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Geopolitics & Security

Myanmar Conflict: Spiralling Crisis Requires Renewed Global Focus


Paper23rd February 2024


Chapter 1

Executive Summary

Don’t forget Myanmar. As events in the Middle East lead news headlines and the war in Ukraine approaches its second anniversary with no end in sight, the potential for timely interventions elsewhere in the world risks dropping out of view. In Myanmar, there may be an opportunity to foster change for the better. As the conflict enters a critical phase, a global focus on mediation has a better chance of succeeding. A coordinated effort by the wider international community could improve outcomes, benefitting both Myanmar and its neighbours. Foreign policy and diplomacy must operate with a wide lens.

In a world in which media cycles are short-lived and policymakers are focused on highly visible wars in the Middle East, Ukraine and elsewhere, escalating violence in Myanmar has drawn less attention. Three years on from the military coup, there are no signs of a solution to the conflict between the junta-led State Administration Council (SAC) and its opponents, pushing the country further into a political, economic and security impasse.

Fighting between the military-installed government and an armed insurgency that opposes the junta escalated in October 2023, causing civilian deaths and large-scale displacement. The various ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) – along with the People’s Defence Forces (PDF), the insurgent arm of the anti-junta National Unity Government – have shown more alignment than ever in their campaign against the military-installed government. In recent months, the EAOs have conducted operations across two-thirds of Myanmar and claim to have taken well over 100 military locations.

The military, which has suffered significant losses, has vowed to crush the opposition, and has retaliated with artillery and air strikes. A ceasefire negotiated by China was short-lived. Meanwhile, in January the junta’s National Defence and Security Council extended the state of emergency for another six months. This made the elections promised by coup leaders after they overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains in jail, an even more distant prospect.

The displacement rate in Myanmar is now at a record level; 2.6 million people had been displaced by the end of 2023, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Since fighting escalated in October 2023, more than 660,000 people have been forced to flee their homes to escape air and artillery strikes, executions, torture and detention.[_] The humanitarian situation is also approaching crisis point, with an estimated 18.6 million people needing assistance.[_] The military has been restricting the delivery of humanitarian aid and creating bureaucratic hurdles for organisations trying to reach those in need.

Security concerns have spread to neighbouring states. Bangladesh has placed its forces on high alert along its frontier with Myanmar's restive Rakhine state, while India has suspended the Free Movement Regime with Myanmar, citing security concerns.[_] Thailand is another “frontline” state in the conflict, sharing a 2,400km border and serving as an acknowledged transmission point for humanitarian assistance.

Since the coup in 2021 the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on the military and on individuals and entities associated with the junta. The British government announced its latest sanctions – on military units and enterprises involved in "serious human rights violations" and the repression of civilians – on 1 February.

However, the international community needs to take a concerted approach to tightening the sanctions regime, while also seeking actionable solutions with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the United Nations (UN) and key regional powers, to help bring an end to the crisis. Fast progress in appointing a new special envoy of the UN secretary-general on Myanmar – a post that has been vacant since Noeleen Heyzer left in June 2023 – would also help the UN regularly engage with all stakeholders in Myanmar and support ASEAN counterpart Alounkeo Kittikhoun. The West could also assemble an ad hoc group of countries that, when opportunities arise, could press the parties involved in the conflict to move towards a discussion that would lower the level of violence and open a path to a new civilian government.

If the conflict is not brought to an end, the civilian death toll will continue to rise and the humanitarian situation – which is already dire – will worsen, depriving Myanmar’s population of any prospect of a peaceful and democratic future. The protracted conflict also runs the risk of spiralling out of control and destabilising the wider region if solutions are not found for a durable peace.


Chapter 2

Why Fighting Has Escalated

Fighting in Myanmar has escalated significantly in recent months and demands a concerted effort from the international community.

In late October 2023, the Three Brotherhood Alliance – a coalition of three EAOs that have long fought the military – launched a new offensive, dubbed Operation 1027, aimed at “eradicating” the junta.[_] The alliance made major gains across Shan state, which emboldened the anti-junta National Unity Government (NUG) and its armed units, the PDF.

The PDF, as well as other EAOs and militia groups, opened new fronts in western, eastern and southern Myanmar. This escalation included the Kachin Independence Army’s (KIA) capture of the Gangdau Yang military base on 31 October. Additionally, the PDF launched a fresh offensive on 3 November. Led by hundreds of fighters from the KIA and Arakan Army (AA), the offensive captured Kawlin, making it the first district capital and central town in Myanmar to fall to the alliance since the coup.

By 20 November 2023, the alliance claimed to have captured 161 positions across a 260km front.[_] Reports, including one on the fall of Paletwa in the west of the country, suggest that fighting between the military and alliance continues. Paletwa is part of a sea-port project to link India with Myanmar.

While the military has launched punitive bombing raids, particularly on the eastern border, these have not been enough to regain control of lost territory. The State Administration Council (SAC) is believed to have lost roughly 40 towns across the country to the PDF.

More recent developments suggest that the campaign against the junta continues to be successful. Reports based on interviews with junta soldiers who have surrendered or defected indicate that the military is experiencing deep supply issues and plummeting morale, while the junta’s recent decision to start enforcing a law on compulsory military service is a further sign of the pressure it is under.[_] At the time of publication, the NUG claimed it controlled 60 per cent of the country.[_]

Currently it is difficult to predict a clear military victory for either side. Some assessments suggest that if the military’s position continues to deteriorate, a counter coup – in which the SAC and its leader, Min Aung Hlaing, are replaced with another military regime – could be more likely to occur than a surrender to the opposition. Meanwhile, the comparative unity of the opposition groups is unprecedented but focuses, for now, on removing the junta. If the offensive continues to progress, their cohesion will be tested by the need for agreement on what would follow the junta. As these various groups have different aims, it will be difficult for them to reach such an agreement.

In late January the Three Brotherhood Alliance published a statement setting out its campaign’s key principles and aims.[_] These include removing the junta, ending military involvement in politics, ensuring full civilian control over the military, replacing the constitution with a new charter in order to establish a “new federal democratic union” and establishing a transitional justice mechanism. These are bold aims and would mark a definitive departure from the military’s current role. Beneath these headline aims, however, considerable detail remains to be worked out and that is where the differences between the opposition groups will likely surface more clearly.

The NUG is working in parallel with some EAOs that have long been opponents of the military, but it will be difficult for the NUG to build a strong alliance across the full spectrum of EAOs. For example, the AA, one of the three groups making up the Three Brotherhood Alliance, is reportedly wary of the NUG because of its association with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD),[_] which it perceives as not having represented its interests, and thus refuses to sign onto the group’s proposals for a post-conflict government. Moreover, the NUG and EAOs do not share common interests: the ethnic armies aim for strategic, political and economic control of their local territories and are unlikely to cede control to any central government, whether by the military or the opposition.

Who Are the Major Parties in the Conflict?

The complexities of the different groups involved, coupled with their respective aims, point to the need for concerted action from the international community to help end the conflict.

The Junta

The civil war in Myanmar has technically been ongoing since 1948, with fighting between the central government (dominated by the Bamar majority) and EAOs occurring in seven of the country’s states. This conflict has never fully dissipated, but has morphed since the military coup in 2021.

Since then the junta has conducted a campaign of repression within the country. The regime has shown little appetite for making political concessions or negotiating with the armed resistance – and this despite calls by numerous organisations, including ASEAN, which launched its Five-Point Consensus (5PC) plan to stop hostilities in Myanmar in April 2021.[_] Efforts by the UN have also proven fruitless.

Before the conflict escalated, the junta promised elections and started working on an electronic identification system that experts believed would be used to control the outcome of the polls. Furthermore, a new electoral law announced in January 2023 made it difficult for parties to compete. For example, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD did not comply with the registration deadline and has been dissolved.

Opposition Forces

Three Brotherhood Alliance

The Three Brotherhood Alliance was formed in 2019 and rose to prominence in October 2023 after launching a major offensive – Operation 1027 – against the governing junta. The alliance is made up of about 15,000 fighters and comprises three opposition groups (or EAOs):

  • The Arakan Army (AA) is fighting to restore the sovereignty of multi-ethnic Arakanese. It was established in 2009. The AA comprises, based on some reports,[_] up to 30,000 troops (of which it has contributed a certain number to the Three Brotherhood Alliance). The group has significant funding sources,[_] including some affluent Arakanese people, which is part of the reason the group has such a sizeable capability.

  • The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) says it is fighting for the autonomy of the Kokang people, a Han-speaking ethnic group. The MNDAA operates close to the Chinese border in the northern part of Shan, a state that it controlled for 20 years before it was asked to hand over power in 2009 and fighting broke out with the Myanmar military.

  • The Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) is the armed wing of the Palaung State Liberation Front, a political organisation set up by former rebel fighters from the Ta’ang minority group. The TNLA says it is fighting for “real federalism” in Myanmar and that it has 5,000 fighters.

People’s Defence Forces (PDF)

The PDF is a grouping of resistance cells that act as the armed element of Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), the country’s ousted government. It has been active since the 2021 coup and has cooperated with the Three Brotherhood Alliance.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Ousted state counsellor and NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi faces a 27-year prison sentence based on offences she was convicted of after the coup. Her prison term was shortened from 33 years to 27 following seasonal amnesty in 2023. According to a recent interview with her youngest son, Kim Aris, she is kept in a solitary prison unit.[_]

Despite her imprisonment, Aung San Suu Kyi remains an important figure in Bamar-dominated political circles that are historically linked to the NLD. For example, pro-democracy Bamar groups recently criticised the well-known Buddhist monk Sayadaw Ashin Ottamathara for suggesting that she should leave politics. She remains state counsellor of the NUG and it is likely she will be involved in discussions on what a post-junta Myanmar would look like.[_] However, some suggest that the NUG, which is more ethnically diverse than the NLD, wants to ensure that it can operate effectively without her input.

Incidents Preceding the October Offensive

The launch of Operation 1027 was preceded by a military airstrike on Mung Lai Hkyet displacement camp, which killed at least 29 civilians. The camp is located about three miles from central Laiza, a town on Myanmar’s border with China that is the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an EAO that has fought Myanmar’s military for decades.

The 9 October attack was one of the deadliest on civilians since 2021, and was condemned by the NUG and wider international community. The spokesperson for the UN secretary-general expressed alarm and said that those responsible must be held to account, while the NUG and the British embassy in Yangon blamed the military. The US State Department also expressed deep concern and “strongly condemn[ed] the military regime’s ongoing attacks that have claimed thousands of lives since the February 2021 coup and continue to exacerbate the region’s most severe humanitarian crisis”.[_]

While conflict between Myanmar’s military and the KIA has persisted for decades, violence has increased since the junta seized power in 2021, with the EAO contributing to the wider nationwide movement against military rule. More broadly, since the coup, the military has increasingly relied on airstrikes to attack and control the population. An Amnesty International report in May 2022 found that Myanmar’s military had subjected civilians to collective punishments such as widespread aerial and ground attacks, arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial executions, and the systematic looting and burning of villages.[_]

In a related development, the insurgents perceived China’s frustration at the junta’s lack of action in response to rampant telecom fraud on the China-Myanmar border as an opportunity to garner support from the regional superpower. They cited border fraud and cyber-crime as a major justification for their offensive as part of Operation 1027 – and made good on their promise by handing over more than 31,000 suspected criminals to Chinese authorities by late November (most were handed back after the October offensive).


Chapter 3

How the International Community Is Responding

China Is Facilitating Talks Between the Junta and Insurgents

Following the insurgents’ decisive attacks on the military in October, China initiated talks between the warring parties that appear to have taken place in China itself. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning reported the agreement of a “temporary ceasefire” in December; however, it subsequently fell through.[_]

China’s presence in Myanmar has expanded since the 2021 coup, but that expansion has exacerbated internal divisions within Chinese foreign policy. In Shan state, Beijing’s interests are aligned at times with the NUG and pro-opposition EAOs in terms of removing Chinese criminal gangs operating internet scams from that territory. However, in Kachin state, Beijing needs the military’s cooperation to extract and import critical minerals.

In Rakhine state, China hopes to build an economic corridor that includes a deep-sea port, in order to provide the People’s Liberation Army Navy with a strategic outpost on the Bay of Bengal. In addition, China runs oil and gas pipelines to Yunnan province through Rakhine and depends on the Myanmar military to protect those pipelines. These differing interests mean that China has a stake in the resolution of the conflict.

As a result, Beijing will be keen to retain its influence over the insurgents and continue its shuttle diplomacy, while trying to keep the junta at arm’s length politically.

Russia Supports the Junta

While China did not criticise the coup in 2021, it nevertheless played along to secure its economic interests. Russia, on the other, endorsed the results of the coup and said it would not interfere with Myanmar’s domestic matters. Since the takeover in 2021, Moscow has further strengthened its economic relations with Naypyidaw.

Defence and energy cooperation between the two countries has expanded, with Russia boosting its arms sales to Myanmar, including air power and military equipment. Moscow has also agreed to help build civilian nuclear-power infrastructure in Myanmar. In return Naypyidaw provides support for Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, assisting with spare parts for battlefield equipment and munitions.

Laos Chairs ASEAN but Will Struggle to Deliver Peace

In January, Laos assumed the chairmanship of ASEAN for the third time. Laotian official Alounkeo Kittikhoun was named special envoy for Myanmar, an appointment which forms part of ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus (5PC) plan to find solutions to the country’s ongoing civil war.

In January Alounkeo Kittikhoun met Min Aung Hlaing in Myanmar. Later that month, ASEAN foreign ministers held a meeting in Luang Prabang; the talks were attended by an official designated by Myanmar’s foreign ministry for the first time since the 2021 coup. The group signalled that Thailand could play a more prominent role in ASEAN’s policy towards Myanmar, while Laos has indicated that it is keen to engage further.

The 5PC plan urges the cessation of violence and delivery of humanitarian assistance, and says the envoy is to meet all relevant parties.[_] Regional experts expect Min Aung Hlaing’s administration to continue playing along with the 5PC recommendations but avoid genuinely implementing them.

Responses From the United States, United Kingdom and European Union

The United States, United Kingdom and European Union have taken steps to respond to the conflict in Myanmar, but have not been able to decisively influence the outcome so far.

United States

Since the coup leaders seized power in 2021, Washington has significantly tightened the sanctions imposed on individuals and entities linked to the military, including restrictions on the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise. Further sanctions were imposed in line with the three-year anniversary of the military coup, targeting four individuals and two entities linked to the junta.

Together with allies, the US has also been vocal in calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. However, Washington has refrained from providing material support to opposition groups. Myanmar specialist Miemie Winn Byrd, a retired US Army officer, has gone so far as to call Myanmar Washington’s single largest “strategic blind spot”[_], given all the interests at play and the opportunities for deeper engagement.

With opposition forces now firmly on the front foot, the US faces a new calculus in whether to upgrade its support for the EAOs.

United Kingdom

The UK and EU’s positions largely mirror that of the US. In addition to calling for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, the UK has provided humanitarian aid to the people of Myanmar, and condemned and sanctioned military officials. Along with the US and Canada, it has sanctioned military generals, arms dealers and Myanmar military financiers responsible for repression. The latest package of sanctions, which was introduced on 1 February, imposes further restrictions on military-linked units and enterprises.

While the UK sanctions regime is attempting to apply maximum pressure to the junta, its aid to Myanmar has been cut by 51 per cent this financial year and 70 per cent overall since 2020-2021, according to a Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office annual report.[_]

European Union

The EU has provided humanitarian aid while condemning the junta for its coup and Myanmar’s military for its continued grave human-rights violations. The bloc has sanctioned individuals and entities that are associated with the junta and complicit in the oppression of Myanmar’s population.

Other restrictive measures by the EU include an embargo on arms and equipment, export restrictions on equipment used to monitor communications that might be used for internal repression, an export ban on dual-use goods that could be utilised by the military and Border Guard Police, and a prohibition on training and cooperating with Myanmar’s armed forces.


Chapter 4

What Comes Next?

For now, the EAOs are aligned in a military campaign that poses the most considerable threat the junta has faced since 2021. However, the complexities that the EAOs face in turning an offensive into victory – and in translating their wartime unity into post-junta cohesion – remain notable barriers to change.

While the situation is charged and could take multiple directions, there are three broad scenarios that could play out.

  1. The junta falls. Given the scale of lost territory and low morale among troops, a rapid cascade of unit-level surrenders followed by the collapse of the junta is possible. The junta has faced a complex military challenge in recent months, fighting various EAOs around the country. This has prevented it from consolidating its forces and overwhelming the EAOs. Coupled with the state of the military, if the war continues on these terms the likelihood of the junta falling could increase. A counter coup from within the military is also a possibility and cannot be ruled out.

  2. The junta survives but with limited control. In this scenario, the junta loses significant territory but is able to gain some new areas of control. The military-installed government would stay in power but face years of grinding insurgency. The EAOs’ strategy of dispersed activity across the country has been successful and tempered some of the military’s key strengths. If the EAOs want to make more definitive progress as the offensive continues, they may need to consolidate forces to capture and then govern larger parts of the country.

  3. The EAOs gain concessions. Faced with growing pressure and an expanding insurgency, the junta could offer the EAOs some concessions, such as a firmer promise of elections and a softening of the entry rules for parties, in order to agree on a ceasefire. However, the junta’s struggle with the EAOs is existential and there is limited room for compromise.


Chapter 5

Conclusion

Amid deepening humanitarian, economic and security crises in Myanmar, Western democracies and the wider international community will need to continue supporting the UN and ASEAN in their efforts to bring an end to the conflict. They will also need to look for new avenues to encourage key regional actors to assist in brokering dialogue between the warring parties.

China, Thailand, Japan and India, among others, can be effective interlocutors in a region where they have strong political, economic and historical links, coupled with a common cause of preventing conflict. For example, Tokyo and New Delhi could use the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) to facilitate discussion, and provide humanitarian and other economic assistance to Myanmar’s population.

The situation on the ground remains complex. More efforts are needed to achieve a durable solution that would alleviate the suffering of Myanmar’s people and allow them to live in a peaceful, inclusive and democratic system. Any such solution must also ensure that the violence and deepening crisis do not exacerbate the wider region’s already fragile security environment. The international community currently has a chance to shape events in Myanmar and what comes next – and it’s a chance that must be seized.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    https://www.unocha.org/news/todays-top-news-occupied-palestinian-territory-sudan-myanmar-ukraine

  2. 2.

    https://www.unocha.org/publications/report/myanmar/myanmar-humanitarian-needs-and-response-plan-2024-issued-december-2023

  3. 3.

    https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-suspends-free-movement-regime-with-myanmar/article67824429.ece https://www.newagebd.net/article/224797/bgb-on-high-alert-border-situation-fully-under-control-dg

  4. 4.

    https://thediplomat.com/2023/10/operation-1027-a-turning-point-for-myanmars-resistance-struggle/

  5. 5.

    https://myanmar.iiss.org/updates/2023-11

  6. 6.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2024/02/14/myanmar-war-military-rebels-surrenders/; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2024/feb/11/myanmars-junta-declares-it-will-enforce-military-service-laws-for-young-people#:~:text=All%20men%20aged%2018%2D35%20and%20women%20aged%2018%2D27,state%20media%20said%20on%20Saturday

  7. 7.

    https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-South-Central/2024/0213/Myanmar-s-civil-war-Is-the-stalemate-breaking

  8. 8.

    https://www.rfa.org/english/commentaries/myanmar-nug-statement-02032024070454.html

  9. 9.

    https://www.stimson.org/2023/understanding-the-arakan-army/

  10. 10.

    https://asean.org/wp-content/uploads/Chairmans-Statement-on-ALM-Five-Point-Consensus-24-April-2021-FINAL-a-1.pdf

  11. 11.

    https://www.daily-sun.com/post/734253

  12. 12.

    https://reliefweb.int/report/myanmar/analysis-arakan-army-powerful-new-threat-tatmadaw

  13. 13.

    https://www.voanews.com/a/in-letter-from-prison-former-myanmar-leader-writes-of-suffering/7482036.html

  14. 14.

    https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Myanmar-Crisis/Suu-Kyi-isolated-in-rat-infested-prison-3-years-after-Myanmar-takeover

  15. 15.

    https://www.state.gov/burma-regime-attack-in-kachin-state/

  16. 16.

    https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa16/5629/2022/en/

  17. 17.

    https://www.mfa.gov.cn/eng/xwfw%5F665399/s2510%5F665401/2511%5F665403/202312/t20231214%5F11202549.html

  18. 18.

    https://asean.org/wp-content/uploads/Chairmans-Statement-on-ALM-Five-Point-Consensus-24-April-2021-FINAL-a-1.pdf

  19. 19.

    https://thediplomat.com/2024/01/why-the-us-needs-to-back-myanmars-spring-revolution/

  20. 20.

    https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/64b18b8f07d4b8000d34733a/Foreign-Commonwealth-and-Development-Office-annual-report-and-accounts-2022-to-2023.pdf; https://burmacampaign.org.uk/british-government-cuts-aid-to-burma-by-70-since-coup/

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