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Myanmar: Asia’s “Ukraine” A Forgotten Civil War

For the last 30 days, the world has been glued to the war in Ukraine with massive humanitarian tragedy that is unfolding amidst the Russian offensive, the so-called, “Special Military Operation”.

Apart from the war front, geopolitical and economic developments have shaken the world with the U.S. Europe and partners imposing a blockade of economic, financial and technological sanctions on Russia in a surge that has been unprecedented.

The issue has rocked the UN Security Council with at least three resolutions so far, the UN Human Rights Council and importantly, the UN General Assembly with Special Sessions being held on two occasions.

The importance given to war in Ukraine is no doubt justified and nothing to be quibbled over, yet the neglect of Asia’s “Ukraine,” or Myanmar where hundreds have been killed and thousands displaced needs greater regional and global attention due to the sheer brutality indulged upon by the Myanmar military and the support groups fostered by it.

So how brutal is the civil war in Myanmar?

Here is an overview-

The Brutality of Myanmar’s Civil War

1,670 civilians are alleged to have been killed since the army seized power in the last one year since February 01 last year, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. These numbers may not be accurate as it is challenging to collect data from the conflict zone.

Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED), a United States-based data project that bases the numbers based on local media, estimated that 12,000 people have been killed since the military seized power in the country.

Moreover, thousands have been detained and are in custody, mostly civil rights activists leading the Civil Disobedience Movement. Those belonging to the PDF are summarily killed branded as terrorists.

However, the nature of the attacks undertaken by the military which have been highlighted in news portals such as Myanmar Now and the Irrawaddy giving eye witness reports [which cannot be verified] from the ground indicates that the toll may be much more given ruthlessness of the military campaign.

Also Read Myanmar Status Report of a Long War Under Ukraine’s Shadow

Apart from using air, artillery and attack helicopter strikes on the PDF, the military is targeting villages which it believes are providing support to the armed rebels.

The firing is frequently followed by the kidnapping of villagers and burning their homes.

For instance, Myanmar Now reports that a column of 100 junta soldiers kidnapped 30 men from a village in Sagaing Region’s Yinmabin Township moved on to a second village and burnt homes there.

This month, the Junta soldiers burned hundreds of homes in villages in Sagaing Region’s Khin-U Township. The troops set fires in seven different villages between March 5 and March 16, destroying at least 337 houses, according to records compiled by the Khin-U People’s Defence Force (PDF).

A unit of almost 300 junta soldiers has burned down houses in three villages near Sagaing Region’s border with Chin State.

In the Chin State, 200 troops from the junta’s Light Infantry Division (LID) 55 attacked the Chinland Defence Force (CDF) based in San Ma Thar, a village in the northern part of Kanpetlet Township, on March 15.

In the central Kayah state that is critical as it is next to the capital and stronghold of the military Naypyidaw from March 9 to 16, the military clashed with the Karenni Army, KNDF and People’s Defense Forces and has undertaken numerous air and helicopter attacks on villages rendering large numbers homeless.

Read Myanmar 2022 Jockeying for Advantage

Resistance and offensives by Anti Military Forces

The anti-military forces in Myanmar include the PDF and ethnic armed organisations (EAO) who have decades of experience fighting the Myanmar Army. For instance, troops from the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU) overran a Myanmar military base in southeastern Myanmar, killing one junta soldier, capturing another, and seizing weapons and explosives, the rebel group has said. The military is reported to have retreated and belonged to Infantry Battalion 21 and Light Infantry Battalion 555.

Karen National Liberation Army’s (KNLA) Battalion 201 is conducted operations in this area and has claimed that on March 13, KNLA troops captured four soldiers, including a battalion commander and deputy commander, from outside the base of Infantry Battalion 32 in Waw Lay Township, Dooplaya District.

Who is supporting the Military?

The military regime has garnered support from political parties which have been formed of military veterans, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (UPDS), the influential body of veteran generals led by Senior General Than Shwe and also include former President U Thein Sein had run Myanmar for decades prior to 2008 and the Buddhist clergy.

To win over the Buddhist clergy this month the regime conferred the Abhidhajamahāraṭṭhaguru title on U Tilawka Bhivamsa. He is the former chairman of the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, better known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha.

The Irrawaddy reports that the monk known as Insein Ywama Sayadaw he had been imprisoned under the previous military regime – the State Law and Order Restoration Council. He has assumed importance as the support of the extremist clergy is important for the military given that majority of the soldiers are Bumar Buddhist.

The military has also mobilized militias against resistance groups in Kayah State to include the Kayan National Guard (KNG), Mawchi militia, KNG, Karenni National Peace and Development Party militia, Loilem Lay militia, Karenni National Solidarity Organization militia, Kayan New Land Party militia.

Read Myanmar Diaspora Bankrolling Armed Resistance

Ironically Russia and Ukraine Provided Arms

Bertil Lintner, one of the foremost Western experts on Myanmar, has highlighted in the Asia Times that the Myanmar military is dependent on Russia and Ukraine for arms. Russia has provided MiG 29 fighters, Mi 35 helicopter gunships, transport helicopters, light ground attack aircraft as Yak 130 and light armoured vehicles. Thousands of officers have been trained in Russia at “the Omsk Armour Engineering Institute, the Air Force Engineering Academy in Moscow, the Nizhniy Novgorod Command Academy and the Kazan Military Command Academy,” as per Lintner.

Ukraine on the other hand has provided APC BTR 4, MMT – 40 light tanks and 2SIU SP howitzers to Myanmar. State-owned Ukroboronprom and Ukrspecexport, Ukraine’s two main arms producers were the main suppliers.

With Russian forces heavily involved in the fighting in Ukraine and Ukraine industry devastated, there is a likelihood of diminishing support to the military, resulting in the Tatmadaw looking for alternate sources.

Trajectory Ahead

Presently the civil war in Myanmar is a stalemate, though the military hopes to gain an upper hand with brutal tactics of slash and burn and denial of resources – food, water and connectivity to the PDF. The PDF have been officially branded as terrorists. Thus, international and regional agencies are not able to connect with them.

The PDF operate under the overall umbrella of the National Unity Government (NUG) organized by National League of Democracy (NLD) leaders. The NUG lacks the financial resources and the ability to coordinate operations of multiple mutinies across the country.

There are signs that the military may be internally fracturing as a number of cases of desertion and defection, including some upto the rank of a battalion commander have been reported. The Australian government has offered asylum to those who seek to defect and live in peace abroad. There are others who are joining the resistance.

Yet the military continues to have adequate potential to meet the challenge and hopes through brutal tactics to sustain the civil war. Mobilisation of local militia to support the military remains a prop to reach the rural belt.

The jury will remain out for some time now.

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