No End in Sight: The Continuing Conflict in Myanmar Two Years After Military Coup

Myanmar is still in the midst of a protracted low-intensity conflict that could stretch on for years without any side being able to assert nation-wide control, possibly leaving in its wake a highly fractured, fragmented and balkanised polity.

This is the first of two-part article series on conditions in Myanmar. Read the second part here.

February 1, 2023 marked the second anniversary of the military ‘coup’ in Myanmar that aborted the return of the National League of Democracy (NLD) for its second term of government after its landslide victory in the November 2020 elections (following the first in 2015) under the military-drafted 2008 constitution.

In the immediate aftermath of the coup, the military detained, arrested and eventually sentenced President Win Myint, State Counsellor and NLD leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition figures to long terms in prison on flimsy charges, declared a one-year state of emergency, and constituted a State Administration Council (SAC) to run the day-to-day affairs of the country. Together with subsequent developments, they have effectively reversed the democratic ‘transition’ initiated by Sr. Gen. Than Shwe, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s politically more astute predecessor, through his seven-stage ‘road map’ towards a ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’ that was supposedly ‘fulfilled’ with elections that brought the reformist, military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to power in Myanmar in 2010.

Despite the fierce use of force first against peaceful protestors and a widespread Civil Disobedience Movement, started by government doctors in Yangon, and then against spontaneously proliferated new ‘People’s Defence Forces’ (PDFs) in Bamar and ethnic areas and several long-standing ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), the military has not been able to stabilise the situation.

The violence has resulted in close to 3,000 deaths documented by the Association for the Assistance of Political Prisoners (AAPP, and up to 30,000 according to other estimates), thousands if not tens of thousands arrested, four judicial executions (including a member of parliament), and an estimated million and a half displaced in Myanmar and outside (including an estimated 50,000 refugees in India) as a result of brute repression, intimidation by security forces and regime-affiliated vigilante groups, arson, artillery, air power and scorched earth policies on the part of the military that has elicited a widespread armed resistance and retaliation on the part of the citizenry.

Also read: On the First Anniversary of Myanmar’s Military Coup, Some Sober Reflections

It is for all practical purposes, a war by the Tatmadaw (as the Myanmar military as the vanguards of Burma’s independence was respectfully called) on its own people uncluttered by labels of ‘majoritarian’, sectarian, ethnic, religious, minority, ‘left’, ‘right’ or ‘communist’, and conversely, a ‘people’s war’ using largely guerilla tactics against the Tatmadaw. Even those EAOs, which have been kept out of the conflict for tactical or political reasons, have been at odds with the Tatmadaw historically and not responded to peace overtures by the latter.

In response to the coup, the political opposition has formed a National Unity Government (NUG) underpinned by a more broad-based National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), a committee of ousted elected parliamentarians, the Committee Representing the Pyidaunsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a Charter for a Federal Democratic Union, and a Defence Ministry and military ‘high command’, and announced a ‘defensive war’ against the military (that has at times turned offensive targeting of government officials and collaborators).

The regime has labelled the NUG as a ‘terrorist’ organisation, but the ‘people’s war’ is more than just a struggle for democracy or a federal union, or a civil war. It is more appropriately now a violent struggle for freedom (although not widely understood as one), and arguably a culmination of Burma’s independence movement that remained stunted and appropriated by the Tatmadaw and never really evolved into a mass movement as it did in India.

During a protest in Myanmar against Military Coup in February 2021. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Though one may not know this from the Indian media, Myanmar is currently in the midst of a protracted low intensity conflict that (like Iraq, Libya, Syria or Afghanistan) could stretch on for years without any side being able to assert nation-wide control or authority, possibly leaving in its wake a highly fractured, fragmented and balkanised polity: a military government operating out of Nay Pyi Taw, Yangon, Mandalay, state capitals and garrison centres using superior force but unable to control the rest and increasingly prone to attacks, sabotage and de-legitimization within; a patchwork of ethnic armed organisations with large areas under their control or contested by the Myanmar Army; and local ‘peoples’ defence forces and governments, or even small ‘de facto’ self-governed enclaves or ‘statelets’ with greater or lesser capacity to provide security or governance in the Bamar heartland (as it has been through much of its history outside its three periods of empire under the Bagan dynasty, the Toungoo and Konbaung) that could take years, if not decades, to merge within a single national authority, whether civilian or military, government or opposition, under the right conditions in the territory that we know today as Myanmar.

Yet, side by side with this breakdown of authority and threat to the unity and integrity of Myanmar, there is a new-found empathy and solidarity among the victims of military rule, the ethnic minorities, the Bamar majority especially youth, and even the hapless Rohingya; and sharpening and clarification of fault-lines that have clouded Myanmar’s journey to nation-hood since the advent of the British, that provides a glimmer of hope that the idea of a federal (or confederal), democratic ‘Union’ of Burma is alive and could, under the right conditions, constitute the basis of a new Myanmar.

Currently, neither side has the power to decisively overpower the other. The opposition has the numbers but not the forces, weapons and unified military leadership to overthrow the Tatmadaw, while the army has the brute force to intimidate civilians, burn villages, and attack, shell and bomb resistance strongholds. On balance, it is the People Defence Forces (PDFs) and EAOs that are gaining ground, not the military, and power is subtly shifting to the more powerful EAOs. According to a leaked State Administrative Committee (SAC) document, 12 of the 14 provinces of Myanmar suffered nearly 18,000 attacks by opposition forces since 2021, 220 out of 330 townships in Myanmar are heavily contested and 132 highly insecure and in need of reinforcement.

Other reports suggest that only 30 of the Myanmar Army’s 230-plus infantry battalions of a 120,000-man army are believed to enjoy effective dominance. Recruitment is falling, and there have been hundreds of defections and desertions (although they are reported to be declining), and none senior enough to reveal any foment or split in the Army itself. Nevertheless, according to various estimates, over 50% of Myanmar territory is under the control of diverse resistance or opposition forces, going up to anywhere between 70-80% in some states like Chin state bordering India.

As if in tacit recognition of the Myanmar Army’s failure to regain control and hold planned elections in August 2023, the military-dominated National Defence and Security Council of Myanmar announced a further six-month extension of emergency (beyond the ‘normal’ two six-month extensions) on January 31 on the eve of the second anniversary of the coup, followed by the declaration of Martial Law in 37 townships in four ‘Regions’ marking largely ethnic Bamar provinces (Sagaing, Magwey, Bago and Thanintharyi), and four ‘States’ inhabited predominantly by ethnic minority groups (Chin, Kayah, Kayin and Mon), in addition to six townships (five in Yangon and one in Chin state) declared earlier.

Also read: A Year After Myanmar’s Coup, Families of Detainees Search for Answers

Of these, Sagaing and Chin state, and Rakhine, which is outside this list but strongly contested by the Arakan Army, are adjacent to India’s North East. Martial law combines all security, administrative, executive and judicial authority in the hands of regional military commanders and empowers them to take summary life and death decisions without legal assistance to the accused or appeal against rulings, with only the death sentence to be approved by the military high command. They set the stage for even more egregious violations of human rights and potential war crimes on the part of the military.

International and Indian response

Yet, despite a recent December 2022 United National Security Council Resolution 2669 (its first on Myanmar since 1948 on which Russia, China and India abstained), Myanmar remains in the penumbra of international and domestic media and political attention left largely to the ASEAN of which Myanmar is a member and its April 21, 2021 five-point consensus, to resolve.

This may be partly explained by developments in Afghanistan, Ukraine and East Asia where the US and the West have been more deeply involved or the protagonists have been geo-political rivals like Russia and China, or even a retrenchment in the US and Western commitment to democracy worldwide except in areas of core strategic concern against which Myanmar is so far, a distraction.

But that does not explain the near silence and pro-forma expressions of concern by Indian government representatives and spokespersons to what is happening in Myanmar both in terms of violence, suffering, displacement and lives lost, and the security, stability and future of a country of strategic importance to India in its immediate eastern neighborhood sharing a sensitive 1,600 km border across four North Eastern states and a similar length with Yunnan province of China. It is also a lynchpin of India’s ‘Look East’ and ‘Act East policies’ for which successive Indian governments have taken strategic and development initiatives since the turn of the millennium, including major projects like the Trilateral Highway and Kaladan Multimodal project, to regain its historical and civilisational influence that it lost over centuries especially during the 50-year period of military rule in Burma since the 1960s.

During a protest in Myanmar against military coup. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Nor does it explain the lack of sympathy on the part of the Union and concerned state governments other than Mizoram towards Myanmar refugees fleeing violence and persecution who are being rounded up and detained in hastily converted detention camps against local sentiments as ‘illegal migrants’ owing to a lack of a definition of a refugee, or a formal refugee law or being a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees and its Protocols.

Also read: Ground Report: Myanmar Refugees in Mizoram Camps Are a Picture of Resilience

Given conditions in Myanmar, typically, the refugees do not have travel papers or visas and therefore ipso facto liable for immigration violations. Unlike India’s other neighbours, even Pakistan, they are not covered by any police reporting mechanism or a Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) near their point of entry where they can report on arrival. Nor is there a local office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees where they can apply for refugee status. They remain undocumented and fugitive. Lacking papers, they cannot even travel to state capitals or Delhi to report or register.

In effect, the refugees fall in the cracks between a non-existent refugee law, and the Foreigners and Citizenship Acts where they cannot even count on the most basic human rights (facing anomalies like juveniles under indefinite detention and denial of birth certificates for new-borns) because of lack of immigration, refugee or citizenship status.

Yet, none of these legal obstacles have come in the way in the past in dealing with Tibetan refugees, East Pakistanis (later Bangladeshis) and Sri Lankan Tamils when they faced persecution, indicating, if there is any doubt, that these are essentially political decisions. Fortunately, border security, police, para-military and judicial authorities on the ground have been restrained in their approach to the refugees while watchful of illegal activities like arms or drug smuggling (to which a senior Assam Rifles Commander and family in Manipur tragically lost their lives in an ambush). Nevertheless, concerns about clarity on law, burden sharing by the centre and signs of refugee fatigue remain.

Some of this ‘estrangement’ can be attributed to a reaction to colonial rule in Myanmar in which Indians were an instrument, and psychological amnesia that has afflicted India-Myanmar relations as a result of insular military rule in Myanmar since the 1960s until 2010 when a large Indian community was forced out by xenophobic policies (and since faded away), and the two countries virtually fell off each other’s neighbourhood maps.

But it has also to do with how our priorities and reflexes as a nation have changed from one that valued freedoms that we ourselves fought for, to one that has greater faith in authoritarianism than democratic politics to preserve its ‘national’, security and other interests in the neighbourhood in the name of ‘realism’, justifying ties with the junta but not the NUG.

Ironically, this change can be traced to the failure of pro-freedom policies pursued in the 1980s when India supported both the pro-democratic agitation in Burma and the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka, but has become more marked recently.

Unlike in the 1960s and 1980s, when turmoil in Myanmar was closely reported in the Indian official and private media and sustained by an expatriate Indian community and Burmese exiles, daily news of Myanmar is now the preserve of anxious Myanmar watchers and social media followers. There is little public awareness let alone understanding of events in Myanmar. Even the mainstream strategic observers seem stuck in a post-1990s policy correction when the military was able to reassert its authority against democratic forces by use of force, entering mutually beneficial cease-fires with ethnic armed organisations brokered by the Chinese and appealing to Bamar-Buddhist nationalism, corralling the Indian government to temper its pro-democracy stance to deal with the Generals to address its security needs.

Over time, it also led to a misplaced faith in the Myanmar Army as the best guarantor of India’s security interests vis-à-vis both IIGs and China. This faith is inexplicable. While Myanmar has acted against IIGs from time to time at India’s request, and India and Myanmar also have separate agreements on ‘coordinated patrolling’ on the land and maritime borders, it has more often played ducks and drakes with IIGs in Myanmar, harbouring and maintaining a cozy relationship with them over decades ostensibly on ‘humanitarian’ grounds and using them to settle internal scores when opportune, while objecting to any corresponding gesture to Myanmar refugees or insurgents on India’s part.

Unlike Bhutan and Bangladesh which flushed out Indian insurgents on their soil as friendly gestures, India’s approach to IIGs in Myanmar has been more intelligence-based, and Myanmar’s approach has been to cooperate, acquiesce, leak information or rebuff Indian requests as it has suited them. It is a transactional relationship, not one which India needs to be beholden to the Tatmadaw for, and one that India too could play but apparently does not.

India has used the Indian Armed Forces as a tool of diplomacy to build trust and confidence between the two Armed Forces quite effectively over the last 25 years to the extent that the foreign secretary and chief of army staff could undertake a joint visit to Nay Pyi Taw towards the end of the term of the NLD government. But too much reliance on the military relationship may now be hindering Indian diplomacy from clearly seeing the reality in Myanmar. It can still be used judiciously to steer Myanmar to a more constructive path for which a new approach is needed.

Gautam Mukhopadhaya is a former Indian ambassador to Myanmar.

Edited by Vikram Mukka.