Myanmar faces loss of generations to civil war

The civil war that began in 2021 has seen three main groups fighting for political control.
In Myanmar, there is a unique relationship that binds the military with the ethnic groups.
In Myanmar, there is a unique relationship that binds the military with the ethnic groups. (Photo | AFP)

On February 1, Myanmar completed three years since the coup d’etat led by General Min Aung Hliang. The intense civil war that followed the 2021 coup, the lack of a political will to move towards any forms of resolution, and the deteriorating economic conditions have all contributed to bringing the country back to year zero, undermining the minimal progress achieved during a decade of political change. 

The civil war that began in 2021 has seen three main groups fighting for political control. Of the three, one is the Myanmar military, which is focused on maintaining political control following its capture of power. The ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) and the People’s Defence Force (PDF) are the other two. The former has been fighting the military ever since independence. The latter emerged in the aftermath of the 2021 coup.

In Myanmar, there is a unique relationship that binds the military with the ethnic groups. During the nationalist movement in Burma, the Burmese interim government led by General Aung San fought the colonial presence in the country. The British divided the ethnic groups from the Burmese interim government with promises of recognition and political rights, where the groups could gain their own advantages under the British.

However, the Burmese interim government and the ethnic groups entered into the Panglong agreement of 1947 which allowed the ethnic groups the right of autonomy within a federated structure allowing for certain privileges. This led to the Burmese interim government and the ethnic groups combining their efforts to remove the colonial presence.

Following the 1962 coup d’etat under General Ne Win, years of military rule kept a tight lid on the differences, but widened the gap between the ruling establishment and the ethnic armed groups. While the military government was able to establish tenuous ceasefires with some of the armed groups, others continued fighting. With Aung San Suu Kyi coming to power in 2016, a 21st century Panglong agreement was envisaged to bring in a lasting peace, albeit prematurely. But it made little headway . Then came the 2021 coup, ending all such political efforts.

The PDF, unlike the ethnic armed groups, emerged recently during the uprisings against the junta in the aftermath of the February 2021 coup, which saw a more active response from the civilian population against the junta leadership. Most of these groups have taken inspiration from the national unity government in exile, but were disadvantaged due to the lack of a structured leadership, command base and resources to sustain their activities. Where they have an advantage is in how their efforts, triggered by the changed ground realities, have influenced the group’s resistance.

The PDF has given the military some of the most long-drawn battles since the coup, pushing the resistance against the military to the grassroots. This strong response from the civilian population was unusual, because during earlier military rules since the August 1988 revolt, the civilian Bamar ethnic majority were more easily pliable and subjugated by the military. However, this time around, the brief period of democratic rule, the experience of relative change in the political environment, led to a remarkable shift in how the civilians mobilised themselves. This is the clear shift that the junta misread, which has been the nuanced ray of hope in how the conflict has evolved.

Throughout the last few months the PDF and the ethnic armed groups have staged a strong pushback against the military and have made advances that ushered in a phase of change, even if this remains limited for the time being. These small advances contributed a sense of energy to the forces opposing the military, though it would be premature to call these as major shifts in the political scenario.

The military has lost nearly 30,000 soldiers and efforts to recoup has led to forced conscription where the youth are being drafted into the civil war in the most uncivil fashion. This approach to recalibrate its strength and control will put at risk an entire generation of youth, significantly altering the nation’s demography, placing young lives at risk. Moreover, the recruitment of child soldiers on both sides of the political divide creates the added risk of a generational loss in the ensuing conflict.

A report published by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in end of 2023, titled Humanitarian Needs and Response Plan Myanmar for the year 2024, estimates that the dire circumstances within the country has pushed nearly 19 million people to the brink of existence, who are now in need of some form of humanitarian assistance. The humanitarian situation was also exacerbated by the devastating effects of Cyclone Mocha, which hit Myanmar in the summer of 2023, combining both natural and political crises in a smoldering cauldron leading to further havoc. While some humanitarian relief trickled in following the cyclone, the sustained efforts at providing relief have yielded little given the intransigence of the junta.

The last three years of conflict have also brought the economy, already battered by the Covid-19 pandemic and the political crisis, to a grinding haltThe combinations of these factors have left an unparalleled economic situation.

While the recent victories of the PDF and EAOs have offered some degree of hope, the reality is that sustained effort at coordination is needed to achieve long-term gains. Such coordination remains minimal at present. In order to achieve sustained advances, these groups need to be supported both financially and militarily, which cannot happen as the non-interference in internal affairs principle automatically kicks in negating the amount that the international community can do. As the conflict in Myanmar continues, it only reveals that the level of losses are going to be truly high, regardless of who wins in the end.

(Views are personal) 

Shankari Sundararaman

Professor, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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The New Indian Express