Is Myanmar collapsing due to civil war?

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Myanmar’s president, installed by the military, has issued warnings over the country’s potential fragmentation if the government fails to manage the escalating conflict in Shan State. Former General Myint Swe, appointed following the 2021 coup, addressed a crisis meeting conducted by the ruling military council to tackle a series of coordinated assaults by anti-military rebels. These attacks have inflicted severe casualties on the armed forces.

In Shan State, three ethnic insurgent groups, aided by other anti-government armed factions, have seized numerous military outposts, control of border crossings, and major trade routes with China. This represents the most significant setback for the junta since assuming power in February 2021. In response, the government has carried out airstrikes and artillery barrages, resulting in mass displacement. However, it has failed to regain lost ground or bring in reinforcements.

What intensifies the gravity of this attack is that it marks the insurgents in Shan State explicitly aligning their military actions with the broader movement to oust the junta and reinstate democratic governance. The Shan rebels, along with well-established ethnic armies such as the Karen, Kachin, Karenni, and Chin, aligned themselves with the National Unity Government (NUG), formed by the ousted elected administration.

Many individuals sought refuge in regions controlled by ethnic insurgent groups along Myanmar’s borders with Thailand, China, and India, aiming to acquire the training and weaponry they lacked.

Shan State, renowned for illicit narcotics’ production, has also seen a surge in casinos and scam centres. The region has been plagued by conflict and poverty since Myanmar’s independence in 1948, divided into territories controlled by warlords, drug leaders, or ethnic rebels engaged in internal conflict and against the military.

Although two rival insurgent forces claim to represent the Shan, additional smaller ethnic groups have developed formidable armies. The Wa, backed by China and armed with advanced weaponry, stand out as the most potent force among them. Other significant groups include the Kokang, the Palaung, and the Rakhine. While the Wa declared a ceasefire with the Myanmar military in 1989 and say it’s neutral in the junta-opposition conflict, they are suspected of being a key source of weapons for anti-military resistance groups in other parts of the country.

The Kokang, the Ta’ang, and the Arakan armies, all of them from Shan, formed the Brotherhood Alliance last year. The insurgent groups discretely offered shelter, training, and some weaponry to dissidents from various parts of Myanmar. However, their position along the Chinese has led China to provide diplomatic backing to the junta while keeping a distance from the NUG.

Under pressure from China, the Brotherhood Alliance engaged in peace talks with the military in June, but these discussions swiftly collapsed. Despite this, they attempted to stay out of the national civil war until the launch of Operation 1027 in October.

The Brotherhood Alliance has declared they want to overthrow the military government, so they initiated Operation 1027, which has witnessed significant advances, with entire military units surrendering without resistance. The alliance claims control over more than 100 military posts, four towns, key border crossings, and strategic routes, hindering military reinforcements. The NUG, whose volunteer fighters also confronted the heavily armed military and air force, has welcomed the alliance’s progress, seeing a new momentum in their struggle.

The Brotherhood Alliance strategically timed their offensive following an incident in Laukkaing, which tested China’s patience with the junta. Beijing had been pressing the military government for a year to shut down scam centres, mostly operated by Chinese syndicates, causing embarrassment due to widely publicized mistreatment of trafficked victims. Chinese pressure led some Shan groups to hand over suspected individuals to Chinese authorities. An attempted rescue of individuals held in Laukkaing went awry, with guards allegedly killing escapees. This sparked strong protest from China, compelling the Brotherhood Alliance to attack, pledging to close the scam centres to appease China.

The Brotherhood Alliance’s primary objective remains gaining territory, positioning themselves favourably for negotiations in a potential post-junta era, aiming for a new federal structure in Myanmar. Many ethnic groups aspire to gain constitutional recognition for statehood within a new federal system, as lots of ethnic groups don’t want a united Myanmar.

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