April 20, 2023

IntelBrief: Myanmar’s “Forgotten War”

AP Photo/Dar Yasin

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The civil war in Myanmar continues unabated, rife with civilian massacres, political imprisonments, and mass displacements, and most recently, a deadly airstrike and gunship assault.
  • Earlier this month, the country’s military junta carried out its deadliest attack since its coup, targeting the Kanbalu township and killing up to 200 – including 40 children.
  • The UN Security Council and ASEAN have been ineffective in curbing the violence or resolving the conflict, with China historically shielding the junta from multilateral measures or censure.
  • As cracks begin to show in China’s cover for the country’s military rulers wavers, Russia seems keen to continue providing them with arms and oil.

According to the national unity government (NUG), Myanmar’s military government killed up to 200 people, including 40 children, in its deadliest attack since the junta overthrew the country’s civilian government two years ago and set the stage for its ongoing civil war. The body count and horrific nature of the attack – which targeted a ceremony celebrating the opening of a new administrative building by a local resistance movement, first bombing it, then following up with multiple strafing attacks on survivors and rescuers – serves as a visceral reminder of what the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, has dubbed “the forgotten war.”

By design, the junta’s military campaign has been brutal, repressive, and largely indiscriminate. The pillars of its so-called “four cuts” strategy – which the military previously employed against the country’s ethnic minority populations including the Muslim Rohingya community prior to the coup – call for indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling, torching civilian homes, and blocking humanitarian aid deliveries. The government has reportedly carried out numerous massacres against civilians since the coup, including the mass killing of monks at a monastery, an airstrike on a concert, and various instances of gunning down street protestors. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has determined the junta may have committed crimes against humanity, with reports of collective punishment, arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, systematic looting and burning of villages, and hostage-taking of children as young as three. Former U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel has called the junta “the worst regime in Southeast Asia since the Khmer Rouge.”

The country’s deposed former prime minister, Aung San Suu Kyi, remains in prison after being sentenced to more than 30 years in jail, placing her among the nearly 20,000 political prisoners taken by the military since the coup, according to OHCHR. Additionally, 50 townships across the country have been placed under martial law by the junta. The civil war – the fighting, as well as the war’s economic, public health, and humanitarian impacts – has been catastrophic for the country. Aside from the over 34,000 deaths owed to various acts of political violence since the war began, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that nearly one-third of Myanmar’s population is in need of humanitarian aid. Over 1,704,000 people have been internally displaced in the country according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

There are some initial signs that the military regime stands on precarious footing. According to a leaked December memo, senior junta officials feel the military is losing control of the country against an increasingly well-organized and armed resistance. As non-violent resistance has largely given way to armed insurgency amid a lethal crackdown on protests, Myanmar’s resistance forces – a mishmash of resistance groups assembled under the banner of the People’s Defense Force (PDF) and their various allied ethnic militia allies and other local forces – numbered approximately 65,000 last fall, according to the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP). Resistance forces may also control between 40 and 50 percent of the country’s territory, though the military still maintains a strong grip on urban population centers. In addition to black market weapons purchases, the PDF has started a remarkable manufacturing system of its own. While most of the resistance’s fighters lack access to the strategic weaponry needed to counter the military’s air power or other superior capabilities, the forces are now reportedly capable of using makeshift rocket launchers to carry out artillery strikes.

Yet the resistance still remains the underdog in the fight by most conventional fighting categories. While the patchwork resistance “army” sports formidable numbers, only about 50 percent of its personnel are armed and 40 percent of PDF forces were still fighting with homemade weapons, according to USIP’s reporting late last year. Without aid from outside powers, and so long as the military maintains its monopoly on state resources, the resistance has been reliant on crowdfunding among the national population and remittances from the diaspora to fund its operations. Notably, the United States has recently authorized the provision of non-lethal assistance to the resistance.

Through most of the conflict, however, Western powers deferred leadership in addressing Myanmar’s crisis to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Although ASEAN and the junta’s leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, agreed upon a “five-point consensus” in 2021 to resolve the conflict, Human Rights Watch says the junta head “has defied each point [of the agreement] since then.” While Western powers like the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union have been willing to bring sanctions muscle against the junta members and state-owned enterprises, several important logistical components of the military’s weapon manufacturing still come from Western firms, according to a report from the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar. Alongside what’s already offered by Chinese, Indian, and Russian companies, equipment and software used in these factories originate from American, German, Japanese, French, Ukrainian, and Israeli firms, while Singaporean companies serve as intermediary buyers between Myanmar and third-party suppliers. Without a more comprehensive sanctions regime, it has been “been relatively easy for many companies to avoid the sanctions,” according to one of the report’s authors.

Significant cracks have begun to emerge between the junta and what is perhaps its biggest international backer. While China has balanced its relations between both the junta and its domestic opponents, it appears that it is beginning to shy away from support for the military, which has proven unable to stabilize the country and which China’s ASEAN partners have increasingly expressed disapproval towards. The junta is now being castigated within its own region, with representatives barred from future ASEAN meetings, while the junta’s head has been snubbed by senior Chinese officials. While China has, in tandem with Russia, previously guarded the junta at the UN Security Council by vetoing all resolutions targeting the military government, including proposals to intervene under the guise of the so-called “Responsibility to Protect” or “R2P” doctrine, China allowed the passage of the milestone resolution 2669 last December calling for an end to the violence and demanding the “military immediately release all arbitrarily detained prisoners.” Although substantially watered down in order to secure adoption, the passage of this first resolution on Myanmar in the Council offered an important indication that Chinese and Russian support for the junta may not be immovable.

Castigated and sanctioned on the international stage, Myanmar has turned to Russia to supply it with arms, ammunition, and oil at a time when the underwhelming performance of the Russian military in Ukraine has hurt the reputation of its arms industry. Last year, the Tatmadaw, as the military is called, joined over a dozen countries to participate in a 2022 Russian military exercise, while Hlaing has travelled to Russia more than any other state during his time in power, even meeting with Russian President Vladmir Putin himself. “The same types of weapons that are killing Ukrainians are killing people in Myanmar,” said the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews.