Conflict Watchlist 2023

Myanmar: Continued Opposition to the Junta Amid Increasing Civilian Targeting by the Military

Posted: 8 February 2023

In the face of continued armed and unarmed resistance to the coup it set in motion two years ago, the Myanmar military has increasingly resorted to targeting civilians as it fails to consolidate control over the country. Civilians have been targeted not only on the ground but also through increased military airstrikes. Against the backdrop of ongoing civilian targeting, armed resistance forces that emerged after the coup have moved forward with strengthening alliances amongst themselves and with long-established ethnic resistance groups, engaging the military in battles across the country. As the military looks to eventually stage sham elections, which have been widely rejected by domestic and international groups as illegitimate,1ANFREL, ‘Joint Statement by International Elections Experts and Organizations on Myanmar,’ 1 February 2023 resistance to the military and its attempt to control the country is only likely to persist.

Globally in 2022, the highest number of events of violence targeting civilians by state forces operating domestically has been recorded in Myanmar. Myanmar records two and a half times the number of such events as the second-highest country, Afghanistan. The military junta has used discriminate violence to target civilians accused of supporting anti-coup activities, as well as indiscriminate violence against civilians across the country.

At the same time, the military has increased its use of airstrikes and shelling targeting civilians, continuing such actions into the new year.2Karen Women’s Organization, ‘More Burmese Military War Crimes as Airstrikes Kill and Injure Children in Karen State,’ 13 January 2023 This poses a threat not only to civilians in the country, but also to civilians living in neighboring countries who can be harmed by misguided airstrikes or shelling. The military’s increased procurement of combat aircraft from Russia and China in recent years has facilitated their growing reliance on airstrikes to quell opposition to their rule.3Anthony Davis, ‘Myanmar Air Force fiercely gunning to win the war,’ Asia Times, 11 January 2023

Despite a lack of weaponry to contend with the military’s airstrikes, resistance forces continued to battle the military throughout 2022. Outside of Ukraine, the highest number of battles globally were recorded in Myanmar in 2022. While the dry zone in the central part of the country continued to see higher levels of fighting than other parts of Myanmar, battles were reported in every state and region, leading to a nearly 67% increase in battles reported in 2022 compared to 2021.  

Since the coup, many resistance groups that initially emerged to defend their communities in the wake of the military’s crackdown on peaceful protests have consolidated behind the National Unity Government (NUG). The NUG, formed by lawmakers elected in the 2020 election, over the past year has acted to establish greater command over the nationwide armed revolution it is waging to prevent the military from ruling. The armed wing of the group, the People’s Defense Forces (PDF), has increased its efforts to structure units under a chain of command as well as to reach out to and integrate local autonomous groups. Although some tensions exist between the NUG PDF and local resistance groups, they all share the same goal of ending military rule.

Additionally, the NUG and allied ethnic resistance groups, which have long been in conflict with the military in the country’s borderlands, have established coordination committees to allow for greater cooperation and delineation of responsibilities.4Ye Myo Hein, ‘Understanding the People’s Defense Forces in Myanmar,’ United States Institute of Peace, 3 November 2022 While the military has attempted to split key ethnic resistance groups from the wider anti-coup movement, they have not been successful. Further, recent statements from groups previously not considered to be fully on board with the anti-coup movement suggest that their sentiments are shifting in favor of the movement as well.5Frontier Myanmar, ‘‘We will win’: Northern Alliance doubles down,’ 30 January 2023

What to watch for in 2023

At the start of 2023, the military moved forward with its plans to stage a general election in an attempt to legitimize its rule under the military-drafted 2008 constitution. In anticipation of the elections, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) appointed a new leader, Khin Yi, in October 2022 to carry out coup leader Min Aung Hlaing’s agenda.6Sa Tun Aung, ‘Loyalists of Myanmar junta chief take over proxy party’s key leadership positions,’ Myanmar Now, 5 October 2022 Khin Yi, a former military general and police chief who played a key role in the 2007 crackdown on demonstrations against the former dictatorship, was responsible for organizing pro-military rallies prior to the coup that facilitated the military’s efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the 2020 election.7The Irrawaddy, ‘The Day Hired Mobs Began Protesting the Military Proxy Party’s 2020 Election Loss,’ 21 January 2023 Under his leadership, the USDP has begun replacing local administrators with party hardliners.8Hein Htoo Zan, ‘Myanmar Military’s Proxy USDP Taking Control of Yangon Administrations,’ The Irrawaddy, 23 December 2022 Military-backed militias have forced locals to attend meetings where they are made to listen to the military’s election propaganda, threatening fines or more violent repercussions for those who do not attend.9The Irrawaddy, ‘Pro-Junta Militias Forcing Myanmar Voters to Attend Election Propaganda Sessions,’ 9 January 2023

New party registration laws were also released at the end of January. Under the new laws, parties will have to decide whether to run in the elections or risk being deregistered.10Reuters, ‘Myanmar army set to cement rule with tough new election criteria,’ 27 January 2023 The National League for Democracy (NLD), which won the 2020 elections, has announced that it will not run in what it considers to be sham elections.11National League for Democracy, ‘Proclamation 1/23,’ 29 January 2023 Despite the violence its members and supporters have been subjected to by the military, the NLD has resisted attempts thus far to disband or fracture its party.12Aung Zay, ‘Military Council allows some NLD members to meet with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,’ Myanmar Now, 9 December 2022 While conflicting views around election participation have previously led those discontented with the NLD to form new parties, the new election laws preclude smaller parties from being able to run at a national level, thus inhibiting the likelihood of new party formation.

In January, the military began compiling voter lists using intimidation and threats of violence. In response, many resistance groups indicated they would target those who abet the military’s efforts.13Han Thit and Maung Shwe Wah, ‘Resistance groups bomb, set fire to administrative offices to deter Myanmar junta election preparations,’ Myanmar Now, 13 January 2023 Attacks on election offices and those compiling voter lists have already been reported and are likely to continue if the military goes forward with its election plans. As many have argued, the military-run ‘elections’ will only serve as a catalyst for further violence.14Mary Callahan, Frontier Myanmar, ‘From the coup to something called an ‘election’,’ 3 January 2023

Despite the military’s emphasis on elections in Independence Day speeches at the beginning of January, the military announced on 1 February – the second anniversary of the coup – that it was extending the state of emergency it initially declared upon seizing power. This move has ensured that the elections will be delayed from the originally-anticipated August date. With 37 townships across the country subsequently placed under martial law,15Channel News Asia, ‘Military places restive areas of Myanmar under martial law,’ 3 February 2023 the announcement reflects the anti-coup resistance’s ability thus far to prevent the military from consolidating power.16Grant Peck and Jerry Harmer, ‘Myanmar resistance steadfast against army rule 2 years later,’ Associated Press, 1 February 2023 

In areas controlled by the resistance, they have developed governance systems to address the needs of the population. The NUG has established People’s Administration Teams (Pa Ah Pha) to carry out government functions in areas under its control. In the border areas where non-Bamar ethnic groups are the majority, resistance groups that formed since the coup have set up new public administrations.17Emily Fishbein, ‘In Myanmar, Resistance Forces Pursue Home Rule,’ Foreign Policy, 31 January 2023 Meanwhile, established ethnic resistance groups have long governed the border areas under their control. As noted above, the NUG has moved to facilitate greater cooperation with ethnic resistance groups in an effort to ameliorate tensions that arise as they continue to collaborate, not only to resist the military but also to construct a new way to govern the country. Going forward, establishing and maintaining these administrative systems is likely to be a priority of the resistance.

While the military is still likely to continue to feign holding sham elections as a political way out of the crisis of its own making, elections are unlikely to lead to any form of rapprochement with resistance forces. The military’s refusal to relinquish power and the severe violence they continue to direct at civilian populations to keep that power means they are unlikely to adhere to any promises of reform. With the military’s ongoing targeting of those who resist its rule, 2023 will likely be a year of even further violence in Myanmar.