Internal conflict in Myanmar

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Internal conflict in Myanmar
Burma en.png
Map of Myanmar and its administrative divisions
Date 4 January 1948–present
(68 years, 1 month and 5 days)
Location Myanmar (Burma)



Myanmar Republic of the Union of Myanmar

Former combatants:
Union of Burma (1948–1962)

Military governments (1962–2011)

DKBA (1994–2010)

Opposition forces[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)
SSAN (since 1971)
SSAS (since 1996)
TNLA (since 1992)
UWSP (since 1989)

...and others
Supported by:
 China (alleged)[1]
 Thailand (until 1995)[2][3]

Commanders and leaders

Myanmar Thein Sein
(President of Myanmar)
Myanmar Min Aung Hlaing
Myanmar Wai Lwin
(Minister of Defence)
MyanmarMyanmar Police Emblem.png Swe Thet Myint
(Chief of Police)

Twan Mrat Naing
Bo Nat Khann Mway
Naw Zipporah Sein
Saw Mutu Say Poe
Pheung Kya-shin
Yang Mao-liang
Yawd Serk
Bao Youxiang
Wei Hsueh-kang


492,000[note 3]
Myanmar Police Emblem.png 93,000[8]

800+ (2,000 reserves)[17]
Unknown numbers of various other factions

6,000 (1951)[1]
4,000+ (1951)[1]
14,000 (1950)[6]


Casualties and losses

130,000[25]–250,000[26] total killed

600,000–1,000,000 displaced or fled abroad[27]

The Internal conflict in Myanmar (also known as Burma) refers to a series of insurgencies within Myanmar that began 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".[28]


Prior to independence from the United Kingdom, there were several anti-colonial groups in Myanmar, which protested against British rule over the country. This became especially prevalent in WWII, when the Empire of Japan promised an "independent" Myanmar (though under the status of a puppet state under Japan), and appointed Aung San, considered a founding father of Myanmar, as its head of state.[29] During this period, left wing groups such as the Communist Party of Burma (CPB; also known as the Burma Communist Party) and ethnic minority insurgent groups such as the Karen National Union (KNU) began to emerge in opposition to both the British and Japanese.[30]

After Myanmar gained independence in 1948, communists and ethnic minorities in the country grew discontent for the newly formed post-independence government, as they believed that they were being unfairly excluded from governing the country. For example, it was noted that many Christian Karen officials, whom were originally appointed by the British for a post-independence parliament, 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 suggested the proposal 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 starting in 2011, had largely fallen apart.[28][31]


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 in the 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)[edit]

Following independence, the two largest anti-government factions in Myanmar 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 government prior to independence, and had also fought Japanese forces during their occupation of Myanmar in World War II.[29]

During the post-independence period, the KNU favoured an independent state, administered by the Karen people. The proposed state would be forged out of Karen State (now known as Kayin State) and Karenni State (now known as Kayah 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.[32]

Post-coup conflict (1962–1988)[edit]

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 had governed Myanmar, 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.[22] 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.

Immediately after the coup and in 1972, General Ne Win held peace talks with opposition groups and insurgent groups, 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 rebel insurgents walked back to their bases, with headlines across Myanmar 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.[23]

8888 Uprising[edit]

Main article: 8888 Uprising

On 8 August 1988, students began demonstrating in Yangon (Rangoon) against General Ne Win's rule, and the disastrous Burmese Way to Socialism system. The protests spread across the country,[33] 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 claimed that around 350 people were killed,[34][35] whilst others claimed thousands died in the protests, with a high number of deaths attributed to the military.[36][37][38] According to the Economist, over 3,000 people were killed in the public uprising.[39] 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 rebel groups did not receive much support from ruling or opposition political parties in Myanmar. The Tatmadaw severely weakened ethnic rebel groups, destroying most of their bases and strongholds in the 1990s.

Post-Cold War conflict (1988–present)[edit]

In 2006, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) conducted an immense 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.[40][41]

In August 2007, approximately 160,000 refugees fled to the Thai border provinces of Chiang Mai and Ratchaburi, and refugee camps were established around the Myanmar-Thailand border. Approximately 62% of the refugee population consisted of people from the Karen ethnic minority. Humanitarian organisations were formed to assist and support the refugees.[citation needed]

In 2011, the Tatmadaw launched a military offensive named "Operation Perseverance" (ဇွဲမန်ဟိန်း) against insurgents in Shan State.[42] 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.[43][44][45][46][47][48]

In 2007, hundreds of thousands of monks defied the military government's rule, but were severely cracked down upon. In 2010, the government introduced a new constitution, and Aung San Su Kyi and thousands of other political prisoners were released.[citation needed]

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.[49]

Main fronts[edit]

Kachin State[edit]

Main article: Kachin conflict

The Kachin people are an ethnic group in Kachin State, an administrative division in northern Myanmar. 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. Regular Kachin soldiers previously formed a significant part of the Myanmar military; however, after General Ne Win's regime seized power after the 1962 Burmese coup d'état, 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 Burmese people have been predominantly Buddhist.[50]

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.[51]

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.[52][53][54][55]

Kayah State[edit]

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.[56]

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,[56] and consists of roughly between 500[11] and 1,500 soldiers.[16]

Kayin State[edit]

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. The Karen people have fought for independence and self-determination since 1949, after the Army Chief of Staff, 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 from 1962 until his ousting in 1988.[57]

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 system 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 starting in 2011.

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 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.[58] 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 however, has denied the claims.[59]

Rakhine State[edit]

Several ethnic minorities have fought against the government for self-determination in Rakhine State, such as the Chin, the Rakhine (also known as Arakanese), and the Rohingya.[60][61][62]

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 starting in 2011. 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.[63]

Insurgents of the Rohingya ethnic minority have been fighting local government forces in northern Rakhine State since 1948, with ongoing religious prejudice between the predominantly Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines fueling the conflict. The political rights of the Rohingya people have been an underlying issue in the conflict; spontaneous bouts of violence such as the 2012 Rakhine State riots have periodically occurred as a result. Despite consisting of a majority of the population in three northern townships in Rakhine State,[62] Rohingyas are often targets of religiously motivated attacks. Because the government does not recognize the Rohingya people as an official ethnic group in Myanmar, Rohingyas cannot apply for citizenship, and few laws exist to protect their rights.[64]

Shan State[edit]

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 gave 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, a contributing factor to the formation of Shan insurgent groups such as the Shan State Army (SSA).[6]

During the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) occupation to secure the region, locals accused them of mistreating, torturing, robbing, raping, unlawfully arresting, and killing villagers. As a result, on 21 May 1958, an armed resistance movement, led by Sao Noi and Saw Yanna, was started in Shan State. As of January 2016, one the strongest Shan insurgent groups in Myanmar is the Shan State Army - South (SSA-S), which 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 government and the SSA-S agreed in (mutual) principle to the following 11 points on 16 January 2012:[citation needed][needs update]

  1. To allow SSA-S headquarters in Homain sub-township and Mong Hat sub-township
  2. To negotiate and arrange the resettlement of SSA-S troops and their families in the locations mentioned in the first point
  3. The appointment by the SSA-S of village heads in the region, which would work with government official for township administration;
  4. Government soldiers in Homain sub-township and Mong Hat sub-township will give help to the SSA-S
  5. Both sides will discuss and negotiate to arrange for the security of SSA-S leaders
  6. Government troops and the SSA-S would negotiate to designate areas where they could enter border areas;
  7. Each side agreed to inform the other side in advance if one side wants to enter the other's control area with weapons
  8. To open liaison offices between the government and the SSA-S in Taunggyi, Kholam, Kengtung, Mong Hsat and Tachileik and trading offices in Muse and Nanhkam
  9. Government ministers will arrange for SSA-S members to run businesses and companies in accord with existing policies, by providing aid and the required technology
  10. To co-operate with the union government for regional development
  11. To co-operate with the government in making plan for battling drug trafficking

Political discontent[edit]

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.[65]

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.

Aung Sun Su Kyi has been silenced by the Myanmar government in the past, put under house arrest, and has been struggling to run for president for many years. 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 run for president. These amendments however, were rejected.[66]

Human rights violations[edit]

The government of Myanmar has been accused of using "scorched earth" tactics against civilians, most notably on Karen civilians. 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.[58] 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.[59]

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.[67] Victims of landmines must travel to the Thai-Myanmar border to seek treatment, as local hospitals and facilities lack proper equipment and funding.[68]

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.[69] 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.[70]

Refugee crisis[edit]

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.[71]

The conflict has resulted in a large number of both civilian deaths and refugees, with many refugees fleeing to Western Thailand, around Tak Province. 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.[72][73] Civilians have also been removed from their homes by the central government, and their land confiscated, in order for development projects and the extraction of natural resources.[72][74] Civilians have also been removed from their homes by the central government, and their land confiscated, in order for development projects and resource exploitation.[74][75]

According to Refugee International, there are currently about 75,000 Rohingya refugees in Myanmar.[76] UNICEF has reported that living conditions in Rohingya refugee camps in Rakhine State are "wholly inadequate" and lacks access to basic services.[77] 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.[78] More than 200,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh over the last 20 years to escape persecution.[79] 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."[80] Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri has also threatened Myanmar with terrorist attacks, after their "terror network" expanded into India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.[81]

International Responses[edit]

United Nations United Nations: In November 2009, the UN General Assembly, condemned Myanmar's government and previous military juntas for the systematic violations of human rights, and urged the current government to take urgent measures to end violations of international human rights and humanitarian laws.[82] This was partially honoured after the 2011 constitution and government reforms. According to research from Harvard University’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC), three government officials, including the incumbent Minister of Domestic Affairs of Myanmar, have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in Southeast Myanmar under previous military regime.[83]

Foreign support[edit]

 China: The People's Republic of China allegedly supported the Communist Party of Burma, and later the United Wa State Army.[5]

Pakistan East Pakistan: East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) supported Rohingya insurgent groups such as the Mujahideen in Northern Arakan.[5]

 Thailand: Thailand has been a major contributor of supplies and arms since the conflict began. Thai leaders have a deep distrust for Myanmar, who have historically invaded Thailand in past centuries. Weapons and ammunition from Thailand have allowed insurgent groups to remain active in the ongoing conflict with the Tatmadaw.[3]

Thailand's support was evident during the 1999 Burmese Embassy Siege. While the United Nations, together with the United States and Myanmar governments, referred to the siege as an "act of terrorism", the Thai government responded differently, stating: "the captors are students working for democracy, not terrorists".[84]

 United States: 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]

Others: A renowned Australian criminal, Dave Everett also fought alongside and trained Karen insurgents, sympathising with them to the point of committing armed robbery to fund his weapon smuggling operation in Myanmar.[85]

Ceasefire negotiations[edit]

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.[86] All of the 14 signatories wanted negotiations in accordance with the Pang Long Agreement of 1948, 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 Pang Long 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.[87] However, most of the negotiations between the State Peace Deal Commission and rebel factions were formal and peaceful.[88]

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.[89]

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.[40][41]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Only groups of significant size 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]
  3. ^ Includes an additional 72,000 reserve personnel.[7]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Kipgen, Nehginpao. "Democracy Movement in Myanmar: Problems and Challenges." New Delhi: Ruby Press & Co., 2014. Print.

External links[edit]