what they call violent ‘mobs’, ‘riots’ or ‘armed terrorists’ to restore ‘order’ [5].

This ‘failed state’ image of a country on the brink of chaos thus risks further entrenching the Tatmadaw’s framing of the protests as lawless ‘riots’ that should be treated as a security problem. This framing conveniently allows the military to brush aside the political demands of the protests and opposition to the coup. Instead, the generals can go back to their old, paternalistic tale where they portray the Tatmadaw as the only institution able to guarantee the ‘non-disintegration’ of Myanmar and to uphold order in a country under ‘threat.’

What exactly is ‘failing’ in a ‘failed state’?

The second problematic aspect of the ‘failed state’ lens is its conception of the state itself. Critical scholars have pointed out that at its core, the ‘failed state’ is a Euro-centric concept [6]: It relies on an ideal-typical conception of how (Western European) states have formed. But the ‘failed state’ rhetoric strips this ideal-typical conception of its historical context and universalises it as a normative blueprint for what every state should look like [7]. To paraphrase Max Weber’s famous definition, the state is thus understood as a singular, central authority that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force in a given territory. In turn, states that do not fit this blueprint are then described as ‘lacking,’ or ‘failed’.

As Mary Callahan [8] has shown, such a monopoly cannot be considered a normative, unpolitical, or ahistorical given for Myanmar. To the contrary, the (central) state and its authority are heavily contested. Such a singular monopoly on the use of force is what the Tatmadaw has been striving for over the last 70 years with its ruthless military campaigns against ethnic minorities and their demands for more autonomy. Myanmar has not one, but a plethora of arrangements [9] that perform authority, govern people, and that look very much like states – although clearly with varying degrees of legitimacy. Besides the central state, there are the institutions created by the ethnic armed organisations [10], the more localised rule of certain militias and their business interests [11], or even the actors and companies involved in land investments [12-14]. Some argue that the Tatmadaw has actively used such arrangements to extend its reach into the country’s borderlands [12, 15]; and that economies like the illegal drug trade can be considered as ‘statebuilding’ [16]. Thus, illicit economies would not just suddenly spring up in the current situation – they have existed and functioned very efficiently in the status quo before the coup. The implied warning in the ‘failed state’ rhetoric, namely that Myanmar would now suddenly devolve into what has been called a ‘bad neighbour’ [17] that would draw bordering countries into a quagmire of illicit economies and ‘unleashed’ criminal forces, thus seems odd. It certainly underplays both the extent of illicit economies and other arrangements before the coup, as well as the complexities of their (stabilising and destabilising) effects.

At the same time, being overly concerned with the central state’s (or now, the Tatmadaw’s) loss of authority and control, the ‘failed state’ lens ignores alternative arrangements of how government happens and the potentially positive role these could play. I am thinking particularly of the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH, representing the elected parliament) and its National Unity Government (NUG); the quasi-states of the ethnic armed organisations and their administrations; and also of emerging structures in the protest and civil disobedience movements. That ASEAN invited only the coup leader for its recent summit to address the situation in Myanmar, and none of the latter institutions, is a testament to what the ‘failed state’ rhetoric ignores.

Order or change?

Finally, when calls for intervention base themselves on the dangers of a ‘failed state,’ what they implicitly call for is order. And more often than not, those making such calls for order look for potential actors to create it according to the (Western) blueprint outlined above. In doing so, they turn their gaze to the various security forces or (central) government administration offices, which, of course, would have to be reformed, have their ‘capacity’ built, or be sent to human rights awareness trainings. The ‘failed state’ rhetoric thus has an inherently conservative dimension that prioritises stability over transformation [18]. Such a preference for orderly, gradual change helps explain why the international community so neatly aligned with the Tatmadaw’s transition to a ‘discipline-flourishing’ democracy after 2011. The prospect of an orderly transition and stability seemed sufficient to legitimise an uneasy pact between elites that left the country’s power structures largely intact and was bought at the expense of the minorities in the country’s periphery – and now also the larger population in the centres – who are bearing the violence unleashed in the name of ‘upholding order’.

If we problematise Myanmar’s current situation in terms of a ‘failed state’ in-the-making, the danger is that we only look for solutions to impose order and to prevent collapse of state structures and services. Certainly, human suffering ensues when health and education services are not available, or when economic collapse threatens the livelihoods of large parts of the population. It is not that the striking health professionals, teachers, government administrators, dock and railway workers, or bank staff of the CDM are not perfectly aware of this. They are. But people continue supporting the CDM because general strikes are one of the few strategies Myanmar’s people have at their disposal in their struggle against the Tatmadaw’s coup. And because they prioritise this struggle over the ‘stability’ and ‘order’ under military rule. The smooth functioning and effective delivery of government services may range high in international benchmarks to assess ‘state fragility,’ but it is not a neutral indicator of the current situation. It is highly political, contested – and exactly what the CDM aims to disrupt. These disruptions are not failures of the state; they are achievements of the CDM’s resistance, and they have been won at the cost of immense effort and human suffering. If government services were to return to functioning smoothly, it would not necessarily mean that ‘state failure’ has been averted. If they were achieved under the current circumstances, it would rather mean that the military coup has succeeded.


In academic discussion, the notion of the ‘failed state’ has been largely discredited. However, its recent traction in the international discourse on Myanmar illustrates that this securitised framing still haunts much of the thinking of the international community. If interventions to address the current suffering in Myanmar are solely informed by a ‘failed state’ lens, they are likely to reproduce another elite pact, prioritising order similarly to the compromised status quo that existed before the coup.

In contrast, many of the protesters who are imprisoned, tortured, and killed for opposing the coup are demanding something new, a bigger change. They deserve to be heard.

(Featured image courtesy of the author)

Dr Stefan Bächtold is an associate researcher at the swisspeace Foundation. He has recently held visiting fellowships at the Technical University of Munich, Germany, and Monash University Malaysia. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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