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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).

The Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) are involved in a non-international armed conflict against a wide array of Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs), i.e. armed non-state actors affiliated to ethnic groups, notably in Kachin, Shan, and Rakhine states. Human Rights Council, Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, A/HRC/39/64, 12 September 2018.

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.

National elections took place in November 2021. However, on 1 February 2021, the Myanmar army (the Tatmadaw) conducted a coup d’état against the democratically elected members of the National League for Democracy (NLD). The Tatmadaw proclaimed a state of emergency for one year and announced that power was transferred to Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services, Min Aung Hlaing. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Myanmar

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 9 September 2018, the Brotherhood Alliance – formed by three active ethnic armed groups that have been fighting Myanmar’s army in Shan and Rakhine states and comprised of Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Arakan Army (AA) and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) – declared a unilateral ceasefire which was extended until February 2020. On the other hand, from September 2018 until December 2019 Myanmar implemented its own unilateral ceasefire in Shan and Kachin States, but not in Rakhine, where violence remains high. N. Nyein, ‘Myanmar Rebel Armies Extend Truce but Fighting Continues’, The Irrawaddy, 3 January 2020. While the ceasefire led to a lull in hostilities between rebel and governmental forces, in August 2019 hostilities increased. Notably, International Crisis Group reported that on 15 August the Brotherhood Alliance ‘launched raids on several targets in Shan State and fired rockets at Myanmar’s elite defence academy in Mandalay region, killing nine soldiers, three police and three civilians, and destroying bridge on main route from Mandalay to Chinese border at Muse.’ International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, August 2019. In September, the Brotherhood Alliance renewed its ceasefire and extended it until the end of 2019. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, September 2019. In April 2020, the ceasefire was further extended for one month by the rebel forces due to concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the government affirmed that the implementation of the ceasefire would have been unrealistic in light of the circumstances in the area. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, April 2020. On 9 June, the government proposed to the Alliance to hold peace talks over videoconference, but the rebel groups rejected the suggestion. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, June 2020.

Armed violence has continued in 2021. Notably, in February in northern Sha State armed groups Restoration Council of Shan State and Ta-ang National Liberation Army engaged in armed confrontations against governmental forces. It should be noted that ten ethnic armed groups, signatories of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, announced their intention to suspend talks with the new military junta. In April 2021, Kachin Independence Army (KIA) ambushed a military convoy in Mogaung township (Kachin State). Furthermore, in northern Shan State the army met with leaders of armed groups United Wa State Army and Shan State Progress Party in order to negotiate a ceasefire agreement. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Myanmar

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.

On 4 January 2019, AA launched a number of coordinated attacks on four Border Guard Police posts in Buthidaung (northern Rakhine State) on Myanmar’s Independence Day, killing thirteen police and injuring nine. Later the same day, the military deployed a large number of infantry, that regained control of the area and launched clearance operations against AA. The following month, violence between AA and state forces remained high. Furthermore, ARSA engaged in a number of armed confrontations against governmental troops and conducted several small attacks in Maungdaw area. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, January 2019 and February 2019. Over the following months, clashed between the armed groups and state forces took places regularly. For instance, on 5 April AA ambushed a convoy in Buthidaung, which resulted in deaths of Myanmar army captain and 20 soldiers. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, April 2019. Since July, AA started attacking vessels of the Myanmar army. For instance, on 19 July it conducted a rocket attack on two ships on a river in Myebon Township, which resulted in the death of an army captain and two navy personnel. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, July 2019.

Clashes intensified in 2020, especially following the designation of AA as a terrorist organization by the Myanmar government. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, March 2020. Similarly, hostilities between state troops and ARSA did not diminish. On 19-21 August, representatives of the government and ten armed groups that signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement took part to the fourth “Panglong-21” Union Peace Conference. Nevertheless, AA was excluded from the talks as it has been defined as terrorist organization by the government. Accordingly, other 6 groups boycotted the peace conference. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, August 2020.

Fighting continued in 2021. Nevertheless, in February Arakan Army has engaged in informal talks with the military to enhance the implementation of the ceasefire agreement. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Myanmar.

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.

Three active ethnic armed groups that have been fighting Myanmar’s army in Shan and Rakhine states – notably Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Arakan Army (AA) and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) – have created the Brotherhood Alliance, which have proved to be military capable and to speak with one voice. Indeed, over the past years they have adopted a unilateral ceasefire which has been extended for months and have engaged in peace talks with the government. Global Security, Brotherhood Alliance.

Rakhine

The main armed groups involved in the conflicts against the government are the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and the Arakan Army (AA). Until 2016, ARSA 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.

The Arakan Army (AA) in a Rakhine ethnic armed group that was created in 2009 in Rakhine state and that now operates also in Kachin and Shan states, as well as along the western border in Rakhine and southern Chin states. over the past years, it has been a member of the Brotherhood Alliance together with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). Global Security, Arakan Army; International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, January 2019.

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 Army (AA)
  • Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)
  • Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA)
  • Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)
Last updated: Wednesday 2nd February 2022