Sunrise from Shwesandaw, Bagan. Source: Drouyn Cambridge, Creative Commons

In a world where conflict arises from ethnic and religious differences, Myanmar is not often a name that is brought up, but perhaps represents one of the most complicated and longest cases of ongoing ethnic conflict in a country. Today, due to the internal ethnic conflict, it is estimated that almost one-and-a-half million people are internally displaced. The government, which has been controlled by the military since 1962, has attempted peace talks with belligerent groups, but ceasefire deals have broken down time after time. This coming January, however, presents Myanmar’s brightest hope for peace yet. To understand why this civil war has been raging for so long, the country’s complexities and the reasoning behind this conflict must be understood.


Myanmar, a former British colony that is also referred to as Burma because of the Burman ethnic majority, consists of 135 ethnic groups. The Burman people make up 66% of the population, while eight other minority groups account for 30.5% of the population, and the remaining groups represent the last 4.5%. While 89% of the population is Buddhist, Muslims and Christians make up four percent of the population. The Sgaw Karen people make up Myanmar’s Christian population, and it is the Sgaw Karen that began and still continues to drive the Karen nationalist movement.


The Sgaw Karen were converted to Christianity by Protestant American missionaries in the 19th century. They were taught English, became more literate in their own language, which had been modernized by the missionaries, and were taught by the Americans about their own history and traditions. This caused the Karen people to become increasingly nationalistic, and because of their English literacy and Protestant Christianity, they allied themselves to the colonial British, aiding them in putting down the Burman rebellions in the three Anglo-Burmese Wars and in the Saya San rebellion in the early 1930s.

Surrender Ceremony March Past. Source: Chris Turner, Creative Commons
Surrender Ceremony March Past. Source: Chris Turner, Creative Commons

During the Second World War, the Karen fought alongside the British against the invading Japanese, who were aided by the Burman. When Japan captured Rangoon, the capital city, the British forces retreated to India, leaving the Karen at the mercy of the Burman and Japanese, who began systematically killing the Karen. The Japanese occupation ended in 1945 when the allied forces recaptured Myanmar. The Karen leadership believed that their aiding of the British had earned them the right to have an independent state, but this hope was denied by the newly formed, primarily Burman government.


The newly formed government established parliamentary rule, but leftist groups such as the Communist Party of Burma and the Karen National Union, which represented the Karen minority in Myanmar, believed that they and other ethnic groups were being excluded from government involvement. The Karen National Union called for an independent Karen state, and the organization’s military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army, began a campaign that conquered much of the countryside. Thanks to the recent Japanese occupation of Myanmar, there were plenty of leftover weapons for the anti-government groups to utilize. Along with the Karen people, many other ethnic groups, such as the Shan, Arakanese, Chin, and Kachin also called for independent states. The Kachin people formed an alliance with the Karen, but a lack of trust along with internal disagreements allowed the Burma army to take back much of the land it had lost. However, to the north, Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China was threatening to invade Myanmar. Myanmar was seen as ethnically divided, and the government in the 1960 election was strongly considering a constitutional amendment that would turn the country into a Federal system. Combined with economic woes and the decline of Myanmar nationalism, the country was ripe for regime change, which came in the form of a bloodless military coup d’etat in 1962.


The new military government turned Myanmar into a one-party socialist military dictatorship. In an effort to prevent Thai and Burmese communist forces from unifying, both the United States and Thai government provided both the Karen National Union and the Myanmar government with weapons, which the two groups in-turn used against each other. The Karen movement gradually declined after losing support from Thailand in the late 1960s, but never actually died because of the Karen state’s proximity in northern Myanmar to Thailand, which promoted cross-border trade. Violent conflict continued in the Karen state, and the Karen National Union redoubled efforts to rebuild a relationship with the Thai government in 1976. The Thai government ultimately stopped all support of the Karen movement in 1997, when Myanmar joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.


Since then, the Karen movement has split into seven different factions, all fighting the military government in the Karen state until 2011, when total military rule officially ended. As of now, the Karen National Union barely holds any territory within Myanmar, but to stay afloat, it, along with other insurgency groups, have become heavily involved in the cross-boarder opium and sex-trafficking trade with Thailand. Myanmar is the second largest producer of opium in the world, and is the largest provider of methamphetamine products in Southeast Asia. The opium trafficking industry brings in an estimated $2 billion annual revenue for Myanmar’s drug lords, and while this has aided Myanmar’s economy, it also perpetuates internal ethnic conflict.


The military government’s hands have not been clean of human rights abuses in this conflict. In 2005, a Harvard study found that during a military campaign known as “the Offensive,” Myanmar’s army had been attacking civilian areas, destroying food stores, laying land mines in civilian locations, and shooting fleeing civilians, all of which are in violation of international law and have resulted in the displacement of tens of thousands of individuals and the deaths of many. In the overall span of the Karen conflict, millions have fled the Karen state and Myanmar altogether. The Myanmar army has also been accused of sexual violence, forced labor, and the use of child soldiers in their campaigns. The Rohingya Muslims, another minority group, have been suffering what has been called an “ethnic cleansing” at the hands of Buddhist Monks. Their leader, U Wirathu, calls for boycotting of Muslim businesses and for violent attacks against Rohingya. In one instance, Buddhist monks burned 70 homes in Oakkan, a town north of Rangoon, killing one person and injuring nine, all because a Muslim girl on a bike collided with a Buddhist monk. There is also legal discrimination against both Muslims and Christians in Myanmar. On July 7, 2015, the Parliament voted into law a bill that prohibits interfaith marriage. Though democracy again is on the rise in Myanmar, the country has yet to achieve peace since its conception in 1948.

Burma protest for junta to face International Criminal Court. Source: totaloutnow, Creative Commons
Burma protest for junta to face International Criminal Court. Source: totaloutnow, Creative Commons

Though the situation in Myanmar has long been nearly hopeless, there is a chance that the government could bring about peace in the very near future. In March 2015, 16 rebel groups signed a ceasefire agreement with the government, and in November of that same year, the Opposition National League for Democracy won the majority of seats in the parliamentary election, allowing them to form a new government. The leader of this party, Aung San Suu Kyi, is perhaps Myanmar’s most famous pro democratic activist. The daughter of Aung San, who led Myanmar’s liberation movement, she was under house arrest in Myanmar for 15 years because of her political activism, and quickly became one of the most prominent political prisoners in the world, being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her leading of non-violent protests and calls for ethnic peace. Although she cannot be the president of Myanmar due to her marriage to a non-Burman, her role as party president will be integral in the upcoming peace process once the new government is established at the end of January. Aung San Suu Kyi has called for her people to recognize the desired autonomy of the country’s ethnic groups and has pushed for real democracy in the government, but she will need the backing of the Myanmar military in order to make this dream a reality. The military is still the most powerful player in the government, and if any constitutional amendment are to be made in the future, it requires at least one military legislator. The former lieutenant general of the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s army, has vowed that the military, “will help any government succeed in the peace process…the government will change soon but the peace process will not stop”.

Whether the military’s idea of peace is in alignment with Aung San Suu Kyi’s is still to be seen, but this does bode well for the future. If the military is on Aung San Suu Kyi’s side, then she can push for a constitutional amendment allowing interfaith marriage in Myanmar, thus allowing her to take the role of president. This would help stop discrimination against the Christian and Muslim ethnic groups, strengthening the trust between the Karen and Rohingya people and the new government. A peaceful Myanmar can help the country focus on infrastructure development, which will better equip it against the natural disasters that have frequently plagued the country and have resulted in the displacement of millions, as well as better the country’s economic situation and move it away from its dominant opium trade. Aung San Suu Kyi and the new National League for Democracy in Myanmar’s new government have massive challenges facing them, but if they can succeed, Myanmar’s future will be bright.

June 2012: Aung San Suu Kyi visits the Department for International Development in London. Source: DFID - UK Department for International Development, Creative Commons
June 2012: Aung San Suu Kyi visits the Department for International Development in London. Source: DFID – UK Department for International Development, Creative Commons


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.