The internal conflict in Myanmar is a series of primarily ethnic conflicts within Myanmar that began shortly after the country, then known as Burma, became independent from the United Kingdom in 1948. The conflict has been labeled as the world's longest running civil war.
Prior to independence from the United Kingdom, several anti-colonial groups in Myanmar (Burma) protested against British rule over the country. These groups became especially influential during World War II, when the Empire of Japan promised an "independent Burmese state" (though it would be de facto controlled by Japan as a puppet state) and appointed Ba Maw as its head of state. During this period, left-wing groups such as the Communist Party of Burma (also known as the Burma Communist Party) and armed ethnic groups began to emerge in opposition to both the British and Japanese. In 1947, the Panglong Agreement was reached between Aung San and ethnic leaders, in an attempt to quell hostilities; however, the agreement was not honoured by the post-independence government following Aung San's assassination, leading to further ethnic tensions.
On 4 January 1948, Myanmar gained independence from the United Kingdom. The communists and the ethnic minorities in the country were dissatisfied with the newly formed government, believing that they were being unfairly excluded from governing the country. For example, it was noted that many Christian Karen military officials, who were originally appointed by the British, were replaced with Buddhist Bamars by the new parliament. Three months after independence, the communists began an armed insurgency against the government. Similarly, Karen insurgent groups began to fight for independence.
In the early 1960s, the government refused to adopt a federal system, to the dismay of insurgent groups such as the CPB, who proposed adopting the system during peace talks. By the early 1980s, politically motivated armed insurgencies had largely disappeared, while ethnic-based insurgencies continued.
Several insurgent groups have negotiated ceasefires and peace agreements with successive governments, which until political reforms that begun in 2011 and ended in 2015, had largely fallen apart.
The conflict is generally divided into three parts: Insurgencies during the post-independence period under parliamentary rule (1948–1962), insurgencies during the post-1962 coup socialist government under the rule of General Ne Win and his Burma Socialist Programme Party (1962–1988), and insurgencies during the modern post Cold War era; first under the military administration of the State Peace and Development Council (1988–2011) and now under the newly elected civilian government.
Following independence from the United Kingdom, the two largest opposition groups in Burma (Myanmar) were the communists, led by the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) and the Karen nationalists, led by the Karen National Union's predecessor. The former had fought the British colonial government prior to independence; however, during the final days of the Japanese occupation of Burma in World War II, both groups helped the British against the Imperial Japanese Army. Initially there was calm during the transitional period after independence, but on 2 April 1948, the CPB fired the first shots of the conflict in Paukkongyi, Pegu Region (present-day Bago Region).
During the post-independence period, the KNU favoured an independent state, administered by the Karen people. The proposed state would have been forged out of Karen and Karenni State (present-day Kayin and Kayah State), in Lower Burma (Outer Myanmar). The KNU has since shifted their focus from full independence to regional autonomy, under a federal system with fair Karen representation in the government.
After three successive parliamentary governments governed Myanmar (Burma), the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces), led by General Ne Win, enacted a coup d'état in 1962, which ousted the parliamentary government and replaced it with a military junta. Accusations of severe human rights abuses and violations followed afterwards, and the cabinet of the parliamentary government and political leaders of ethnic minority groups were arrested and detained without trial. Around this period, other ethnic minority groups began forming larger rebel factions, such as the Kachin Independence Army, in response to the new government's refusal to adopt a federal government structure.
In 1967, following China's initiation of the Cultural Revolution, violence broke out between local Bamars and overseas Chinese in Myanmar, leading to anti-Chinese riots in Rangoon (present-day Yangon) and other cities. The riots left many overseas Chinese dead, which allegedly prompted China to begin giving logistical aid to the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in 1968.
Both immediately after the coup and again in 1972, General Ne Win held peace talks with opposition forces, but both times they fell apart, partly due to General Ne Win's refusal to adopt a multi-party system. After negotiations failed, defectors from the Tatmadaw and ethnic insurgents walked back to their bases, with headlines across Myanmar famously reading "They Go Back" (သူတို့ပြန်ကြလေပြီ). Private property was confiscated by the government, and the Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) was founded in 1974 to govern the country under a one-party system. Under General Ne Win's 26 year dictatorship, Myanmar became an isolated hermit kingdom and one of the least developed countries in the world. In 1988, nationwide student protests resulted in the BSPP and General Ne Win being ousted and replaced with a new military regime, the State Peace and Development Council.
On 8 August 1988, students began demonstrating in Rangoon (Yangon) against General Ne Win's rule and the disastrous Burmese Way to Socialism system. The protests spread across the country, The uprising ended on 18 September 1988, after a military coup was enacted by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and the BSPP government was overthrown.
Authorities in Myanmar (Burma) claimed that around 350 people were killed, whilst anti-government groups claimed thousands died in the protests, with a high number of deaths attributed to the military. According to the Economist, over 3,000 people were killed in the public uprising. As a result of the uprising, the new government agreed to sign separate peace treaties with certain insurgent groups. Because the 1988 uprising was mostly politically motivated, ethnic insurgent groups did not receive much support from political movements in Myanmar. In the 1990s, the Tatmadaw severely weakened ethnic insurgent groups, destroying most of their bases and strongholds.
In 2006, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) conducted a large military offensive against the Karen National Union (KNU) in Kayin State, which resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians. One estimate claimed that approximately half a million people were displaced due to fighting between government forces and the KNU, and the forcible relocation of villages by the government.
In 2011, Tatmadaw launched a military offensive named Operation Perseverance (ဇွဲမန်ဟိန်း) against insurgents in Shan State in 2011. During the offensive, the Tatmadaw captured territory from the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) and the Shan State Army - North (SSA-N), with the latter being involved in most of the fighting. The offensive was in response to the groups' rejections of the junta's "One Nation, One Army" policy.
Between February and May 2015, government forces launched several military operations in Kokang, in northern Shan State; in response to attempts by the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) to retake territory it had lost in 2009.
Insurgents of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked Burmese border posts along the Bangladesh–Myanmar border on 9 October 2016, killing nine border officers. Armed clashes continued and on 11 October 2016, four Tatmadaw soldiers were killed by insurgents with recently looted weapons. On 25 August 2017, the ARSA launched a second large-scale attack against 24 police posts and the 552nd Light Infantry Battalion army base in northern Rakhine State. 71 people were reportedly killed in the armed clashes.
The Kachin people are a major ethnic minority in Myanmar who mainly inhabit the mountainous northern regions of the Kachin Hills in Kachin State. They have fought for the self-determination of their people since Myanmar gained independence, though less so than other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, such as the Karen people. Kachin regular soldiers previously formed a significant part of the Myanmar military; however, after General Ne Win's regime seized power in 1962, many Kachin soldiers defected from the military and reorganized with already active Kachin insurgents to form the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), under the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). Religious tensions have also been a source of conflict, as Kachin people have historically been predominantly Christian, while the majority Bamar people have been predominantly Buddhist.
Ceasefire agreements have been signed between the KIA and the government several times; most notably a ceasefire signed in 1994, that lasted for 17 years until June 2011, when government forces attacked KIA positions along the Taping River, east of Bhamo, Kachin State.
In 2012 alone, fighting between the KIA and the government resulted in around 2,500 casualties (both civilian and military); 211 of whom were government soldiers. The violence resulted in the displacement of nearly 100,000 civilians and the complete or partial abandonment of 364 villages.
The largest insurgent group in Kayah State (formerly Karenni State) is the Karenni Army, whose goal for the past few decades has been to obtain independence and self-determination for the Karenni people.
The group has claimed that their grievances towards the government include: the (government's) exploitation and rapid depletion of the natural resources in the region, the forced sale of farmer's agricultural products for low prices, extortion and corruption within local authorities, forced labour, forced relocation of whole villages and farms, destruction of houses, planting of mines in civilian areas, torture, rape, extrajudicial killings, burning of villages, expropriation of food supplies and livestock, arrests without charge and exploitation of the poor. The Karenni Army is currently led by General Bee Htoo, and consists of roughly between 500 and 1,500 soldiers.
The Karen people of Kayin State (formerly Karen State) in eastern Myanmar are the third largest ethnic group in Myanmar, consisting of roughly 7% of the country's total population. Karen insurgent groups have fought for independence and self-determination since 1949. In 1949, the commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw General Smith Dun, an ethnic Karen, was fired because of the rise of Karen opposition groups, which furthered ethnic tensions. He was replaced by Ne Win, a Bamar nationalist who would go on to become the dictator of Myanmar.
The government of Myanmar has been accused of using "scorched earth" tactics against Karen civilians in the past, including (but not limited to) burning down entire villages, planting land mines, using civilians as slave labour, using civilians as minesweepers and the rape and murder of Karen women. According to a report by legal firm DLA Piper, whose report was presented to the United Nations Security Council, these tactics against the Karen can be identified as ethnic cleansing. The government had however, denied these claims.
The initial aim of the largest Karen opposition group, the Karen National Union (KNU), and its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), was to obtain independence for the Karen people. However, since 1976 they have instead called for a federal union with fair Karen representation and the self-determination of the Karen people. Nearly all of their demands and requests have been ignored or denied by successive governments, a contributing factor to failed peace talks until political reforms which begun in 2011 and ended in 2015.
In 1995, the main headquarters and operating bases of the KNU had mostly been destroyed or captured by the government, forcing the KNLA (the armed wing of the KNU) to instead operate in the jungles of Kayin State. Up until that year, the Thai government had been supporting insurgents across its border, but soon stopped its support due to a new major economic deal with Myanmar.
The KNU signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the government of Myanmar on 15 October 2015, along with seven other insurgent groups. However in March 2018, the government of Myanmar violated the agreement by sending 400 Tatmadaw soldiers into KNU-held territory to build a road connecting two military bases. Armed clashes erupted between the KNU and the Myanmar Army in the Ler Mu Plaw area of Hpapun District, resulting in the displacement of 2,000 people. On 17 May 2018, the Tatmadaw agreed to "temporarily postpone" their road project and to withdraw troops from the area.
Insurgent groups of the Rakhine (formerly Arakanese), Chin, and Rohingya ethnic minorities have fought against the government for self-determination in Rakhine State since the early 1950s.
Ethnic Rakhine insurgent groups, such as the Arakan Army and Arakan Liberation Army (ALA), continue to have hostilities towards the government, though major violence has been rare since political reforms and peace talks. The Arakan Army, founded in 2009, is currently the largest insurgent group in Rakhine State, with 1,500–2,500 fighters active in the region.
Rohingya insurgents have been fighting local government forces and other insurgent groups in northern Rakhine State since 1948, with ongoing religious violence between the predominantly Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines fueling the conflict. The legal and political rights of the Rohingya people have been an underlying issue in the conflict, with spontaneous bouts of violence such as the 2012 Rakhine State riots and 2013 Myanmar anti-Muslim riots periodically occurring as a result. Despite making up a majority of the population in the three northern townships of Rakhine State, Rohingyas are often targets of religiously motivated attacks. Because the government does not recognise the Rohingya people as an official ethnic group in Myanmar, Rohingyas cannot apply for citizenship and few laws exist to protect their rights.
On 9 October 2016, unidentified insurgents attacked three Burmese border posts along Myanmar's border with Bangladesh, starting a new armed conflict in northern Rakhine State. According to government officials in the border town of Maungdaw, the attackers looted several dozen firearms and ammunition from the border posts, and brandished knives and homemade slingshots that fired metal bolts. The attacks left nine border officers and "several insurgents" dead. On 11 October 2016, four Tatmadaw soldiers were killed on the third day of fighting. A newly emerged insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), claimed responsibility a week later.
During the early hours of 25 August 2017, ARSA insurgents launched coordinated attacks on 24 police posts and the 552nd Light Infantry Battalion army base, killing a dozen people. In response, the Tatmadaw launched "clearance operations" in northern Rakhine State, which critics argued targeted Rohingya civilians rather than insurgents.
On 4 January 2019, around 300 Arakan Army insurgents launched pre-dawn attacks on four border police outposts—Kyaung Taung, Nga Myin Taw, Ka Htee La and Kone Myint—in northern Buthidaung Township. Thirteen members of the Border Guard Police (BGP) were killed and nine others were injured, whilst 40 firearms and more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition were looted. The Arakan Army later stated that it had captured nine BGP personnel and five civilians, and that three of its fighters were also killed in the attacks.
Following the attacks, the Office of the President of Myanmar held a high-level meeting on national security in the capital Naypyidaw on 7 January 2019, and instructed the Defense Ministry to increase troop deployments in the areas that were attacked and to use aircraft if necessary. Subsequent clashes between the Myanmar Army and the Arakan Army were reported in Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Kyauktaw, Rathedaung and Ponnagyun Townships, forcing out over 5,000 civilians from their homes, hundreds of whom (mostly Rakhine and Khami) have fled across the border into Bangladesh. Civilian casualties, arbitrairy beatings and detentions of ethnic-Rakhines, forced seizures of property, and blockage of food aid and medical relief by the Tatmadaw have also been reported.
The Shan people are the largest ethnic group in Shan State and the second largest in Myanmar. In 1947, the Panglong Agreement was negotiated between Aung San, a prominent founding father of Myanmar, and Shan leaders, which would have given the Shan the option to split from Myanmar a decade after independence if they were unsatisfied with the central government. This was, however, not honoured by the post-independence government following Aung San's assassination. During the Tatmadaw's (Myanmar Armed Forces') heavy militarisation of the state in the late 1940s and early 1950s, locals accused them of mistreating, torturing, robbing, raping, unlawfully arresting and massacring villagers. As a result, on 21 May 1958, an armed resistance movement, led by Sao Noi and Saw Yanna, was started in Shan State.
One the largest Shan insurgent groups in Myanmar is the Shan State Army - South (SSA-S), which has around 6,000 to 8,000 soldiers, and was led by Yawd Serk until his resignation on 2 February 2014. The SSA-S maintains bases along the Myanmar–Thailand border, and signed a ceasefire agreement with the government on 2 December 2011.
The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) is a Kokang insurgent group active in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone in northern Shan State. The group signed a ceasefire agreement with the government in 1989, the same year it was founded, which lasted for two decades until 2009, when violence erupted between the group and government forces. Violence again erupted between the MNDAA and government forces in 2015 and 2017.
In late November 2016, the Northern Alliance—which consists of four insurgent groups, the Arakan Army (AA), the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)—attacked towns and border posts along the China–Myanmar border in Muse Township, northern Shan State. The insurgents captured the town of Mong Ko on 25 November 2016 and maintained control of it until they withdrew from the town on 4 December 2016 to avoid civilian casualties from airstrikes by the Myanmar Air Force.
Prior to independence, Aung San, considered a founding father of Myanmar, had convinced local Shan leaders to join him in his pursuit for independence, and with them, negotiated the Panglong Agreement in 1947. The agreement guaranteed the right to self-determination, political representation in the post-independence government and economic equality amongst the various ethnic groups. It also gave the Chin, Kachin and Shan people the option to separate from Myanmar after a decade if their states' leaders were unhappy with the central government. However, this was not honoured by the government, and has been one of the causes of insurgencies in those states.
Whilst some groups continue to fight for full independence and for the right for self-determination of their people, groups such as the Chin National Front (CNF) and the Karen National Union (KNU) have since fought instead for regional autonomy and a federal system of government in Myanmar.
During the 8888 Uprising, Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a national symbol for democracy, after leading the largest opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The military junta arranged a general election in 1990 and Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a majority of the vote. However, the military junta refused to recognise the results and instead placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years.
In 2007, hundreds of thousands of monks protested against the military junta's rule, and called for free elections, minority rights and the release of political prisoners in an event now known as the Saffron Revolution. The protest originally began in response to the government's removal of price subsidies for compressed natural gas.
In 2011, the government introduced a new constitution following political reforms, and thousands of political prisoners were released, including Aung San Suu Kyi. In November 2014, the NLD attempted to make amendments to the constitution, in response to a clause that made Aung San Suu Kyi ineligible to become President of Myanmar if her party won an election. These amendments however, were rejected.
The government of Myanmar has been accused of using "scorched earth" tactics against civilians, most notably in Kayin State. The accusations included burning down entire villages, planting landmines, using civilians as slave labour, using civilians as minesweepers and the rape and murder of Karen women. According to a report by legal firm DLA Piper, whose report was presented to the United Nations Security Council, these tactics against the Karen have been identified as ethnic cleansing.
Both sides have been accused of using landmines, which have caused hundreds of accidental civilian injuries and deaths. The Karen National Union (KNU) has been accused of planting landmines in rural areas, most of which have not been disarmed. The KNU claim that landmines are vital to repelling government forces, because it "discourages them from attacking civilians". However, a majority of those who fall victim to KNU planted landmines are local villagers, rather than government soldiers. Victims of landmines must travel to the Myanmar–Thailand border to seek treatment, as local hospitals and facilities lack proper equipment and funding.
Both sides have also been accused of using thousands of child soldiers, despite the fact that the government of Myanmar and seven insurgent groups signed an agreement with UNICEF in 2012, promising not to exploit children for military and political gains. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has accused both sides of continuing to use child soldiers despite the agreement. According to the ILO, the Tatmadaw have discharged hundreds of child soldiers since 2012; however, they estimated that at least 340 child soldiers had been recruited by the Tatmadaw between 2013 and 2014. The most notable case of the use child soldiers in Myanmar was of Johnny and Luther Htoo, the leaders of God's Army, a former rebel faction. At the time of their formation of God's Army, they were both only 10 years old.
The conflict has resulted in a large number of both civilian deaths and refugees, with many refugees fleeing to neighbour countries such as Thailand, China, and Bangladesh. The persecution of Burmese Indians and other ethnic minorities after the 1962 coup led to the expulsion of nearly 300,000 people. The UN estimated that between 1996 and 2006, around 1 million people were internally displaced inside Myanmar, over 230,000 of whom remain displaced in the southeast of the country, and 128,000 refugees lived in temporary shelters on the Myanmar–Thailand border. In August 2007, approximately 160,000 refugees fled to nine refugee camps along the Myanmar–Thailand border and the Thai border provinces of Chiang Mai and Ratchaburi. Approximately 62% of the refugee population consisted of people from the Karen ethnic minority. Humanitarian organisations such as Doctors Without Borders have since sent workers and medical support to the refugees.
Over the course of the conflict, government officials in Myanmar have been accused of forcefully removing civilians living in conflict areas and confiscating their property, in order to repurpose them for commercial, industrial, and military projects.
In Rakhine State, there were around 75,000 internally displaced Rohingyas in 2012, according to Refugee International. UNICEF has reported that living conditions in Rohingya refugee camps in Rakhine State are "wholly inadequate" and lacks access to basic services. In October 2017, there were an estimated 947,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. The Rohingya people have been described by the United Nations as "among the world's least wanted" and "one of the world's most persecuted minorities."
Under the new constitutional reforms in 2011, state level and union level ceasefire agreements were made with several insurgent groups. 14 out of 17 of the largest rebel factions signed a ceasefire agreement with the new reformed government. According to the Myanmar Peace Monitoring group, clashes between the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), its allies, and the government, have displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and created another severe humanitarian crisis in Kachin and northern Shan State. All of the 14 signatories wanted negotiations in accordance with the Panglong Agreement of 1947, which granted self-determination, a federal system of government (meaning regionol autonomy), religious freedom and ethnic minority rights. However, the new constitution, only had a few clauses dedicated to minority rights, and therefore, the government discussed with rebel factions using the new constitution for reference, rather than the Panglong Agreement. There was no inclusive plan or body that represented all the factions, and as a result, in resent, the KNU backed out of the conference and complained the lack of independence for each party within the ethnic bloc. However, most of the negotiations between the State Peace Deal Commission and rebel factions were formal and peaceful.
On 31 March 2015, a draft of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was finalised between representatives from 15 different insurgent groups (all part of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team or NCCT) and the government of Myanmar. However, only eight of the 15 insurgent groups signed the final agreement on 15 October 2015. The signing was witnessed by observers and delegates from the United Nations, the United Kingdom, Norway, Japan and the United States.
The Union Peace Conference - 21st Century Panglong was held from 31 August to 4 September 2016 with several different organisations as representatives, in an attempt to mediate between the government and different insurgent groups. The name was a reference to the original Panglong Conference held during British rule in 1947, which was negotiated between Aung San and ethnic leaders.
United Nations – Since 1991, the UN General Assembly has adopted twenty-five different resolutions regarding Myanmar's government, condemning previous military juntas for their systematic violations of human rights and lack of political freedom. In 2009 they urged the then ruling junta to take urgent measures to end violations of international human rights and humanitarian laws in the country. The request was mostly honoured during political reforms that begun in 2011 and ended in 2015.
China – The People's Republic of China allegedly gave logistical aid to the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) during the communist insurgency in Myanmar, in support of the party's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology. After the CPB's armed wing agreed to disarm in 1988, China was accused by Myanmar of continuing to support insurgent groups operating along its border, such as the United Wa State Army.
In 2016, China pledged to support Myanmar's ongoing peace process by encouraging China-friendly insurgent groups to attend peace talks with the Burmese government and by sending more soldiers to secure its border with Myanmar. China also offered $3 million USD to fund the negotiations. However, the Burmese government has expressed suspicion over China's involvement in the peace process, due to China's alleged links to the Northern Alliance and the United Wa State Army.
Pakistan – From 1948 to 1950, Pakistan sent aid to mujahideen in northern Arakan (present-day Rakhine State). In 1950, the Pakistani government warned their Burmese counterparts about their treatment of Muslims. In response, Burmese Prime Minister U Nu immediately sent a Muslim diplomat, Pe Khin, to negotiate a memorandum of understanding. Pakistan agreed to cease aid to the mujahideen and arrest members of the group. In 1954, mujahid leader Mir Kassem was arrested by Pakistani authorities, and many of his followers later surrendered to the Burmese government.
Thailand – Thailand had been a vocal supporter of various insurgent groups in Myanmar, condemning actions done by the then ruling military juntas and allowing weapons and ammunition to be smuggled through its border through lax enforcement. However in 1995, the Thai government secured its border with Myanmar and stopped all logistical support going through Thailand after they signed a major economic deal with Myanmar.
United States – Starting in 1951, the CIA began aiding Kuomintang soldiers that fled to Myanmar from China following the advance of Chinese communist forces into Yunnan province. This included Operation Paper, which involved supplying them with non-lethal aid via Thailand until 1953, when they airlifted 7,000 soldiers to Taiwan and ended the operation.
Others: Dave Everett was a member of the Australian Special Air Service Regiment before leaving in 1986 and joining the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) as a mercenary. Everett fought alongside the KNLA under the alias "Steve" and trained insurgents, helping them improve their marksmanship and teaching them how to use claymore anti-personnel mines. In order to fund his time with the KNLA, Everett perpetrated several robberies in Australia with the help of accomplices and took piloting lessons so he could smuggle weapons into Myanmar. Everett returned to Australia a year later in 1987.