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Non-international armed conflicts in Myanmar

Conflict type: Non-international armed conflict

There are currently multiple non-international armed conflicts in Myanmar between the Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) and several Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs). Furthermore, a parallel non-international armed conflicts is taking place between EAOs In Kachin and Shan states.

There are currently multiple parallel non-international armed conflicts in Myanmar:

Two criteria need to be assessed in order to answer the question of whether a situation of armed violence amounts to a non-international armed conflict:

  • First, the level of armed violence must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturbances and tensions.
  • Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side in the conflict must be a non-state armed group that exhibits a certain level of organization. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria for organization. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict' in our classification section.

Myanmar is characterized by a significant ethnic and cultural diversity. Ethnic minorities, mainly located in border areas, traditionally enjoyed autonomous self-governance both before and during British rule. The Asia Foundation, ‘Myanmar’, The State of Conflict and Violence in Asia, October 2017, p. 106. Following independence from British rule (1948), non-Burmese ethnic minorities struggled to maintain their traditional autonomy and pushed for federalism. In 1962, the military took power through a coup d’état. The military regime recognized eight major ethnic groups, a list that ‘defines those who “belong” in Myanmar’. Members of other ethnic minorities, such as the Rohingya, are considered ‘outsiders or immigrants’ and do not enjoy Myanmar citizenship. Human Rights Council, Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, A/HRC/39/64, 12 September 2018, §12.

Against this backdrop, numerous armed groups have emerged and have been engaging in armed confrontations against the government and, more recently, among themselves. These armed non-state actors, known as ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), are the military wing of political movements that seek autonomy and recognition of their rights. Notably, the states that have been affected by violence are Chin, Kayah, Kayin, Kachin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan. However, sustained armed confrontations have especially involved Kachin, Shan and Rakhine states. L. Baron Mendoza, ‘Myanmar: The Emergence of the Rohingya Insurgency in Northern Rakhine’, in A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2017, pp. 92–94; Human Rights Council, Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, A/HRC/39/64, 12 September 2018.

In 2011, Myanmar started a democratization process that led to free and fair elections in 2015 and which saw the victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition party, de facto led by Aung San Suu Kyi. International Crisis Group, ‘Myanmar’s Stalled Transition’, Asia Briefing no. 151, 28 August 2018. Nevertheless, armed violence continues to affect the country and in several cases amounts to non-international armed conflict.

On 15 October 2015, the government and a number of EAOs signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), notably the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA); Restoration Council of Shan States (RCSS/SSA-South); Chin National Front (CNF); Karen National Union (KNU); Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council (KPC); Arakan Liberation Party (ALP); Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) and All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF). L. Baron Mendoza, ‘Myanmar: The Emergence of the Rohingya Insurgency in Northern Rakhine’, in A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2017, p. 93. However, violence did not decrease, either among the parties or non-parties  to the ceasefire. C. Raleigh, ‘Myanmar: Conflict Update’, ACLED, 2018.

Intensity of violence

Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation has met the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict – intensity of violence’ in our classification section.

Kachin and Shan States

In recent years, there has been intense fighting between the Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) and a number of armed groups, with regular attacks carried out in particular in Kachin and Shan states. C. Raleigh, ‘Myanmar: Conflict Update’, ACLED, 2018. In 2017, there were nearly 110 armed confrontations between the government forces and, respectively, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and 2018 witnessed an overall increase in fighting both in Kachin and Shan states. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Myanmar Humanitarian Brief, September 2018; C. Raleigh, ‘Myanmar: Conflict Update’, ACLED, 2018. Specifically, in Kachin the sharp escalation of violence between the Tatmadaw and the KIA raised concerns, most notably due to military airstrikes in civilian areas, which have resulted in the death and displacement of thousands of individuals. ‘‘‘Sharp escalation” in fighting across Myanmar’s Kachin state, warns rights expert’, UN News, 1 May 2018; Human Rights Watch, ‘Burma: Events in 2017’, World Report 2018; ‘Myanmar: 19 Die in Fresh Clashes Between Army and Rebels in Shan State’, The Guardian, 12 May 2018. Similarly, episodes of violence have increased in Shan state, in particular between the government and the TNLA, the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) – the armed wing of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) – and the Shan State Progressive Party/Shan State Army-North (SSPP/SSA-N). C. Raleigh, ‘Myanmar: Conflict Update’, ACLED, 2018.

Furthermore, in 2018 clashes among a number of armed groups have escalated, notably between the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) in Shan state. E. Bynum, ‘Understanding Inter-Ethnic Conflict in Myanmar’, ACLED, 2018; ‘Frequent Clashes Among Armed Groups Plague Shan State Residents’, The Irrawaddy, 7 August 2018. Although in January 2018 leaders of the two groups held meetings in order to end the conflict, military confrontations did not diminish. ‘TNLA, RCSS hold preliminary meeting to end conflict’, BNI, 29 January 2018. Indeed, according to a TNLA spokesperson, the two armed groups have engaged in clashes regularly. Human Rights Now, ‘Status of Human Rights & Sanctions in Myanmar: August 2018 Report’, August 2018, p. 10; ‘Frequent Clashes Among Armed Groups Plague Shan State Residents’, The Irrawaddy, 7 August 2018.

In Kachin state, as violence has escalated in 2018 both in terms of frequency and intensity, all parties to the conflict have increasingly used ‘heavy weapons, aerial bombardment and artillery’. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Myanmar Humanitarian Brief, September 2018, p. 2. Notably, the Tatmadaw has extensively used heavy weapons, including mortars and artillery, as well as airstrikes. While there is no reliable information on the details of weaponry in the possession of non-state armed groups, it has been reported that a number of them use heavy weapons, such as artillery and anti-aircraft missiles. Institute for Security and Development Policy, A Return to War: Militarized Conflicts in Northern Shan State, May 2018, p. 49.

The increased violence between governmental armed forces and armed groups and among the non-state actors has resulted in civilian casualties and displacement in Shan and Kachin states. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Myanmar Humanitarian Brief, September 2018, p. 3; Human Rights Watch, ‘Burma: Events in 2017’, World Report 2018; N. Smith, ‘Burmese Soldiers Accused of Escalating Violence Against Northern Minorities’, The Telegraph, 15 March 2018. For instance, in March 2018 clashes in the Kokang region of Shan state forced over 20,000 civilians to flee across the border with China, while about 10,000 were internally displaced. Human Rights Watch, ‘Burma: Events in 2017’, World Report 2018. Similarly, in September and October 2018 fighting between the TNLA and the Tatmadaw in Muse and Kukai townships in northern Shan State displaced hundreds of people. S. Lewis and S. Aung Moon, ‘Myanmar's Northern Offensive Against Rebels Sparks Youthful Revolt’, Reuters, 11 May 2018. In Kachin state the situation is equally worrying: following three weeks of intense fighting in May 2018, more than 5,000 civilians were displaced from villages near the Chinese border. ‘‘‘Sharp escalation” in fighting across Myanmar’s Kachin state, warns rights expert’, UN News, 1 May 2018. According to the United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, ‘an estimated 100,000 people in Kachin and Shan have been living in displacement camps or camp-like situations since 2011’. Human Rights Council, Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, A/HRC/39/64, 12 September 2018, §69.

On account of the frequency of armed attacks and armed confrontations, the number of casualties and the number of people forced to flee ongoing hostilities, the required degree of intensity continues to be met.

Rakhine

Rakhine state has been characterized by periodic waves of violence over recent decades between the government and a number of armed groups. More recently, armed confrontations have increased since October 2016 between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an Islamic group fighting for Rohingya independence and rights. L. Baron Mendoza, ‘Myanmar: The Emergence of the Rohingya Insurgency in Northern Rakhine’, in A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2017, p. 98; International Crisis Group, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, Asia Report no. 283, 15 December 2016; Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, Conflict Barometer 2017, p. 156.

After a brief period of relative calm, clashes erupted again on 25 August 2017, when ARSA carried out coordinated attacks on a military base and several military outposts along Rakhine state, killing 12 security personnel. The United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar described the reaction of state forces as ‘immediate, brutal and grossly disproportionate’. Notably, the Tatmadaw launched ‘clearance operations’ to search for ARSA members, which lasted one month and resulted in the destruction of 288 Rohingya villages. At least 400 people among civilians and members of the parties to the conflict were killed, while nearly 270,000 refugees fled to Bangladesh. Human Rights Council, Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, A/HRC/39/64, 12 September 2018, §32; Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, Conflict Barometer 2017, p. 156; L. Baron Mendoza, ‘Myanmar: The Emergence of the Rohingya Insurgency in Northern Rakhine’, in A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2017, p. 99. During the week following 25 August 2018, at least 90 armed confrontations took place between the Tatmadaw and ARSA. P. Heijmans, ‘Myanmar Says it Killed 370 Rohingya “fighters”’, Al Jazeera, 1 September 2017.

The ‘clearance operations’ carried out by the Tatmadaw lasted for months and had catastrophic consequences for the Rohingya civilian population. Human Rights Council, Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, A/HRC/39/64, 12 September 2018, §36. While the government claimed that the ‘clearance operations’ ended in September 2018, they have continued in the following months. The UNHCR estimated that more than 725,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar throughout the year. The vast majority of them are currently in refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar (Bangladesh). Furthermore, more than 27,000 Muslim and non-Muslim civilians were internally displaced as a result of the armed confrontations. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Myanmar Humanitarian Brief, September 2018, p. 1; Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, Conflict Barometer 2017, p. 156.

Organization

A series of indicative factors are used to assess whether armed groups exhibit the required degree of organization, such as the existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms; the ability to procure, transport and distribute arms; the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations; the ability to negotiate and conclude agreements, e.g. ceasefire or peace agreements. If the minimum criterion for organization of the armed groups is not fulfilled, there is no armed conflict. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict – organization’ in our classification section.

Kachin and Shan

Ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) are military wings of political movements that seek to obtain more autonomy and independence from the central government. L. Baron Mendoza, ‘Myanmar: The Emergence of the Rohingya Insurgency in Northern Rakhine’, in A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2017, p. 95. A myriad of armed groups are active in Kachin and Shan states. Their fluidity and shifting allegiances to broader collective alliances and umbrella groups hamper an assessment of their degree of organization. The main actors operating in the two countries are the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) – the armed wing of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) – and the Shan State Progressive Party/Shan State Army-North (SSPP/SSA-N). These armed groups have proved to be capable of planning, coordinating and carrying out military operations, as well as procuring, transporting and distributing arms. Furthermore, a number of them participated in the negotiations and signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the government in 2015. Institute for Security and Development Policy, A Return to War: Militarized Conflicts in Northern Shan State, May 2018, p. 49.

Rakhine

The main armed group involved in the conflict against the government is the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Until 2016, the group was called Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY, ‘Faith Movement’ in Arabic). International Crisis Group, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, Asia Report no 283, 15 December 2016, p. 12. ARSA is led by a committee of Rohingya currently based in Saudi Arabia. In Rakhine it operates under the command of a number of Rohingya, who undertook military training abroad and enjoy the support of the local Rohingya population. The leader of ARSA is known as Ata Ullah and has been leading military operations on the ground. L. Baron Mendoza, ‘Myanmar: The Emergence of the Rohingya Insurgency in Northern Rakhine’, in A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2017, pp. 98–99. The clashes between ARSA and the government highlight the military capabilities of the non-state armed group and its capacity to procure, transport and distribute weapons and military equipment. Furthermore, the group organizes training programmes which focus specifically on guerrilla warfare, military tactics and weapons. International Crisis Group, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, Asia Report no 283, 15 December 2016, p. 16.

All parties to the conflict are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which provides for minimum standards to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active part in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage taking and unfair trials.

Furthermore, all parties are bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflict. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on an extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database on customary international humanitarian law.

In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Myanmar is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Furthermore, it is bound by customary human rights law. Under human rights law, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors. Non-state armed groups are increasingly considered to be bound by international human rights law if they exercise de facto control over some areas.

State parties

Non-state parties

Several ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) are involved in non-international armed conflicts against the government and among themselves. Notably, the main non-state actors are:

  • Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Until 2016, the group was called Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY, ‘Faith Movement’ in Arabic). ARSA operates in Rakhine state and fights for Rohingya rights and independence. International Crisis Group, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, Asia Report no 283, 15 December 2016.
  • Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The KIA is one of the most powerful armed groups operating in Myanmar. T. Miles, ‘U.N. Concerned About Heavy Fighting in Myanmar's Kachin State’, Reuters, 2 February 2018. A ceasefire between the KIA and the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) collapsed in June 2011. Since then, the KIA has been involved in a non-international armed conflict against the government. ‘Myanmar: 7,000 Kachin Displaced as Violence Escalates’, World Watch Monitor, 15 May 2018.
  • Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), armed wing of the Shan State Progressive Party. The SSA-S is located in Shan state. Following intense fighting between 2010 and 2012, the Tatamadaw and the armed group signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement. However, armed confrontations continued and are still ongoing. Institute for Security and Development Policy, A Return to War: Militarized Conflicts in Northern Shan State, May 2018, p. 37.
  • Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). The TNLA was founded in 2009 and operates in Shan state, where it has been engaging in sustained armed confrontations against the government. Institute for Security and Development Policy, A Return to War: Militarized Conflicts in Northern Shan State, May 2018, p. 34.
Last updated: Thursday 22nd November 2018