Insights and Analysis

Conflict and Governance in Myanmar

September 9, 2015

By Kim Jolliffe

As landmark November elections approach, Myanmar is experiencing its most intensive armed conflicts in decades, particularly in the country’s north, where a handful of ceasefires and informal arrangements for local autonomy had maintained stability since the early 1990s. Meanwhile, in the east of the country, ceasefires with numerous ethnic armed groups have brought a degree of stability, and have led to negotiations for a nationwide ceasefire agreement including some of the groups still at war. It is hoped that this nationwide agreement will lay the basis for a political dialogue that will lead to a renegotiation of the country’s political system.


Today, rural and mountainous areas in much of Myanmar are a patchwork of ethnic minority regions where multiple actors make overlapping territorial and governance claims. Photo/Nick Freeman

But while some of these new ceasefires have brought respite to local communities, allowing greater freedom of movement and reducing human rights abuses, their failure to establish clear territorial arrangements remains a source of instability and a hindrance to good governance and inclusive economic development. A brand new Asia Foundation report, Ethnic Armed Conflict and Territorial Administration in Myanmar, examines the local administration systems of armed subnational groups and how they relate to the central government.

Ethnic armed conflicts in Myanmar are as old as the country itself, having erupted in the same year as independence, 1948, in disputes over the country’s first constitution. These disputes, mostly over the degree of autonomy that would be afforded to various ethnic states, sprang from a much longer history within Myanmar of distinct cultural and linguistic groups with separate forms of political organization.

Today, rural and mountainous areas in much of Myanmar are a patchwork of ethnic minority regions where multiple actors make overlapping territorial and governance claims. In dozens of territories, ethnic armed groups have much deeper relations with local communities than the state does; in many cases, they have been the only administrative authorities in these regions in the country’s history. The largest and best organized of these groups have well-developed bureaucracies that provide relatively robust social services such as health and education, often with support from international aid agencies. The role that these groups play in the future of the country will be central to the achievement of peace, and to long-term governance reforms in Myanmar.

While stopping short of secessionist demands, the attempts of these ethnic groups to achieve autonomy through military resistance have been met with further centralization and militarization of the state, creating a vicious security cycle. These conflicts have become increasingly antagonistic since the non-violent Federal Movement began in the early 1960s, leading the military to seize power, and to announce just days later that “the issue of federalism [is] the most important [reason] for the coup.” This paved the way for almost 50 years of military rule, during which armed conflict continued nonstop in Myanmar’s non-Bamar regions, as successive regimes further centralized all functions of government and ethnic armed actors augmented autonomous enclaves in their areas.

The ongoing failure of Myanmar to establish constitutional arrangements that reflect – and thus are able to regulate and utilize – the actual power relations and political systems that exist in contested areas remains a fundamental source of state fragility. Under the present constitution, local government bodies enjoy very little formal autonomy and remain under the firm control of the military-led Ministry of Home Affairs’ General Administration Department. In practice, however, ethnic armed actors without official power-sharing agreements have continued to govern wide swathes of rural territory through largely informal arrangements.

Although some groups have depended on the use of guerilla warfare to defend their territories, many have entered into ceasefires or alliances with the state over the years in order to secure tolerated or even highly accommodated roles in local governance. None of these informal accommodations have been enshrined in law or the constitution, however, leading to an acute disconnect between the structure of subnational administration that exists on paper and the realities that exist on the ground. Successive Myanmar governments have seemingly envisioned tolerance of armed actors’ governance roles as a temporary expedient, to be discarded when centrally conceived state designs are implemented. These efforts have failed, however, and the result has been an extremely complex patchwork of armed governance actors that leaves these regions open to recurring armed conflicts.

In the long term, sustainable peace and the successful reform of governance systems in Myanmar will require a political settlement among parties to conflict that establishes formal arrangements for subnational administration in ethnic areas. To be effective, these arrangements must reflect the actual power relations and systems of authority that exist in the contested areas, rather than the centralized order envisioned – but never actualized – by successive governments. This will not be achieved, however, by simply granting official powers to all actors that can demonstrate military capability. What is needed is a political pact among those parties to conflict who are truly committed to building a stable and peaceful union, and who are willing to demilitarize the political sphere once compromises can be made.

In the absence of such a pact, Myanmar’s conflict-affected areas will remain both fragile and hard to understand. Local governance actors, civil society, and the international community have all expressed the need for a better understanding of the political geography in these areas, and for evidence-based guidance on how to strengthen local governance, improve access to services, and provide space for inclusive economic development, all within the context of the peace process and the country’s process of reform.

To address this need, The Asia Foundation has begun a broader research program exploring the complexities of governance and social service delivery in contested areas to build understanding and provide policy guidance to all stakeholders. The program is conducting extensive outreach to governance actors in Myanmar as well as national and international aid actors, and, along with last year’s report, Ethnic Conflict and Social Services in Myanmar’s Contested Regions, the new Ethnic Armed Conflict and Territorial Administration in Myanmar marks the beginning of a dedicated program of research into the complexities of governance and social service delivery in parts of Myanmar where state control remains contested. Future discussion papers and briefings will be available online.

Kim Jolliffe is the author of Ethnic Armed Conflict and Territorial Administration in Myanmar, and a consultant to The Asia Foundation. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Myanmar
Related programs: Conflict and Fragile Conditions, Good Governance
Related topics: Elections


About our blog, InAsia

InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

InAsia is posted and distributed every other Wednesday evening, Pacific Time. If you have any questions, please send an email to [email protected].


For questions about InAsia, or for our cross-post and re-use policy, please send an email to [email protected].

The Asia Foundation
465 California St., 9th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94104

The Latest Across Asia

The Asia Foundation Supports Leaders for a Better World