Internal conflict in Myanmar

Internal conflict in Myanmar

Map of conflict areas in Myanmar (Burma). States and regions affected by fighting during and after 1995 are highlighted in yellow.
Date1948 – present
(68 years)
LocationMyanmar (Burma)


Autonomous self-administered zones created for ethnic minorities in 2010

Republic of the Union of Myanmar

Former combatants:
Union of Burma (1948–1962)

Military governments (1962–2011)

DKBA (1994–2010)

Insurgent groups[note 1]
ABSDF (since 1988)
Arakan Army (since 2009)
DKBA-5 (since 2010)
KIO (since 1961)

KNU (since 1949)

Karenni Army (since 1949)
MNLA (since 1958)
MNDAA (since 1989)
NDAA (since 1989)
SSA-N (since 1971)
SSA-S (since 1996)
TNLA (since 1992)
UWSP (since 1989)

...and others
Supported by:
 China (alleged)[1]

Unknown numbers of various other factions

Casualties and losses

130,000[28]–250,000[29] killed

600,000–1,000,000 civilians displaced[30]

The internal conflict in Myanmar (also known as Burma) refers to a series of ongoing insurgencies within Myanmar that began shortly after the country became independent from the United Kingdom in 1948. The conflict has been described as one of the world's "longest running civil wars".[31]


Prior to independence from the United Kingdom, several anti-colonial groups in Myanmar (Burma) protested against British rule over the country. The groups became especially influential during World War II, when the Empire of Japan promised an "independent Burmese state" (restricted under the status of a puppet state under Japan), and appointed Ba Maw as its head of state.[32] During this period, left wing groups such as the Communist Party of Burma (also known as the Burma Communist Party) and ethnic insurgent groups such as the Karen National Union began to emerge in opposition to both the British and Japanese.[33] 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 and the eventual outbreak of ethnic conflicts.[34]

After Burmese independence in 1948, communists and ethnic minorities in the country began growing discontent against the newly formed post-independence government, as they believed that they were being unfairly excluded from governing the country.[2][32] For example, it was noted that many Christian Karen military officials, whom were originally appointed by the British, were replaced with Buddhist Bamars by the new parliament. 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.[31][35]


The conflict is generally divided into three parts: Insurgencies during the post-independence period under parliamentary rule (1948–1962), insurgencies during post 1962 coup military rule under General Ne Win during the Cold War (1962–1988), and insurgencies during the modern post Cold War era, first under military (Tatmadaw) rule (1988–2011), and now currently under the new elected government.

Post-independence conflict (1948–1962)

Following independence, the two largest insurgent factions in Myanmar (Burma) were the communists, led by the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), and ethnic Karen insurgents, led by the Karen National Union (KNU). Both groups had fought the British colonial government prior to independence, and had also fought Japanese forces during their occupation in World War II.[32] Within eight months of independence, several other ethnic insurgent groups were formed, such as the Pa-O National Army.[36]

During the post-independence period, the KNU favoured an independent state, administered by the Karen people. The proposed state would be forged out of Kayin and Kayah State (Karen and Karenni State), in Outer Myanmar (Lower Burma). The KNU has since shifted their focus from full independence to regional autonomy, under a federal system with fair Karen representation in the government.[37]

Post-coup conflict (1962–1988)

"They Go Back": Insurgents of the Communist Party of Burma walk back to their bases after failed peace talks. (1963)

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.[25] 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.

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 became 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.[26]

8888 Uprising

Main article: 8888 Uprising

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,[38] The uprising ended on 18 September 1988, after a military coup was enacted by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), and Ne Win was overthrown.

Authorities in Myanmar (Burma) claimed that around 350 people were killed,[39][40] whilst anti-government groups claimed thousands died in the protests, with a high number of deaths attributed to the military.[41][42][43] According to the Economist, over 3,000 people were killed in the public uprising.[44] 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.

Post-Cold War conflict (1988–present)

In 2006, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) conducted a large 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 forcible relocation of villages by the government.[45][46]

In 2011, the Tatmadaw launched a military offensive named Operation Perseverance (ဇွဲမန်ဟိန်း) against insurgents in Shan State.[47] During the offensive, the Tatmadaw captured territory from the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) and the Shan State Army - North (SSA-N), with the SSA-N 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.[48][49][50][51][52][53]

On 19 November 2014, government forces attacked the Kachin Independence Army's headquarters near the city of Laiza, killing at least 22 KIA insurgents, according to the government.[54]

Between February and May 2015, government forces launched several military operations in Kokang, in northern Shan State;[55] in response to attempts by the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) to retake territory it had lost in 2009.[56]

On 9 October 2016, unidentified insurgents attacked border posts on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, killing nine border officers.[57] Clashes continued, and on 11 October 2016, four Tatmadaw soldiers were killed by insurgents with recently looted weapons.[58]

Main fronts

Kachin State

Main article: Kachin conflict

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.[59]

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.[60]

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.[61][62][63][64]

Kayah State

The largest insurgent group in Kayah State (also known as 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.[65]

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,[65] and consists of roughly between 500[13] and 1,500 soldiers.[17]

Kayin State

Main article: Karen conflict

The Karen people of Kayin State (also known as Karen State) in eastern Myanmar are the third largest ethnic group in Myanmar, consisting of 7% of the country's total population, and 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 and replaced by Ne Win, a Bamar nationalist who would go on to become the dictator of Myanmar, because of the rise of Karen opposition groups.[36]

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.[37] 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.[2]

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.[66] 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.[67]

Rakhine State

Insurgent groups of the Chin, Rakhine (also known as Arakanese), and Rohingya ethnic minorities have fought against the government for self-determination in Rakhine State since the early 1950s.[68][69][70]

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.[71]

Insurgents of the Rohingya ethnic minority 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,[70] 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.[72]

On 9 October 2016, an estimated 300 unidentified insurgents attacked three Burmese border posts along Myanmar's border with Bangladesh. 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.[57] On 11 October 2016, four Tatmadaw soldiers were killed on the third day of fighting.[58] Though it is not known who the perpetrators were, government officials in Rakhine State have blamed the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), an insurgent group that was mainly active in the 1980s and 1990s and had foreign Islamist backers, whilst others pointed to terrorist groups from Bangladesh.[73]

Shan State

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.[34] This was, however, not honoured by the post-independence government following Aung San's assassination.[6] 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.[74]

Political discontent

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 honored by the government, and has been one of the causes of insurgencies in those states.[6]

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.[75]

During the 1988 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.[76] The protest originally began in response to the government's removal of price subsidies for compressed natural gas.[77]

Aung Sun Su Kyi had been silenced by the military government, put under house arrest, and had been struggling to run in the country's elections for several years. In 2011, the government introduced a new constitution following political reforms, and thousands of political prisoners were released, including Aung San Su 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.[78]

Human rights violations

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.[66] 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.[67]

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.[79] Victims of landmines must travel to the Thai-Myanmar border to seek treatment, as local hospitals and facilities lack proper equipment and funding.[80]

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 Labor 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.[81] 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.[82]

Refugee crisis

Mae La Camp, Tak, Thailand, one of the largest of nine UNHCR camps in Thailand where over 700,000 refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless persons have fled.[83]

The conflict has resulted in a large number of both civilian deaths and refugees, with many refugees fleeing to Thailand. The UN estimates that between 1996 and 2006, around 1 million people were displaced inside Myanmar, and that over 230,000 people remain displaced in Southeast Myanmar, and 128,000 refugees live in temporary shelters on the Thai-Myanmar border.[84][85] In August 2007, approximately 160,000 refugees fled to nine refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar 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 assistance and support to the refugees.[86]

Civilians have allegedly been removed from their homes and have had their land confiscated by the government to be used in industrial projects.[84][87] Civilians have also been removed from their homes by the central government, and their land confiscated, in order for development projects and resource exploitation.[87][88]

In Rakhine State, there are currently about 75,000 Rohingya refugees, according to Refugee International.[89] UNICEF has reported that living conditions in Rohingya refugee camps in Rakhine State are "wholly inadequate" and lacks access to basic services.[90] Historically, the persecution of Burmese Indians and other ethnic minority groups in Myanmar after the 1962 coup has led to the expulsion of nearly 300,000 people.[91] More than 200,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh over the last 20 years to escape persecution.[92] 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."[93] Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri has also threatened Myanmar with terrorist attacks, after their "terror network" expanded into India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.[94]

International responses

 United Nations: Since 1991, the UN General Assembly has adopted twenty five UN resolutions regarding Myanmar's government, condemning previous military juntas for their systematic violations of human rights and lack of political freedom.[95] 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.[96] The request was mostly honoured during political reforms that begun in 2011 and ended in 2015. According to research from Harvard University’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC), three government officials have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in southeast Myanmar under a previous military regime.[97]

Foreign support

 China – The People's Republic of China allegedly supported the Communist Party of Burma until its dissolution in 1989, and have recently been accused of supporting insurgent groups across its border with Myanmar such as the United Wa State Army.[5]

 Thailand – Thailand had been a vocal supporter of various insurgent groups in Myanmar, and allowed weapons and ammunition to be smuggled through Thailand into Myanmar through lax enforcing of its border.[3] 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.[2]

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.[10][Videos 1]

Ceasefire negotiations

Under the new constitutional reforms in 2011, state level and union level ceasefire agreements were made with many rebel factions. 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 Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), its allies, and the government, has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and create another severe humanitarian crisis in Kachin and northern Shan State.[98] 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.[99] However, most of the negotiations between the State Peace Deal Commission and rebel factions were formal and peaceful.[100]

In April 2015, a draft Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement was finalised between representatives from fifteen different insurgent groups (all part of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team or NCCT), and the Government of Myanmar.[101]

In October 2015, after two years of negotiations, the government of Myanmar announced that it will finalise and sign a ceasefire agreement with eight insurgent groups, including the Karen National Union. However, only 8 out of the 15 original signatories signed the ceasefire agreement on 15 October 2015, after seven of members of the NCCT backed out of negotiations in September 2015. The signing was witnessed by observers and delegates from the United Nations, the United Kingdom, Norway, Japan, and the United States.[45][46]

See also


  1. Only groups with significant numbers or recent activity is shown. For a full list see here.
  2. The CIA aided Kuomintang soldiers fleeing from communist forces in Myanmar through Operation Paper, supplying them with non-lethal aid via Thailand until 1953, when they airlifted 7,000 soldiers back to Taiwan and stopped the operation.[4][5]</ref> Commanders and leaders Htin Kyaw
    (President of Myanmar)
    Sein Win
    (Minister of Defence)
    Min Aung Hlaing
    Soe Win
    (Deputy Commander-in-Chief) Twan Mrat Naing
    Naw Zipporah Sein
    Saw Mutu Say Poe
    Pheung Kya-shin
    Yang Mao-liang
    Bao Youxiang
    Wei Hsueh-kang Units involved Tatmadaw
    • Local armed insurgents[9]
    • Foreign volunteers[10]
    Strength 492,000[note 3]
  3. Number shown includes personnel not directly involved in the conflict. There are also an additional 72,000 reserve personnel.<ref>International Institute for Strategic Studies; Hackett, James (ed.) (2010). The Military Balance 2010. London: Routledge, pp. 420-421. ISBN 1-85743-557-5.


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