Current Trends of Civil War in Myanmar

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In the midst of growing turbulence and increasing chaos in world politics the world has started to forget about the disastrous situation in Myanmar that has taken a turn into a civil war. It’s been more than 30 months of the February 2021 coup d’état and the people of Myanmar continue to suffer from a deteriorating human rights and humanitarian crisis as the abysmal state of armed conflict, insurgency, chaos, and anarchy has only been deteriorating. The pro-democratic National Unity Government (NUG) and its armed wing the People’s Defence Force (PDF), in collaboration with the ethnic groups have formed the resistance force.  As the conflict between the ruling junta and pro-democracy movement has accelerated; human rights groups and UN experts accuse the military junta of genocide, apartheid like conditions and unprecedented crime against humanity with widespread violence, oppression and lawlessness. Entire towns are being burnt down, people are being tortured and millions have become refugees while many more have been internally displaced as the junta is carrying out airstrikes in response to losses on the ground. The situation has been more exacerbated with cyclone Mocha, which caused havoc on the coastal areas and the junta’s shameless restrictions on humanitarian aid.

Background of The Current Conflict

The background of the current civil war is long and full of complexity. Although the civil war after the 2021 coup has brought widespread attention from all over the globe, technically the country has been in a state of civil war ever since its inception in 1948. The military in Myanmar has a long history of using violence to seize and maintain power.

There are officially recognized 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar. When the country first gained independence an agreement, the Panglong Agreement, was signed that promised a number of these groups a level of autonomy and self governance and even a potential pathway to independence. However, such promises were never upheld, and in 1962 when the military took control, they cited this instrument as another justification for the coup–to unite the country together and make sure that these ethnic communities did not break off from the rest of the country. Since then, the ethnic groups have carried out armed resistance and the Burmese military crushed the uprising with extreme brutality. It even crashed democratic demands and movements i.e. the mass democratic movement of 1988, famously known as 8888 movement, where people came down to the street demanding democratic rule, and denied the result of the 1990 election result. Throughout the successive decades the military rebranded itself and was directly in power until 2010 and then for another five years in a pseudo military backed government. The military controlled all aspects of daily life and violently dealt with anything that it perceived as threat.

The Current Conflict Explained

By late 2000s, a false dawn of democracy came in Myanmar as economic and international pressure was growing. The military announced that it would be shifting towards a more democratic system of governance, although it only agreed to share the power in the new system and introduced a new constitution in 2008, that guaranteed significant control over the power structure. The military would keep control over key areas of everyday life. 25% of seats in the Parliament were reserved for serving military officers. The ministries of home, border affairs and defense had to be headed by a serving military officer. The military also appoints one of the country’s two vice presidents, ensuring a veto power over potential changes and any policies. However, after a second consecutive election loss, first in 2015 and then again in 2020, and growing popularity of democratic forces like the political leaders becoming critical of military role, general people calling for change the military became fearful of losing control and finally seized power on February 1, 2021, claiming that the recent elections in the country had been rigged without any proper evidence. A state of emergency was announced and Military General Min Aung Hlaing took control of the country, locking up the politicians and critics.

After the coup people took the street to voice their peaceful protest to which the junta tried to tackle with their familiar brutality. When the military started shooting unarmed protesters in the street the peaceful protest gave way to armed resistance and a civil war broke out. It is these conditions that have allowed the National Unity Government (NUG), formed by members of the parliament elected during the 2020 general elections and its armed wing, the People’s Defense Force (PDF), to thrive throughout the country. The PDF now enjoys substantial control of the territory, especially at the marginalized areas and has been launching attacks against military barracks, police stations, and government administrative offices.

Current Trends

More than two and a half years of toppling the democratically elected government, the Myanmar junta is perhaps at its bottom currently. The military is losing control of much of the country and already has lost large swathes of territory to ethnic militias and the PDF forces. The military junta hardly controls anything beyond the major cities and a recent study by a research organization– Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, found that the junta only had stable control of about one-fifth of townships nationwide.

As the junta is losing control and facing loss on the ground battle, it has increasingly resorted to brutal air attacks, often on civilians, in places where it likely would lose battles on the ground. These tactics, however, have backfired as it is simply turning the population against the military and growing dissent among the soldiers. As a result, morale in the army is reportedly extremely low and desertions very common. Simultaneously, it cannot fill new classes at its military academy because of its unpopularity, as well as young men not wanting to face such severe threats on the battlefield. With such growing unpopularity and lack of control the junta is relying on illegitimate extension of the state of emergency. As stipulated by the 2008 constitution, Myanmar’s state of emergency, which the military declared following the 2021 coup, can only be extended twice. This means the legitimacy of such provision ended on January 31, 2023, yet the junta extended it in January and again on 31st July for another six months, citing a lack of peace and stability in the country. Such repeated extension, however, only undercut the military’s justification for the coup that it is the sole institution able to ensure unity and stability in Myanmar.

At the same time the junta, or State Administrative Council (SAC) is seeking legitimacy by signaling that it will hold national elections following a nationwide census in October 2024. The NUG and ethnic armed groups have vowed to defy such an election and, in the September 2023 UNHRC, report the special rapporteur called on the international community to not to recognize such attempts. The military government’s existence as a shared target and common threat, however, have brought unprecedented unity among all the ethnic groups, uniting the NUG, PDF, and Ethnic Armed groups under the same objectives. Although the cooperation is not in terms of future post-conflict objectives, the mutual aim of fighting the Burmese military remains the highest priority for all players and the ethnic groups are setting aside their historical hostility towards each other to work together.

The international scenario for the military junta is also changing rapidly. While the US and other western nations imposed targeted sanctions on military officials and its revenue earning institutions just after the coup, the junta mostly relied on its international ally Russia, neighboring superpower China and its most important Southeast Asian friend: Thailand–ruled by military backed prime minister Prayuth Chanocha, who himself had come to power through a coup in 2014. Prayuth’s government has been sympathetic to the Myanmar junta, tried to legitimize it, said little about its brutality against citizens and continued providing it with energy resources. However, in the general election in May this year the pro-democratic parties gained majority and the new democratic prime minister was sworn in on the 23rd August. On the other hand, the junta have mostly relied on Russian weapons and fighter aircrafts to carry out airstrikes, which itself is exhausted currently because of its war with Ukraine and allegedly importing weapons and ammunition from countries like North Korea and Iran. Such changing scenario, makes the junta more and more isolated in the international arena and keeping only China as capable ally to help. However, the Chinese authorities are also allegedly maintaining link with the rebels and if the junta became unable to provide security for Chinese investment, the scenario can change drastically.

The ongoing civil war in Myanmar has evolved into a complex and multifaceted crisis with significant catastrophe for its people. Recent key trends reveal the junta’s dwindling control over the country, a growing unity among opposition forces, and an increasingly isolated position in the international arena. As the people of Myanmar continue to endure hardship and violence, the path to resolution remains uncertain, with regional and global dynamics playing a critical role in shaping the nation’s destiny.

– Wahid Uzzaman Sifat is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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