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Contemporary Ethnic Conflict in Myanmar

Abstract: Myanmar is experiencing heightened civil conflict following the military coup of February 2021. This conflict is between the military junta government, and a broad coalition of democratic forces hoping to reinstate a 2011 civilian government. Outside of this conflict, Rohingya Muslims have faced significant discrimination and duress from both the military junta and the democratic civilian government. My goal for this essay is to explain briefly this multidimensional conflict and bring readers up to speed with current developments in the ongoing conflict. I will do this by explaining the demographics of the country, history, contemporary conflict, and current events.


Demographics and Geography

Myanmar is a coastal country in Southeast Asia. It is neighbored by Bangladesh to the west, Laos and Thailand to the east, Malaysia to the south, and China to the north. Myanmar rests on the eastern side of the Bay of Bengal. The CIA World Factbook states that the country hosts over 130 religious and ethnic groups, with Burman comprising 68% of the population, and the remaining ethnic identities making up the remaining 32%. Burmans are a majority in south and central Myanmar, typically around the urban regions of Mandalay and the capital, Yangon. Minority ethnic groups live in regions surrounding Burman majority states, creating a horseshoe shape. [1]


Before moving on to the history of the region, most people are curious as to why Myanmar is also referred to as Burma. Kim Tong-Hung and Hyung-Jin Kim from The Associated Press explain that before 1989, the country was named Burma due to the country being majority Burman. In 1989, the junta changed the name to try and appeal to the international community. They claimed that Myanmar was more inclusive of the ethnic minorities within the country. [2]


This is ironic considering that the junta had engaged in severe heavy-handed oppression of these ethnic groups, and was in a permanent state of war with ethnic-based insurgents. For this paper, I will be referring to the country as Myanmar. It is important to note that many including the US, the opposition government of the junta, and many citizens of Myanmar still refer to the country as Burma in defiance of the junta’s PR attempt. [3]


History

I will use Encyclopedia Britannica to summarize the first 60 years of Myanmar’s history. Myanmar was a British colony before World War 2. In 1936 a student-led independence movement led by Thankin Nu (Later U Nu) and Aung San. The word “Thankin” means master, and is how Burmese subjects were required to address the British. Thankin became an ironic moniker for resistance movements against British colonialism in Myanmar. [4]


When the war started in 1939, Burmese leadership remained neutral in hopes of leveraging an independence deal for siding with the Allies. British leadership issued a warrant for Aung San, who was a leader of the independence movement. He escaped to China where he levied deals from multiple groups. The Japanese had initially promised independence for Myanmar and sent their military there in December of 1941. Aung San had formed a Burma independence army to support the Japanese invasion, but his forces had been disbanded by the Japanese government. In 1943, Japanese forces refused to make Burma an independent country, and Aung San contacted allied leadership in hopes of changing sides in the war. A new coalition was formed called the Anti-Fascist Peoples Freedom League (AFPFL). [5]


In 1948, Burma had become independent from British rule. By this point, parts of the AFPFL began to splinter, and extreme communists and conservatives went into opposition of the transition government. [6] U Nu, Aung San, and other AFPFL leaders became the new heads of state and proceeded to draft a new constitution. 


The 1947 constitution had human rights guarantees and recognized states named after dominant ethnic groups within them. The document outlined multiparty elections, and guaranteed rights to education, employment, healthcare, and social security. Following bouts of violence against the country's new leaders, Aung San and many in his cabinet were assassinated before the document went into effect. Despite the outlined policies, ethnic and communist insurrections occurred throughout the late ’40s and into the ‘50s. [7]


 By 1958, the AFPFL was heavily divided, and the Burmese military was invited to establish a new transitional government amid fears that they would begin a coup. The military established a timeline for elections, and in 1960, the AFPFL leadership won. In 1962, the military launched a coup and transformed the state into an independent socialist country. [8]


Many regard 1962 as the year Myanmar became a pariah state plagued by junta rule and a stark backtrack of progress in the years prior. Janelle M. Diller expands on this idea detailing how Ne Win, the military ruler, introduced “extreme isolationism” and rejected foreign investments. The nationalization of trade and business, another reason why the military wanted to depose the transitional government, is a policy the military themselves implemented after the coup. [9] The BBC’s country profile describes Myanmar as a “pariah state” that oppressed its citizens and committed grave human rights abuses, attracting international condemnation and sanctions. [10]


The Council on Foreign Relations details that since 1962, the government had engaged in scorched earth tactics against ethnically armed organizations, with much of the fighting centered around natural resources. Much of this conflict occurred in border areas with the central government combating the Karen National Liberation Army, the Kachin Independence Army, and the Shan State Army. CFR states that the cause of much of this conflict is the systematic discrimination of ethnic groups, and the government’s failure to provide economic opportunities and develop minority regions. [11]


In 1974, the military government created a new constitution. Council on Foreign Relations says that this constitution was built “on an isolationist foreign policy and a socialist economic program that nationalized Burma’s major enterprises.” They further explain that the economic situation degraded until the country came to the brink of revolution. [12] Encyclopedia Brittanica says that the military government attempted to reverse many of the policies detailed in the constitution. Some key policy changes were the liberalization of trade and the reception of foreign aid. Some of the most important of which was passed in 1987, following trade deficits and rapidly increasing debt payments. The expansion of ethnic insurgencies in the north continued throughout the junta's reign. The junta did attempt to combat this by offering full amnesty to all political insurgents. Most chose to continue fighting regardless. [13]


Unrest in 1988 boiled over as the military government instituted a brutal crackdown on protesters. Ne Win, who had led the military government since 1962 resigned, and a new military government stepped into power. [14] This new government would be named the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). The SLORC is the junta that changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar, and engaged in reforms meant to increase palatability to an international audience. They implemented reforms not yet passed by the previous junta, and engaged in revising the 1974 constitution. [15]


One of the largest changes was the scheduling of elections in May 1990. Although these elections were multiparty, there were two main competitors. The National Unity Party, which was a successor to previous junta administrations, and the National League for Democracy (NLD) which was an opposition party to the government. The NLD won ⅘ of the seats, yet the SLORC would not accept the legislature to take office. The military government put NLD leaders under house arrest, and worldwide condemnation was placed on the military Junta for both the 1988 crackdown, and the denial of the 1990 election. One of the Junta’s leaders, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San, received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and became the de facto head of the NLD movement. [16]


The rest of the 1990s were characterized by the same unrest plaguing the country in years prior. The SLORC created a new convention to form another constitution, but it failed. It wouldn’t be until 2007 that a new constitution would be created. The SLORC created business wings, and created a civilian organization meant to increase its support. It also attempted to sign ceasefires with ethnic insurgent groups and establish control over Myanmar's borders. In 2008, a new constitution was ratified which ensured that a number of government positions would be held by the military. Although antidemocratic in nature, elections were scheduled for 2010, leading to a SLORC sister party victory. This election saw the transition to a civilian government, and in 2015, the opposition party NLD claimed a majority of seats in the government, representing a step away from military-aligned parties holding power. [17]


Contemporary conflict and the Rohingya

In 2017, violence against a Muslim minority group named the Rohingya reached another tipping point, resulting in a mass exodus and a UN report detailing genocidal intent on behalf of the military, and civilian government. The Council on Foreign Relations details that there are roughly 1 million Rohingya in Myanmar, but are not recognized as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups. Muslims in general, but Rohingya in particular face heightened discrimination from both the government and civilian nationalists. [18]

conflict in myanmar


The Rohingya people trace their ancestry back to the Arakan kingdom in the western state of Myanmar. The state is now named the Rakhine State after the majority Rakhine ethnicity living there. This is contested by the government and Buddhist nationalists who claim that Rohingya are Bengalese migrants. In 2014, the Myanmar government attempted to perform a census on everyone living in Myanmar. Originally, Rohingya were supposed to identify as their ethnicity, but Buddist nationals had threatened to boycott the census unless they were made to identify as Bengalis instead. Rohingya had their rights to vote suspended in 2015, as their identification cards no longer provided the right to vote. [19]


The Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission on Myanmar found “consistent patterns of serious human rights violations and abuses in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan States, in addition to serious violations of international humanitarian law. These are principally committed by the Myanmar security forces, particularly the military.” The Human Rights Council found that the means for these abuses is a lack of legal status. They found that a series of new laws and constitution changes have resulted in an exclusionary environment where Rohingya have become stateless and arbitrarily deprived of nationality. This is reinforced by exclusionary rhetoric and the national concept of national race established and reinforced under numerous juntas. [20]


The UN Human Rights Council argues that government portrayals of mutual violence since 2012 are misleading, as long campaigns of dehumanization had occurred for years before that point. Paragraph 25 of the report details:


 A campaign of hate and dehumanization of the Rohingya had been under way for months, and escalated after 8 June 2012, led by the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), various Rakhine organizations, radical Buddhist monk organizations, and several officials and influential figures. It was spread through anti-Rohingya or anti-Muslim publications, public statements, rallies and the boycott of Muslim shops. The Rohingya were labelled “illegal immigrants” and “terrorists”, and portrayed as an existential threat that might “swallow other races” with their “incontrollable birth rates”. In November 2012, the RNDP, in Toe Thet Yay, an official publication, cited Hitler, arguing that “inhuman acts” were sometimes necessary to “maintain a race.” [21]


The UN report further details that in August 2017, an attack from a Rohingya ethnic militia on military bases in Rakhine state sparked “immediate, brutal, and grossly disproportionate” responses from the government. By 2018, over 700,000 Rohingya had fled to Bangladesh. UN interviews with victims provided testimony of murder, arson, sexual violence, and sexual slavery. Sattelite imagery of the area found widespread and systematic destruction of villages and buildings. [22] It is important to note that this violence occurred under an NLD civilian government, and Noble Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi faced widespread international criticism as she defended the military’s actions in a U.N. International Criminal Court case in 2019. [23]


The 2021 Coup

CFR’s account of the 2021 coup is that the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development party suffered another loss in the 2020 elections. Following this, the military put NLD leaders and activists under house arrest and charged them with corruption and various crimes. Following the coup, massive nationwide protests erupted, and ousted NLD leaders created a shadow opposition government named the National Unity Government (NUG). The conflict started in September of 2021 following a call to action from the NUG. By 2022, conflict between the People’s Defense Force and the military was occurring in most of the country. This violence has caused massive refugee migrations to surrounding countries. [24]


The People’s Defense Force is an umbrella term for three types of armed groups. The People’s Defense Forces are the military body of the National Unity Government. Ethnic armed organizations, many of which predate the NUG, are also considered part of this term. Local Defense Forces and Peoples Defense Teams are both groups of militias that comprise the other two types of armed groups supporting the NUG. Many of these groups are armed with small arms and makeshift weapons. Very few are armed with heavy armaments. [25] The NUG’s military size is often contested, with many groups claiming anywhere between 150,000 and 400,000 members fighting for the NUG, including ethnic armed organizations. [26]


Current Issues: A Voice of America article alleges that Myanmar’s opposition government is currently suffering internal divisions. VOA performed many interviews with numerous officials within the NUG. They found that many complain about a lack of central strategy, goals, and control of the military. The People’s Defense Force, a name describing a broad network of organized militaries, regional militias, and Ethnic armed organizations has different goals regarding the end of the conflict. [27]


Although experts claim that the PDF and ethnic armies have control over 52% of the land, their actual ability to govern is heavily contested. Michael Martin, who works for the Center for International and Strategic Studies, says that the NUG lacks resources and governing ability, and relies on ethnic armies to set up government structures. Martin also says that the NUG will frequently tell overseas allies that it does not have the resources to govern. [28]


VOA has also reported on the NUG’s attempt to rectify the treatment of Rohingya during the NLD’s rule. Dr. Win Myat Aye, who served as a minister in the NLD and the NUG shadow government, has since apologized for the treatment of Rohingya under the NLD government. Though he previously supported the military's efforts, he is now saying that he was misguided, and wants to work with the Rohingya to combat the military government. VOA’s interviews with Rohingya leaders indicate that they are appreciative of this turn and that this is the first step in the right direction. [29]


Conclusion

Myanmar is stuck in a cycle of military junta rule, followed by a transition government with a new constitution, followed by another military coup. 2015 was cause for optimism, but the military seems unable to refrain from assuming complete control over the country. Although there is much public support for the NUG, it seems as if conflict will continue well into the future. 


Endnotes

[1] Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed December 18, 2023. https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/burma/.


[2] Tong-Hyung, Kim, and Hyng-Jin Kim. “Myanmar, Burma and Why the Different Names Matter.” AP News, May 15, 2023. https://apnews.com/article/myanmar-burma-different-names-explained-8af64e33cf89c565b074eec9cbe22b72.


[3] Ibid.


[4] Aung-Thwin, M. Arthur , Aung, . Maung Htin and Steinberg, . David I.. "Myanmar." Encyclopedia Britannica, December 18, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/place/Myanmar.


[5] Ibid.


[6] Ibid.


[7] Diller, Janelle M. “Constitutional Reform in a Repressive State: The Case of Burma.” Asian Survey 33, no. 4 (1993): 393–407. https://doi.org/10.2307/2645105.


[8] Aung-Thwin, M. Arthur , Aung, . Maung Htin and Steinberg, . David I.. "Myanmar." Encyclopedia Britannica, December 18, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/place/Myanmar.


[9] Diller, Janelle M. “Constitutional Reform in a Repressive State: The Case of Burma.” Asian Survey 33, no. 4 (1993): 393–407. https://doi.org/10.2307/2645105.


[10] “Myanmar Country Profile.” BBC News, May 26, 2023. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-12990563.


[11] Maizland, Lindsay. “Myanmar’s Troubled History: Coups, Military Rule, and Ethnic Conflict.” Council on Foreign Relations, January 31, 2022. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/myanmar-history-coup-military-rule-ethnic-conflict-rohingya.


[12] Ibid.


[13] Aung-Thwin, M. Arthur , Aung, . Maung Htin and Steinberg, . David I.. "Myanmar." Encyclopedia Britannica, December 18, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/place/Myanmar.


[14] Maizland, Lindsay. “Myanmar’s Troubled History: Coups, Military Rule, and Ethnic Conflict.” Council on Foreign Relations, January 31, 2022. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/myanmar-history-coup-military-rule-ethnic-conflict-rohingya.


[15] Aung-Thwin, M. Arthur , Aung, . Maung Htin and Steinberg, . David I.. "Myanmar." Encyclopedia Britannica, December 18, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/place/Myanmar.


[16] Ibid.


[17] Ibid.


[18] Maizland, Lindsay, and Eleanor Albert. “What Forces Are Fueling Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis?” Council on Foreign Relations, January 23, 2020. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/rohingya-crisis.


[19] Ibid


[20] ‘Report of the Detailed Findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar’, September 2018, 444 p. : http://digitallibrary.un.org/record/1643079.


[21] Ibid.


[22] Ibid.


[23] “‘a Spectacular Fall from Grace’: Aung San Suu Kyi Denies Burmese Genocide of Rohingya at the Hague.” Democracy Now!, December 17, 2019. https://www.democracynow.org/2019/12/17/aung_san_suu_kyi_burma_rohingya.


[24] Maizland, Lindsay. “Myanmar’s Troubled History: Coups, Military Rule, and Ethnic Conflict.” Council on Foreign Relations, January 31, 2022. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/myanmar-history-coup-military-rule-ethnic-conflict-rohingya.


[25] Myo Hein, Yi. “Understanding the People’s Defense Forces in Myanmar.” United States Institute of Peace, May 4, 2023. https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/11/understanding-peoples-defense-forces-myanmar.


[26] Hunt, Luke. “Myanmar’s Opposition Riven by Internal Divisions.” Voice of America, September 17, 2023. https://www.voanews.com/a/myanmar-s-opposition-riven-by-internal-divisions-/7271753.html.


[27] Ibid.


[28] Ibid.


[29] Naing, Ingyin. “Myanmar Shadow Government Official Apologizes to Rohingya.” Voice of America, August 18, 2023. https://www.voanews.com/a/myanmar-shadow-government-official-apologizes-to-rohingya/7230216.html.




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