The dry season offensive in Myanmar has become somewhat of a tradition. This year, the refusal of various ethnic groups to sign a ‘National Ceasefire Accord’ led to early army attacks against one of the major rebel factions, the Shan State Army-North. After the Shan State Army refused a Myanmar army (more commonly known as the Tatmadaw) demand to withdraw from positions on a road near rebel-held towns in Central Shan State, the army unleashed its arsenal on the hilltop posts that demarcate lines of control in the mountainous periphery of Myanmar. Since this conflict first recommenced 6 October, the SSA-N has deployed roughly 1,000 troops to the surrounding areas.
This narrative likely sounds drearily familiar to the inhabitants of Myanmar’s peripheral regions. Myanmar is host to the longest running insurgency in modern history, the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army, which has been fighting near continuously for over 60 years. Several factors, including history, geography, and transnational support, have combined to crystallize civil conflict in Myanmar to the point where its cessation is nearly unthinkable, and every year brings the same old violence.
The History of Civil Violence in Myanmar
Civil violence broke out almost immediately upon Myanmar’s independence from the British Empire in 1948. The Konbuang dynasty, which predated the British occupation and was part of the majority Bamar ethnicity (from which the British derived the name ‘Burma’), was decidedly expansionist, expanding its borders to include many of the ethnic minorities who now inhabit the peripheral provinces of Myanmar.
In a series of Anglo-Burmese wars starting in 1824, the British gained control of Myanmar. Under the British, several of these minorities were recognised as martial races, and thus given higher status and targeted for military recruitment. Christian missionaries also dispersed to the various minority groups in the hinterlands of Myanmar, having particular success with the Kachins, Chins, and Karens, and inculcating a sense of nationalism within the ethnicities with whom they interacted.
Such nationalism came to the forefront of Myanmarese politics during the Japanese occupation of Myanmar during the Second World War. The Chin, Kachin, Shan, and Karen fought with the British and the United States against the Japanese forces, while the Bamar-controlled government collaborated, even going above and beyond the wishes of the Japanese in attempting to exterminate various ethnicities.
With this historical background, it is no surprise that conflict in Myanmar broke out soon after independence. Various groups have been at the forefront of ethnic conflict in Myanmar; even the ethnically unaligned Communist Party of Burma was a major rebel force between 1948 and 1989. However, as of today, there are three main groups which endure: the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the Shan State Armies, and the Karen National Union’s military branch, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
The UWSA is Myanmar’s largest rebel coalition, with estimates of up to 30,000 troops. The group emerged first as a splinter of, and then as the primary successor to, the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). It controls a sizable amount of territory in remote Wa State, bording China’s Yunnan Province. As a successor to the CPB, the UWSA is unofficially supplied by Chinese arms systems, including surface-to-air missiles and tank destroyers. The UNSA has also made a name for itself in jade smuggling and narco-trafficking.
Further south, bordering China, Laos, and Thailand, the Shan State Army is composed of two factions: Shan State Army-North (SSA-North) and Shan State Army-South (SSA-S). Of the two, the SSA-S is the larger and more dangerous group, but both manage to control territory independently. Like Wa State, Shan State is part of the Golden Triangle, where much of the world’s opium is grown. Hence, like the UWSA, both the SSA-N and SSA-S provide much of their funding from drug smuggling.
Lastly, the Karen National Union, and its military branch, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), has been fighting the world’s longest running insurgency, for over sixty years. Because the KNLA’s area of operations straddles the border between Myanmar and Thailand, the group has at various times been used as a proxy force by the Thai military, although this has lessened in recent years.
Other Factors which Enable Conflict
Two other interrelated factors determine the persistence of civil conflict in Myanmar: geography, and transnational networks of support. The provinces in question, Wa State, Shan State, and Kayah State, are on the periphery of Myanmar and contain the rugged, elevated regions bordering the Irrawaddy valley, which is populated by the majority Bamar people. The dense terrain makes it difficult for government forces to penetrate rebel-held areas, and prevents the government from using the majority of its mechanised forces in counterinsurgency operations.
Moreover, the fact that this territory is on the periphery of the country means that many rebels receive transnational forms of support. This support can come from diasporas or refugee camps, but the most important support comes from states. As the literature shows, States can provide safe havens, large amounts of money, and armaments.
In addition, these three states form a contiguous corridor of loosely administered territory which stretches from the Thai border to Northeast India, bordering Laos and China on the way. This corridor, in addition to a maritime route along Myanmar’s coast, serves to facilitate illegal transfers of arms across Southeast Asia. These arms usually flow from Cambodia, where a United Nations disarmament programme failed to destroy the majority of small arms in the country. The practical result of this is an abundant supply of small arms, which lowers the cost of violence in Myanmar.
This Year’s Offensive: Same Old, Same Old
The fact that this year’s offensive so closely resembles that of the previous years may come as a surprise to those who have heard about the ongoing democratization of Myanmar. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won the majority of seats in Myanmar’s parliament. But the majority of the NLD’s support comes from the majority Bamar people. Moreover, the military still exercises an outsized amount of authority and there is no indication that Daw Suu Kyi will be able to rein in the military.
Change may be coming to Myanmar, but that change is being felt most strongly in Rangoon and in Naypyidaw. In the three states where the majority of rebel activity occurs, child soldiers and displaced people remain the norm. Out in the rebel-held periphery, it’s just another year, another dry season offensive.