The Junta Is Dragging Myanmar Into Full-Blown Civil War

By Naing Khit 2 April 2021

The military regime’s brutal killings and extreme violence against peaceful anti-regime protests since its coup on Feb. 1 have led Myanmar to the verge of a full-blown civil war and urban combat.

We can only expect more bloodshed, raising the prospect that the country will become a failed state—a scenario that would have a direct impact on Myanmar’s neighbors and their regional bloc, ASEAN, with implications for the entire world. Nothing seems likely to prevent this outcome.

A woman protester flips her middle finger at the regime’s troops during a confrontation. / The Irrawaddy

Peaceful protests marked by shouted demands and placards bearing slogans have hardened into outright resistance over the past two weeks. Many young protesters have adjusted their tactics; armed with makeshift “weapons”, they now see themselves as “warriors”. They have equipped themselves with slingshots and catapults, air guns made from plastic pipes and bamboo arrows. They are also using makeshift shields, smoke screens and firecrackers to provide cover and hide form regime soldiers and police, who are firing at them with live ammunition.

In late March, more than two dozen police stations and administrative offices in different cities and towns were attacked by incendiary devices and hand grenades. At least eight ward administrative offices came under arson attack, while more than a dozen police stations were attacked with explosive devices and grenades in states and regions across the country. A state-run newspaper said that about 21 members of the security forces were killed or injured during the attacks.

Such resistance is a natural response to the regime’s extreme repression of peaceful anti-regime protests across the country. The crackdowns in cities and towns have been so violent they have prompted some ethnic armed groups to join the resistance, attacking police stations and regime outposts near their territories.

The regime led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has turned a peaceful country into a killing field. Since the coup, the regime’s soldiers and police have killed more than 540 peaceful protesters in execution style, with fatal shots to their heads and chests. The daily job of the military regime over the past two months has consisted mainly of killing citizens in order to quell the nationwide protests against it. The death toll shows that the regime’s soldiers and police have killed about nine people every day over the past two months.

In their killing, the regime’s forces have been indiscriminate, even shooting and killing children—at least 43 of them so far. At least three members of the National League for Democracy led by ousted State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have been tortured to death in detention. Nearly 3,000 protesters, students and political activists have been arrested over the past two months. Looting and destruction of private property by regime forces is rampant everywhere. It has become commonplace in cities and town for soldiers and police to simply open fire on houses at random.

Beyond outrage

Everyone is, of course, suitably outraged. US President Joe Biden said recently of the bloodshed in Myanmar: “It’s absolutely outrageous and based on the reporting I’ve gotten, an awful lot of people have been killed totally unnecessarily.”

But for the people of Myanmar, who are daily losing beloved family members, friends and comrades, the situation is beyond an outrage. Having endured two months of systematic killing and intentional destruction against the entire population, they no longer feel that peaceful protests are enough. Their natural response is to try to fight back against the powerful military.

In the middle of March, after hundreds of regime troops armed with various types of weapons cracked down on protesters in Yangon’s Hlaing Tharyar Township, killing dozens of protesters and residents, many protesters across the country decided to take up “arms”. They started using homemade catapults to fire Molotov cocktails, as well as air guns made from plastic pipes, and even bows and arrows.

In response, the regime’s troops have started using more powerful and lethal explosives fired from M-79 grenade launchers, among other weapons, to crush the crowds and kill more people. On March 27 alone, the regime’s troops killed more than 150 people in cities and towns across the country.

Anti-regime protesters launch slingshot attacks against the regime’s troops. / The Irrawaddy

Some remote towns are really at war. The fighting in Kale, Sagaing Region, has been going on since Monday. Regime troops planning to crack down on an anti-regime protest in the town were met on the way by villagers wielding traditional homemade percussion lock firearms. But the villagers’ crude weapons were no match for the troops’ machine guns, grenades and rocket launchers, said witnesses. But the fight lasted for hours.

Brothers in arms

Such ruthless killing and repression by the regime has caused some ethnic armed organizations to launch offensives and attacks on military outposts and police stations, having simply decided the killings of civilians is “unacceptable”.

Several police stations in Kachin State were attacked by the Kachin Independence Army, an ethnic armed group based in northern Myanmar.

Anti-regime protesters prepare to launch a projectile at regime troops using a makeshift catapult. / The Irrawaddy

For weeks following the coup, the approximately 20 ethnic armed groups that have fought for autonomy for decades—10 of which signed ceasefire agreements with previous governments in recent years—did nothing in regard to the nationwide anti-regime protests. But more recently, some of them, including the KIA and the Karen National Union (KNU), based in the eastern part of the country, have started announcing that they stand with the people against the military dictatorship.

On March 27, Brigade 5 of the KNU’s military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), seized a hilltop outpost held by the military regime in Karen State. The KNLA killed 10 soldiers including an officer and arrested eight soldiers as prisoners of war.

KNU Brigade 5 members pose with ammunition seized from the Myanmar army after the ethnic armed group seized a camp from the Tatmadaw on March 27. / KIC

In retaliation, within a few hours the regime launched airstrikes against the KNLA using two fighter jets in Papun District, Karen State. More than a dozen Karen people were killed and thousands of people fled their villages in the wake of subsequent airstrikes.

In northern Kachin State, the KIA launched offensives against a military outpost in the jade-mining hub of Hpakant and another military outpost in Injangyang Township on March 15, days after the regime’s troops killed at least three young protesters in Myitkyina, the state capital. In the following days, the KIA launched more offensives and clashes continued between the KIA and the regime’s troops.

The KNU is among 10 ethnic armed groups that signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the previous government, as well as the military itself. But the regime’s brutal killings have forced it officially to break the agreement. More clashes between the KIA and the KNU and the military are highly likely in Karen and Kachin states. And police stations and military outposts in the towns and cities in those areas are likely to continue to be targeted in the coming days, weeks and months.

And that’s not all.

In late March, the Brotherhood Alliance of three armed groups warned the military that it would collaborate with other ethnic armed organizations and pro-democracy supporters to defend the people from the regime’s brutal crackdowns if the violence continued. The Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) issued their condemnation of the regime amid daily increases in the civilian death toll.

These armed groups are active in their territories in western Rakhine State and in northern Shan State. Unlike the KNU, they have not signed the NCA.

All five of the above armed organizations have urged the coup leaders to stop their violent crackdowns, release all civilian leaders and detainees, restore democracy and accept the results of the 2020 general election, which the NLD won in a landslide.

More of the 20 armed organizations are likely to join the fight that erupted in response to the anti-coup movement in the cities if the military regime keeps killing innocent people and terrorizing the entire population. If that is their plan, however, they should act soon, as the military regime pays no heed not only to its own people but also to the international community. Over the past two months, the world has repeatedly made the same demands as those listed above. But the coup leaders have just ignored them, which shows they will not stop killing and violently oppressing their own people.

Universal anti-regime sentiment

“Don’t forget, don’t forgive.” This has become a common refrain, not only among protesters but also the entire public, to remind themselves never to forget all that the military regime has inflicted on them. It refers not only to the brutal crackdowns orchestrated by the coup leaders and other high-ranking officials, but also their family members, who are enjoying privileges and unusual wealth at the expense of the people.

Since the coup, many people, including young students, have said, “We are more afraid of living under the military dictatorship than being killed now.” This sentiment is now shared by the majority of the country’s 54 million people. The world has seen it expressed in Myanmar people’s brave resistance against the cruel regime and its murderous troops. The protesters know there is a chance they will be killed when they take to the streets every day, but they are undeterred; death is preferable to life under the military dictatorship.

Thus, their fight against the military dictatorship will go on, despite the regime’s killings. New forms of resistance will be found.

In mid-March, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), comprising mainly elected lawmakers of the NLD, asked people to donate money through crowdfunding to support the resistance. Within days, the CRPH raised US$9.2 million. Many people both inside and outside the country have donated money in the belief that their donations will help the CRPH form a federal army to fight the regime’s military.

The majority of Myanmar people, from all walks of life, are determined that this “Spring Revolution” (a rhetorical name; the anti-regime movement broke out in early summer in Myanmar) is their last chance to save their country from entrenched military dictatorship. Anyone who has closely observed their protests every day over the past two months cannot fail to see that they are deadly serious—even if they are armed with slingshots.

Nothing seems to deter them from fighting the regime’s powerful military; just as nothing seems to deter the coup leaders from killing their own people.

It appears that nobody—not the United Nations, the international community led by the United States, neighboring countries and blocs like ASEAN and China, or other Asian countries like Japan and Korea—can stop the regime’s massacres.

This time, the anti-military dictatorship movement sees no room for compromise at all. Civil war and urban conflict, therefore, seem unavoidable. Myanmar has already suffered a more than 70-year-long civil war since independence in 1948, though the fighting has mostly been confined to remote or border areas. But the war this time will be different. Not only will the civil war spread inland from the borders, but urban warfare will erupt from within our cities.

The war is coming!


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