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CONFLICT READER
The Civil War in Myanmar: Continuing Violence, the Battle of Attrition, and the Divide within ASEAN

  Bibhu Prasad Routray

Continuing Violence

Between 16 and 21 June 2023, at least 53 Myanmar troops including pro-military militia forces were killed in attacks by the People’s Defence Force (PDFs) Sagaing, Magwe, Tanintharyi, and Mandalay regions, and the Karen state. The biggest of coordinated PDFs attacks took place in Tanintharyi town on 17 June targeting a military detachment near Thamee Hla village by the Kaw Thoo Lei Army (Tanintharyi), an ethnic Karen resistance group, in which at least 30 soldiers were allegedly killed. 

On 18 June, ten soldiers were killed in a PDF attack on a military gunboat in the Irrawaddy river in Myingyan town of Mandalay region. Other attacks included an ambush on a military logistics detachment in Sagaing’s Kalewa town on 16 June and a landmine attack by the Black Wolf Army PDF in Shwebo town of Sagaing region on the same day. The PDFs used drones to drop bombs on pro-military militia facilities in the pro-regime village of Mar Lal Taw in Sagaing town. 

On 19 June 2023, a People’s Defence Force (PDF) named Urban Owls claimed to have shot dead Ye Khine, Yangon International Airport’s security chief in Yangon. Sources in the Urban Owls said Ye Khine detained pro-democracy activists, including artists and striking government staff, while they tried to leave the country from the airport and sent them to the detention centres. Ye Khine’s killing symbolizes the very latest in the ongoing attritional civil war in Myanmar between the ruling military junta and the parallel National Unity Government (NUG).    

The Prolonged War and the Battle of Attrition

The attacks described above provide a peep into the military’s expansive operations against the opposition groups, which in the recent past has focused on the Kayah state with the objective of gaining control over strategic Moebye town. Although incidents like the airstrike that killed more than 100 people in April 2023 in the Sagaing region have not been repeated, sustained attacks have continued to claim civilian lives. According to the Karenni Human Rights Group, 33 civilians were killed and 13 others were injured in fighting in and around Moebye town on the border of Shan and Kayah states between 27 May and 15 June. Artillery attacks by the military have also been reported from the Karen state and Bago region claiming civilian lives.      

Amid contrasting claims of normalcy by the junta and battlefield victories by the NUG, the direction and ultimate result of the military contestation between the two remains an area of intense interest.  

Prolonged wars between the state and the insurgencies/ resistance groups operating without external support typically favour the former. The state has access to enormous resources and dedicated sources of military hardware and is inclined to use indiscriminate violence to subdue opposition. The Myanmar military has imported at least $1 billion in arms and raw materials to manufacture weapons since the coup in February 2021. While Russia supplies the bulk of the weapons for the Tatmadaw, the Justice for Myanmar Group on 20 June said that Swedish weapons manufactured by an Indian company under license are also being exported to Myanmar. These included FFV-447 projectile fuzes designed for use with Swedish 84 mm Carl Gustaf recoilless rifles. Such rifles earlier sold to India by Sweden had been resold by New Delhi to Myanmar. Between 2017 and 2021, India was the third-largest supplier of weapons to Myanmar. 

The opposition, on the other hand, must scourge perennially for international support, finances, military and other logistics to continue fighting. So far, the NUG and the PDFs, with the trickle of support from largely unknown entities, have done well to withstand the onslaught of the Tatmadaw and hold on to sizeable areas. However, the attacks and fatalities they claim to inflict on the troops and pro-state militia may not be enough to shake the foundation of the military-run state in the long run. 

Crack within the ASEAN

Tatmadaw’s refusal to implement any of the suggested plans under the ‘five-point consensus’ to halt violence has peeved the ASEAN member states, who in October 2021 decided to exclude Myanmar from any of the group’s proceedings. However, some members of the consensus-driven bloc, in their individual capacities, have hardly shown much commitment to such a resolve. The latest to deviate was Thailand. On 19 June, the outgoing military-backed government hosted an informal dialogue in Pattaya to discuss a proposal for the regional bloc to “fully re-engage Myanmar at the leaders’ level”. Representatives from Laos, Cambodia, India, China, Brunei, and Vietnam, as well as Myanmar, attended the meeting, while Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore abstained. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, himself a former coup leader, said direct talks were necessary to protect his country. However, the leader of Move Forward, Pita Limjaroenrat, who won the recent Thai general election, has said that he is committed to ASEAN-led solutions for Myanmar and distanced himself from the outgoing government’s talks with Myanmar’s junta.

Dodging the Sanctions

Media reports on 21 June indicated that the US is planning to impose new sanctions on Myanmar, this time on the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank and Myanmar Investment and Commercial Bank, with a bid to cut off finances to the junta. A junta spokesperson, however, sought to play down the possible impact of the sanctions. There are contrasting viewpoints weighing on the impact of wide-ranging sanctions. While these may have economically squeezed the Tatmadaw to an extent, shreds of evidence point to the military’s undiminishing ability to survive.   

Amid Western sanctions, the military-run government’s survival has depended critically upon a variety of assistance from a select group of countries. While countries sharing borders with Myanmar, such as India and Thailand, are concerned about the ‘instability near home’, countries like Russia and China are using their anti-US position to dig deep into Myanmar’s economy and politics. Myanmar’s economic trade with Japan has not been disrupted. On 15 June, Myanmar’s electricity minister Thaung Han, attending the International Economic Forum in St Petersburg, signed a memorandum of understanding with NovaWind, a subsidiary of Russia’s state-owned nuclear firm Rosatom, and two Russian companies on wind-power feasibility studies. Another MoU was signed to start direct weekly flights between Yangon and Mandalay to Moscow and Novosibirsk. 

Tailpiece

29 months of civil war is all set to continue into the second half of 2023. The NUG’s principal demand for the restoration of democracy has met an iron wall of the junta’s own version of stability. The bloody confrontation isn’t likely to produce a winner anytime soon.


About the author

Dr Bibhu Prasad Routray is the Director of Mantraya, Goa. He was formerly a Deputy Director at the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India.

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