As Myanmar prepares for elections on 8 November, multiple armed conflicts across the country continue. Despite the hope that a government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) would address the longstanding grievances of ethnic minorities, the past five years have been marked by ongoing fighting between state forces and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), as well as the suppression of peaceful dissent. Calls to reform the 2008 military-drafted constitution — around which many rallies were held by the NLD prior to the 2015 elections — have lessened. The NLD has settled into a symbiotic, if often fraught, relationship with the military. The likely outcome of the 2020 election — NLD rule for five more years — is unlikely to have a positive effect on conflict trends in the country as ethnic minorities no longer have the same level of trust in, or patience for, the NLD that they once had. The current conflicts in Rakhine and Shan states are likely to continue, while those who peacefully call for an end to the violence will face further repression.
Political Violence in Rakhine and Shan States
While the military has claimed its goal is “eternal peace” (Global New Light of Myanmar, 10 May 2020), the reality on the ground in Myanmar is one of eternal conflict. The peace process initiated by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and continued by the NLD has failed to end fighting across the country. In fact, in the past few years, fighting has increased and shifted to parts of the country that previously had been spared from significant armed conflict. The rise of the United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA), an ethnic Rakhine armed group fighting for greater autonomy, has led to intense battles in Rakhine state and in southern Chin state (specifically Paletwa township). These clashes have been more lethal than other armed conflicts in the country in past years.
As the military and ULA/AA continue to clash, civilians have not only been caught in the crossfire, but have likewise been deliberately targeted as well (see figure below). ACLED records more than double the number of events of shelling (in light blue below) and airstrikes (in light grey below) by the military targeting civilian areas in 2020 thus far compared to 2019. Most recently, the military fired on an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) ship on the Mayu river, killing one civilian. The military claimed that ULA/AA members were on the ICRC vessel, which was carrying supplies for displaced civilians in Rakhine state. The ULA/AA, as well as survivors of the attack, have denied the military’s claims (Radio Free Asia, 29 October 2020).
In addition to the conflict in Rakhine state, fighting in Shan state has continued this year (see map below). A number of EAOs are active in Shan state. While in previous years, some groups — notably Shan and Ta’ang rebels — have clashed amongst themselves, fighting between EAOs has declined in 2020. Instead, this year has been marked by a significant increase in the number of clashes between the military and the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-S). Although the RCSS/SSA-S is a signatory to the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), the number of clashes between the group and the military has risen fourfold in 2020 so far compared to 2019.