Burma; A Country on Fire

June 14, 2022

We are now approaching five hundred days since the Burmese military, self-styled as the State Administration Council (SAC), seized power in a coup from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. And things are a complete mess.

 

According to estimates from the UN, there are at least a million people now displaced in Burma, a nation that already had hundreds of thousands of its people already living in refugee camps either internally or abroad because of decades of abusive military rule. As I reported before, the coup and taking of power by a cabal of generals led to an immediate outbreak of civil unrest and protests on a scale the country had not seen for a generation. This saw the military respond with extreme violence, and at least 1,800 protestors were killed by troops firing on them and tens of thousands arrested.

The crackdown has led to a new and far more widespread formation of resistance movements than at any time in Burma’s troubled history. Government members who managed to escape arrest during the coup have since formed the National Unity Government, which claims to represent the former, democratically elected establishment, and which is engaged in seeking international support in cutting off the junta now in power.

As well as this, and in response to the violence of the SAC, many towns and villages have formed their own militias, collectively the People’s Defence Forces (PDFs), which have begun to actively fight against SAC control in areas that have traditionally been untroubled by Burma’s long running conflict.

And this has changed the dynamic of the conflict, which has essentially raged in one form or another since 1948. Up until the coup, the Burma conflict had largely been confined to fighting between the military and the various Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAO’s) that fought to further the aims of the country’s ethnic minorities, who generally live in the border areas.

In reality the PDFS are a very loose confederation of resistance cells, with some having to resort to using primitive homemade weapons to fight the well-equipped SAC. But the fact that for the first time the Burma military is experiencing a serious challenge in its heartland areas is of immense significance. Almost every township in Myanmar has seen resistance to the SAC, either in the form of strike actions, passive resistance, guerrilla attacks and even the complete loss of control of substantial parts of the country.

In addition, the growing experience of the PDFs, especially those that have been able to ally with the EAOs – some of which have seen literally generations of conflict against the military and each other – means that the SAC forces are now taking heavy loses. Who are responding with their typical ferocity, much of it aimed at civilians.

According to Dave Eubank of the Free Burma Rangers, who has been involved in assisting refugees in the country for decades, the fighting was on a scale not seen in the region since World War Two.

In terms of the broader picture, here is how different areas are being affected by the situation.

In the central regions of Magwe and Mandalay, there Is in effect an insurgency and civil war being waged between segments of the Bamar people that form the majority of the population in these areas and the country as a whole. Here the conflict is between the PDF, the powerful central forces of the SAC and SAC-allied militia.

The EAOs have never had a presence in this region and with the full might of the conventional SAC army based in this area it would be thought that the conflict would have been resolved quickly. But the sheer level of resistance in response to the coup and the brutality of the army means that PDFs in the region are still fighting a guerrilla campaign, despite being completely overmatched in conventional terms.

Indeed, the challenge is such that it seems unlikely that SAC forces will be able to overcome it soon, and instead a vicious counter insurgency will effectively become the de facto state of affairs in these formerly quiet central areas.

In southwestern Burma, the state of Rakhine is currently surprisingly quiet, though it remains to be seen if this situation will continue. Between 2018 and 2020 a savage war was fought between the SAC and the powerful Arakan Army (AA) EAO, which left thousands dead and an estimated 100,000 people displaced. This saw the AA manage to drive SAC forces out of a number of areas, and the AA effectively set themselves up in control of a segment of the region.

A ceasefire was agreed, and the AA has essentially stayed out of the expanded conflict since the coup, concentrating on expanding its administration in the areas it controls as the SAC has been diverted to other conflict zones. But while the region has remained largely peaceful, there are possible signs that this may end. The AA is largely committed to a platform of establishing their own independent authority, which is somewhat different from the aims of other EAOs and the NUG government-in-exile that generally seek greater autonomy within a federal Burma.

But of late there are reports of meetings between the AA and the NUG, plus a number of ceasefire breakdowns that have seen clashes, as well as public threats issued by leaders on both sides against the other.

If fighting restarts between the AA and SAC, then junta will have a serious problem on its hands, and no doubt will respond with the viciousness they’ve resorted to elsewhere in the country.

In Myanmar’s west and northwest, fierce fighting has broken out. This area had been quiet since 2012 when the primary EAO in the region, the Chin National Army in western Burma, signed a ceasefire agreement with the government. But the coup changed that when Chin villagers, identifying with the civil resistance, staged peaceful protests in support of the democratic government.

This was met with a brutal response, murdering civilians and burning down villages.

If the attempt was intended to cow opposition, it failed, and a new organisation, the Chin Defence Force, formed to protect the extremely poor and largely rural population from SAC depredations. And the Chin have been fighting fiercely for several months now, despite being badly outmatched and with very few weapons, leading them to call for equipment support from other PDF and EAOs fighting the military.

The SAC has responded with their usual escalation in brutality, including airstrikes on villages, and thousands of refugees are reported to have fled across the border to neighbouring India.

In the north-western Sagaing region, local PDFs have also risen against the SAC in large numbers. Despite their rather scattered and fragmented nature as local defence militias, they have become rather efficient over the last year and are regularly  launching attacks on large military convoys and bases.

The Kachin Independence Army in the north of the country, one of the largest and most powerful of the EAO’s, is engaged in effectively full war with the SAC and has been making gains in Kachin State, as well as inflicting substantial casualties on the military.

The situation in Shan State in Myanmar’s east is as complicated as it has ever been, with the two main Shan EAO’s fighting each other and the SAC’s old policy of “divide-and-rule”, one it has cultivated for decades, seeming to still be paying dividends. However, they are not having it all their own way and face resistance from multiple EAOs and PDFs throughout the region.

The south-eastern areas of Karen and Karenni States on the Thai borders have seen heavy fighting and huge disruption to civilian populations. The main EAOs in the region, the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), have actively assisted the new PDFs with training and equipment and are in effect in alliance with several of them.

The SAC has resorted to its standard scorched earth tactics here and appear to be deliberately targeting civilians with artillery and air strikes, multiple incidents of which have been catalogued and which Amnesty International has stated constitutes “a new wave of war crimes and likely crimes against humanity”.

Included amongst this is the recorded use of children to porter equipment and supplies in military convoys. This enforced labour has long been used by the Burma military, and often results in endangering and sometimes the death of the impressed worker as they are often put in harms way by the soldiers forcing them to work.

However, despite fighting a common enemy, the relationship between the Karen and the NUG typifies that between many of the EAO’s and the government-in-exile – an uneasy situation where previous promises on autonomy and security failed to bear fruit and had resulted in years of stalemated peace talks. As a result, many of the EAO’s are wary of what the future will bring even if the SAC is defeated.

Finally, the south of the country is also being wracked by conflict, and this is in an area and style not previously seen on a large scale in Burma. Whereas much of the fighting of the last seventy years has taken place in the remote hinterlands of the country, now in this region former protesters have created urban guerrilla groups, including in the country’s biggest city and former capital, Yangon.

Following the military violence and mass arrests in the city, now an urban insurgency is actively targeting SAC forces and their sympathisers. Over a hundred bombs have been detonated here and it seems the SAC will have a long battle to root out the guerrillas if it is actually able of doing so.

With much of the country resisting them, it would seem that the days of the SAC are numbered.

Indeed, a senior US diplomat has stated that he doesn’t believe that they can defeat the multitude of enemies they have managed to accrue, essentially through their own brutality, and should seek to return to democratic government in Myanmar. And despite international concerns, the SAC also continues to follow its traditional attitude of not giving a damn about anyone’s opinion and has recently confirmed that it plans to execute two prominent democracy activists that it holds in prison.

But to be honest, the international community’s reaction to the coup and the ensuing carnage has been effectively irrelevant, and several countries have essentially carried on as usual in their relationships with Burma despite the ongoing atrocities carried out by the SAC and their total lack of legitimacy as a government.

Additionally, the problems faced by the EAOs, PDFs and NUG of the lingering doubts about the previous government, and the diverse range of goals that the now hundreds of resistance organisations have, means that there are still opportunities for the SAC to pry apart the opposition and set them against one another. That is, after all, the policy the military junta successfully employed for seventy years, and the longer the conflict continues, the more such divides are likely to occur.

So though the SAC is beset by more enemies than ever before, and there is some hope for a potentially better future for Burma, that destination is still a very long way off and far from guaranteed, especially with the lack of effective international action.

All that can be said for sure is that far more blood is going to be spilt.

Sources/Related:

https://www.freeburmarangers.org/

https://militarymatters.online/playlist/military-history/long-war-burma/

https://myanmar.iiss.org/analysis/introduction

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