Myanmar’s Civil War: Internal and External Factors Fueling Conflict

Myanmar’s military has been attempting to maintain its authoritarian model, dominating and controlling the pace of democracy in the country. This has led to the declaration of the 2020 parliamentary elections as marred by fraud, claiming to be champions of clean and representative governance. However, the opposition’s National Unity Government (NUG), led by the National League of Democracy (NLD), represents the voice of the people of Myanmar, who want the country to emerge out of the military’s stranglehold.

The military’s proposed election is about installing a facade that will represent its interests, while the NLD-led opposition’s objectives are to guide Myanmar to a viable democracy with civilian leadership and a military in its expected place guaranteeing security. The last 32 months in Myanmar have been marked by intense violence, with both parties seeming to underestimate each other’s strategy and conviction. The NLD initially organized a civil disobedience movement, appealing to the military’s good sense and forcing it to reverse its decision.

However, the military erred in judging the effectiveness of opposition adaptation to the requirements of an emerging civil war. The success of the NLD-led opposition groups in linking to the longtime, collective armed opposition posed by battle-hardened ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) negated any hope the military might have had of quickly stabilizing the country.

The ongoing violence is characterized by the military’s no-holds-barred response, including arrests and detention of opposition leaders and activists, violent raids, and air and artillery strikes over PDF safe havens and EAO strongholds. The opposition’s response has limited the military’s territorial control to mostly urban centers, while allowing EAOs and PDFs to dominate vast swathes of land in the borderlands.

The military in Myanmar has received significant assistance from countries like China, Russia, India, and Thailand, despite the opposition’s struggle to secure finances and supplies. The military has been shielded from censure in the United Nations by these nations, while India has trained its officials and offered help in holding elections. Thailand’s posture has been disappointing due to its long history of corrupt involvement in Myanmar.

The U.S. and its allies have continued to impose sanctions on the military’s officials, which have had little practical effect but appear to allow a claim of action. The United Nations has repeatedly mentioned the military’s ‘war crimes’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ but has done little of practical value to assist the Opposition. Western countries have stuck to a moralistic position of criticising the military and imposing ineffective sanctions, while doing little else to add to the potency of the Opposition to win the confrontation.

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which could potentially have played a decisive role in Myanmar’s state of affairs, has failed to take a united stand on the situation. Members have pursued independent politics, posing questions regarding the existence or absence of an organizational stance. This is hardly surprising given the state of corrupt, authoritarian politics in some members.

The specter of a frozen conflict seems looming, as conflicts can demonstrate an element of longevity or even perpetuity. Five contextual reasons could be relevant to understanding the phenomenon in Myanmar and similar situations like Ukraine. Conflicts often end quickly when one party gains the ability to mount a disproportionate and decisive armed campaign against the adversary. In Myanmar, opposition PDFs and EAOs have managed to meet the military’s might through adaptation and control over territory, potentially drawing out the conflict.

Conflicts in the mental arena of opponents often continue as long as parties have conviction in their agenda and faith in their ability to prevail. The military and Opposition’s objectives are irreconcilable, with no middle ground between their demands for the military to return to the barracks and the military’s objective of perpetuating its occupation of the seat of power.

The supply chain of logistics is crucial in prolonging conflicts, with Russia and China providing advanced weapons systems worth $406 million and $267 million respectively. The opposition relies on traditional supply chains of the Eastern Alliance (EAOs) for weapons. Both sides manage their requirements well, with China and Russia supporting the military regime diplomatically.

The age of social media has also played a role in prolonging the duration of conflicts. Access to the internet, especially social media platforms, can enhance the capacities of the weaker party in asymmetric battle, especially as ongoing crimes are exposed. Networks of cooperation, communication, and assistance enable political and logistical assistance and international pressure upon the perpetrator. The Opposition in Myanmar has used this approach to its advantage to stay in the game and position itself as offering hope of advancement.

The trajectory of the civil war has shifted somewhat to the Opposition’s favor since Operation 1027, which has led to substantial areas in northern Myanmar bordering China being slipped out of military control. The military’s vulnerability against a united opposition underscores its weaknesses, offering lessons for countries relying on its dominance in Myanmar’s foreign policy.

MyanmarMyanmar Civil WarMyanmar's Civil War: Internal and External Factors Fueling Conflict