The civil war raging in Burma (Myanmar) is one of the world’s longest running conflicts, stretching back to 1948, the year of Burma’s independence from Britain. But as hostilities ebb and flow in both time and place, the current war is dated by some as only having begun in 2021, the year of the country’s most recent military coup and crackdown on civil society. But no matter how one measures it, this struggle is bloody and grim. According to the Wikipedia article on “ongoing armed conflicts,” the Burmese Civil War currently has the third highest death toll of 2023, following only the war in Ukraine and the insurgency in western Africa that stretches across more than a dozen countries. Almost 11,000 people have lost their lives this year alone, with a casualty count of perhaps more than 20,000* in 2022. But despite the ongoing and persistent carnage, this conflict rarely makes the news in the United States.
To follow the Burmese civil war, one can consult Burmese sources, available online in both Burmese and English. I especially recommend The Irrawaddy, produced by Burmese journalists in exile in Thailand. One of its most interesting recent articles highlights the importance of the country’s smallest state, Kayah (formerly Karenni), in successfully taking on the Tatmadaw, the brutal Burmese military. The article claims that resistance fighters in Kayah have killed 2,065 junta soldiers while losing only 153 of their own in the past two years. Leading the charge is the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF), which was formed shortly after the February 2021 coup. Some of its fighters had previously been affiliated with the Burmese military as border guards but switched sides after the military take-over. As The Irrawaddy notes, the “KNDF supports federalism, or power-sharing between the Union and state governments with self-determination and self-administration for ethnic states.” According to one recent report, the Burmese government currently controls only some ten percent of Kayah state (including its capital, Loikaw), with the rest of it either contested (20 percent) or under the control of insurgents (65 percent). If this report and others like it are true, the Wikipedia map posted below is highly inaccurate, or at least out of date, as it significantly exaggerates the extent of governmental control.
Despite the success of their military resistance, the people of Kayah (Karenni) State have experienced intense suffering over the past two and a half years. (For those interested, the assaults on their state are regularly tabulated and mapped in detail by the Karenni Civil Society Network; see the map below). According to one recent report from a different agency:
At least 180,000 Karenni people have been forcibly displaced, which is more than 40 percent of the estimated total Karenni population. …. Some families have been displaced multiple times, as IDP sites come under attack by junta forces. Based on legal analysis of the data collected, the report finds that members of the Burmese military have committed the war crimes of attacking civilians, attacking protected objects, pillaging, murder, torture, cruel treatment, and displacing civilians in Karenni State.
As is often tragically the case in Burma, extremist Buddhist monks have been encouraging military assaults and worse. According to a recent United States Institute of Peace report:
Under the hot sun, a Pa-O monk spoke to the rally and characterized the Karenni people as a lower race, describing the KNDF and the Peoples’ Defense Forces broadly as worse than the Islamic State. Another Pa-O monk called for the burning of Karenni villages if the KNDF did not stop the alleged violence, declaring: “They say it is not a religious war. But our three monks have died.” … These alarming speeches carried themes of ethnic hierarchy, Buddhist nationalism and zealous hatred.
Surprisingly, the “ethnic hierarchy” and “Buddhist nationalism” evident in this monk’s speech do not come in their usual form, which is associated with the majority Burman (Burmese-speaking) population and directed against Muslims and members of the so-called hill tribes. In this case, both the Karenni and their Po-O antagonists are historically regarded as “tribal peoples,” both belonging to the larger Karen ethno-linguistic group, at least as it is sometimes reckoned. But the Pa-O people are almost entirely Buddhist and have aligned closely with the Burmese military, which has pursued a “divide and rule” strategy among the country’s minority populations. The strategy had been largely successful before 2021 but is currently failing. The Karenni, in contrast, are religiously divided, with some following Buddhism, others Christianity (of several sects), and others traditional animism/shamanism. They are also, needless to say, firm opponent of the Burmese military.
The success of little Kayah State in resisting the Burmese military probably has roots in colonial history. Kayah was never integrated in British Burma and largely escaped British rule. In the 1870s, the Kingdom of Burma, having been reduced to a rump state after losing two wars against the British, was trying to expand into upland regions. Threatened by this policy, the tiny principalities of the Karenni people sought help from Britain, leading to an 1875 treaty between the United Kingdom and Burma that recognized their independence. In 1892, however, Karenni leaders agreed to accept a stipend from the British government in return for allowing it some local oversight. But domestic policies remained under the control of local leaders. As a result, the Karenni lands were usually mapped as not falling under direct British rule, the only part of Burma generally given that distinction (see the map below). A fascinating 1931 map, however, classified Karenni State as one of four regions in Burma that were “loosely” administered by the British Raj, with two others depicted as “unadministered” (see below). (Intriguingly, Karenni state was reportedly the world’s largest producer of tungsten in the 1930s; geologists affiliated with the Oxford Burma Project currently hope that political stabilization will eventually allow the reestablishment of extensive commercial mining there and elsewhere in mineral-rich Burma.)
As Burma was preparing for independence after World-War II, it sought to incorporate the Karenni states into its coming union. Its 1947 constitution insisted on the amalgamation of these small indigenous realms into one Burmese state, but also allowed the possibility of secession after a ten-year period. But with independence the following year, as tersely noted by the Wikipedia article on the state, “the Karenni leader U Bee Htu Re was assassinated by central government militia for his opposition to the inclusion of the Karenni in the Union of Burma. An armed uprising swept the state that has continued to the present day.”
Despite its formidable power, the Burmese military (Tatmadaw) does not seem to be doing well in the current conflict. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations claims that it has lost half or more of its troops since the 2021 coup, due to death, desertion, or defection, and that it has retreated on several fronts. The Tatmadaw is also evidently having difficulty filling the classes at its military academy. According to one report, the government now has stable control over only around twenty percent of the country’s townships. Due to recent military reversals, the Tatmadaw is now engaging in extensive air attacks, often directed against civilian targets. Such a strategy is of little military significance and greatly intensifies animosity against the regime.
The Council on Foreign Relations report mentioned above also contends that the Burmese government is facing growing international problems:
Even China, which has backed the junta and sees Myanmar as a strategically critical investment destination, is playing both sides of the fence. Beijing has continued to plow money into the country and supplied the military with weapons, despite its pariah status, and it has provided the junta with diplomatic cover at international forums. Yet it has also maintained links with the ethnic militias and their political wings, and its backing of Naypyidaw has grown more tepid as the army continues to lose ground. As for Russia, though it too has supplied the junta with arms, Moscow is facing its own obvious problems right now and may not be able to ship weapons abroad for long.
Due to these reversals, Burma’s military government may be reconsidering its strategy. Or perhaps not. Another article from the United States Institute of Peace nicely summarizes the current situation:
Are conciliatory winds stirring among the leaders of Myanmar’s coup regime, or is the junta engaging in deception and distraction as it struggles on the battlefield against a broad range of resistance forces? The answer is almost certainly the latter. It would not be the first time the ruling generals have sought to stimulate international interest in promoting dialogue solely to enhance their legitimacy abroad.