Two Years of Turmoil: Myanmar’s Fog of War

Three trends that offer a fuller and more accurate picture of the state of the country’s civil war.

The Myanmar military’s coup in February 2021 plunged Myanmar into a state of chaos unseen since the 1950s. The junta’s State Administration Council (SAC) is struggling to impose control over vast swathes of the country. It is opposed by the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) that nominally leads a grassroots armed resistance movement comprising groups known as People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) and other autonomous militias. Aiding these outfits are a number of Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) that have fought against the Tatmadaw and successive central governments for decades.

The coup has caused tectonic shifts in Myanmar. The Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, is now fighting for its very survival, something it hasn’t had to do for 70 years. The Bamar majority is finally beginning to empathize with ethnic minorities’ grievances and is also witnessing firsthand the brutality and impunity with which the Tatmadaw has long terrorized ethnic communities. Fighting now rages in the country’s once-peaceful heartlands as well as on the periphery, which has long experienced its own cycles of violence. Social media has leveled the playing field, with the SAC’s opponents outsmarting the regime in its efforts to raise funds, mobilize the public, and dominate the narratives about the conflict.

However, things have gotten understandably lost amid the huge upheavals, the junta’s purging of the media landscape, outrage at the Tatmadaw’s unrestrained brutality, the deluge of commentaries, and the disinformation deployed by both the SAC and its opponents. With the crisis now in its third year and global attention having moved onto other hotspots, there are many undercurrents to Myanmar’s civil war that have fallen by the wayside in international coverage.

Such undercurrents don’t change the fundamentals of the conflict, which pits a thuggish dictatorship against a broad front of opponents driven by a litany of grievances. However, they do offer a fuller picture of the messy and morbid situation even as the overall direction of the country remains uncertain and its outlook bleak. This article will focus on three underreported issues, but there is much more at work that will shape how the catastrophe unfolds.

The Military Is Its Own Worst Enemy

Whether from its wanton violence, rampant corruption, policy flip-flops, or pronouncements divorced from reality, it seems as if the Tatmadaw and the SAC regime are actively undermining themselves. Decades of broken ceasefires, gross human rights violations, self-serving policies, and bad faith agreements have created a long list of disgruntled victims who have now found common cause.

Even after its third coup, the Tatmadaw still doesn’t comprehend the extent to which its own actions fuel the armed resistance. Brutal suppression of peaceful protesters and indiscriminate arrests have driven youths into the jungles and created the PDF groups. Senseless violence against protesting medical workers amplified the impact of the Civil Disobedience Movement that hollowed out the public health system, contributing to a poorly managed COVID-19 third wave that killed untold tens of thousands.

As the conflict intensified in the central dry zone, the burning of villages meant to terrify residents are instead motivating hitherto apathetic communities to support resistance groups. In the aftermath of the horrors at Hpruso, Let Yet Kone, A Nang Pa, Nam Nein, and recently Pa Zi Gyi, the SAC hasn’t even paused to reevaluate. Instead, it has doubled down on its claims.

The disproportionate force used, the complete disregard for civilian lives, and the utter lack of remorse have merely strengthened the resistance’s resolve and drawn public sentiment to its side, while also aiding the NUG’s efforts to garner international support. Regime supporters bristle at what they allege is international indifference to mounting PDF attacks on non-military targets yet they only have the SAC to blame, as the scale of the military’s organized brutality eclipses resistance transgressions.

And instead of trying to win hearts and minds in conflict hotspots, the regime is deploying discriminatory tactics, making life generally difficult for anybody with IDs issued in Sagaing or Magway regions, regardless of political affiliation. And as the IDs also incorporate township acronyms, people from specific resistance hotbeds receive additional scrutiny such as being unable to rent hostels or being subjected to humiliating searches.

In Rakhine State, where the Tatmadaw and the powerful Arakan Army have entered into a precarious second ceasefire, the SAC continues to choke the entire state by severely restricting the flow of essential commodities, medicines and materials at the notorious “Ann Gate.” It also actively discriminates against people with the state’s ID number.

Endemic corruption within the security establishment underpinned by a military culture of entitlement and insular mindsets also undermine the Tatmadaw’s attempts to solidify control. Some junta checkpoints reportedly allow goods destined for resistance groups if offered the right price. A new generation of family members, cronies, and hangers-on are enriching themselves from the coup through weapon deals and privileged access to state resources while the economy remains on life support.

Money skimmed off from the Tatmadaw’s modernization splurge over the past decade by kleptocratic generals has come home to roost as vaunted weapons platforms have been absent or useless against nimble resistance forces. Even as it is increasingly hard-pressed against resistance forces on multiple fronts, the regime continues to procure prestige weapons irrelevant to the evolving battlefield. All these point to a self-absorbed institution out of touch with the realities on the ground, whose only “plan” seems to be to shoot everything into submission, ensuring that the SAC’s own actions will undermine itself.

A Post-Truth Conflict

A raging parallel to the physical fighting is an information war aimed at shaping the domestic and international narratives. Unlike the active conflict, there is a clear winner in this digital duel, with the resistance dominating Facebook and trouncing the regime at every turn. But as the conflict has evolved, the two camps have increasingly embraced disinformation or “psywar” as an essential weapon in their struggle.

The junta chooses reticence to obscure its unfavorable situation. It hasn’t published monthly economic data since mid-2022 and euphemizes battlefield losses. Resistance forces and sympathetic analyses meanwhile generate tons of content, on issues such as the supposed territorial control and casualty figures, but also passes off precision as accuracy.

Disinformation and wild claims have been omnipresent since the coup, including claims of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, roving arson gangs, the mutiny of major Tatmadaw units, the regime’s stripping of gold from Buddhist temples, the demonetization of the kyat, and reports that the United Nations was preparing to deploy troops. Myanmar has long had a hyper-active rumor mill and netizens now spread misinformation as a form of civic duty against the junta while pro-junta trolls reinterpret facts to suit their agenda. Every week, new rumors circulate or old ones resurrect with new embellishments. Mauled by the junta, the media landscape has become toxic in response.

The SAC holds press conferences to present its version of events, attended by sycophantic “journalists” who compete in their bootlicking. It periodically stages rallies to claim public support while its mouthpieces portray peace and a return to normalcy, except for when the regime conveniently needs to blame the resistance. State newspapers and propaganda channels run screengrabs with huge red X’s and the word “fake news” stamped onto unfavorable news reports. They have also been accused of repurposing old photos to claim a return of tourists or development projects in resistance-controlled areas.

Serving as the regime’s digital goons are sock-puppet Telegram channels and under-the-radar Facebook accounts that churn out crude retorts to resistance claims, label civilian victims as PDF fighters, and dox supposed resistance supporters whose only crime was sharing Facebook posts. They also share ludicrous conspiracy theories, accusing the SAC’s opponents of being pawns in a Communist-Islamist-CIA plot or that Western states were secretly funneling lethal military aid via the Thailand-Myanmar border.

Such channels try to pass themselves off as one-person operations or a dispersed network of individuals with little military connection. However, they quickly reveal the same mannerisms, sharing or forwarding posts within minutes of each other. At times, they shoot themselves in the foot, such as when one channel published photos from the Nam Nein massacre that torpedoed the junta’s claims. Resistance supporters believe that such pages are actually operated by dedicated Tatmadaw teams.

The junta is reported to have set up fake PDF groups and pro-resistance pages to spread discord, and is also accused of carrying out false-flag operations and spreading gray and black propaganda. There have also been successful infiltrations of online resistance initiatives that have led to arrests. While many such tricks are definitely up the junta’s alley, allegations of false flag operations and deception also provide politically expedient deflections for resistance forces as unclaimed incidents rise.

Arrayed against the SAC is a digital army of citizen journalists, blue-ticked influencers, celebrities, NUG-operated and resistance-aligned news platforms (including those forced underground), activist groups, and media-savvy PDF cells. The most popular resistance-leaning Facebook pages and influencers count millions of followers, with posts about PDF attacks receiving tens or hundreds of thousands of reactions. Clips supplied by PDF cells of their exploits always garner better traction than regular programming and serve to amplify the PDFs’ casualty claims against junta troops while also romanticizing the war. These videos often come with precise SAC casualty figures but most cannot actually corroborate such claims. With public preference towards morbid reports of SAC casualties, the platforms are also trying to out-compete each other for the same audiences, for whom internet connectivity is becoming increasingly expensive.

Certain popular pro-resistance pages have been quick to publish stories but are unwilling or unable to verify details. In their effort to channel public anger in support of the overall resistance effort, some news platforms have also become de facto propaganda channels, serving as PDF groups’ town criers. At times, major pages eagerly report major resistance attacks and casualty claims that cannot be corroborated or never occurred, or help to obfuscate questionable events. More controversial is the appending of politically expedient labels onto victims of resistance assassinations to portray them as dalans (informants) or some cog in the dictatorship when little can be proven.

Political influencers and commentary pages that have mushroomed since the coup also float crackpot political theories, intentional mistranslations, and questionable economic ideas meant to undermine the regime, but which only trigger panic buying and price hikes. On top of the junta’s economic mismanagement, the kyat went through two episodes of severe volatility triggered by singular Facebook posts that were eagerly fanned by anti-junta platforms.

In instances where established resistance platforms do report unfavorable incidents or when PDF units admit to wrong killings, netizens refuse to accept the information, alleging that the platforms have fallen victim to SAC “psywar” or urging for the issues to be hushed up. The regime’s earlier internet shutdowns also created a culture of “share first, verify later” with netizens copy-pasting content and crediting “the original uploader.”

While battles rage on the ground, disinformation is creating echo chambers that present the messy and uncertain conflict through parallel realities. The two sides initially embraced disinformation to undermine their respective opponents but have now become inebriated by their own Kool-Aid. This is propagating overly-optimistic claims, raising false hopes, and making conflict de-escalation seem unnecessary.

The Disjointed Resistance Landscape

The 2021 coup set off resistance against the Tatmadaw at levels unseen since the 1950s. Different strands of resistance have emerged to confront the junta, with the NUG acknowledged as the nominal leader that is aiming to synergize these various movements. In late 2021, the NUG reported establishing a chain of command to coordinate military operations against the regime. The myriad of long-active EAOs were rebranded as ethnic resistance organizations (EROs) and their administered territory amalgamated under the same banner to present a supposed common goal of an inclusive and equitable “federal democracy.”

While the NUG and other junta opponents sing from the same hymn sheet, the entire endeavor remains disjointed. The grassroots nature of the multi-strand resistance movement, the EAOs’ complex histories predating 2021, irredentist notions of ethno-territoriality, and overlapping war economies mean that the NUG has an uphill battle to create a truly national movement that is unified beyond having a common enemy.

A number of EAOs openly support the NUG, sheltering fleeing activists, training PDF fighters, launching coordinated attacks, and showing solidarity at major events. Such groups and the NUG share a common enemy and are working towards a viable working arrangement. That said, it is also over-optimistic to think that EAOs will play second fiddle to a newcomer, regardless of its popular legitimacy. These EAOs view themselves as equals of the NUG, especially so when there are stark disparities in battlefield capabilities, and their officials often make hushed criticisms to the effect that the NUG is trying to “monopolize” the revolution. To put it bluntly, the NUG needs the EAOs more than the other way around.

To date, the NUG nominally leads PDF outfits and periodically provides them with arms but many of the most effective units operate autonomously with close oversight from allied EAOs. Some EAOs have stated that they stepped in to “guide” and subsume PDFs to ensure no competing armed group takes root within their territory, having learnt lessons from their mixed experiences of supporting waves of urban youths fleeing previous coups. Further complicating the matter are Local Defense Forces (LDFs) as well as PDFs that explicitly march to their own tunes against the junta.

Combat logistics remains a major challenge for the resistance, causing frequent tensions and fissures with PDFs complaining of paltry NUG support and outspoken commanders threatening to go their own way. This has caused PDFs to create their own war economies, with businesses alleging extortions and communities complaining of forced donations.

A number of confrontations and clashes have occurred among resistance militias, with allegations flying in all directions. There has also been a small but steady flow of reports of rape, summary executions, torture, family killings, wronged identities and intentional targeting of unarmed civil servants and public places by resistance militias. It is important to note that the scale of such incidents pales in comparison to the regime’s widespread and systematic terror, but they nonetheless highlight the limits of the NUG’s operational control over PDF units.

The EAOs themselves have varying internal dynamics and their own core interests. EAOs may share the NUG’s ideological aspirations but are also driven by cold hard calculations pertaining to local control, and see the current conflict as a golden opportunity to expand territory to improve their bargaining position for when the dust settles.

Even the Karen National Union (KNU), a major NUG-allied EAO, is not monolithic, with its seven constituent brigades acting autonomously within their own demarcated districts. The formation of a splinter group by sacked KNU commander Nerdah Mya shows how complicated and fluid the situation is. While his new Kawthoolei Army has vowed to fight the SAC, it has also been at odds with the KNU and caused a split among PDF columns. Business interests also make it difficult to separate political and economic goals at times. The Wa have remained aloof but are seeking to cash in on the quagmire while the Arakan Army walks its own path against the SAC in Rakhine even as the NUG incessantly courts the group. The coup has helped glossed over some inter- and intra-EAO tensions but it remains to be seen if the hatchets have truly been buried.

These issues raise questions as to who actually calls the shots in the armed revolution. To be fair, the PDFs and aligned EAOs have a lot in common with the NUG and continue to iron out their differences to take on the SAC. However, the overall landscape remains fragmented, leading some observers to be less optimistic about a clear-cut end to hostilities even if the anti-SAC forces win and instead fearing that the power vacuum will lead to a multi-sided civil war.

The above undercurrents don’t change the fundamentals of the civil war. The SAC’s heinous excesses are well documented and it bears much of the blame for plunging the country into chaos and bloodshed. However, the undercurrents show that many factors are at play and the conflict remains very messy. Projections of clear-cut outcomes and victory timelines remain overly optimistic at this juncture.

If regional countries and institutions like ASEAN truly have Myanmar’s best interest at heart, they should take more proactive steps to force the warring parties onto a path of de-escalation and negotiations as well as to address justice and accountability for all the madness that has transpired since February 2021.