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The Myanmar Civil War

Updated: Jan 3

In the chaos of the news cycle, some conflicts get missed. Unfortunately, Myanmar’s civil war is one of them. Despite its low profile, the scale and dynamism of the conflict is notable. Millions have been displaced and thousands have died in one of the region’s most important countries.

Between India, China, and Thailand, it is notorious for its fluctuation between brutal authoritarianism and tenuous compromises with its robust democratic opposition. However, some analysts believe in the possibility of something unprecedented: a defeat for its powerful military, the Tatmadaw. What the implications of such an outcome would be are hard to summarize.

The following contributions shed light on the conflict’s most important elements. Its military dimension is summarized by Aini, cooperation within the country’s opposition by Rishabh Rupani, and the junta’s relations with regional powers by Charvak Thatha.

The conflict now

Myanmar has a long history of military rule. Despite brief periods of democratic rule by the National League for Democracy (NLD) following its victories in both the 2015 and 2020 elections, the coup of February 2021 has embroiled the country in a civil war. The ongoing conflict has resulted in thousands of casualties, millions of displaced citizens, and the imprisonment of NLD party members.

The military situation is relatively positive for the country’s robust, if disparate, opposition. In late October, the Three Brotherhood Alliance (3BA) - consisting of the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) - launched a successful coordinated attack against the military junta. Code-named Operation 1027, the operation disturbed a vital strategic trade passage linking the eastern region of Myanmar, Shan state, with southern China. 

The attack resulted in the seizure of 14 townships and more than 100 security outposts in Shan, the killing of a Tatmadaw’s battalion commander and his deputy, the severing of the junta’s supply lines, the seizing of weapons and ammunition, and securing the surrender of the entire battalion. This marks the largest battlefield defeat for Myanmar's military since its rise to power. 

The success of the 3BA has created a pivotal moment for nationwide anti-government offensives by resistance forces. On November 13, the AA seized two Border Guard Police posts in its home state of Rakhine, breaking a year-long ceasefire agreement. Another conflict erupted along the India bordering Chin state. Joint attacks by the Chin National Army and Chin Defence Forces resulted in the seizure of two towns and an outpost, capturing about 50 soldiers on November 29th. 

Despite ongoing differences, Myanmar's military losing ground due to victories by revolutionaries across the country raises hope among citizens for the eventual downfall of the dictatorship and the return of democracy.

The opposition and its challenges

Soon after the military coup, ousted lawmakers of the NLD and activists from several minority groups, established a ‘government-in-exile’ known as the National Unity Government (NUG). It aims at uniting the diverse groups opposed to the junta, garnering international support, as well as creating a road-map for a post-junta Myanmar. 

In September 2021, the NUG declared war on the junta and formed an armed division known as the People’s Defence Force (PDF), which uses guerilla warfare to achieve its goals. The PDF’s strategy was cooperating with Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) to combat the regime. There is a plethora of active EAOs operating in Myanmar, stemming from the country’s dark history of ethnicity-based internal conflict. 

In June 2019, the 3BA was born. Since the beginning of the coup, it has condemned the actions of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military under the junta’s control) and engaged in regular clashes with the military in 2021 and 2022. However, it wasn’t until October 2023 that the 3BA rose into prominence. On October 27, 2023, the 3BA launched a massive offensive against the Junta in the northern state of Shan in Operation 1027. 

The MNDAA released pictures of its militants occupying the city of Chinshweshaw, which is a city of strategic importance to the junta, given that it facilitates a significant amount of trade with China due to its proximity to the border. The 3BA has disrupted transportation networks in the region and managed to capture three other major trading gates along the northeastern border. This ongoing operation has effectively brought cross-border trade with China to a screeching halt. 

Anti-junta groups, such as the NUG itself, have praised the 3BA’s offensive, and have launched attacks of their own, such as the NUG-Allied PDF’s attack in the Sagaing region, including the capture of Kawlin. 

While the cooperation between the NUG and the ethnic militias is a positive sign for the revolution, it remains to be seen whether this solidarity can be sustained in the long term. The NUG has been regarded as a weak organization with no command over the ethnic militias or even its own PDFs. The current state of cooperation is merely a co-alignment of anti-junta stances driven by the self-interest of various, disparate factions. For instance, the NUG wants to re-establish a democratic government, whereas the ethnic militias, such as the Kachin Independence Army, have been capturing Tatmadaw bases and increasing their autonomy in the controlled territories. 

These differences may determine the future of the conflict, but are rooted in its past. Before the coup, the Bamar majority-dominated NLD government pursued its Burmanization agenda for a long time, thereby losing the trust of the ethnic minorities. The fact that the NUG is mostly composed of NLD veterans increases the likelihood of the re-emergence of distrust between the various ethnic groups. The NUG, being fully aware of the circumstances, has increased ethnic representation in its cabinet and expressed interest in establishing a federal system in the post-war period, thereby giving more autonomy to ethnic groups through decentralization of power, while at the same time holding the country together. This is undoubtedly a difficult balance to strike. The NUG must tread carefully along this precarious path, lest they forget history may repeat itself.

The Tatmadaw and regional powers

China has cultivated a close relationship with Myanmar’s Tatmadaw over the last few decades due to three key shared interests.  

The first is protecting stability and peace in Myanmar, as China has significant economic interests and investments in the region with the Belt and Road Initiative. Burma acts as a gateway connecting India, China, and southeast Asia. Furthermore, it is a key access point to the Bay of Bengal, home to several key shipping routes, fishing territories, and reserves of oil and gas. 

The second one is the fact that Myanmar’s growing economy has a need for infrastructure development. This allows China to extend its influence in the country through building roads, ports, etc., to exploit Burma’s strategic positioning. Furthermore, Beijing has also invested heavily in the extraction of Burmese natural resources

Number three is that India has a growing influence in Myanmar, something both China and that Tatmadaw are wary of. Indian influence has the potential to incite further ethnic conflicts in Myanmar which the Tatmadaw has been working to end.

India has in some ways developed an analogous relationship with the Tatmadaw: investing in infrastructure and extraction of natural resources for many of the same reasons as Beijing, primarily related to its strategic location.

However, New Delhi has faced international backlash for not speaking out against the military junta’s treatment of its ethnic minorities and also for New Delhi’s handling of the Rohingya refugees. There is a chance that we will see India take a stronger stance against the Tatmadaw for its interactions with minorities, but it will continue to maintain an economic relationship. 

Thailand, furthermore, is also very economically and culturally interconnected with Burma. They have large investments in energy infrastructure, tourism, and manufacturing. They mainly import natural gas, timber and agriculture products from Burma.

As a result of this the Thai government has tried to maintain a peaceful relationship with the Tatmadaw for economic benefits which is proving to become increasingly difficult due to pressure from the international community to take a stronger stance against the Tatmadaw. It is likely that the Thai government will pursue a cautious relationship with the Tatmadaw directed mostly by their economic goals.

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