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Myanmar: three years of a devastating, under-reported war

As the conflict in Myanmar enters its third year, we see an under-reported war marked by a sharp rise in the use of explosive weapons. Reports by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) indicate a 114% increase in such attacks by the military government in 2023, highlighting escalating tensions between the military, the People’s Defense Forces, and Ethnic Armed Organisations seeking autonomy. Consequently, the conflict resulted in 2,164 reported civilian casualties from explosive weapons in 2023, including 745 fatalities, reflecting a 121% and 155% increase in casualties and deaths, respectively, over 2022. The military is linked to 85% of these civilian casualties and 88% of the fatalities.

Since 2010, AOAV has recorded 1,825 explosive weapon incidents in Myanmar, leading to 4,343 civilian casualties, including 1,450 deaths. Notably, 50% of these casualties, and 51% of those fatalities, occurred in the last year alone, emphasising the conflict’s intensity. 

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) identifies Myanmar as the most violent among the 50 wars it tracks globally, with an estimated death toll of at least 50,000 since the 2021 military coup, including at least 8,000 civilians.

The conflict has displaced approximately 2.3 million people, according to the United Nations, yet it has received relatively muted international attention compared to crises in Ukraine and Gaza. This discrepancy is attributed to Myanmar’s lower strategic significance to Western powers and the complexities within its borders.

Human Rights Watch has praised the resilience and grassroots resistance of Myanmar’s people against military oppression and human rights abuses. However, the international community’s focus has shifted, with criticisms of the lack of attention to Myanmar’s plight compared to other global conflicts.

The widespread use of air strikes and shelling by the military and the junta’s political isolation, dismissing diplomatic efforts by regional entities like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, have drawn criticism. The complexity of the situation and the junta’s refusal to engage in dialogue present significant challenges to resolving the conflict.

The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has expressed deep concern over the escalating violence, appealing for the protection of non-combatants and the facilitation of humanitarian aid. The displacement crisis has grown, with two million people affected.

Recent successes of an alliance of ethnic armed groups in Shan State, along with increased operations by ethnic Karenni insurgents in Kayah State and Volunteer People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) capitalising on military setbacks, indicate a shift in the conflict’s dynamics. Despite being less experienced, PDFs have shown improved capabilities and often collaborate with seasoned ethnic soldiers.

The military’s loss of control over significant border areas and reports of low morale and recruitment challenges within its ranks suggest a strained capacity to respond effectively to the expanding resistance. The failure to counter-attack in Shan State highlights either a lack of resources or a misunderstanding of the opposition’s strength.

Overall, the conflict in Myanmar has been characterised by the military government’s tried and tested ‘Four Cuts’ strategy, targeting the civilian networks that sustain the opposition. This means, over the past three years, towns and villages, schools and hospitals, have borne the brunt of military violence. 

As non-state actors continue to escalate their resistance, and the military junta escalates its own established strategies in response, civilians will inevitably continue to suffer acutely and disproportionately as a result of this devastating conflict.

Dr Iain Overton, CEO of Action on Armed Violence, warns “The conflict in Myanmar, as it enters its third year, is a tragic testament to the escalating use of explosive weaponry in warfare, marking a period of intense and under-reported violence. Our data reveals a staggering 114% increase in explosive weapon attacks by the military government in 2023 alone. This sharp escalation underscores the growing tensions between the military, the People’s Defense Forces, and Ethnic Armed Organizations. Such figures are a clear indicator of the intense suffering and instability faced by the people of Myanmar, further exacerbated by the international community’s shifting focus away from their plight. As this conflict continues to evolve, with the military facing challenges on multiple fronts, the need for a concerted and meaningful international response has never been more urgent.