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Myanmar: A Brief Explaniation

The Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar has made headlines in only a few major news outlets, with many defense and regional security analysts covering it the most. In this brief analysis, I intended to help the reader understand some of the facts surrounding the current situation, why the ongoing internal conflict matters, and what international repercussions could follow should a foreign major power become involved.

On February 1st, 2021, the military staged a coup against the government and arrested a group of the most senior officials from the ruling political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint were detained and ultimately incarcerated, later being sentenced to 4 years in prison each.

Much of the populace took to the streets to protest the actions of the military, led by General Min Aung Hlaing. The General soon appointed himself as the Prime Minister and designated the NLD's newly formed movement, the National Unity Government (NUG) as a terrorist organization. The protests and opposition movements against the military's governance was combated using lethal tactics.

Map of Myanmar

Protests that remained peaceful were met with live ammunition, grenades and what the Amnesty International said were "lethal tactics and weapons appropriate only for battlefield use against peaceful protesters." Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) (AAPP) has said that from the beginning of the protests through to the end of 2021, there had been a recorded 1,384 people killed, including 91 children, and 11,289 arrested by military authorities. Of these were 12 health workers killed, and another 86 detention.

In response, the NUG responded by mobilizing an armed wing. The NUG's People's Defense Force (PDF) was formed specifically to fight the military in a "defensive war" to protect the population. This is what formed a the core of the ongoing civil war that has ravaged much of the country.

In the wake of this declaration of war against the Tatmadaw, or military ruling forces, an ongoing insurgency against the army has destabilized the region. Indian and Thai authorities have said that fighting has spilled over into their territory. While their border security elements have tried to contain this, both countries are worried the revolutionist sentiments might also spill over.

The PDF has used these border areas as safe zones. With the Tatmadaw controlling much of the interior and using aggressive means to pursue any sign of dissent, the PDF's designation as a terror group doesn't allow for any real freedom of movement. The PDF is largely restricted to guerilla ambushes, hit-and-run attacks, and the use of mines or improvised explosive devices to gain influence in the conflict.

PDF members stand by to move to another location near Thai-Myanmar border. (Myanmar Pressphoto Agency)

More recently, the PDF has boasted membership numbers as high as 60,000 fighters. While the Tatmadaw has on-paper figures of over 400,000, the real number of fighting capable troops is widely unknown. What is known is that the army is reportedly lacking the ability to replace its battlefield losses, as recruitment has slowed to a trickle.

The military has been fighting ethnic minority militias for much longer than the current conflict. Tactical-level leadership is aware of the tactics and available weaponry these groups are capable of fielding. Despite this, much of their art of war are built around targeting civilians and civilian population areas. In a brutal perversion of counter-insurgency tactics, engaging the population has turned to bombing villages, laying mines in highly trafficked areas, and extrajudicial killing of civilians suspected of supporting the PDF.

The international implications stretch far and wide. India, Russia, and China have direct involvement in a multitude of forms. The country is host to a number of trade routes between India and China, leading to the economic and political value of the region to increase in the eyes of both Beijing and New Delhi.

The Myanmar-India border area has already suffered from unrest as the locals say New Delhi has done little to develop the region. Indian security forces have had to spar with armed militant groups that thy allege are hiding on Myanmar's side of the border. With the Tatmadaw unable to deal with them due to the PDF, India is left frustrated.

India is worried that increasing Chinese support for separatists and rebel groups could offset the balance of power in the region, forcing India into a corner. Additionally, warm relations between China and Myanmar's military government are bolstered by arms deals, including a Ming-class submarine deal. This leverage adds more weight for China in its decades long border disputes with India.

However, without any overt and large-scale support for either the Tatmadaw or the PDF, neither side is in a solid position to oust the other. The PDF faces organizational and technological shortcomings and is unlikely to gain any serious momentum towards defeating the government forces on the battlefield. Likewise, the Tatmadaw faces a lack of recruits and fresh supplies and widespread international condemnation, further isolating them from much of the international community. Without a significant weight being added to either side, the conflict's end will likely remain just out of grasp.

Cover Photo from Getty Images

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