Podcast: Political Unrest Unsettles Myanmar’s Borderlands
July 21, 2021
On February 1, 2021, Myanmar woke to the news that its military forces, known as the Tatmadaw, had retaken power after a decade of democratic government. The political realignment led to mass demonstrations and nationwide uprisings, with doctors, teachers, and civil servants engaging in a civil disobedience movement. As protests began to spread from urban areas in the majority ethnic-Bamar lowlands to the borders, ethnic communities called for greater changes beyond the restoration of democracy, voicing long-held political grievances over the country’s political system and demanding representative political institutions and future federal arrangements.
One such ethnic-majority area, Kachin State, in the country’s northeast, is a useful case study for understanding how current national protest movements in reaction to the 2021 military takeover have connected with broader historical struggles waged for decades by ethnic communities in Myanmar’s borderlands. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), with an estimated 20,000 combatants, is one of the most powerful ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in Myanmar. Established in 1961, the KIA has waged war against the Tatmadaw in resource-rich Kachin State for decades.
In the aftermath of the political turmoil, mass protest campaigns in the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina were met with the same violent crackdowns by security forces as those in Yangon and other parts of the country. The KIA stepped in to warn the regime against the use of excessive force on protesters. Growing political tensions gave way to an escalation in conflict, with KIA offensives against key Tatmadaw command posts as well as military-run mining sites and transport infrastructure in Kachin State. Meanwhile, repression of protests in majority ethnic-Bamar regions led to growing calls by broad segments of civil society for EAOs to join opposition movements and engage the Tatmadaw militarily. As the KIA continued to launch offensives against the Tatmadaw, aiming to retake territory it had lost following the collapse of a long-standing ceasefire, its actions were celebrated by protesters.
Calls for joint armed forces between Bamar and other ethnic groups have grown, with the KIA becoming an active participant in discussions with ousted lawmakers and exiled democracy actors. Coordination bodies have been established to ensure the representation of Kachin interests in political discussions of future governance scenarios in a peaceful Myanmar. At the same time, crackdowns by security forces on protests and civilian opposition have become more violent. Large groups of young protesters, primarily in urban areas around Yangon and Mandalay, posit that armed insurrection is inevitable and seek combat training in EAO-controlled territories in the borderlands.
Like many EAOs, the KIA is now in a position of having support from many ethnic-Bamar populations, which for decades had cast EAOs as rebel groups at the source of Myanmar’s many conflicts. The shift in public perception, and the gradual alignment of EAO objectives for autonomy with protesters’ desires for an end to Tatmadaw control, have opened up new spaces for the discussion of historical ethnic grievances. This has also caused a shift in the broader political economy of Myanmar’s conflict landscape. EAOs actively engaged against the Tatmadaw now occupy powerful positions within national protest politics and state-building debates, while the political capital that some ceasefire-signatory groups had built over years of formal peace dialogue with the Tatmadaw is waning. This is particularly the case for smaller EAOs that today have limited fighting capacity.
Escalating conflict in the northeast has put pressure on the revenue-raising activities of armed groups, including the lucrative extraction, transportation, and cross-border trade of natural resources. Amid the foreign currency crunch brought about by the banking crisis and international sanctions, the Tatmadaw, through proxy militia groups, and the KIA are fighting for control over jade, amber, and rare earth mines in western Kachin State. This is cause for concern in neighboring China, whose government has thus far refrained from intervention. Undoubtedly, China’s priority will be to focus on conflict management in the area, whereby active fighting is reduced and the security situation stabilized, rather than becoming directly involved in the conflict or its resolution. Chinese actors are likely most concerned about the potential involvement of Western actors in the border areas, as well as safeguarding the substantial investments they have made in energy and infrastructure projects there.
With strong popular support in the nationwide protest movement, the KIA is positioned to influence the direction of national political discussions and emboldened to continue efforts to expand its territorial control in the northeast. This includes parts of neighboring Shan State, which are home to large ethnic Kachin populations, and which have long been contested by the Tatmadaw and local militia. In this new conflict landscape in northeastern Myanmar, as the KIA continues to assert itself against the Tatmadaw to achieve its long-held ambitions, it is certain that local communities will bear the burden of increased violence.
The crisis wrought by the abrupt change in government overlays the Covid-19 pandemic, with political turmoil amplifying the growing economic and humanitarian crisis. The United Nations predicts that, as a result, up to half of Myanmar’s population risks sliding into poverty and experiencing food and fuel shortages this year. Conflict-affected areas, including Kachin State, already face significant vulnerability, with many communities regularly displaced by fighting, large illicit economies operated by myriad armed actors, and weak public-service and support infrastructure across contested territories. As the KIA seeks to consolidate its influence in the northeast, it will have a stronger say in regional governance and in mitigating the effects of these crises on the ground.
These developments are being replicated in different ways across many EAO-controlled territories as the political turmoil reshapes Myanmar’s conflict landscape. Historical conflicts are being reignited and altered, ushering in a new chapter in Myanmar’s seven decades of civil conflict, but clear solutions remain as elusive as ever.
This essay first appeared, in slightly different form, in the Spring 2021 edition of Peripheral Vision: Views from the Borderlands, the semiannual news bulletin of the X-Border Local Research Network. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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