The Burmese Civil War: Seventy Years and Counting

By Ed Nash

20 May 2019

Kachin militiaman watching Burma Army outposts for activity. Kachin State, 2018. (Ed Nash)

The world’s current longest running war, the internal conflict in Burma (also known as Myanmar) receives but limited attention in the outside world. Considering the complexities of the conflict, as well as the growing importance of neighbouring countries and an increasingly assertive China, it may be useful for any watcher of international affairs to develop an understanding of the current events in Burma. This article aims to provide a basic grounding of the situation to those who may be interested in a conflict that has killed an estimated 130,000 people.

Since 1948 the Burmese Civil War has carried on largely unabated and today finds itself on the verge of escalating violently, as groups negotiating as part of the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) become further disillusioned. Despite seventy years of bloodshed under an oppressive military dictatorship, the year 2015 signalled a break-through for democracy, as the famous prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party rose to power. The NCA negotiations began promisingly, however the last few years have seen growing discontent from several Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) stemming both from the lack of progress in talks with the central government and the actions undertaken against them by the powerful Burmese military, the Tatmadaw

Since January 2019, the Arakan Army (AA) has been battling against the Burmese Army in Rakhine State, situated on the western coast of Burma. The AA, formed in 2009, have been employing both conventional and guerrilla tactics against the army and police units and experienced a surge in support with around 7000 volunteering to fight. Although months of fighting have led to an estimated 33,000 civilians displaced, the AA appear committed to resistance. On 17 April 2019, their leader Tun Myat Naing, speaking at a military parade in Wa State, said: “We are not the ones to give up. We have to fight the war. We will not get peace by praying.”

Meanwhile, in Kachin and Shan States, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) continues to fight a guerrilla war in the mountains and dominate large sections across the Burma-China borderline. The Burmese Army have deployed their Light Infantry Division 99 (LID99) into the region, a unit notorious for brutality and its role in the Rohingya genocide of 2017 that saw over 10,000 civilians murdered and another 700,000 displaced into neighbouring Bangladesh.

Additionally, two of the AA’s allies in the east, the MNDAA and the TNLA have both issued threats that they “have to take necessary action” in support of their alliance. The last time there was extensive combat between the Tatmadaw and the MNDAA, an errant Burma Air Force bomb killed four Chinese citizens, provoking an angry response from Chinese officials. Therefore, there is no doubt that a flare-up in that sector will draw the watchful attention of China’s People’s Liberation Army, which is speculated to be informally assisting the MDNAA.[1]

Further south-east of Burma, in Kayin State, the Karen are also experiencing a series of attacks. Despite guarantees given during NCA negotiations between the Burmese government and the Karen National Union (KNU), the KNU have accused the Burmese Army of breaking faith by building roads in areas under Karen control. Also, there are reports of Kayin civilians being murdered by Burma Army personnel. To add to the growing internal conflict, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) – considered to be the strongest of ethnic minorities within Burma – have just celebrated their thirtieth anniversary with a deliberate display of their military might and statements that mark a more belligerent tone than usual.

An estimated 25,000 soldiers at their disposal, the Wa have generally been circumspect of antagonising the central government since they signed a truce in 1989. But on 17 April, a spokesman stated that he was doubtful the agreements would remain in effect after the general elections of 2020. Such a development would represent a substantial change in the Wa’s situation as “flexibility and compromise have long been crucial to the UWSA”[2] but a collapse  of their current accord with the Tatmadaw could well mean the Wa becoming aggressive to protect the considerable business empire they have created, especially if other ethnic forces are also fully engaged.

With the NLD government appearing increasingly autocratic or powerless to rein in the military, it’s likely the next few years may see a return to the widespread warfare of the kind that blighted Burma in the past, as the EAOs abandon any hopes for peace through talks. If the Tatmadaw continues to push its presence into ethnic areas in defiance to the residents wishes, they will see no other recourse but to fight. Such an event would likely spell a complete disaster for any hopes of a lasting peace for another generation.

Ed Nash has spent years travelling around the world and, on occasion, interfering as he sees fit. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria. His book Desert Sniper: How One Ordinary Brit Went to War Against ISIS was published in September 2018. 

[1] Beehner, Lionel; “State-building, Military Modernization and Cross-border Ethnic Violence in Myanmar”, Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs, Volume: 5 issue: 1 (January 30, 2018); p.24

[2] Ong, Andrew, “Producing Intransigence: (Mis) Understanding the United Wa State Army in Myanmar.” Contemporary Southeast Asia vol. 40, no. 3 (2018); p. 462

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