Op-Ed: How Long Will We Ignore Myanmar’s Seventy Year Civil War?

Photo Credit: UN Women

By Mihir Shenoy
Staff Writer

For much of the international community, 2022 has been viewed as a year of turmoil, as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has significantly impacted commodity prices and the worldwide balance of power. When learning about international affairs, people tend to focus on countries that greatly affect the economy, draw more cultural influence, or exhibit geopolitical significance. However, when people only pay heed to events that involve powerful countries, they may turn a blind eye to poorer and less-influential countries that are also going through conflict. Such is the case with Myanmar, and that negligence has made its internal conflict hidden from the rest of the world.

In 2021, Myanmar’s military—the Tatmadaw—seized power in a coup d’état, and has since been fighting the People’s Defense Force (PDF), which represents the ousted democratic government. Several armed groups, officially termed Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) by the former government, have allied with the PDF against the Tatmadaw. These organizations are not new; civil war between the Tatmadaw and EAOs has been ongoing over the past seventy years due to grievances from minority ethnic groups like the Kachin, Karen, Rakhine, Rohingya, and Shan. The regime change to the junta represents a tipping point of that tension.

Perhaps the most well known case of ethnic conflict is the ongoing Rohingya genocide, which started in 2016. Although the junta did not rule at that time, the Tatmadaw still possessed a disproportionate amount of power, which allowed it to enact terror campaigns against Rohingya Muslims in the name of “national security”. At least 24,000 have been killed, 18,000 women and girls have been raped, and the Rohingya who still live in Myanmar are denied citizenship. There are about one million Rohingya refugees, 600,000 of whom live in a single camp in Bangladesh. Although the ultra-nationalism of the Burmese (meaning from Myanmar) population has softened, current junta chief Min Aung Hlaing was one of the main architects of the 2017 terror campaign against the Rohingya, so repatriation to a peaceful Myanmar seems unlikely. 

While the Rohingya remain the most persecuted ethnic group, the general Burmese population has also suffered from the civil war. However, reducing the situation in Myanmar to just a civil war does not do it justice, as the war has not just created conflict but a national deterioration of basic services as well. Since the beginning of the coup, about one million people have been internally displaced. According to the Myanmar Teachers’ Federation, only ten percent of students have opted to go to school in 2021. Indiscriminate attacks on schools, including an airstrike that killed 11 children, contribute to the low attendance rate. The health care system has effectively collapsed, with doctors routinely targeted for supporting the Civil Disobedience Movement, an initiative to strike against state jobs. Myanmar is also particularly vulnerable to climate change and has been recovering from extreme events such as Cyclone Nargis which took the lives of at least 84,000 people in 2008. If another tragic natural disaster was to occur, considering the state of the healthcare system, the damage could be catastrophic.

As a result of the formal economy and school system breaking down, more of Myanmar’s population has turned to the already extensive illicit drug trade. The vast majority of this production comes from Shan State, a region that borders China, Thailand, and Laos, where conflict between the Tatmadaw and various EAOs facilitates drug trafficking. As of 2019, Myanmar is the second largest producer of opium, and narcotics production has increased following the growth in militarization after the coup, especially toward synthetic stimulants. In January 2022, authorities in Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar intercepted 90 million methamphetamine tablets and 4.4 tons of crystal methamphetamine, most coming from Shan State. 

Another sector of the informal economy that has proliferated after the regime change is illegal mining. Perhaps the most worrying case of conflict-linked mining involves heavy rare earth elements (HREEs), which are used by companies such as Tesla and Mercedes-Benz for electric vehicles, Siemens for wind turbines, and Apple for smartphones. Myanmar has become the third largest exporter of rare earth minerals, chiefly in Kachin State, which has strong economic ties with its northern neighbor China. That region has seen brutal conflict between the Tatmadaw and EAOs since 1961; the Human Rights Watch has documented use of systematic rape, torture, and child soldiers. Since 2021 when junta-aligned militias began controlling rare earth mineral mining in Kachin, locals have suffered from soil and water pollution

Considering the multifold impacts of Myanmar’s civil war on its people, the grievances leading to this apex of conflict must be investigated. However, attitudes toward international affairs must change as well, especially for those living in influential countries like the United States. Not only do people have the power to cultivate local change, but they are also able to influence their national leaders when making foreign policy decisions. 

Increasingly, the international community has the duty to learn about the tragedies impacting other countries. As knowledge becomes more accessible, people can learn about how their actions may contribute to foreign conflict. For example, the corruption of the rare earth element supply chain by the junta leads to especially troublesome implications for consumer spending, as everyday appliances utilize these resources. Even for large manufacturers such as Tesla and Apple, verifying the source of every raw material of a manufactured good is difficult, so the path to clean supply chains will not be easy. However, knowledge of possible links to the Myanmar conflict is a good start. 

But even this is a shortsighted view. If Myanmar did not contribute to the worldwide economy at all, the humanitarian conditions alone should still be enough to demand support. The civil war has affected the Burmese in all facets of life. On top of living in a war zone, the severe lack of health care, school services, and environmental protection, coupled with religious persecution, makes the situation dire for all. The trauma produced by these circumstances only adds to the trauma that older generations of Burmese have endured, such as the conflict after the 1962 coup d’état by the Tatmadaw, the violent suppression of the 8888 uprising in 1988, and the growth of anti-Muslim riots in 2013. Even after seventy years of this struggle, the international community does not recognize the depth of Myanmar’s internal conflict. 

Diagnosing the root causes of conflict in Myanmar requires much more analysis, taking into consideration the colonial rule of Burma, the impact of World War II, and the cultural history of different ethnic groups. Even so, learning from a distance can only go so far in understanding the reality of the situation. Despite these obstacles, the international community should at least gain a basic understanding of the internal conflict in Myanmar and how their actions may be affecting it. With this knowledge, organizing solutions and supporting change will become easier, and the Burmese people will obtain their right of being recognized. 

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