The story so far: In a spillover of the civil war in Myanmar, 1,500 nationals of India’s neighbouring country, took refuge in Mizoram’s Champhai district early on November 13 following an intense gunfight between the Myanmar Army, and pro-democracy militias in the country’s western Chin State abutting Mizoram. Reports indicate that the attacks on the ruling military junta (or the Tatmadaw) involving the Chin National Army (CNA), Chin Defense Force among others led to the capture of two bases — the Khawmawi and Rihkhawdar military camps — by the rebels. In all, 39 soldiers of the junta had also fled to Mizoram and were later sent back by Indian defence authorities.
What is the situation in Myanmar?
The attacks in Chin State coincidentally followed a major coordinated attack on regime forces by three ethnic armed groups – the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA) in Myanmar’s north Shan State abutting China. The coordinated attacks, termed “Operation 1027” denoting the date of operations, October 27, by the Three Brotherhood Alliance as the three groups called their collective, led to serious setbacks for the junta’s forces in Shan State and brought about a sequence of other rebel attacks – including those in Chin State in the following days.
Scores of military outposts and bases were either abandoned by the junta forces or were captured by the rebels, with the UN stating that 60,000 people in Shan State and 2,00,000 overall in the country have been displaced following the current hostilities taking the total number of civilian displacements to more than two million since the coup.
What led to the current civil war in Myanmar?
In February 2021, a new junta, the State Administration Council (SAC) dominated by the Myanmar armed forces organised a military coup that ousted the civilian National League for Democracy-government and detained (and later imprisoned) its leader Aung San Suu Kyi among many other legislators and party officials. The junta said that it captured power because of irregularities in the November 2020 elections, even though international observers called the elections fair. The coup led to the collapse of the country’s democratic phase that opened up after the 2008 Constitution.
This Constitution allowed for reserving 25% of the Parliament of Myanmar for serving military officers, and control over home, border affairs and defence to be retained by the military, thereby limiting civilian powers and in essence, heralding a hybrid democratic regime.
While the Tatmadaw-supported Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was installed in power in 2010, it soon lost power to the NLD in elections held in 2015 with Ms Suu Kyi assuming the role of “State counsellor of Myanmar”. The NLD was elected with a landslide victory in the 2015 elections – it had won 86% of the seats.
Following the coup in February 2021, a series of nationwide protests, a general strike and civil disobedience campaigns including those led by civil servants occurred, leading to what was called the “Spring Revolution”. Members of the deposed NLD and other elected ethnic lawmakers formed a new political body called the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (or National Parliament in Burmese), which along with other civil society actors, ethnic party representatives and others later formed the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) — a dialogue platform seeking to unite pro-democratic forces.
The NUCC then agreed upon a “federal democratic charter” (FDC) that sought to come up with a future constitution, and a political roadmap to a “federal democratic” country to be led by a National Unity Government (NUG) that was announced in April 2021. A final publication of the FDC happened in March 2022, after incorporating ethnic demands of recognition of non-Bamar minority identities and equality. The United States Institute of Peace argues that the resistance is now “led by the most inclusive political coalition in Myanmar’s history”.
The junta, meanwhile, responded by violently and heavily cracking down on the largely peaceful movement leading to the NUG announcing the creation of People’s Defense Forces (PDF), militias that were seeking to emerge near the border and central Burmese areas and in September 2021, explicitly gave the call for the PDF and other rebels to attack the junta, launching a civil war.
The junta reacted by attacking the resistance through a counter-insurgency strategy that targeted civilians and resistance forces by the use of state terror – the burning of entire villages, schools and small towns besides using aerial attacks against its own population.
What has been the ethnic organisations’ response to the coup and its aftermath?
Even prior to Burmese independence, various non-Bamar ethnic groups had been striving for varying degrees of federal autonomy among other arrangements vis-a-vis the Burma government. Following military seizure of power in 1962, however, the junta put in place a military controlled structure across the country which soon led to several ethnic-group insurrections that lasted decades. By the mid-70s, the administrative functions of the Burmese government were effectively centralised and sought to remove any ethnic distinctions in federal arrangements, leading to the intensifying of the ethnic insurgencies.
The ethnic armed actors, despite coming under severe attack over the years from the Tatmadaw, managed to establish autonomous enclaves in their areas. With the Tatmadaw unable to defeat them entirely, it signed ceasefires with groups that allowed them to retain arms and some autonomy in minority areas, a situation that persisted during the “democratic” years after the 2008 Constitution and even today.
The ethnic armed groups’ responses to the insurrection call by the NUG have been varied. A paper by Paul Vrieze in Asian Survey journal last year pointed to three divergent responses. Groups such as the Karen (Karen National Union), Kachin (Kachin Independence Organization), Chin (Chin National Front) and Karenni (Karenni National Progressive Party) rebels supported the NUG, fighting the army and helping forming anti-coup militias. They did so while rejecting a NUG proposal for a single “Federal Army’‘ under unified NUG command.
It is noteworthy to point out that the junta’s first punitive action against ethnic armed organisations was targeted at those in Chin State in October 2021, an initiative that failed but resulted in several refugees fleeing to Mizoram and Manipur in India. While New Delhi passed strictures not to open camps or provide assistance, the Mizoram government defied the Union government’s order to deport the refugees and allowed them to take shelter. The Mizo people regard those from the Chin community as ethnic brethren. The influx of refugees in Manipur has heightened the ethnic conflict between the Kuki-Zo community and the majority Meiteis in the State.
Eight groups including the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), New Mon State Party (NMSP), Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) initially joined the NUCC dialogue, but after the junta’s crackdown, decided to retain their ceasefire status with the junta.
The TNLA, the Kokang-based MNDAA, and other northern groups in Shan State, besides the Rakhine state based AA used the post-coup situation to strengthen themselves without provoking the junta. These groups are also loosely allied with the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which has repudiated any ties with the NUG and retains its pre-coup relationship with the junta.
The Brotherhood Alliance between the MNDAA, AA and the TNLA and its attack on the junta forces since late October has changed the equations suddenly, in effect increasing the number of battlefields for the junta and stretching it thin.
An article published in the International Crisis Group by ICG expert Richard Horsey argues that this escalation by the three ethnic groups has more to do with their own particular interests.
The MNDAA seeks to “right what it sees as a historical wrong [its expulsion from “Kokang Self-Administered Zone” by the junta who installed border guards from a rival faction in its place] as well as to regain lucrative assets [gambling and other illicit industries included]”. The TNLA seeks control of an autonomous Ta’ang region, to connect it to the Chinese border for strategic and economic reasons while the Rakhine-based AA’s leadership operates from rebel-held areas near the Chinese border and has vital economic interests there. The AA also launched a series of attacks on 13 November in Rakhine State renewing a conflict and creating another battlefield for the junta to tackle during the civil war.
What has been the effect of the new attacks on the junta?
The net effect of “Operation 1027” and its aftermath has been a greater consolidation of post-coup rebel forces in attacking junta units making the civil war into a multi-front battle. The junta has promised a counter-offensive to regain areas that are crucial to cross-border trade with China and the ICG points out that “it is a well trained and well-equipped force, which has been continuously battling various insurgencies since World War II.. and its staying power cannot be underestimated”. It also suggests that the “regime will double down” on scorched earth, indiscriminate bombing and shelling to gain the upper hand, leading to an even more violent phase of the civil war.
How have international actors like China reacted?
Myanmar’s closest ally, China has leverage over some of the northern ethnic armed forces that are now engaged against the junta. While Beijing has publicly called for a cessation in hostilities, experts aver that the Chinese are willing to tolerate the actions as the rebels have evinced interest in reining in illicit activities such as “telecom scam centres” in the Kokang zone for example.
The MNDAA announced that it is planning to attack Laukkai township in Kokang and which is controlled by junta-affiliated militias and is also host to many cybercrime compounds. These illicit centres have trapped thousands of Chinese nationals besides many from South East Asia in forcing them to carry out internet fraud, theft and cybercrime activities targeting Chinese citizens and others. The ICG, however, suggests that China might rein in the groups once the “conflict drags on and threatens an extended period of instability”, especially since it has economic interests tied to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor as part of the Belt and Road project.
There are differences in the ASEAN grouping over the coup and the pro-democracy movement while India supports the restoration of democracy in principle but has not favoured any particular actor in the civil war.