Myanmar’s crisis may escalate as rebel groups join anti-junta protestors

Photo: Ninjastrikers, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

With major ethnic armed groups vowing to resist the military’s deadly crackdown on dissent, Myanmar is on the cusp of civil war and further violence.

By Umair Jamal

Many of Myanmar’s rebel groups have thrown their weight behind anti-junta protesters as violence intensifies across the country.

Some of the country’s major armed groups have warned that they will be forced to “fight back” if the junta doesn’t stop the killing of protesters.

Myanmar’s rebel groups represent thousands of fighters, though fighting has already broken out between some of the armed groups. Analysts warn that there is a risk of civil war if ethnic armed groups mount an organized rebellion against the military in support of the anti-coup protests.

Who are Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups?

Though 68% of Myanmar’s population belongs to the majority Bamar ethnic group, the country is home to over 100 ethnic minorities. For decades, some of these ethnic minority groups have waged armed struggles for self-determination and the federal union promised to them at the country’s independence.

According to some estimates, roughly one third of Myanmar’s territory is controlled by 20 major armed groups. The United Wa State Army alone has around 25,000 fighters, making it one of the most powerful militias globally.

The other groups that pose serious challenges to Myanmar’s military or central government include the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Karen National Union (KNU), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Arakan Army and the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army.

For decades, Myanmar’s powerful military has responded to any calls for self-determination and autonomy with violence and has committed gross human rights violations against civilians.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s now-ousted democratic government had promised to prioritize negotiations with ethnic armed groups and push for federal rule to offer regional governments more autonomy. As part of the negotiations, 10 major armed groups signed a ceasefire accord with the civilian government in 2015. However, during her five years in power, Suu Kyi didn’t succeed at offering them autonomy as the military dominated the peace talks.

Despite the formal 2015 ceasefire, fighting didn’t stop in some regions, particularly in Kachin and Shan states in the country’s north and Rakhine State in Myanmar’s west.

A camp in Kachin for people displaced by fighting between local fighters and government forces. Photo: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Fighting between the military and armed groups has already started

Since the coup on February 1, some of the country’s major armed groups have already been drawn into fighting with the military once again. The KNU Karen state recently said that it is responding to public appeals for help by mobilizing its fighters to protect protesters. The group has said that its troops are confronting the military in multiple areas.

Last month, the military launched airstrikes on KNU areas which reportedly killed six civilians. This is the first aerial attack by the military on KNU controlled territory in more than 20 years. The attack comes amid reports that that KNU fighters killed 10 Myanmar military soldiers and arrested around eight in an ambush on a military outpost. In the country’s north, the KIA has carried out similar attacks against the military.

Armed groups have said that their ceasefires with the military are over and have rejected calls for new negotiations. On April 4, the 10 ethnic groups that were signatories to the 2015 ceasefire met virtually to formulate a plan to hold the military accountable. “I would like to state that the [10 armed groups] firmly stand with the people who are… demanding the end of dictatorship,” said General Yawd Serk, the chair of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS).

The country’s many civilian leaders who have gone into hiding have shared plans to form a “national unity government” with a promise to offer ethnic groups key roles. Already, an interim federal constitution has been drafted in consultation with ethnic groups and plans are in place to raise a “federal army” to replace the military.

“If [the international community] fails to take action, of course unavoidable all-out civil war and more bloody days and more bloody weeks and more bloody months await ahead of us,” Dr Sasa, the international envoy of the civilian government’s representative body, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), told Reuters. “Having a federal army becomes a must and it’s the way we achieve democracy and freedom.”

Photo: juls78 / CC BY-SA

Civil war looms if the rebel groups follow through on their threats

Analysts believe that the total number of fighters among Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups stands at around 75,000, which is enough to put the military under pressure if fighting breaks out on multiple fronts. “If the Kachin, Karen, Shan and maybe Rakhine insurgents were to engage in widespread military operations, however loosely coordinated, and at the same time there is an increase in violence in the heartlands, the Tatmadaw would face a huge problem,” said Anthony Davis, who is a security analyst with British-based Jane’s intelligence company.

One of the factors that may help the ethnic armed groups is if they win the support of the Bamar community due to the military’s indiscriminate killing of civilians. The junta’s increasingly violent tactics since the coup have forced many in the Bamar community to contend with the violence that some ethnic minorities have endured in the past. This is perhaps the first time that the Bamar community has showed this type of support for ethnic armed organizations. In a major shift, Bamar politicians are also showing support for the armed groups by offering them legal cover.

On March 17, CRPH released a statement declaring the public’s right to self-defense. On March 20, the CRPH removed all “ethnic armed revolutionary organizations” from the lists of “terrorist groups” and “unlawful associations”, offering them legal support and legitimizing recruitment for these groups.

“Now is the right time for armed rebellion, because the majority Bamar people have faced the military’s brutal actions against protesters,” Seng Zin, an ethnic Kachin youth, told Time. “Before, they didn’t care about us, and sometimes even supported the Tatmadaw, but now, they’ve learned.”

Others warn that such a scenario only means civil war and more bloodshed. “On the one hand, the junta does not want to give in and on the other hand, demonstrators who were largely peaceful until now are tempted to call for help from the armed rebel groups to protect themselves,” Debbie Stothard of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) told the South China Morning Post.

“There is a distinct possibility of mass demonstrations cascading into civil war or inter-state war,” Lee Morgenbesser, a lecturer at Australia’s Griffith University told the Bangkok Post. “Given the sometimes porous nature of Myanmar’s borders, along with the fact that the armed ethnic groups are not subject to state authority, it is likely that the crisis spills across international borders.”

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at and on Twitter @UmairJamal15