ISSN 2330-717X

Burma: Ethnic Conflict And The Revived Civil War – Analysis


By C. S. Kuppuswamy

“For much too long, the people of the Union of Burma have been entrapped in the politics of violence. All efforts must be taken to break the vicious circle which has made the Burman, Shan, Mon, Karen, Karenni, Kachin and Arakanese (Rakhine), pitiable victims of war and violence” –Chao Tzang Yawnghwe in “The Shan of Burma : Memoirs of a Shan Exile”.


The civil war that had debilitated Myanmar from 1947, had a break since the early 90’s consequent to a series of cease fire agreements entered into by the military junta with 17 ethnic armed groups between 1989-1997. The hopes of the ethnic groups for a political solution faded when the military started pressurising the ethnic groups from April 2009 onwards in an attempt to disarm and transform them into border guards under the Myanmar army.

They were also allowed to form political parties for contesting the elections in November 2010 to pursue their aspirations. Save for a few minor groups, most ethnic groups refused to disarm or become border guards. Some ethnic political parties did however contest the elections and were successful in getting some of their representatives elected especially at the state level.

The new “civilian” government formed in March 2011 now seems to be seeking a military solution, in total disregard of cease-fire agreements, by attacking the ethnic groups in selected areas especially in Kachin and Shan States in recent months. In going for military operations, the Government perhaps wants to safeguard the interests of its neighbours China and Thailand who have invested heavily in the areas occupied by ethnic groups and thereby have their concurrence for initiating military action against these groups. The ethnic groups are getting together by forming an alliance and gearing themselves up for a revived civil war.

Historical Background

About 40% or Myanmar’s population (around 55 million) is composed of ethnic minorities often referred to as ethnic nationalities. Officially there are 135 national races though the major ethnic groups are seven in number- the Arakan, Chin, Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Mon and the Shan. The Burman majority ruling the country and holding key positions in all walks of life accounts for 60% of the population. The ethnic groups are located on the peripheral mountainous areas of the country occupying around 60% the land area while the majority Burmans are in the inland plain areas. (see Map 1 showing the distribution of main ethnic groups across the country).

Burma distribution of ethnic groups
Burma distribution of ethnic groups

Most Burma watchers are of the opinion that the British were responsible for the politicisation of ethnicity in Myanmar. The British administration favoured the ethnic groups and hence on independence the majority Burmans was not well disposed towards the ethnics in the new set up. Thanks to the efforts of Aung San (father of Aung San Suu Kyi) the Kachin, Chin and Shan leaders joined the majority in 1947 in seeking independence for the nation as a whole. The ethnic groups were assured that they will be treated on par with equal rights as for the majority Burmans. The ethnic groups have many differences in terms of religion, language, ethnicity and ideology. Their demands have also varied over the years from independence to total or limited autonomy to development and special privileges in their area.

Neither the civilian governments till 1962 nor the military governments thereafter made any serious effort to honour the commitment made by Aung San but on the contrary dismissed their demands and have been persecuting them by various means. As a result, the civil war has continued with frequent major and minor skirmishes till the cease fire agreements came into place. There are some ethnic groups which did not enter into any such ceasefire agreement.

1947 Panglong Conference

The Panglong agreement was signed on 12 February 1947 at Panglong in Shan State between General Aung San and the leaders of Kachin, Shan and the Chin ethnic groups. This day in February is celebrated as Union Day in Myanmar every year.

This agreement paved the way for early independence (1948) and creation of a federal state with the option for ethnic minorities to secede from the Union after 10 years from Independence.

The agreement was laid to rest along with Aung San (assassinated in July 1947) as the governments since 1948 considered that a federal set up will disintegrate the nation and hence started marginalising the ethnics and tackling the ethnic armed groups militarily. This has resulted in an ongoing civil war since Independence.

Since the November 2010 election there is a clamour for a second Panglong type conference under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. Though she agreed that it could be the first step for finding solutions to ethnic issues, she had made no efforts even to probe the possibility of holding such a conference as she had other major issues to contend with the ruling Junta.

Major Ethnic Armed Groups and their Strength

The strength of armed rebels in each group is an estimate and the demarcation of the areas occupied by these groups (as shown in Map 2) is also approximate as they are frequently changing.

  • United Wa State Army (UWSA) –Troops 20,000 to 25,000, the largest ethnic armed group in Myanmar, ceasefire agreement in 1989, rejected the BGF proposal.
  • Kachin Independence Army (KIA) – Troops 10,000, founded in 1961,second largest and considered best organised ethnic group, Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) is the political wing, one of the parties that signed the Panglong agreement, ceasefire agreement in 1994, has rejected the BGF plan
  • Shan State Army (SSA) Troops 6,000 to 10,000, Political wing is the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP). The two factions Shan State Army-South which did not enter into a ceasefire agreement and the Shan State Army-North which entered into a ceasefire agreement in 1989 have been integrated into a combined force since May 2011 Some units of the SSA-N faction have joined the BGF
  • National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA)- Troops 1200, also called the Mongla Group. Signed a ceasefire agreement in 1989.
  • Chin National Army- Troops 500 to 1000, Political wing is the Chin National Front.
  • Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA)- Troops2000 to 12,000, Political wing is the Karen National Union (KNU), did not enter into any ceasefire agreement.
  • Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) –also known as the Kokang group. This group was attacked in August 2009 by the Myanmar Army and the capital Laogai seized. 30,000 residents reportedly fled to China.
  • Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) –Troops 6,000, Split from the parent organisation KNU in 1994, Political wing Democratic Karen Buddhist Organisation (DKBO), first ethnic armed group to join the BGF. Many defections including complete units have been reported since it joined the BGF.
  • New Mon State Party (NMSP) –Troops 700, ceasefire agreement signed in 1995, rejected to be transformed into BGF.

The Government and the Ethnic Groups

Source: "Burma: Neither War nor Peace" A report published by the Transnational Institute, Netherlands in 2009.
Source: "Burma: Neither War nor Peace" A report published by the Transnational Institute, Netherlands in 2009.

As said before, the government after independence, went back on its commitment to provide autonomy to these ethnic groups on their joining the Union of Myanmar.

The military government that took over in 1962 steadily increased its armed forces with counter insurgency as its main function. The Myanmar Tatmadaw (armed forces) which had a strength of around 135,000 in 1964 is today estimated to be 400,000 strong and the second largest military force in South East Asia next to Vietnam’s. The combined strength of the armed rebels of all ethnic groups is estimated to be about 45,000.

The counter insurgency strategy of four cuts i.e. cutting the four main links for (food, funds, intelligence and recruits) was launched in the 1960s to separate the insurgents from their families and villages. The military resorted to all sorts of repressive measures such as forced relocation of villagers to military controlled areas. Human rights violations such as child labour, looting, rape, use of villagers as porters and grabbing their arable land and produce were often reported but condoned or overlooked by the administration.

Despite these heavy odds the ethnic groups persisted in their struggle as most of them were strategically located in mountainous/jungle terrain near the borders and in some cases were even supported by the neighbouring countries. The ethnic groups could also subsist by their drug trade and selling timber, jade and other natural resources which were rich in the areas controlled by them. They also resorted to extortion and taxing the locals. However for some groups it was not just fighting but did develop the areas under their control and introduced welfare measures in health, education and infrastructure.

The government finally decided to enter into Ceasefire agreements with 17 of the armed groups between 1989 and 1997.

The Ceasefire Agreements

General Khin Nyunt, the former intelligence chief and deposed prime minister (under house arrest since 2004), is known to be the mastermind for entering into Cease Fire Agreements with 17 of these ethnic armed groups between 1989 – 1997. Most of these agreements were unwritten understanding or arrangements and vary in content also from group to group. The ethnic armed groups have been allowed to retain their arms and control extensive areas under their control.

The major groups that entered into cease fire agreements are from Kachin, Kayah (Karenni) Shan, Rahine, Mon, Wa, Pa-o and Palaung. The major groups that did not enter into cease fire agreement are the Shan State Army-South, Karenni National Progressive Party and the Karen National Union

Min Zin a columnist for the Irrawaddy, in his analyses gives three reasons for this unusual gesture on the part of the military junta.

“The ceasefire accords have allowed the military to avoid multiple enemy fronts in the aftermath of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising.”

“Has enabled the Burmese military to make unprecedented advances in its relations with neighboring countries¬ especially China and Thailand ¬in both security and economic terms.”

“The ceasefire accords gave the military regime the much-needed political legitimacy that they have lost since the bloody crackdown on the 1988 pro-democracy uprising.”

The cease fire resulted in establishment of a Border Area Development Programme in 1989. Since 1992 a ministry has been formed for “Progress of Border Areas and National Races” which have taken up projects for schools, hospitals, health centres, bridges and dams in border areas occupied by cease fire groups.

The 2008 Constitution

The 2008 Constitution as compared to the earlier constitutions has further eroded the rights and privileges of the ethnic groups for autonomy and self determination. The Constitution stipulates that the country can have only one army. Though some groups were involved in the national convention for drafting the Constitution and participated in the elections held in November 2010 under this constitution, the majority of the ethnic groups were clamouring for a review of the Constitution.

The positive aspects of the Constitution were the creation of 14 state legislatures where the ethnic groups could voice their concerns and the creation of six “self administered areas” for the Danu, Kokang, Naga, Palaung. Pa-o and Wa giving these groups limited autonomy in their areas.

Once the Constitution was approved it became clear that all ethnic armed groups will be transformed into Border Guards under the control of Myanmar Army.

Border Guard Force (BGF)

The BGF proposal was mooted in April 2009. Under this proposal, ethnic armies would form part of the Myanmar Army as BGF in their respective areas. They will be down sized and re-organised into battalions with 326 men and 18 officers (both from the ethnics and the Myanmar Army) in a given ratio. The Myanmar Army will take over the responsibilities of training, equipping and maintenance including payment of salaries.

Lt. Gen. Ye Myint, Chief of Military Affairs Security was made the chief negotiator for negotiating with the ethnic groups. The series of negotiations held during the last two years have been unsuccessful till date despite many postponements of the deadlines for the various ethnic groups. Even threats of outlawing these armed groups have made no impact on these armed groups. The transformation was to be completed before elections (in November 2010) but now this dirty task has been palmed over to the Civilian Government. Though some factions of ethnic armed groups like the Shan State Army North (SSA-N) had agreed to transform into Border Guards even they have started reneging on their agreements.

The major ethnic groups initially came up with counter proposals instead of outright rejection of the BGF plan. However, as the Government was firm in going through the proposal in its present form, most of the groups have taken a confrontational approach and are preparing for the worst. The standoff between the government and the ethnic groups continue with probing attacks by the Myanmar Army especially on the weaker groups in certain sectors.

Major Ethnic Clashes (Since April 2009)

The Myanmar Army launched a swift military offensive against the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (the Kokang Group) in August 2009. This resulted in a big influx of refugees into China and there was some hard talk between the Chinese and the Myanmar Governments. The Myanmar army had targeted this minor (weaker) group which had refused to transform into BGF as a sample case to gauge the reactions of other groups.

In November 2010 (on the election day) clashes took place between the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the Myanmar Army around the town of Myawaddy close to the Thai- Burma border. In this case the lead was taken by DKBA to initiate the fighting to show their rejection of the BGF proposal. The Myanmar Army recaptured the areas taken over by the DKBA and the fighting resulted in over 30,000 Karens fleeing to Thailand.

On June 9, 2011 fighting broke out between Myanmar Army and the Kachin Independence Army in Momauk township in the Kachin State where some Chinese Hydro Electric projects are under construction. The KIA has destroyed some bridges in the area to restrict movement of government troops. Through there were some talks between the government and the KIA the situation is tense with some frequent clashes.

Media reports indicate that the government troops launched a major offensive against the Shan State Army (SSA) in Southern Shan State in July 2011. The motive for this attack may be commercial as well as military. The military has the edge in this case as the location is away from the border and this may be part of an overall plan to occupy locations close to ethnic controlled areas.

Besides these there have been many instances of minor skirmishes between the government troops and ethnic groups at regular intervals.


The differences and diversities of the ethnic groups by way of religion, language, ethnicity strength, ideology and the large distances between the areas occupied by these groups have been exploited by the Myanmar Army in attacking them piece-meal and by adopting the strategy of “divide and rule”. Thus the civil war has been kept on a low key over the years.

The ethnic groups have tried time and again to establish an alliance and to work out a common strategy to fight for their rights and autonomy but have failed on most occasions. The latest effort was in February 2011 to form an umbrella group called the United Nationalities Federation Council when the leaders of Karens, Kachins, Karenni, Shans and Chin groups met in Chiang Mai (in Thailand).

Some analysts are also of the view that Chinese and Thai investment projects linked to extraction of natural resources in areas occupied by the ethnic groups have been the main cause for this spurt in fighting between the Army and the ethnic armed groups. The benefits of these projects do not accrue to the ethnic groups and on the contrary, the local population is displaced and deprived of their livelihood. But this is too simplistic a view.

Dr. Zarni, a columnist for “The Irrawaddy” has expressed that the military junta considers the ongoing ethnic conflicts “as their main justification to maintain their power structures” and that it has “shown no interest or political will for establishing genuine and lasting peace. The Generals have turned domestic conflicts into their golden goose.”

The military has perhaps misjudged that ethnic groups may be lured by allowing them to form political parties and to take part in the elections for achieving their aspirations. The threats for outlawing these ethnic armed groups for declining to transform into Border Guard Force have also not worked and hence the standoff.

The military has been steadily (since December 2010) reinforcing its troops in areas where the armed groups that have rejected the BGF plan are located.

Both China and Thailand, which have been supporting some of these insurgent groups and had used them as buffers or as a negotiating tool, are no longer espousing their cause. The continued fighting has burdened these nations regularly with an influx of refugees in the border areas. Myanmar Army has perhaps the blessings of these nations for military action to safe guard their economic interests in Myanmar.

Ethnic political parties that have contested the elections have also made a joint appeal with the Election Commission in end July 2011 calling for peace talks over the ongoing conflict. However the Chairman of the Election Commission has declined on the ground that it is beyond the purview of the election commission.

The pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has written an open letter on 28 July 2011 to President Thein Sein with copies to some ethnic groups that she is ready to get involved in efforts to resolve ongoing armed conflicts between the military and ethnic groups. She has also reiterated that national reconciliation can be achieved only by political dialogue and not by military means. As expected there has been no response from the government side to this offer, though the ethnic groups have welcomed this move from Suu Kyi.

Western nations, obsessed with Aung San Suu Kyi, seem to be of the view that national reconciliation will be achieved by ushering democracy alone. What the country needs desperately is lasing peace and economic development. Democracy without peace will not help and for national reconciliation a political settlement with the ethnic groups is a pre-requisite.

As of now, it is ironic that a military option has been revived more on the initiative of the newly formed “Civil” government.

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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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