The Never Ending Nightmare: Myanmar’s internal conflict with no resolution in sight
Living in England, Germany, and the US, over the past year I had become used to seeing Ukraine dominate every headline and newsite mentioning the word “war”. So it was a featured BBC article in January 2023 which caught my attention, as the word war was included with a country I had barely heard coverage on: Myanmar. Since 2021 Myanmar has experienced a brutal civil war, which erupted in February that year after the overthrowing of Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government by the Myanmar military in a coup d’etat, and the formation of a military junta. Myanmar has experienced insurgencies throughout the country since gaining its independence from the UK in 1948; the majority of which have been ethnically based and have previously raised international attention, such as the systematic and genocidal persecution of the Rohingya people since 2016. In 2021 the ousting of the government and the establishment of the military junta sparked insurgent groups, armed protests, and resistance across the country, backed by the exiled National Unity Government (NUG), which soon established an armed wing on 5th May 2021, and officially declared war and a state of national emergency on 7th September 2021. Since the coup, conditions across Myanmar have drastically deteriorated, with the United Nations (UN) estimating in March 2023 approximately 17.6 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, with 1.6 million being internally displaced. But what is truly nauseating about this conflict (which I was about to read) is the treatment and tactics used on the civilian population by both the military and the insurgent groups.
Civilian airstrikes have become an escalating tactic used by the military, with the NUG estimating at least 600 air attacks have occurred between February 2021 and January 2023, with over 400 of those occurring in 2022. They are often used alongside other tactics, such as the burning and razing of villages and civilian dwellings to the ground; in many cases the military will return after an airstrike and burn what remains. The strikes are justified by the junta as necessary to target insurgent and resistance groups; the majority are self-organising and have no capacity to retaliate or defend themselves against a military airstrike, which can be enacted by helicopters, fighter jets, and heavy artillery. Under this strategy civilian casualties are incredibly high, with death tolls per strike regularly reaching over 100, as rural villages and settlements are targeted under the accusation of harbouring or being bases for resistance groups. However amongst these death tolls one population demographic is extremely notable: children. It was these airstrike deaths which the BBC article was focused on. Since the coup and the outbreak of the civil war, more and more schools across the country have been run by communities which oppose the military rule, from monastic groups to protestors themselves, as teachers and students were among the first waves of protests and civil disobedience movements. Thus schools, and children themselves have begun to become targets and tactics for war.
Killing children is in itself a horrific act, and the targeting of schools is a horrific warfare strategy. For villages hit by airstrikes raising the funds to rebuild has been difficult. Raising morale and an urge to fight has been impossible. Airstrikes are not the only form of harm being inflicted on Myanmar’s youth: more and more reports of both physical and psychological torture by the military junta are coming in from the UN and other major humanitarian organisations. These include mock executions, stress positions, deprivation of food and water, as well as physical and sexual violence. The military is not just killing its own citizens, it is killing Myanmar’s hopes for the future. Communities have been both physically, emotionally, and psychologically destroyed through the targeting of their children, taking their ability to organise and resist in the process. What is the point in fighting for a better future, if the very thing many people would fight to give a better future has been ripped away from them? In March 2023 UN representative Kyaw Min Tun declared that the “heinous crimes of the military junta (against Myanmar’s civilian population) clearly constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.” The Myanmar military has denied all of the allegations made against them, and has instead accused the UN and the West of interference. Meanwhile, evidence and reports are being compiled for the International Criminal Court for the day when charges can finally be officially pressed. However the military is not alone in its use of children in the civil war: occasionally anti-junta militia groups have also been reported to have recruited children into combat and for child labour. These reports are all the military needs to continue justifying targeting schools and civilian areas: they are not really schools, they have been used as spaces to harbour and organise resistance groups. It is tragic if the target turns out to just be a school, but necessary as a precaution.
As the civil war goes on, Myanmar’s civilian population’s pain has begun to convert into rage, not only towards the military junta but towards the international community. How many times must the UN Security Council, ASEAN, and powerful states like the US condemn the military junta and call for an end to the violence, before someone intervenes? How can the world stand by and watch whilst they and their children are slaughtered? The military has made it clear that, to put it bluntly, it does not care what the rest of the world thinks. Its denial of the abuse, violations, and crimes it is enacting on the people of Myanmar combined with the complete obstruction of humanitarian aid by blocking all main supply routes and waterways in and out of the country does more than demonstrate this. ASEAN has been meeting without Myanmar to assess the situation and try to develop a timeframe for a resolution to the conflict; something the
military junta has denounced with disdain. The UN continues to observe and document. The main international response other than condemnation has been rounds of economic sanctions; the most recent ones imposed by the US have been targeting the import, storage, and distribution of jet fuel in the country, in an attempt to directly stem and slow the airstrikes. Sanctions bring little comfort or protection to those at the mercy of said airstrikes, particularly when states like Russia and China are continuing their trade and cooperation with the Myanmar military junta, undermining any impacts of international sanctions as a result.
As I read and write about the situation in Myanmar, I am honestly unsure what else to say. Barely a day has gone by since I read that article where I have not thought about it. The facts and the statistics speak for themselves. What can or should I even say? I’m a European university student studying politics in the West, writing about a country I have never been to, or even met people from. I can keep writing about the atrocities: the torture, the deaths, the displacement, the systemic failures. I can offer my humble opinion based on the theory and case studies on war and peace and post-conflict reconciliation which I have studied in safe, far away spaces. I can attempt to honour and imitate some of the many war and conflict writers and editorials I’ve read. I could compare Myanmar and its coverage to that of Ukraine (although I will not, as I don’t believe that anything of real value could come from trying to pit two ongoing conflicts against each other). All I can offer through writing this is information and honesty, and hopefully urge any readers to keep reading about Myanmar. That’s all the majority of us can realistically do to help: stay aware, and don’t let the world forget or ignore Myanmar. I don’t know what to think, or say, or do about Myanmar. Worryingly, neither does anyone else. The reality is the conflict in Myanmar is currently without an end in sight, and no one can design and agree on a pathway to reach one. The civil war has already rolled on for two years, and shows no
sign of losing momentum, whilst the world watches on. And even once the war ends, a new battle will begin. The years immediately after a conflict are some of the most volatile for a state, as the dust settles and the rebuilding process tries to begin. If a clear strategy for aid, political restructuring, and infrastructure development are not settled on, the risk of Myanmar plunging back into instability is high. And once the dust has settled, the emotional and human cost of the civil war will haunt the country.
The impacts of the war on children are among the strongest arguments made by the NUG and UN for member states to condemn and intervene in the actions in Myanmar, including boosting humanitarian aid and funding to the state. For those who survive their encounters with the military, the consequences continue long after the initial act. Survivors of airstrikes and torture may be permanently maimed or disabled, and undoubtably traumatised, and lack resources and aid to deal with this. Furthermore, the war has impacted all other areas of daily life. 385,000 children are internally displaced in Myanmar, whilst at least 500,000 are refugees in neighbouring countries. The displaced are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, in particular human trafficking and sexual abuse, as it is impossible to properly track and monitor the situation. Access to food, water, and medication are all scarce and disrupted, putting children at serious risk of health complications and even death as a result. Again schooling has been disrupted as a result of the conflict, as education is used to target and terrorise the population. Mental health care is one of the most neglected aspects of personal life during and after times of conflict, and the collective experience trauma of the civil war will have life altering impacts on the youngest generations. It will impact their personalities, their emotions, their goals and hopes, and most crucially their relationships with other people, in particular with the next generation: the post-war children, who will not remember or experience what they have.
There are still no estimates for when or how the Myanmar civil war can be brought to an end. The number of civilian and child casualties thus continues to grow. The conflict will have lasting consequences on Myanmar; physically, socially, and mentally; and they will span across into future generations, as survivors of the war grow up and rebuild their country, carrying their trauma with them. Ultimately when the civil war finally ends, for Myanmar’s children the nightmare will never truly be over.