Civil War In Myanmar: Internal And External Sources Of Sustenance – Analysis



Myanmar’s military wants to continue with its authoritarian model, whereby they continue to be politically paramount. This effectively translates into dominating and dictating the pace of democracy in the country, controlling while seeming to have withdrawn. This objective led it to declare the parliamentary elections held in 2020 as marred by fraud, thus appearing as the champion of clean and representative governance.

In reality, the opposition’s National Unity Government (NUG) led by the National League of Democracy (NLD), which swept the 2020 parliamentary elections, represents the voice of the people of Myanmar, who want the country to emerge out of the stranglehold of the military. The military’s proposed election is all about installing a facade, that will represent its interests, whereas the NLD-led opposition’s avowed objectives are to guide Myanmar to viable democracy, featuring civilian leadership and a military in its expected place guaranteeing security. Objectives of both parties, hence, are antithetical and irreconcilable.

Intense Violence

Not surprisingly, then, the last 32 months in Myanmar – those since the coup of February 2021 – have been marked by intense violence. Both the opposition and the military seem to have underestimated the strategy and conviction of the other. The initial response of the NLD to the coup was to organize a civil disobedience movement, in which people were encouraged to rally and protest peacefully in support of the opposition. Appealing to the good sense of the military and forcing it to reverse its decision was the intent. A robust military response led to the formation of People’s Defence Force (PDF) groups to fight fire with fire. Simultaneously, the military erred in judging the effectiveness of opposition adaptation to the requirements of an emerging civil war. A key determinant was the success of the NLD-led opposition groups in linking to the longtime, collective armed opposition posed by the battle-hardened ethnic armed organisations (EAOs). This negated any hope the military might have had of quickly stabilising the country.     

The course correction by both parties, following the early misreckoning, forms the basis of the ongoing violence. The military’s no-holds-barred response has been characterized by a lashing out: arrests and detention of opposition leaders and activists, violent raids, and air and artillery strikes over the PDF safe havens and EAO strongholds in a no-barred response. The most recent night-time air strike and artillery firing on 9 October claimed the lives of more than 30 civilians in the Kachin village of Mung Lai Hkyet. Returning the blows, the opposition PDFs and EAOs combined have assassinated officials and government functionaries associated with or sympathetic to the military, have ambushed military convoys, and have targeted police and military posts. Between 15 to 19 October, at least 29 soldiers were killed in separate attacks in the Shan and Mon states and Bago, Mandalay, Magwe, and Sagaing regions. The opposition’s response has been able to limit the military’s territorial control to mostly the urban centres, while allowing the EAOs and PDFs to dominate vast swathes of land in the borderlands. 

The ongoing confrontation has received three types of responses from different sets of regional as well as global actors, which can be described as follows. 

(i) Active Connivance: The military has been the beneficiary of wide-ranging military, logistical, and diplomatic assistance from a group of nations including China, Russia, India, and Thailand. While the opposition has struggled to arrange for finances and logistical supplies to add momentum to its war efforts, the military has continued to receive arms and ammunition supplies from external supporters. It has been shielded from censure in the United Nations by China and Russia. India has trained its officials and has offered it help in holding the elections. Thailand’s posture has been among the most disappointing, given the ideological and practical stakes, but the long history of Thai corrupt involvement in Myanmar is hardly something that will be overcome until the civil war becomes worse.  

(ii) Detached Activism: The U.S. and its allies have continued to impose sanctions on the military’s officials. These have had little practical effect but appear to allow a claim of action. The United Nations has repeatedly mentioned the ‘war crimes’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ by the military but, beyond this, has done little of practical value to assist the Opposition. Pragmatism can be advanced for this posture, a wariness that any military assistance to the opposition could aggravate the violence even as those most affronted by the latest round of military dictatorship in Myanmar find themselves caught in a situation of strategic over-reach. The result is that Western countries have stuck to a largely moralistic position of criticising the military and imposing ineffective sanctions, while doing little else to add to the potency of the Opposition to win the confrontation.     

(iii) Attentive Immobility: The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, could potentially have played a decisive role in the country’s state of affairs. However, contrary to the posture, say, of the African Union, which suspended Niger from the organization following the military coup there in July 2023, the ASEAN members have failed to take a united stand on Myanmar. While the organization remains attentive to happenings in the country, has condemned violence and loss of civilian lives, and tried to lay a roadmap for the restoration of democracy, it has largely failed to play a meaningful role in demanding restoration of democracy. Members have pursued independent politics, thereby posing questions regarding the existence (or the absence) of an organizational stance. This, too, given the state of corrupt, authoritarian politics in some of the members (Cambodia comes readily to mind), is hardly surprising.

Protracted Conflict

The specter of a frozen conflict seems to loom. From a fatalistic perspective, all conflicts go through cycles of origin, escalation, and resolution. However, some conflicts, like the ongoing one in Myanmar, can demonstrate an element of longevity or even perpetuity. The following five contextual reasons could be relevant to understanding the phenomenon in Myanmar and also in theatres such as Ukraine, where one party initiates the conflict with the hope of overwhelming its adversary quickly, but fails to achieve the goal even after a prolonged period. 

(i) Proportional Abilities: Conflicts tend to end quickly when one of the parties has or gains the ability to mount a disproportionate and decisive armed campaign against the adversary. That has not been the case in Myanmar. Despite losses suffered, the opposition PDFs and EAOs have been able to meet the military’s might through adaptation and control over territory. This does not necessarily add to the likelihood of victory but can draw out the conflict.

(ii) A Stalemate of Perception: Conflicts, also fought in the mental arena of opponents, tend to continue as long as parties have conviction in their agenda, and more importantly, faith in their ability to prevail over the other. At the moment, neither the military, due to the significant war-fighting wherewithal at its disposal, nor the Opposition, due to the expansion of territory under its control, assess the tide of the confrontation to be against them.     

(iii) No Meeting Ground: The objectives of the military and the Opposition, as mentioned before, are irreconcilable. There is no middle ground between the discordant demands of the Opposition that the military should go back to the barracks and the military’s objective of perpetuating its occupation of the seat of power. The military is determined to crush the ‘terrorism’ of the opposition, whereas, for the Opposition, any compromise constitutes a rolling back of democracy and acceptance of the military’s illegal supremacy, forever. This effectively shuts down any role of a mediator.  

(iv) Undisrupted Sources of Sustenance: The supply chain of logistics plays a key role in prolonging the duration of conflicts. The military’s war chest has received a constant supply of arms and ammunition. According to the UN, the coup group,  between February 2021 and May 2023, imported arms and raw materials worth $1 billion to manufacture weapons. Russia supplied advanced weapons systems worth $406 million and China another $267 million. On the other hand, the opposition has relied on the traditional supply chains of the EAOs for its weapons. In terms of the availability of manpower and finances, both sides seem to have managed their requirements well. While China and Russia support the military regime diplomatically – and China is deeply involved in the United Wa State Army (UWSA) rump statelet – the Opposition seems to have been able to successfully convert the sympathies of its well-wishers abroad into some level of tacit support. 

(v) The Age of Social Media: Winning an armed conflict kinetically is no longer guaranteed to the stronger party kinetically. Access to the internet, especially social media platforms, can enhance the capacities of the weaker party in asymmetric battle, especially as the ongoing crimes that are the norm for Myanmar’s military are exposed. Further, networks of cooperation, communication, and assistance enable political and logistical assistance, as well as international pressure upon the perpetrator (Arquilla’s netwar in 2023). The Opposition in Myanmar, despite its comparative military weakness, seems to have used this approach to its advantage to not only stay in the game but to position itself in such a manner as to offer hope of advancement. 

A Windshear Alert 

Thus, the trajectory of the civil war, often thought to favour the military if protracted, appears to have shifted somewhat to the Opposition’s favour. Ever since 27 October, when three EAOs—the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Arakan Army (AA)—launched Operation 1027, substantial areas in northern Myanmar bordering China have slipped out of military control. As days progress, a growing number of military posts have been overrun by the Three Brotherhood Alliance. Whether the momentum of this newfound operational approach of launching a united onslaught can be maintained remains to be seen. Still, it does highlight the vulnerability of the military when pitted against a more united and hence formidable opposition. It also has lessons for the countries that have built their foreign policy towards Myanmar by placing blind faith in the military’s perpetual dominance.           


Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma),  

United Nations Human Rights Special Procedures, “The Billion Dollar Death Trade: The International Arms Networks That Enable Human Rights Violations in Myanmar”, May 2023,

“Operation 1027 in Visualizations”, Irrawaddy, 11 November 2023. 

Khin Nadi, “How ASEAN’s Failed ‘Five-Point Consensus’ Has Let Down the People of Myanmar”, The Wire, 19 May 2022,

  • About the author: Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is the Director of Mantraya.
  • Source: This analysis has been published as part of Mantraya’s ongoing “Fragility, Conflict, and Peace Building” project. All Mantraya publications are peer-reviewed.

Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray

Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray served as a Deputy Director in the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India and Director of the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM)’s Database & Documentation Centre, Guwahati, Assam. He was a Visiting Research Fellow at the South Asia programme of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore between 2010 and 2012. Routray specialises in decision-making, governance, counter-terrorism, force modernisation, intelligence reforms, foreign policy and dissent articulation issues in South and South East Asia. His writings, based on his projects and extensive field based research in Indian conflict theatres of the Northeastern states and the left-wing extremism affected areas, have appeared in a wide range of academic as well policy journals, websites and magazines.

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