Myanmar’s Ethnic Conflicts Have Multiple Fronts, and High Barriers to Peace

Myanmar’s Ethnic Conflicts Have Multiple Fronts, and High Barriers to Peace
A rebel with the Kachin Independence Army at an outpost near the armed group’s headquarters in northern Kachin state, Myanmar, March 20, 2018 (AP photo by Esther Htusan).

As global attention remains fixed on the desperate plight of Rohingya Muslims fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, another violent military crackdown has flared almost unnoticed more than 400 miles to the northeast in the remote and mountainous state of Kachin, along the isolated land border with China. Since mid-January, battles between Myanmar’s armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, and the ethnic rebels of the Kachin Independence Army, or KIA, have intensified in several areas of the resource-rich and historically conflict-wracked region, displacing thousands of civilians.

The surge in violence, with military airstrikes and retaliatory insurgent attacks, has dealt a severe blow to the electoral promises of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de-facto leader, who has attempted to resolve the country’s complex web of ethnic conflicts since assuming civilian power after landmark elections in 2015. Unchecked abuses by the Tatmadaw—first in Rakhine, and now in Kachin—have further damaged Aung San Suu Kyi’s past reputation as a Nobel laureate who championed democracy and defended human rights. Amid her silence over alleged military abuses, her peace efforts have made scant progress; conflict across Myanmar has, in fact, worsened since she assumed office.

Although a smattering of rebel groups with different agendas signed a vague, nation-wide cease-fire with the government in late 2015—with two more joining-up in February this year—the 12,000-strong KIA has not signed and remains one of Myanmar’s most powerful and well-armed rebel groups. The dynamics of the recent violence, which began with a military onslaught against rebel bases near lucrative mining towns, suggest why the conflict in Kachin has been so hard to resolve. Across this rugged land nestled between China and India, and far from the center of state power in Naypyidaw, contests over ethnicity, territory and resources combine to make the insurgency as intractable as any in the world.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.

More World Politics Review