The fraught situation in Myanmar, also known as Burma, is reaching a potential crisis point as hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to protest the arrest of the government on February 1 and the taking over by the country’s powerful military, known as the Tatmadaw.
Clashes between protestors and the military have been, by Burma’s historical standards, pretty low key. That may seem trite seeing as one young woman has been shot in the back of the head by the police, but in the past protests against the military were met with automatic gunfire.
However, the comparative calm may just be that before the breaking storm. The Tatmadaw has been bringing in extra troops, including some of the feared Light Infantry Divisions. These troops are generally kept away from the cities and used in the savage wars against the Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) that have been fighting the central government for years.
The LIDs are often made up of men who were taken off the streets as children – sometimes kidnapped – and have been forced to commit the most brutal acts imaginable until they are utterly desensitized.
As a result, they are easily the equal of such infamous units such as the SS Dirlewanger Brigade of World War Two, though in the case of the LIDs they have had literally generations of practicing atrocities out in the borders.
One of the most infamous of these Tatmadaw units, LID 77, appears to have been deployed to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and former capital. LID 77 was responsible for the slaughter and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya five years ago, and they have continued to be employed in the brutal war against the Arakan in western Myanmar until their sudden appearance in the city.
Their presence is causing great alarm amongst Burma watchers, with the UNs special representative saying that he is literally terrified of the violence that could be about to occur.
With most interested eyes locked on the possible conflict between the army and civilian protestors, few are paying attention to what’s happening in the border ethnic areas. In eastern Burma, near the Thai border, the Tatmadaw have launched offensives against the Karen people. Thousands of refugees have had to flee into the jungle and a recent report by the NGO the Free Burma Rangers states that attacks are ongoing.
This in turn has led to the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the EAO of the Karen people, to state that it will not stand by and watch the Tatmadaw attack civilians, no matter what their ethnic group. This is a clear call to the protestors that they stand with them. And several other groups have echoed them.
In the north of the country the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has issued a similar warning to the army that it will mobilise to protect civilians if required. The Kachin have recently fought a few small engagements against LIDs in their areas, but one of their allies, the MDNAA, seems to have really decided to make the most of the situation.
The MDNAA, which is composed largely of Kokang – ethnic Chinese who emigrated to Burma in the 1800s – fought a short and brutal war against the Tatmadaw in 2015. So far this month the group has fought several actions and ambushes against LID 99 in contested areas.
Though these attacks saw the MDNAA only field a few hundred soldiers, this still represents a significant proportion of the groups fieldable strength.
With so much tension in the country, one hopes that the Generals will see the writing on wall and back down. But considering the history of Myanmar, and the military’s traditional reaction to threats to their power, that seems unlikely.
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Ed Nash has spent years traveling around the world. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria; his book on his experiences, Desert Sniper, was published by Little, Brown in September 2018.