Timeline: 70 Years of Ethnic Armed Resistance Movements in Myanmar

By Nyein Nyein 1 February 2019

Beginning with the Karen National Union’s revolutionary movement, which started 70 years ago on Jan. 31, Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups’ struggle for self-determination, autonomy and equal rights continues to this day.

From 1949, the year after Myanmar gained independence from the British, to 1989 the country’s numerous ethnic groups rose up in armed resistance, mainly fighting for greater autonomy. At least 53 ethnic armies and parties formed out of Karen, Kachin, Pa-Oh, Shan, Mon, Karenni, Akha, Kokang, Palaung, Wa, Mongla, Lahu, Arakan, Chin, Kayan and Naga ethnic groups who claimed their rights were not fully delivered by the majority-Bamar government. There were also some 20 communist rebel groups led by members of the majority Bamar, and non-indigenous Muslim and Rohingya groups during the same 40-year period.

Despite decided efforts to end fighting between the various ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and the central government forces in 1958, 1963, 1980, 1989, the 1990s and since 2011, peace talks are dawdling and civil war continues to thrive in northern, northeastern and western Myanmar.

More than 200,000 people, both from government- and EAO-controlled areas, are currently taking shelter in camps for the internally displaced, having fled clashes between the Myanmar Army and EAOs which have been breaking out since 2011. This figure excludes the refugees on the Thai side of the Thailand-Myanmar border where some 100,000 are currently taking shelter in refugee camps.

In the eyes of the Myanmar Army, the term “civil war” is no longer applicable here. The Military’s True News Information Team gave strong words of advice to reporters and members of the public on the use of the term at a press conference on Jan. 18. Maj-Gen Tun Tun Nyi, the vice chair of the True News Information Team, advised against using the term, insisting that civil war ended together with the end of the famous Insein Battle north of Yangon 70 years ago. He said today it should be referred to as “counter-insurgency operations” or “regional armed conflict.”

The battle he refers to was that of May 1949 in which the Myanmar Army regained control of Insein after 112 days of fighting with the Karen National Defense Organization which had occupied the town, demanding equality between the Bamar and Karen.

Despite the military’s denial of the occurrence of civil war in Myanmar, the Karen ethnic armed resistance gained traction after that event and the group maintained high spirits and fervor in their continued fight for independence and freedom from Bamar chauvinism.

The 1990s saw a partial ceasefire period in Kachin, Kayah, Mon and Shan states. But during that time too, and up to 2010, some 20 new ethnic armed groups appeared. Though many of them started out with small numbers, EAOs based in the northeast have been increasing in strength and power, particularly since 2011. The biggest armed group, the United Wa State Army had some 30,000 troops in 2016.

When the EAOS began taking part in peace negotiations which were initiated by then-president U Thein Sein in August 2011, the ethnic leaders expressed their desire to work together in building a federal state if it would guarantee their basic rights, equality and self-determination.

According to data released by Myanmar Peace Monitor in 2013, Myanmar remains home to some 50 ethnic armed forces, which include both revolutionary armed groups, government-backed militia of various ethnicities and smaller insurgent groups. Of these, the government is currently holding peace talks with 18 groups—10 signatories of the nationwide ceasefire agreement and eight other non-signatories.

The armed resistances of Myanmar’s ethnic groups and the current peace negotiations can be viewed in the timeline below.

Please click right below to see the timeline.

Visualization by Nan Lwin

Ref: “A General Introduction to six active EAOs based in northeast Myanmar” by U Maung Maung Soe (2016); “Deciphering Myanmar’s Peace Process” by Burma News International (2016); “Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency since 1948” by Bertil Lintner (1999).