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Myanmar Conflict Briefing

A year of brutal violence since the military coup in 2021

One year on from the February 1st military coup in Myanmar, violence and devastating harm to civilians by State military forces continues to intensify across the country. Last year (2021), Action on Armed Violence recorded 694 casualties from explosive weapons in Myanmar, 51% (353) of whom were civilians. The death toll was significant, as civilian fatalities outnumbered injuries, with 195 people killed and 158 wounded. At the very least, 76% (267) of all civilian casualties from explosive weapons were caused by Myanmar state forces, and in the case of 84 civilian casualties the perpetrator was unknown.

Protestors gather at a demonstration in Yangon, 22 February 2021. Photo: 2021 Sipa USA via AP

Explosive violence is only one form of harm that has tormented civilians across the country since the February 1st coup. Over 1,500 civilians are likely to have been shot by junta forces in the last year, and over 11,000 activists, politicians, and journalists, among others, have been arbitrarily detained, with hundreds forcibly disappeared. The proliferation of armed actors and the continued political, civilian, and armed resistance has compounded pre-existing armed conflicts and insecurity across Myanmar. An extreme humanitarian crisis within and beyond the country’s borders has escalated dramatically since the beginning of 2021, as over 400,000 people remain internally displaced, 32,000 people have fled to Thailand and India, and 14.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

This country briefing report presents a summary of the key events leading up to the coup, and provides an overview of the conflict as it currently stands.

Key Events and Timeline

The roots of Myanmar’s protracted intrastate armed conflict go back centuries. The patchwork of ethnic and linguistic groups in the area have weathered migrations, secessions, invasions and infighting since the 1st century AD.

In more modern history, the country’s struggles for independence from Britain and a national identity in 1948, and General Ne Win’s military coup of 1962, which resulted in Myanmar being under a military government for 26 years, have perpetuated disunity, social injustice, and violence that in many ways have characterised the country’s history.

Following the end of General Ne Win’s active rule, Myanmar remained under the control of another military junta, known as the Tatmadaw, from 1988 to 2011, consolidating the status quo. A simplified timeline from 2008, when the first steps towards a nominally civilian government were taken, is presented here to provide an overview of recent events which have fanned the flames of the current violence.

  • 2008 – The junta publishes a proposed new constitution in response to the 2007 Saffron Revolution, international pressure, and the desire for economic growth. The new constitution allocates a quarter of seats in parliament to the military and bans opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from holding office, thus giving the Tatmadaw widespread powers under a nominally civilian rule.
  • 2011 – The military government unexpectedly dissolves and establishes a civilian parliament for a transitional period. Thein Sein, an army bureaucrat, is sworn in as president of a new, nominally civilian government. He signs a law allowing peaceful demonstrations for the first time.
  • 2015 – The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, wins enough seats in the parliamentary elections to form a government. She becomes leader in the specially created role of ‘state counsellor.’ A close ally of hers is sworn in as president in 2016. This democratic government is accused of allowing the Tatmadaw to carry out genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity against Rohingya Muslims, but Aung San Suu Kyi rejects the findings. 
  • 2020 – The NLD wins the election by even more seats. The Tatmadaw’s political party, the USDP, demands a rerun and calls for military assistance to ensure fairness. Military leaders allege voter fraud.
  • 2021
    •  January 26 – Army spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun warns that the military will “take action” if the election dispute is not settled. He declines to rule out staging a coup, and asks the election commission to investigate voter lists claimed to have contained discrepancies.
    • January 28 – The election commission rejects allegations of vote fraud.
    • January 30 – Myanmar’s military says it will protect and abide by the constitution and act according to the law.
    • February 1 –  The military imposes a year-long state of emergency and says power has been transferred to military chief Min Aung Hlaing. Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior government officials are arrested in a series of early morning raids.
    • Immediately following the coup, members of the deposed parliament came together to form the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), with the aim of performing their responsibilities as elected lawmakers.
    • The protests following the coup are the largest since the 2007 Saffron Revolution. They develop into a resistance movement that gradually takes on a more revolutionary character: political and armed dissidents are no longer seeking a restoration of the status quo ante, rather they seek to abolish the Tatmadaw and replace them with a new military, one which is more representative of Myanmar’s ethnic diversity.
    • April – The CRPH announces the National Unity Government (NUG), including an ethnically diverse cabinet.
    • May – The NUG announces the establishment of a national-level People’s Defence Force (PDF). However, most armed groups continue to operate autonomously. It also announces a Code of Conduct for all armed resistance groups, according to International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law. It remains unclear how much control they actually have over the behaviour of armed groups.
    • September – The NUG declares a People’s Defensive War against the junta, sparking increasingly intense clashes between junta forces, civilian armed resistance fighters and Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs).

Key Actors

Aung San Suu Kyi

The daughter of independence hero General Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi has been the face of the democratic movement in Myanmar since 1988, when she formed the NLD opposition party. She has been repeatedly arrested, detained, and released since then. In 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi led the NLD to victory, becoming the country’s de facto leader – despite the constitution preventing her from becoming president. However, she and her party have been accused of supporting the Tatmadaw’s attacks in ethnic areas, and of blocking international humanitarian access to displaced populations. She has strongly defended Myanmar against charges of genocide, despite reportedly urging the military to ‘crush’ the rebels. Nonetheless, she continues to enjoy widespread domestic support.

Min Aung Hlaing

Military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing is the public face of the Tatmadaw and the current military government. He has been wielding significant political influence for many years, successfully maintaining the Tatmadaw’s power throughout the move towards democracy. He is under international condemnation and sanctions for his alleged role in the Tatmadaw’s attacks on minorities.

The Tatmadaw

The Tatmadaw is Myanmar’s military, which operates as a state within a state, maintaining a complex web of business interests. The UN Fact-Finding mission reported on the Tatmadaw’s most ‘opaque’ operations, Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), which are allegedly owned by senior military leaders including Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and his deputy, Vice Senior General Soe Win. MEHL and MEC reportedly own at least 120 businesses involved in everything from construction to pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, insurance, tourism, and banking. The Tatmadaw is known to inculcate enlisted men with intense propaganda. 

The National Unity Government (NUG)

The NUG, a shadow government representing the elected lawmakers of 2020, enjoys strong popular support from the majority Burman population and some of the country’s EAOs. It has taken on a wide range of government functions, including attempting to build political and military alliances with EAOs, repealing the unpopular 2008 constitution, and announcing plans for a federal charter.

Urban Rebel Cells and Civil Defence Forces

Since the 2021 coup, grassroots defence forces have been springing up throughout the country to oppose the junta. Many of these groups operate at the local level, and are not all affiliated with the NUG or the PDF. Some associate themselves with local EAOs, and more still operate autonomously and in isolation. They use their numbers and knowledge of the local terrain to their advantage so that, despite being armed mostly with hunting rifles and makeshift weapons, they have been able to stretch the Tatmadaw’s resources. In urban settings, underground networks of youths, who attend training camps in the jungle, adopt guerilla tactics to inflict harm on the Tatmadaw and protect their towns. Their tactics include bombings, arson, and targeted killings (including people suspected of being aligned with the Tatmadaw or acting as informants).

Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs)

When Myanmar achieved independence from British colonial rule in 1948, the country was left with a patchwork of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic groups. The state’s failure to protect or represent minorities resulted in the development of armed organisations, representing the military wing of ethnic political movements which sought autonomy and recognition. These armed groups, called ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), acted both for and against the state, which has been known to offer resources or autonomy in exchange for serving its interests in Myanmar’s border areas, and allied themselves with, or acted against, groups representing rival ethnicities. The insecurity this environment generated only encouraged the creation of more and more armed groups, a phenomenon that has occurred repeatedly throughout Myanmar’s modern history. This evolved into an almost constant state of disparate armed struggles throughout Myanmar over autonomy, ethnic identity, drugs, and natural resources, pitching EAOs against each other and against the military government.

An estimated one-third of Myanmar’s territory – mostly the border regions – is controlled by around 20 EAOs. Key groups include the United Wa State Army, the Karen National Union, the Kachin Independence Army, the Arakan Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army.

Image: Resistance to the Myanmar regime in Chin state – a photo essay. (Alex McBride, Guardian)

Myanmar’s Intrastate Armed Conflict

The Geneva Academy’s Rule of Law in Armed Conflict portal, RULAC, has designated the intensity of the armed violence in Myanmar, as well as the levels of organisation of the armed actors involved, as meeting the threshold to qualify as an intrastate armed conflict. Indeed, the February 1st coup has sparked the largest popular protests seen in Myanmar, and this is the first time that civil defence forces are forming. The line between civilians and enemy combatants is consequently increasingly blurred, reinforcing the Tatmadaw’s violent repression of dissidents and civilians. All the while, the military government’s semi-constant state of conflict with EAOs has reached an acute stage, as many armed groups align themselves in opposition to the junta.

Since the coup, many EAOs have condemned the Tatmadaw’s actions, and several have threatened the junta with retaliation for the deadly crackdown on civilians. Some EAOs have also proffered support to anti-coup forces, offering shelter or training to dissidents. Some are also allying themselves with local branches of the PDF on a temporary basis. However, many of the groups have long distrusted the ethnic Bamar majority, including lawmakers affiliated with Suu Kyi’s government. They have consequently resisted aligning themselves with either the NUG or the PDF. Whatever the specific alliances of the EAOs, the military government now faces active resistance from EAOs in nearly all ethnic states of the country. The junta has lost all support from influential EAOs, and can at best maintain tentative cease-fires with some of the more powerful ones, as long as it is willing to allow them to continue promoting their local autonomy, influence and control. However, the Tatmadaw is also training and arming its own militia groups in various regions, resulting in violent clashes in mixed ethnicity states. 

Civil Disobedience

As well as taking up arms, communities are resisting in a wide variety of ways: refusing to pay electricity bills, thereby cutting off income to a state-backed power company; shunning companies aligned with the junta; boycotting companies and institutions that violate human rights; ignoring orders issued by the junta, such as wearing masks near where soldiers are stationed; and continuing to stage flash mobs despite the risk of violent reprisals. Public services are at a near standstill, as across the country teachers and medical workers are refusing to work in junta controlled facilities, choosing to operate in their own informal networks instead.

Military Tactics and Weaponry

There is a large discrepancy between the weapons available to the Tatmadaw and some of the larger EAOs, and those which the civil defence forces and PDF are able to access. Furthermore, in civilian forces, most fighters have only had a few weeks of training. This strongly influences the tactics used by the different groups.

As mentioned previously, the civil defence forces and smaller armed groups use mostly hunting rifles and makeshift weapons, engaging in guerilla warfare tactics. These include assassinations of junta officials, bombing military property, and sabotaging infrastructure such as telecom towers and bridges. They also target people suspected of being informants, or being associated with the military. The NUG has announced a code of conduct which is designed to protect human rights, but it’s unclear how much control they have over the behaviour of the disparate and autonomous groups.

The Tatmadaw has accumulated over $2bn in arms, supplied primarily by China and Russia, as well as Israel, Belarus, India and South Korea and its own lucrative business networks. They have reportedly been armed with a variety of military firearms, including Chinese RPD light machine guns, as well as local MA-S sniper rifles, MA-1 semi-automatic rifles, Uzi-replica BA-93 and BA-94 submachine guns. Despite the Tatmadaw’s known human rights violations and crimes against humanity, the UN claims that 14 companies from China, Russia, Ukraine, Israel, North Korea, India, and the Philippines have supplied Myanmar with fighter jets, armoured combat vehicles, warships, missiles, and missile launchers since 2016. It also found that 59 foreign firms had commercial ties with Tatmadaw businesses.

The Tatmadaw launches attacks on residential areas and civilians, notably using forms of remote violence which include explosions, artillery, shelling, grenades, or IEDs, and they have been accused of using civilians as human shields. They also block the supply of food and water to towns and villages. This is part of their well-established ‘four-cuts’ strategy, cutting off essential resources to local inhabitants, thereby attempting to destroy the support base of EAOs – a strategy which they have expanded to areas where new PDFs have emerged. They are reported to fire indiscriminately, destroy food and aid, restrict medical access, and arrest family members. The junta is also targeting humanitarian volunteers, cutting off food aid and other supplies to displaced populations, as well as shooting displaced people returning for supplies.

Buildings ablaze in Thantlang, Chin state, after what local media reported as shelling by junta troops. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Civilian casualties by explosive weapon launch method, 2021 (AOAV)

Launch MethodNumber of incidentsCivilian casualtiesTotal casualties
Multiple types28292

Casualties of explosive weapons by region, 2021 (AOAV)

StateCivilian casualtiesArmed actor casualtiesTotal casualties
Sagaing and Magway10010
Grand Total353341694

Crimes Against Humanity

Myanmar’s Tatmadaw has committed many abuses against the civilian population in the year following the coup, the majority of which amount to crimes against humanity. There is a growing body of evidence to show that the regime has employed scorched earth tactics to terrorise civilian population. The military junta has engaged in widespread and systematic attacks on the population, repeatedly using excessive force to dispel and detain protestors. The nature of the response, which is broad-based and consistent, reflects government-level policymaking rather than the isolated actions of individuals. Weapons used against civilian populations include weapons designed for military confrontation, such as semi-automatic rifles, grenade launchers, and artillery shells, demonstrating that such excessive force is not only condoned, but actively sanctioned by the military government. In the days leading up to the one year anniversary of the military coup, reports have shown the military systematically burning village after village in an effort to suppress opposition. According to Myanmar Witness, over 900 homes have been burned in Chin state since September 2021. Statements made by the Myanmar authorities evidence an oppressive and all-encompassing stance against any opposition: on February 21, the State Administration Council stated in the government’s Global New Light of Myanmar that “protesters are now inciting the people, especially emotional teenagers and youth, to a confrontation path where they will suffer the loss of life;” and on March 26, the state MRTV news channel announced that demonstrators “should learn from the tragedy of earlier ugly deaths that you can be in danger of getting shot to the head and back” and warned that “parents should also talk their children out of it [joining protests], let’s not waste lives for nothing.”

The Tatmadaw’s crimes against humanity include murder, enforced disappearance, torture, rape and other sexual violence, severe deprivation of liberty, and other inhumane acts causing great suffering. The UN’s Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) is currently collecting evidence regarding arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances and the use of force, including lethal force, against those peacefully opposing the coup.

There have been a number of particularly shocking displays of brutality reported in the last year of the conflict in Myanmar. A BBC investigation into a series of mass killings perpetrated by state forces in July 2021 said at least 40 people were killed and showed obvious signs of torture. Another mass killing that gained widespread media attention took place on Christmas Eve, when at least 38 civilians, including women, children, and two Save the Children workers, were killed and burnt on a highway in eastern Myanmar.

Aftermath of the Christmas Eve massacre, Hpruso township, Kayah state, Myanmar. Photo: AP

The Role and Reactions of the International Community

The international community’s presence has most strongly been felt through its absence and inaction in response to the coup. Concerns about vetoes by China and Russia have reportedly dissuaded the UN Security Council from adopting resolutions to address the human rights crisis intensifying in Myanmar, while the EU is hesitant to damage its relationship with foreign gas companies. Nonetheless, the EU has adopted travel bans and asset freezes against individuals linked to the coup.  Other foreign governments, such as the US and the UK, have imposed financial sanctions and asset freezes for officers involved in the coup, lower-level state and security actors, and Min Aung Hlaing’s children. New Zealand has imposed travel bans on military leaders and suspended high-level contacts, while Canada has blacklisted military officials and Australia has suspended military cooperation. Some overseas firms and investors, such as Japan’s Kirin Holdings Co., have also cut their ties with Myanmar.

On the other hand, some governments and international organisations have taken steps which could be seen to legitimise the military’s rule. For example, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held a special summit at which General Min Aung Hlaing represented Myanmar. Additionally, a high-ranking dignitary from Russia, as well as dignitaries from Bangladesh, China, India, Laos, Pakistan, and Thailand, representing their countries at Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day military parades. However, although Russia has recognised the junta government, the latter states have not.

Humanitarian Situation

The humanitarian situation in Myanmar was complex prior to the coup – with the Rohingya crisis seeing hundreds of thousands of people who belong to a Muslim minority ethnic group displaced as a result of state persecution – and it has deteriorated quickly in the months since. As of December 2021, an estimated 284,700 people remained internally displaced across Myanmar due to clashes and insecurity since February 1st, adding to the approximately 336,000 people living in protracted displacement due to pre-existing conflicts. This overall number is projected to rise as violence continues. The UN identified at least two million people newly in need of humanitarian assistance in 2021, while projecting that humanitarian needs would continue to escalate in 2022. According to UNOCHA, 14.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. The situation is compounded as the Tatmadaw obstructs access to necessities such as food, shelter, and medical supplies, and limits humanitarian access by creating road blockages, increasing security checks, and threatening medical workers.

Report by: Chiara Torelli
Additional research: Dawid Kowalczyk, Emily Griffith

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