The World’s Current Longest Running Civil War
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Although Myanmar’s conflict is an intra-state conflict, the number of parties involved is large and spans the globe. The involvement includes: The Rohingya people, The military and the state of Myanmar, International Muslim connections — Saudi and Pakistan, Myanmar President Aung San Suu Kyi, Buddhist population of Rakhine state, Bangladesh, China, United Nations, Western countries and media. Much of the focus in this article will be on the parties internal to Myanmar, with some highlight on external parties.
Historical conflict background
Myanmar a.k.a Burma, is located in Southeast Asia and shares borders with China, Laos, Thailand, India and Bangladesh. Myanmar is known as a zone of conflict that has been named the longest running civil war. The war began shortly after the Burmese gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948. Under new rule, the Myanmar Army began it’s reign of terror on the indigenous people.
In 1963, the post independence democracy was overthrown by a military coup. Corrupt government and military power had destroyed peace groups between different ethnic groups. Several factors such as religious discrimination, an unstable economy, as well as white political and social factors fuel this civil war. In 1977 the junta began what is known as ‘Operation Nagamin’, where they started screening the population for foreigners which led to 200,000 Rohingya’s fleeing to Bangladesh. In 1988 we began to see the rise of the co-founder of the National League for Democracy — Aung San Suu Kyu. Suu Kyi is known for her pro democratic activity and a prominent figure for the internal struggle of the Myanmar people.
In the first free election held in 1990, Suu Kyi won 80% of the votes in favor for her presidency. Unfortunately, her votes were annulled by the Myanmar government and they placed her on house arrest for a period of 15 years for leading the pro-democracy movement. In 1991, more than 250,000 Rohingya refugees fled from the Myanmar army from forced labor, rape, and religious discrimination, the same year that Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize. From 1992–2007 a repatriation agreement was entered into and 230,000 Rohingya returned to Rakhine state, on the western border of Myanmar.
In 2012, 150,000 Rohingyas were forced into camps in Rakhine state which led to tens of thousands of people killed by riots between the Rohingyas and Rakhine Buddhists. A Rohingya militant group attacked border guard posts killing soldiers and caused retaliation.
Who are the Rohingya People?
A Muslim minority group concentrated in the Rakhine State on west coast of Myanmar which is at the heart of the continuing conflict. They’re denied Myanmar citizenship and therefore have little access to education or health care, which is already the poorest in Rakhine. The UN says that well over 150,000 refugees have fled to Bangladesh since August 25th, 2017 with 35,000 crossing the border in a single day.
The attacks against the Rohingya population in the area (killings, enforced disappearances, torture and inhuman treatment, rape and other forms of sexual violence, arbitrary detention, deportation and forced transfer as a result of violence and persecution) seem to have been widespread and systematic, indicating the very likely commission of crimes against humanity (as the High Commissioner concluded already in June 2016).
Despite having lived in Rakhine for generations, the government of Myanmar considers the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and refuses to call them ‘Rohingya’ — preferring ‘the Muslim population of Rakhine State’. Previous attempts to give the Rohingya people papers to travel freely in the nation have required that the applicants list their nationality as ‘Bengali’.
Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)
Previously known as Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY). ARSA is led by Attullah Abu Ammar Jununi, a Rohingya who was born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia. He has since traveled to Myanmar to lead the group locally. The Myanmar government considers ARSA to be a terrorist organization and is largely credited with having led the attacks against the Myanmar military on August 25th, 2017. According to the International Crisis Group, ARSA was formed after violence in 2012. It staged its first known co-ordinated assault last October, on border-guard posts in Rakhine.
The military and the state of Myanmar
The Myanmar military ruled the nation under a military junta following a coup d’etat in 1962. The military’s violent oppression of minority and ethnic groups which it considers insurgents is the common thread in Myanmar’s history of civil war.
Aung San Suu Kyi
Widely noted for her hesitance/refusal to criticize violence against Rohingyas. The government released a statement warning of misinformation about violence in Rakhine State. Al Jazeera is quoted, “Western governments have been reluctant to take Ms. Suu Kyi too strongly to task, for fear of undermining the transition to democracy that they advocated for so long.” On the other hand she has received much praise from the Chinese for not bowing to Western pressure. China being a major power and funder in the region, this makes political sense for Suu Kyi.
Buddhist population of Rakhine state
The crackdown by Myanmar forces also sparked a mass evacuation of thousands of Buddhist residents of the area. Rakhine Buddhists, feeling unsafe with all the violence are moving south to the state’s capital, Sittwe, where Buddhists are a majority and have greater security.
Bangladesh has a “zero tolerance” policy for Rohingya entering Bangladesh. Despite these measures, thousands of Rohingya have managed to enter Bangladesh. Currently, there are at least 150,000 Rohingya living in Bangladeshi camps, mostly in squalid conditions.
International Muslim connections
In December last year, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a report that the group of Rohingya Muslims that attacked Myanmar border guards in October 2016 had Islamist links with Sunni muslims in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The ICG said that Rohingya who had fought in other countries, as well as some Pakistanis and Afghans, gave clandestine training to Rakhine villagers over two years prior to the October 2016 attacks. Islamist groups such as the Taliban, “Islamic State” (IS) and al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent have often condemned the violence against Rohingya in Myanmar and called for a jihad against the authorities and the majority Buddhists.
At the official level, China has been supportive towards the Myanmar government, including backing its stance that it is fighting extremist terrorists in Rakhine, where China has made major investments in infrastructure.
United Nations, Western countries, and media
The United Nations is in a tricky position, on the one hand, they back Suu Kyi as the long standing fighter for democracy in Myanmar. On the other hand, the U.N. has called the violence a textbook example of ethnic cleansing and is unable to provide humanitarian aid to Rakhine State.
Development in Myanmar is impeded by a couple of main issues — a historical tendency for workers to migrate to neighboring nations for career opportunities, and the current refugee crisis in the Rakhine state in the persecution of the Rohingya. We also note issues related to the fact that much of the development in Myanmar is related to resource extraction. In this section, we focus on the migration of workers and the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State first and then on the issues surrounding foreign direct investment and resource extraction in Myanmar.
Myanmar’s decades-long history of intrastate conflict is noted by Mya Mya Thet and Piriya Pholphirul as a key factor in the economic underdevelopment of the nation, having “created economic hardship, which has contributed to both refugee and economic migrants searching for job opportunities abroad.”
Thet and Pholphirul note a change in labor organization laws following 2010 elections that could contribute to the economic development of lagging regions in Myanmar, although migrant workers in neighboring states are unlikely to return until the economic incentive to remain abroad is diminished. This is a notable point because they note that Burmese migrants in Thailand have achieved higher levels of education than Thai workers in the same roles. This indicates a sort of ‘brain drain’ in Myanmar due to lack of economic opportunity there.
The authors describe the ‘pull’ factors for the migrants emigrating from Myanmar to Thailand in a survey of 433 workers, indicating that economic pull factors were the largest determinant for the migration, but more than half of the surveyed respondents also indicated political stability as a major pull toward Thailand.
Indeed, political instability is both a mainstay in Myanmar (IRIN notes ongoing conflict since 1948) both contributing to the migration of workers to neighboring states (notably Thailand) and the current refugee crisis for the Muslims in Rakhine State.
Although the Rakhine Commission Report notes, “Rakhine State represents a complex mixture of poverty, under-development, inter-communal tension, and political and economic marginalization,” the proceedings of the crisis have hampered development further. As of September 4, 2017, Myanmar blocked all UN-affiliated aid agencies from distribution to the Rohingya. Myanmar government representatives are said to cite the security issues in the region for the UN aid block, and The Guardian adds, “sixteen major non-governmental organizations including Oxfam and Save the Children have also complained that the government has restricted access to the conflict area.”
The crisis in Rakhine State is heavily noted in the current news cycle with a bent toward negative views against the Myanmar government, including critiques of president Aung Sung Suu Kyi’s handling of the situation. Long term impacts to development in the nation, and particularly the long-term impacts of foreign direct investment described below, will need to be studied.
Foreign Direct Investment and Resource Extraction in Myanmar
Though Myanmar has received significant foreign investment for natural resource extraction, the majority of these projects are protested because much of the resources are exported to China, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates. According to official data, recent foreign direct investment in Myanmar has been concentrated in the oil/gas and hydropower sectors, with mining coming in third position by value. Investment commitments made in the 2010/11 financial year were approximately 30 times the rate of commitments made on average for the previous 22 years.
In 2011, Riyadh and Beijing signed a MOU in which China pledged to provide 200,000 barrels of crude oil per day through the just-completed Sino-Burma oil pipeline which passes through the conflict zone in Rakhine State.
This pipeline was built to ease congestion for ships traversing the Malacca strait between Indonesia and Malaysia. Oil tankers from the MIddle East port in Myanmar, then pump oil to China to be refined. Many farmers in Myanmar felt that they were unfairly compensated or received no compensation for their land lost to this development project.
In addition to the large investments in oil, China has a major interest in hydropower. In 2004, there were 44 proposed hydropower projects throughout Myanmar by 26 Chinese parent and/or subsidiary companies. The most recent project is the Myitsone dam in Kachin State, considered to be a controversial undertaking due to of the destruction of nearby environment.
In 2004, China Nonferrous Metal Mining (CNMC) and Myanmar’s state-owned Number 3 Mining Enterprise formed a joint venture to build the Taguang Taung nickel mine, with a 75–25 distribution in favor of CNMC. In 2014, CNMC reported the project as the largest cooperative undertaking between the two nations, with $850MM USD invested by China. The mine has an annual output capacity of 25,000 tons of nickel metal, and the agreement allows CNMC to operate the mine for 20 years.
It appears that all three areas of foreign development investment: oil, hydropower, and mining, increased Myanmar’s infrastructure, however, these investments have not necessarily favored the Myanmar people or its economy.
Our podcast discusses recommendations offered by the report, “Towards a Peaceful, Fair and Prosperous Future for the People of Rakhine,” a commission headed by Kofi Annan. The report was commissioned by the Myanmar government and is not unbiased as a result. However, many of the recommendations offered in the report are fair (if a little soft/they don’t go far enough).
Clearly the conflict in Myanmar is complex and multifaceted, with many actors and viewpoints to consider. We opted to focus much of this discussion on the current humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State, but far more research can be done into the matter and far more discussions can be had.
This write up should be used for background and understanding purposes only — it is not suitable for citation. For purposes of readability only, many inline, in-text citations were omitted. This is for a class project and we turned our references in to our professor directly, thanks!
Listen to the full podcast here. This document was part of a collaborative group project for Arizona State University course ‘Technology & Development in Zones of Conflict,’ (GTD 504). The authors of the post and the podcast are Weston Brown, Dawntaye Johnson, Brittany McCall, and Tom Vrba