10 June 2022
Post-coup Myanmar in six warscapes
The ongoing conflict in Myanmar is best understood according to six warscapes, each with distinct power dynamics. The coup introduced new actors and alliances, bringing war to places previously untouched by it while intensifying protracted armed struggles in others.
By Shona Loong
Graphics by Brody Smith
Edited by Aaron Connelly
Within days of seizing power on 1 February 2021, Myanmar’s newly formed State Administration Council (SAC) junta faced non-violent resistance on a scale not seen in decades. Much of the civil service went on strike as part of the nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement, crippling basic functions of the state. Street protests attracted tens of thousands, most of them young people who had come of age during ten years of liberalisation beginning in 2011. They were not prepared to accept a return to military rule.
The SAC’s refusal to back down has led to conflict more widespread than at any other time in Myanmar’s modern history. Soon after non-violent demonstrations began, the military responded with stun grenades, rubber bullets, and live fire in crackdowns resulting in over 1,800 deaths and 13,000 arrests. In mid-2021, when the regularity of protests had decreased, anti-coup sentiment found a new outlet in armed resistance. Disenchanted protesters began to form People’s Defence Forces (PDFs)– a term coined by the newly formed shadow government, the National Unity Government (NUG), to refer to groups using arms to protect its supporters.
In practice, the PDFs – of which there are now hundreds – have varied and loose links with the NUG. They are better understood as small cells of people who oppose the coup, organised on a local basis, using violence against regime soldiers, military-linked infrastructure, and purported supporters of the regime. Despite the PDFs’ limited training, resources, and experience, fighting between these groups and the SAC has profoundly altered the conflict dynamics in Myanmar. The Buddhist-Bamar majority Dry Zone in the centre of Myanmar, where there had been calm for decades, is now pivotal to the battle for control over the country. Opposition to the coup has also redrawn the conflict dynamics along Myanmar’s borders with India, Bangladesh, China, and Thailand, where over 20 ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) have battled the central government for decades. These groups represent different ethnic minorities – unlike the PDFs, which are dominated by the Bamar. Moreover, whereas most PDF members have no prior combat experience, the EAOs are experienced at staving off the military’s advances in the terrain they control. The protracted conflict between the EAOs and successive central governments has resulted in persistent conditions of ‘neither war nor peace’ in border areas, outlasting successive ceasefires, ceasefire collapses, and stalled peace negotiations. Consequently, these conflicts have long been a source of anxiety and opportunity for Myanmar’s neighbours. The EAOs’ responses to the coup have varied: some are vociferous opponents, others have equivocated, and a few recently acquiesced to the SAC. What all the EAOs share is that they are faced with a moving map of new actors, alliances, and frontlines. In particular, the EAOs have taken the emergence of PDFs into consideration in calculating whether to capitalise on a new appetite for armed resistance among the wider population or to focus on securing autonomy for the ethnic groups they represent.
Myanmar’s geographies of war
Almost all of Myanmar’s 330 sub-districts or ‘townships’ – the country’s basic units of administration – are now affected by war. Many civilians have been killed or displaced, or have taken up arms. War has also damaged livelihoods and the country’s economy. But it affects the country unevenly, as conflict dynamics are layered over struggles that predate the coup. The six warscapes represented in the map – the Dry Zone, Rakhine, Northeast Myanmar, Southeast Myanmar, Northwest Myanmar, and Lower Myanmar – illustrate the varied geographies of war in Myanmar and its impact on the lives of local people, regional security, and the international community. An in-depth commentary on each warscape further unpacks the conflict dynamics in each one, distinguishing them from other areas of Myanmar.
The Dry Zone demonstrates how the coup has mobilised civilians who for decades had been untouched by armed insurgencies. Besides the Tatmadaw, the key conflict actors in the Dry Zone are SAC-allied Pyusawhti militia and anti-SAC PDFs, both of which comprise Bamar-Buddhist civilians without prior combat experience. EAOs are not significant actors here. The forces are unevenly matched: while the Tatmadaw reinforces the Pyusawhti with heavy weaponry, armoured vehicles, and aircraft, the PDFs fight with improvised explosives, makeshift weapons, and small arms. Yet a decisive victory for the regime is not in sight; instead the Dry Zone is experiencing a painful war of attrition. At present, PDFs are making minor gains – successfully ambushing Tatmadaw columns, upgrading their weaponry, and growing increasingly organised – even as the SAC sets fire to communities suspected of supporting PDFs. For both PDF and Pyusawhti members, the fight is existential. The Dry Zone also illustrates how the coup has destabilised day-to-day social relations, with communities polarised along the lines of the conflict, creating a patchwork of pro-SAC and anti-SAC villages. Read the Dry Zone analysis now.
Rakhine is an outlier to the violence occurring countrywide. Due to an informal ceasefire agreed between the Arakan Army (AA) and the Tatmadaw in November 2020, there has been a lull in violence in this area, which encompasses Rakhine State and Paletwa township in southern Chin State, due to the AA’s extensive presence. The ceasefire was a watershed in Rakhine, as the AA–Tatmadaw conflict from 2018 to 2020 featured the fiercest fighting in Myanmar in decades. This warscape demonstrates how EAOs’ struggles sometimes do not align with the goals of the wider anti-SAC resistance. The AA insists on ‘sovereignty’ on its own terms. It has also leveraged conflict dynamics since the coup to pursue this, expanding its administration in Rakhine State while the Tatmadaw is preoccupied with frontlines elsewhere. Nonetheless, the AA’s non-alignment is tentative and contingent on other conflict actors’ willingness to concede to its goals. At present, tensions between the AA and the SAC are growing, and the AA is beginning to engage openly with the NUG, albeit cautiously, while holding fast to its foundational goals. Read the Rakhine analysis now.
In Northeast Myanmar, the coup has transformed protracted power struggles and their political economies. The conflict here is not simply between the Tatmadaw and its opponents, as the coup has also reignited tensions between EAOs. Major clashes in late 2021 between three EAOs, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) on one hand and an alliance between the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Shan State Progress Party on the other, have reshaped battle lines in northern Shan State. It would appear that the Tatmadaw is again using divide-and-rule strategies against its opponents, as it did in the past. Northeast Myanmar’s armed groups – including both EAOs and Tatmadaw-sponsored militias – are also linked to the production of opium, rubber, and maize. The coup is thus likely to fuel not only armed conflict but also various war economies, many of which involve actors – official and unofficial – in neighbouring China and Thailand. Reports are beginning to emerge, for example, about the resurgence of gold mining in Kachin State. Read the Northeast Myanmar analysis now.
The situation in Southeast Myanmar is characterised by military alliances between old ethno-nationalist movements and new PDFs. The main EAOs in the southeast, the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), have sheltered and trained PDFs. Together with PDFs, these EAOs have occasionally launched joint attacks on SAC targets. The southeast is also shaped by convergence between the political goals of local EAOs and the broader anti-SAC resistance. EAOs here are tentatively hopeful that the coup will unite Myanmar’s ethnic groups against a common enemy. They see the current conflict as an opportunity to attain self-determination under the rubric of a federal democracy. Yet for the KNU and KNPP, the NUG also conjures spectres of past betrayal. Both EAOs had an uneasy relationship with the National League for Democracy (NLD) government and will be waiting to see if the NUG is truly committed to its stated priorities of a ‘federal’ system first and ‘democracy’ second. Read the Southeast Myanmar analysis now.
Prior to the coup, Northwest Myanmar posed a puzzle: despite the high prevalence of poverty and a largely non-Buddhist population with a strong sense of ethno-national identity, it was characterised by quietude relative to other ethnic areas. The predominant EAO, the Chin National Front (CNF), inspired allegiance but not conflict. Since the coup, the area has become a hotspot for crackdowns on non-violent protests. In April and May 2021, Mindat township became a symbol of the regime’s brutality among the wider anti-SAC resistance. PDFs, organised under the Chinland Defence Force, have not only been active but also remarkably organised in their efforts to undermine the SAC’s authority. The CNF has become a significant conflict actor as a result, showing how the emergence of PDFs can re-ignite older ethno-nationalist movements. Read the Northwest Myanmar analysis now.
Lower Myanmar sheds light on the emergence of urban warfare in the country. Previously, most armed conflict had taken place in rural, peripheral areas – but now, in this area, former protesters have created urban guerrilla groups. Yangon has changed: once Myanmar’s bustling commercial capital, many of its buildings have been damaged and urban dwellers live with the threat of spontaneous attacks and explosions. Since the coup, there have been at least 121 bomb blasts in the city. Amidst frequent violence, a decade of human development gains in Lower Myanmar are now in tatters. Read the Lower Myanmar analysis now.
These six warscapes demonstrate that the structure of the ongoing conflict varies significantly across Myanmar. They are distinct but interrelated. Taken together, the warscapes show that the conflict cannot be reduced to a binary contest between those supporting the coup and those opposing it. Among regime supporters, the rise of new military-aligned militias since the coup has complicated the picture. Among regime opponents, there are important distinctions between PDFs and EAOs, and varying stances towards the regime within these categories. PDFs and EAOs also act in different configurations in each warscape. In post-coup Myanmar, the countrywide war is the sum of many moving parts.
To cut through this complexity, the map organises conflict actors into three categories – SAC forces, anti-SAC forces, and EAOs – while corresponding warscape analyses expand on the nuances within them.
SAC forces comprise the Tatmadaw and its supporters. Those supporters include the Union Solidarity and Development Party, some hardline Buddhist nationalist organisations, pro-regime militias and Border Guard Forces, informers, and the Pyusawhti. The latter are a ‘loosely connected set of village-level networks’ of pro-SAC civilians who receive weapons and daily wages from the junta. The Pyusawhti are critical to the SAC’s operations in the Dry Zone, where the regime lacks bases, intelligence and supply networks given that there had been no armed conflict here for decades.
Anti-SAC forces are primarily interested in toppling the military regime. Most groups in this category were formed after the 2021 coup, such as the PDFs, the NUG, and defectors from the police and military, although there are sporadic exceptions. PDFs work alone or in tandem with other entities. In Northwest Myanmar, for example, at least 12 PDFs are affiliated with the anti-SAC Chinland Defence Force. They collaborate with each other and with the Chin National Front (CNF), an EAO. The NUG’s defence ministry supplies and oversees command structures for some PDFs. It is also calling for coordination among resistance forces, including EAOs, under the banner of a multi-ethnic ‘federal armed forces’, though this seems a distant prospect for now. Conversely, the SAC deems both PDFs and the NUG to be terrorist organisations.
In reality, the relationship between PDFs and the NUG is opaque and variable. In April 2022, the NUG estimated that there were between 50,000 and 100,000 PDF members, and that it was in touch with most PDFs. However, some PDFs criticise the NUG for failing to provide adequate weapons. It is also difficult to establish a coherent picture of PDF activity on the ground. There is no record of when most PDF groups assemble and disband, or of their sizes and structures. While there are larger PDFs that engage in regular battles, many are involved only in isolated incidents of violence, often using improvised explosives to destroy military-linked targets. The picture is further complicated by the fact that since the coup there have been approximately 3,000 violent events for which no armed group has claimed responsibility.
EAOs are armed groups that claim to represent non-Bamar ethnicities. Having been fighting the Myanmar government for many years before the 2021 coup, the EAOs’ long struggle is a reminder that since independence, central governments have never fully controlled Myanmar’s peripheries. Besides their military forces, many EAOs also run administrative and political institutions through which they rule borderland populations, some of which had little contact with previous Myanmar governments. The EAOs’ stances towards the SAC vary. The main EAOs in Southeast Myanmar have thrown their weight behind the NUG and PDFs, hoping that the NUG will pave the way for a federal Myanmar that accommodates their desire for self-determination. Elsewhere, the EAOs are more ambivalent towards both the SAC and the NUG. In Rakhine, for example, the AA’s equivocal stance stems from a deep-seated mistrust of the NLD and an unwavering desire for autonomy on their own terms. Nonetheless, to date, no EAOs have fought against PDFs.
In April 2022, the SAC invited all EAOs to a series of face-to-face peace talks, with mixed results. The offer was publicly rejected by four of the largest groups, all of which are openly collaborating with PDFs. These EAOs criticise the SAC for attempting to use the peace talks to drive a wedge between them and the PDFs, with which the SAC refuses to negotiate. By late May 2022, ten EAOs had agreed to attend talks. However, six of them are only minor players, and all but one of the four remaining have declined to send their leaders. Others, most notably the AA and its allies, have not responded publicly to the SAC’s invitation.
These events tell a familiar story: since the 1990s, the Tatmadaw has courted some EAOs with ceasefires – often sweetening the deal with economic opportunities – while attacking others. The Tatmadaw then breaks existing ceasefires while striking new ones with those groups that it had earlier weakened through fighting. For this reason, political sociologist David Brenner argued that the Tatmadaw has produced cycles of conflict and conciliation in Myanmar’s ethnic areas for decades. Now overstretched in post-coup Myanmar by an unprecedented number of battles in the Dry Zone, the SAC is turning to an old playbook.
As the war in Myanmar is so widespread, it inevitably ensnares civilians, whether as protesters, suspects, or targets. The vast majority of protests (98%) in the first four months after the coup were non-violent. The civilian population that took to the streets during this period included women’s groups, young people, and factory workers. However, SAC crackdowns began only days after the first protests. People began to flee in large numbers from the country’s biggest cities, where daily demonstrations had been taking place, in order to avoid fatal street confrontations with the regime’s soldiers. Some joined EAOs or PDFs, having judged that neither non-violent demonstrations nor diplomatic manoeuvres could oust the SAC. By mid-2021, the dial had turned decisively towards armed resistance.
Data collected by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project shows that SAC forces, anti-SAC forces, and EAOs have all used violence against civilians presumed to have links to the other side, but that SAC forces are by far the likeliest to target them. While SAC and anti-SAC forces have both targeted civilian suspects through raids, abductions, and attacks, only SAC forces have shot at crowds of thousands. Both sides have also targeted civilian infrastructure, but whereas anti-SAC forces tend to destroy uninhabited structures with links to the regime such as telecommunications towers, SAC forces have razed villages. Because of its deliberate targeting of civilians, the NUG has accused the SAC of breaching the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law. Conversely, the NUG has a code of conduct for PDFs based on international conventions, although it is difficult to implement this in practice because not all PDFs are in contact with the NUG.
Conflict dynamics in Myanmar cannot be understood as a binary dynamic or by generalising across the country. Rather than seeking to determine whether SAC or anti-SAC forces are ‘winning’, the map emphasises that the coup has altered long-standing power struggles by introducing new actors and alliances, with uneven effects across the country. Ultimately, changes to the overall balance of power in Myanmar are contingent on local dynamics within each warscape. Most importantly, the map sheds light on the tremendous toll the coup has taken on the civilian population, including in areas which had not witnessed insurgency in decades. Humanitarian needs are immense and widespread, yet efforts to deliver aid must consider the conflict dynamics in these warscapes, within which there is little neutral ground.
Dr Shona Loong is a senior scientist in political geography at the University of Zurich, and a non-resident Associate Fellow for Southeast Asian Politics and Foreign Policy at the IISS. Her research focuses on conflict, peacebuilding, and the politics of development in Myanmar and its borderlands.