Oct 8, 2015 | 09:30 GMT

8 mins read

Myanmar's Ethnic War Grinds On

Myanmar's Ethnic Militants
(KC ORITZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • The government's advantage over armed groups will continue to grow as the economy does, putting pressure on militants to strike a deal.
  • Rebel groups along the Chinese border are in a comparatively secure position, which will allow them to hold out longer.
  • November elections could partly erode but not eradicate the military's grip on the country.

Myanmar President Thein Sein has spent his four-year term trying to negotiate peace with the numerous ethnic armed groups on the periphery of the geographically fractured country. The strategy was meant to unfold in three stages: negotiated cease-fires with individual groups, a nationwide cease-fire agreement and, finally, an inclusive political dialogue. But the strategy has not proceeded as planned. Now, with elections weeks away, the government has opted for a makeshift deal.

On Oct. 15, eight armed groups will sign the nationwide cease-fire agreement, down from the 15 militias initially meant to sign. After elections, negotiations will resume both with signatories and holdout groups. But, though these agreements may stand temporarily, negotiating the end of a deeply divided, multi-generational insurgency is no small task and will be beset by divisions, backsliding and delays.

Things Fall Apart

Since Myanmar's independence in 1948, the military has slowly fought to push insurgent groups out of the nation's core Irrawaddy River Valley and to the borders of Bangladesh, India, China and Thailand. This drive stems from a dire post-independence situation, when the country was collapsing under the weight of communist rebel movements, nascent ethnic conflict and widespread paramilitary violence. By 1949, meaningful government authority was confined to Mandalay and Yangon. From this disarray, the military was installed as a caretaker government in 1958, and then took power permanently in 1962. Following decades of international isolation, compounded by Western sanctions in the 1990s, Myanmar finally transitioned to quasi-civilian rule following elections in 2010.

Today, communist militants are long gone but there are more than 20 ethnic armed groups strung out along the border, ranging in size from a couple of hundred fighters to more than 30,000. These groups control key resources and border crossings into neighboring markets. Ethnic militant groups are partly a function of Myanmar's geography: A horseshoe of rugged and heavily-forested highlands that surrounds the plains around the Irrawaddy River in the country's core. These mountains are home to a variety of ethnic groups (making up around 30 percent of the population) completely distinct from the ruling ethnic Bamar majority. The difficulty of extending infrastructure into these areas and a history of self-rule by these groups make it difficult for a central power to effectively govern.

Myanmar's geographic complexity is compounded by the fact that the country's uplands are parts of a massive highland complex scholars call Zomia, also known as the Southeast Asian Massif. This mountainous region straddles southern China, northeast India and Myanmar as well as parts of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Cambodia. Like Mexico's Sierra Madre, the Colombian highlands or Kurdistan, Zomia has always been a haven for those seeking to avoid state power. In antiquity, the different ethnic fiefdoms of Zomia functioned as buffer states between major powers and were periodically disciplined through military expeditions from Myanmar's Irrawaddy Valley core. In modern times, Westphalian borders were drawn across Zomia, but the area's remoteness, diversity and harsh terrain enabled insurgencies to thrive. The borders drawn across Zomia's complex terrain very rarely cleave to natural boundaries, making it easy for insurgents, smugglers and criminal groups to pass back and forth across political divides to evade authorities. Myanmar's fragile, isolated economy and weak institutions have made managing this territory even more difficult.

The State of Play

For decades, the Myanmar government has been trying to manage this situation with a variety of methods, most recently by combining military pressure with cease-fires and political settlements. A slew of bilateral agreements were made in the 1990s and early 2000s, but many broke down with the government changeover in 2011. Attempts to restore and build on those agreements are inevitably beset by tribulations.

At the end of September, ethnic representatives met with government negotiators in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for a last-minute attempt to finalize the nationwide cease-fire agreement. The outcome has been mixed at best. Myanmar had already decided not to include three armed groups (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, Ta'ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army), which taken together include nearly 8,000 fighters. In the end, eight groups agreed to sign: Karen National Liberation Army, Chin National Front, Arakan Liberation Party, Pa-Oh National Liberation Organization, Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council, Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, All Burma Students' Democratic Front and the Restoration Council of Shan State. Four other groups have definitively refused to sign: the Shan State Progressive Party, New Mon State Party, Karenni National Progressive Party and (most important) the Kachin Independence Organization, which itself has around 10,000 troops and 10,000 reservists. These three groups are demanding that the militias barred from signing be allowed in.

The elephant in the room, however, is the powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA). This group has long had a placid relationship with the Myanmar government but its strength — 30,000 militants, 10,000 reservists and a constitutionally sanctioned semi-autonomous zone on the Chinese border — presents an enduring threat to state power. Though the UWSA has not clashed with the government since signing a bilateral cease-fire in September 2011, it has chosen not to sign a nationwide agreement unless several of its allies are included. For the UWSA, including these allies is critical — they help to provide a buffer against the Myanmar military and are essential to black market operations.

Can the Center Hold?

The situation is changing for Myanmar's ethnic rebels. When the central government began transitioning away from international isolation in 2010, it gained a number of advantages. Its economy, which had been crippled by socialist mismanagement since 1962 and Western sanctions since the 1990s, received an immediate boost. In the 2014-2015 fiscal year, the economy grew 8.5 percent and is set to grow 6.5 percent next year. Foreign direct investment also rose to $3 billion — an upward trend likely to continue as the country benefits from natural gas investment as well as the flight of low-end manufacturing from China and other wealthier regional states. A healthier economy means more money in government coffers that can be expended on building institutional reach into remote areas, providing economic assistance and developing military capabilities.

At the same time, however, armed groups retain some advantages. Weapons smuggling networks tie these groups to sources of arms throughout mainland Southeast Asia, India and China. Moreover, the illicit sale of natural resources (minerals, gems, timber) has long helped militants recruit from and support the local populations that make up their support base. This black market will remain healthy as regional economies grow. Militant trafficking of opium and methamphetamine into neighboring countries will also grow along with the rising Asian middle class and its demand for recreational drugs. Myanmar authorities may be able to crackdown on trafficking to some degree, but the enduring drug trade in Mexico and Central America is a testament to how difficult this will be. And at least in the short term, increased legitimate trade across the border will provide greater opportunity to conceal and ramp up illicit flows, likely with the complicity of corrupt officials.

Rebels will also continue to enjoy at least tacit support from Myanmar's neighbors, as they did throughout the Cold War and into the present day, though in a less overt manner. China, for example, was instrumental in supporting the Communist Party of Burma until it collapsed in 1989. Out of this collapse emerged several of the strongest ethnic insurgencies: the United Wa State Army and its allies. Some reports indicate that tentative Chinese support for the UWSA is being used to maintain leverage over Myanmar as it opens to the West. But even if this is true, Beijing has its limits. China does not want fighting to spill over its own border or to strengthen the black market in the region.

Over the next several years, the strategies of different ethnic militant groups will continue to diverge dramatically based on their geographic position. This is reflected in the recent spotty turnout in the nationwide cease-fire agreement. The groups most likely to cooperate with Myanmar are mostly those whose key interests lie along the borders with India, Bangladesh and Thailand. The groups on the Thai border in particular are under pressure to cooperate with the government: cross-border road and bridge construction is connecting Myanmar's core more closely to nearby Thailand. Planned ports along the Andaman coast will also increase the importance of the border region and the state's reach there. The purview of the central state apparatus is closing in on these groups quickly.

By contrast, many of the groups that have refused to sign or that are reluctant to do so possess strong positions on the Chinese border, which gives them access to lucrative trade. They have the ability to remain more autonomous simply because they have more access to life-giving revenue. This is a major problem for the Myanmar government that will continue to dog the next administration, especially as stronger groups leverage their positions for more favorable cease-fire conditions. Nevertheless, Myanmar's political establishment, over which the military will continue to exert a significant influence, will continue to try to pressure armed groups to disarm, especially along the Chinese border.

Lead analyst: Evan Rees

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