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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Coups, Partisans, and War: A Portrait of the Bloody State of Myanmar

Written by: Ryan Lee

A Snapshot of Myanmar Since the 2021 Coup

Since the 2021 coup, Myanmar has seen indiscriminate killings and abuses of civilians. The country has long been entangled in ethnic, religious, and political tensions. Attempts to create a legitimate democracy have been curtailed by an oppressive, violent military, who have since consolidated significant power. The pro-democracy party’s most recent landslide win in the 2020 elections, however, was deemed too threatening to the military’s hold on the country. Coupling this outcome with the military’s internal politics has pushed them to actions that may prove to be missteps, given the unintended, unprecedented degree of unity among the rest of the country since the coup. While still entangled, the resistance is now focused on one common enemy: the junta.

The Military Junta, the Tatmadaw

Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, who once fought for its people’s independence, now limits its own people’s freedom. Once fighting against British colonial rule (1886-1948) and the brief Japanese occupation in 1942-1945, the Tatmadaw has now gone so far astray from its initial aims that it has arrested, on multiple occasions, their own founder’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi. While a controversial figure, Suu Kyi has been Myanmar’s figurehead for democracy for 36 years and is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. To the junta, she is a threat. The junta has returned to their “four cuts” strategy; first deployed against the Karen minority ethnic group in the 1960s. This strategy aims to isolate adversaries by cutting off sources of food, information, funds, and recruits. They’ve now shed themselves of the burdens of being yoked to a civilian government that flirts with democracy. As the continuous instigator of conflict and a persistent impediment to progress, they have only added to their list of atrocities. The military is now exploiting their citizens for the sake of this existential fight, completing their shift from a revolutionary force to an oppressive regime.

Resistance Forces: PDFs

The rag-tag resistance against the junta is not a new presence in Myanmar. Their makeup and their unity, however, is unprecedented, making it equally foreboding for the junta and somewhat promising for the future of Myanmar. While not a full-fledged military organisation, it can be categorized broadly into key groups. These are the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) and Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs). The PDF is a conglomeration of military units, reflecting their specific theatres or mandates. It includes Local Defense Forces (LDF), People’s Defense Teams (PDT) and general PDFs. LDFs and PDTs focus on local defence and security, independent of more centralised PDFs. LDFs aim to prevent junta control in rural areas, while PDTs (or PaKhaPha) are local guerrilla units operating primarily in central Myanmar. They function as a foundational entity in the resistance, specialising in urban guerrilla warfare, basic training, and logistics. Overall, the PDF has brought a degree of cohesion to the resistance forces. Joint command systems have created a stronger alliance between the centralised fight against the junta, and the dispersed fighting of minority ethnic groups who have been waging against the military for decades. These central commands have been established with a shadow political entity consisting of many members from the deposed government alongside various ethnic groups.

Resistance Forces: EAOs

These ethnic groups and their associated EAOs have considerably more experience fighting the Tatmadaw. EAOs are armed groups created to represent the military wills of a minority ethnic group. While some are the military wing of a political group representing an ethnic group, others are one and the same; both political representative and military group. Many were created as revolutionary forces seeking independence from the central Myanmar government. The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), for example, one of the longest fighting forces in the country, seeks an independent Karen state as the military wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), the body representing Karen’s political interests. The KNU’s war has been waging on for 75 years.

Political Entities: Shadow Government

Political organisations, like resistance forces, fall into a few groups: those emerging post-coup, pre-existing groups, and the deposed government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD). After the ousting of this democratically elected government in 2021, the National Unity Government (NUG), a government-in-exile, was formed. The NUG may be one of the most important developments in Myanmar, not just since the coup, but since Myanmar’s 1948 independence. The entangled ethnic conflicts and civil war in the country trace back to its colonial history. Despite attempts for democratic reform, ethnic divisions persisted, leading to human rights violations such as the 2016 Rohingya Genocide. Yet the National Unity Government (NUG) still represents Myanmar’s most diverse, inclusive, and democratic political entity to date, making it a cause worth fighting for.

Political Entities: Minority Ethnic Groups

The willingness of minority ethnic groups to accept, or trust, any actions by the NUG remains uncertain due to ties between the NUG and NLD. The EAOs and their political counterparts have been fighting for decades and they already mistrusted the central government, including NLD members. However, they now share a common enemy in the junta. So, paradoxically, the coup has brought about an unprecedented degree of unity in Myanmar. Can this cohesion last?

Civil Disobedience Movement and Solidarity

The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and peaceful protestors have been the loudest voices since the coup, and they are spreading a cohesive spirit. Initially led by young ethnic Bamar individuals, they bravely expressed discontent with the military rule. The NUG’s diversity is notable, but veritable hope lies in the solidarity shown by ethnic Bamar youth towards different minority ethnic groups. Sustaining this unity is crucial for the nation’s future.

Myanmar’s Voice

There are only glimpses of what could be if the junta is overthrown, as the full picture of Myanmar’s future is yet to be drawn. The National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) was established in March 2021 for that very reason. Their mandate was to sketch out the governance and policy frameworks, but in 2022 the NLD withdrew from the council, followed by the Kachin People Interim Consultative Team. While the final picture is still unclear, it is the people of Myanmar who continue to voice that the military in its current guise and power cannot remain. The nation’s perilous resistance is a testament to this instability. The question is whether this momentum and unprecedented unity can persist and progress to peace.

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