Is Myanmar on the verge of civil war?

It’s been two months since the junta in Myanmar, the Tatmadaw, arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and protesters took to the streets demanding the release of the country’s democratically elected leaders.    

Since then the situation has worsened week by week. On Armed Forces Day, Saturday 27th March, 114 protesters were killed, after being warned they risked being shot “in the head and back” if they took to the streets. Despite the bloodshed, and the death toll passing 500, protesters refuse to be silenced. In the past week the country’s ethnic armed groups have declared they will launch a ‘Spring Revolution’ supporting the protestors. A threat that would ultimately lead the country into a violent civil war.   

Myanmar’s Armed Ethnic Organiations (AEOs), of which there are approximately two dozen, control large areas of the country’s border regions. Many protesters and protest leaders are now seeking refuge in these areas to avoid arrest by security forces.

An official from the Karen National Union (KNU), an AEO which has been in conflict with the Myanmar army for decades, reported that a thousand protestors were sheltering in their territory. Padoh Saw Taw Nee, the KNU’s head of foreign affairs, said the group would continue its position of “strongly supporting people’s movement against military coup”. 

The Karen National Union and five of Myanmar’s largest AEOs have openly condemned the coup and declared support for the resistance. These AEOs, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Arakan Army (AA) and the Shan State Army (SSA) would represent a formidable force if they coordinated their resistance towards the Tatmawda.

Last week, the KNU overran an army base in eastern Kayin state, killing and capturing Myanmar soldiers. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have also stepped up attacks on security forces. KIA forces attacked four police battalions and they have launched offences to disrupt the military’s supply routes.

In the past week, three armed groups formed the Three Brotherhood Alliance, an armed alliance against the junta. The alliance released a statement calling for a Spring Revolution. The Three Brotherhood Alliance, which includes the Arakan Army (AA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), said it would join protesters if the junta refused to cease its attacks on civilians.   

An Arakan Army (AA) spokesman, Khine Thu Khahe, made a statement expressing the support of ethnic groups, “The oppressed ethnic people as a whole will continue to fight for their freedom from oppression.” The Arakan Army (AA) is based in the Western state of Rakhine, home to the Rohingya, and are one of the AEOs the Junta has accused China of supporting with weaponry.

The Shan State Army, also confirmed their opposition to the military crackdown. General Yawd Serk, commander in chief of SSA, told Sky News, “If the Burmese army is going to continue to use their weapons and kill peaceful protestors, the ethnic groups are not going to sit back and do nothing,” adding “The ethnic armed groups now have a similar enemy and we need to join hands and hurt those that are hurting the people.” 

One Ethnic group which is yet to announce its position in Myanmar’s looming civil war is the United Wa State Army (UWSA). United Wa State Army is Myanmar’s largest, and most powerful AEO, supported by China, and believed to be a supplier of Chinese arms to other AEOs in the country.  The group is over 20,000 strong and has some advanced weaponry including surface-to-air missiles and Russian-made military helicopters. The Wa Army’s sophisticated weaponry would pose a genuine threat to the Myanmar military.

However, the United Wa State Army are unlikely to join the resistance without China’s knowledge. Beijing’s relationship with the Tatmadaw is complicated. The military junta has often been an unreliable partner, and their governing of the country has done nothing to improve the country economically. Ports and industrial zones which Beijing has invested billions of dollars in are performing well below expectations. If Myanmar does enter a civil war, the United Wa State Army would probably take its time before entering any alliances. Ultimately joining the side which will lead the country in the future.

According to the intelligence company Janes, the total strength of Myanmar’s AEOs is around 75,000. “If the Kachin, Karen, Shan and maybe Rakhine insurgents were to engage in widespread military operations, however loosely coordinated, and at the same time there is an increase in violence in the heartlands, the Tatmadaw would face a huge problem,” explained Anthony Davis, a security analyst with Janes.

The one challenge the AEO’s will need to overcome is decades of distrust resulting from the Tatmadaw’s successful “divide and defeat” strategy.  Inter-ethnic fighting would create a dangerously unstable situation across the country, and already fighting between Shan and Ta’ang armed groups has risen since the coup, with 18 RCSS soldiers killed in February.

Furthermore, some groups, in particular the Arakan National Party (ANP), completely mistrust Aung San Suu Kyi’s party and have not forgiven the NLD for ignoring the tragedies inflicted on the people of Rakhine.  

Despite the challenges of unifying the ethic groups against the military, civilian law makers have established the Committee Representing Pyithu Hluttaw (CRPH) and are working with ethnic groups on establishing a National Unity Government to contest the junta’s legitimacy. The CRPH is promising key roles for ethnic leaders, and working with several ethnic groups on writing a new interim constitution. The 2008 constitution which guaranteed the military 25 percent of seats in parliament, was deeply unpopular among all of the ethnic groups, the majority of whom wish to establish a federalist system, which would give them greater political power.

The national unity government are also hoping to form a federal army.  Dr. Sasa, a CRHP spokesperson, told Bloomberg last week, that the creation of a Federal Union Army was being supported by numerous enthic groups.

If the Federal Union Army becomes a reality, it would be a formidable force against the Tatmadaw and could prompt officers in the security forces to desert. Officials on the India border have already confirmed a number of police officers from Myanmar seeking refuge.

The days ahead will determine which direction Myanmar is headed. The military is more unpopular than ever. The country’s urban population and the ethnic groups across the country realise that if this moment is not seized the prospect of living free from the tyranny of the Tatmadaw will never materialise. A civil war will be violent and bloody, but tragically looks like the only way the country will ever escape the corruption, cruelty and mismanagement of the junta.

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