Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Myanmar Is on the Precipice of Civil War

Existing conflicts with ethnic groups add fuel to the fire.

By Lucas Myers is the Program Associate at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program where he administers the Wilson China Fellowship.
Protesters hold homemade weapons during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon's Tamwe township in Myanmar on April 3.
Protesters hold homemade weapons during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon's Tamwe township in Myanmar on April 3. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Since the Feb. 1 military coup, Myanmar has rapidly destabilized into widespread protests and indiscriminate violence. According to the monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, at least 614 protesters have been killed and 2,857 detained as of April 8. The Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is called, appears unwilling to back down despite growing international pressure.

Beyond the protests in the cities, however, the role that Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) choose to adopt could become key to the country’s long-term stability. As the U.N. special envoy for Myanmar warned, the situation could descend into an outright civil war, with profound implications not only for the people of Myanmar but also for regional stability.

Since the Feb. 1 military coup, Myanmar has rapidly destabilized into widespread protests and indiscriminate violence. According to the monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, at least 614 protesters have been killed and 2,857 detained as of April 8. The Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is called, appears unwilling to back down despite growing international pressure.

Beyond the protests in the cities, however, the role that Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) choose to adopt could become key to the country’s long-term stability. As the U.N. special envoy for Myanmar warned, the situation could descend into an outright civil war, with profound implications not only for the people of Myanmar but also for regional stability.

Since independence, Myanmar has been troubled by ongoing violence between Myanmar’s ethnic minorities and the majority Buddhist Bamar. The country’s various ethnic minority groups—together representing about a third of the population—have been sidelined, resulting in roughly 20 EAOs that have waged sporadic insurgencies. In Myanmar, the EAOs are a variety of rebel groups that range in size from small forces numbering in the hundreds to larger organizations marshaling several thousand well-armed fighters. Most EAOs purport to represent specific ethnic groups from which they draw recruits, but reports of forced conscription and the deployment of child soldiers are common. Largely located in Myanmar’s rugged, ethnic minority-dominated frontier states, some rule over de facto autonomous zones without central government interference and are predominantly funded by drug trafficking. The Tatmadaw has struggled to achieve decisive victories over the EAOs as a result of the difficult terrain and the persistent underdevelopment and grievances fueling the insurgencies.

While the previously ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) issued statements on addressing federalism after democratization, it was accused of slow-walking reforms. Yet ethnic minority concerns with the NLD pale in comparison to the oppression they suffered under Tatmadaw rule, which explains why they came out to vote in large numbers to support the NLD in November 2020.

Prior to the coup, Myanmar’s EAOs maintained a variety of arrangements with the government. In 2015, the government and several EAOs—most notably the powerful Karen National Union (KNU)—signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and engaged in a peace process, albeit with little progress. Additional groups remained holdouts outside of the NCA but still agreed to bilateral cease-fires. The largest and most capable of these groups, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), receives arms and covert support from oftentimes autonomous local actors in Yunnan, China, and to date has remained quiet on the coup (perhaps due to Chinese influence).

Others, such as the Arakan Army, Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and Taang National Liberation Army (TNLA)—which together form the Northern Alliance—have engaged in periodic combat over the past decade. These forces also make use of Chinese arms (likely coming through the UWSA) and maintain relatively close ties with China. On occasion, however, temporary cease-fires between the Northern Alliance and the Tatmadaw have prevailed.

The recent coup fundamentally disrupted this status quo.

The recent coup fundamentally disrupted this status quo. The Tatmadaw quickly moved to reassure the ethnic minorities, presumably worried about its forces being stretched thin. Initially, some EAOs remained silent in the wake of the coup, and the Tatmadaw extended olive branches to others by delisting the Arakan Army, a prominent EAO, as a terrorist organization and organizing peacemaking committees. In the first days after the coup, the NCA signatories appeared to embrace neutrality, but the grouping soon suspended negotiations with the military in late February.

Two ethnic minority political parties, the Arakan National Party and Mon Unity Party, have sided with—or, at least, acquiesced to—the military takeover. Both parties accepted seats on the regime’s new governing body but not without internal controversy. The Tatmadaw’s outreach to other minority parties received little welcome. The vice chairman of the Kayah State Democratic Party joined the regime, but party leadership subsequently expelled him.

Now, worrying signs of renewed fighting are emerging. In a clear sign of escalation, the KNU—an NCA signatory—offered asylum to fleeing NLD politicians, initiated military operations against the Tatmadaw, and seized a checkpoint along the border with China. In response, the Tatmadaw launched airstrikes. In the north, the KIA attacked Tatmadaw and police targets. Meanwhile, the Arakan Army, TNLA, and MNDAA put out a joint statement that, if the military continues its crackdown, they may side with the protesters. In a sign that the peace process may be breaking down, the 10 NCA signatories publicly demanded a stop to the Tatmadaw’s violence and called for accountability. If the Arakan Army, TNLA, MNDAA, and the other NCA signatories join the KNU and KIA in open fighting, much of Myanmar would plunge into civil war.

Some of the protesters are now publicly courting the EAOs to join forces and fight the Tatmadaw. The crackdown has spurred attempts to forge an anti-Tatmadaw coalition. A group of ousted NLD politicians—known as the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH)—have formed a parallel “national unity” government. Importantly, the CRPH brings together civil society actors, politicians, and some EAOs, and it promises to abolish the 2008 constitution, institute a federal union army, and provide greater autonomy to state and regional parliaments.

These policies are likely intended to address long-standing ethnic minority concerns about the lack of progress on federalism. Furthermore, some Bamar anti-coup activists have started publicly reckoning with their past sidelining of ethnic minority demands and disregard for the plight of the Rohingya, likely to shore up solidarity across ethnic groups. In short, the CRPH is openly attempting to bring the EAOs into its resistance movement. During an interview with the Irrawaddy, a CRPH representative displayed a grim acceptance of the likelihood of civil war: “People, including [Generation Z], are determined to remove the military elites who have bullied and exploited the country for so many years. Myanmar’s Spring Revolution will use all the means possible. Whether there will be a civil war will depend on the military.”

Sensing the danger, the Tatmadaw announced a monthlong unilateral cease-fire on March 31 with groups that did not oppose their crackdown. With many of its elite units and others deployed to the cities, the military likely hopes to crush the protests first to consolidate control without needing to watch its back. Closer collaboration between the CRPH and the EAOs could seriously challenge the military. Although the Tatmadaw is a well-armed and combat-hardened force, simultaneous fighting in the north, west, east, and center of the country would surely stretch its resources to some extent.

To be sure, the anti-coup movement’s efforts are no shoo-in for success. For one, a pan-EAO alliance involving all the groups does not seem overly likely considering occasional internal strife, not to mention China’s influence over the UWSA. Additionally, it remains unclear whether the CRPH has the authority or influence to make its claims and to what extent it represents the NLD or the protest movement. As we saw with Juan Guaidó’s movement in Venezuela, a government-in-exile, no matter how popular or legitimate, cannot guarantee a successful revolution.

At the same time, if the unilateral cease-fire does not hold, a genuine (or even nominally coordinated) federal union army is established, or pro-democracy activists start seriously arming themselves, a civil war could potentially result. Some signs of escalating violence on the part of protesters are already apparent. The military said late last month that it had arrested some NLD members who were seeking explosives training from the EAOs, and other reports have emerged of violence against military targets by some anti-coup demonstrators using homemade bombs. Although large numbers of arms would likely be difficult to come by for protesters, the EAOs could provide them with weapons and training, while military units in less ideologically firm units could desert, as recently demonstrated by some police seeking asylum in India and a group of Tatmadaw soldiers reportedly defecting to the KNU.

Such an escalation would represent a worst-case scenario. Located at the hinge of Southeast Asia and South Asia, a civil war in Myanmar could destabilize the wider region. Regionally, for an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) used to noninterference, this represents a paralyzing crisis. Thailand, which has predominantly refrained from criticism, expressed last week that it is “gravely troubled” by the violence. With refugees already crossing the border, this new criticism perhaps indicates genuine fear in Thailand of Myanmar’s collapse.

Vietnam joined in as well in calling on all parties to cease violence against civilians. Bangladesh already struggles to host more than 742,000 Rohingya refugees. India, too, likely fears a refugee crisis. For actors beyond the region, little can likely be done. International diplomacy and sanctions have been of limited effectiveness for the United States and other Western countries.

China adds an extra layer of complexity to the situation. Chinese authorities (specifically local actors based in Yunnan) have been involved in the peace process and in supporting armed EAOs along the border, all while also serving as the central government’s main international backer. At the same time, the Tatmadaw distrusts China’s extensive involvement despite understanding that it cannot totally jettison its international defender. Clearly wary of the potential for Myanmar’s destabilization, China has expressed its displeasure with the instability, but it has remained unwilling to side against the military lest it undermine its three primary interests: to maintain regional stability, protect Chinese people in Myanmar, and implement the multibillion-dollar China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. In a microcosm of this careful balancing act, Chinese state media initially labeled the coup a “major cabinet reshuffle.”

Fundamentally, instability puts China’s interests at risk.

Fundamentally, instability puts China’s interests at risk. Past EAO-Tatmadaw conflicts have killed Chinese citizens and sparked refugee flows. Many of the protesters blame China for supporting the military coup and have targeted Chinese investments. According to a leaked internal report, Chinese officials admonished the Tatmadaw to adopt extra efforts to protect Chinese investments. Reports emerged in early April that China had moved People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces to the border, ostensibly to protect its infrastructure in the region but suggesting the possibility of a more direct military intervention.

Beijing’s current stance of grudging acceptance of the coup could shift in the event of serious destabilization. Although China typically avoids international interventions, the PLA’s 2015 Yemen evacuation, reports that China actively considered deploying a drone to assassinate a Myanmar drug trafficker in 2013, and its increasing involvement in peacekeeping all demonstrate growing confidence in acting to defend its interests abroad.

As China’s permanent representative to the United Nations indicated last week, despite its growing concerns, Beijing still desires that the situation resolve itself and rejects international interference at this time. Nevertheless, given China’s intimate history with the country, a direct PLA intervention in Myanmar is somewhat plausible in the event of civil war—but it’s unclear just whose side it would come in on.

With the possibility of more human rights abuses and political violence a near-certainty, and a destabilizing civil war looming, it is natural for policymakers to look for options. Yet the harsh truth is that the options available to outside actors simply lack the impact needed to alter the Tatmadaw’s internal calculus. While the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, and New Zealand have all initiated new sanctions, evidence suggests that the Tatmadaw accepts the risk of a long-term sanctions regime. Furthermore, key U.S. allies Japan and Australia have displayed a reluctance to impose sanctions of their own. Beyond that, military intervention from the United States is likely out of the question after the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. The EAOs themselves have troubling human rights records, and supporting them with arms would likely only aggravate the violence.

China and ASEAN have both attempted to deploy diplomacy to reach some sort of accommodation between the Tatmadaw and NLD, but the coup leadership has demonstrated little regard for international concerns. Given the scale of the violence so far, it is hard to imagine that the Tatmadaw will suddenly decide to concede. For now, the United States and like-minded allies can focus on humanitarian aid and keeping up the pressure, albeit without much hope for success.

Civil war is not inevitable, but the possibility is rising. Despite the Tatmadaw’s efforts to drive a wedge between the EAOs and CRPH, coordination between those groups would represent a dire threat to the military’s continued power. Myanmar’s military knows that it has crossed the Rubicon, and it is likely to do everything to stay in power. The possibility of civil war, and with it catastrophe for the people of Myanmar and regional stability, thus seems to be in the cards.

Lucas Myers is the Program Associate at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program where he administers the Wilson China Fellowship.

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