Myanmar’s raging civil war creates instability in neighboring India, Bangladesh, China, and Thailand as the West fixated on Ukraine and Israel

Pro-junta militia troops who surrendered in Myanmar’s Kokang region are seen Oct. 31, 2023.

The repercussions of Myanmar’s civil war extend beyond its borders, especially concerning neighboring India, Bangladesh, Thailand, and China.

At the end of October, the Brotherhood Alliance, a coalition of three militias – the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) – launched an attack in the northern part of the country against the military junta that ousted the previous government led by Aung San Suu Kyi in a coup d’état in February 2021.

The offensive launched by three militias in the north at the end of last month has generated a domino effect, resulting in some regular army troops surrendering. Taking advantage of the military’s weakness, the Arakan Army launched another attack in the state where the Rohingya live, while on the eastern border, China might opt for greater involvement in the civil war.

On Oct 27, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), former rulers of the Kokang region in northern Shan state, launched a surprise offensive against strategic checkpoints and strongholds of the State Administration Council (SAC) across the state. The operation was executed in collaboration with their powerful ethnic armed counterparts, including the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA).

In the complex landscape of military rule, Myanmar stands as a glaring example of a regime reluctant to admit defeat. The recent events in the country have sparked global interest as even the appointed president acknowledged the risk of Myanmar breaking apart — a rare admission by military leadership. This shift in rhetoric is propelled by a longstanding civil war, an issue persisting since the aftermath of World War II.

Perhaps this is why two days ago the Arakan Army decided to open a new front by ending the informal ceasefire that had been in force since November 2022. The militia recently reported that it had seized 40 outposts from junta forces in three districts in Rakhine, which has a substantial Rohingya Muslim population.

Persistent civil war

For nearly seven decades, Myanmar has grappled with internal strife with the Shan State in Northern Myanmar becoming a focal point of the conflict. Bordered by China to the north, Laos to the east, and Thailand to the south, this region’s jungles and hills provide the perfect backdrop for insurgency.

Three ethnic armies, supported by various militant groups, have taken up arms against the Myanmar junta, which seized power in 2021. The insurgency’s rapid progress, capturing military posts, towns, and key roads to the China border, has left the military government visibly concerned for the first time.

In Shan State, in the north, at least 50,000 people have been displaced, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said, in addition to another 40,000 internally displaced people in the Sagaing region and Kachin State.

Southeast Asian challenge

The repercussions of Myanmar’s internal conflict extend beyond its borders, especially concerning neighboring India, Bangladesh, China, and Thailand. With a 1,600-kilometre-long border shared with four Indian states—Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur, India faces the potential spillover of violence and an influx of refugees.

The border region is home to multiple insurgent groups with a history of confronting the Myanmar army. India fears that these groups may exploit the Shan offensive to attack the junta, exacerbating the existing refugee crisis and complicating matters in states like Manipur, already grappling with internal conflicts.

India’s historically professional relationship with the Myanmar junta, even during democratic periods, is at risk due to the ongoing civil war. Beyond security concerns, Myanmar’s neighbors, including India, Bangladesh, China, and Thailand are apprehensive about the flourishing drug trade in the Shan State, known for narcotics production.

China’s unease

China is now at a crossroads and must “decide whether they want stability on their borders and stability for all the investment that they have put into Myanmar. They want someone in charge that they can manipulate because military regimes have always been ones that they can manipulate,” said Miemie Winn Byrd, an expert at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies, speaking to the Voice of America,

Even China, a political supporter of the Shan rebels, is concerned about the escalation of the conflict. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has issued a protest urging an immediate ceasefire to protect the lives and property safety of the Chinese people in the border areas.

“We have lodged a solemn protest with the parties concerned. We once again demand that all parties to the conflict in northern Myanmar immediately cease fire and take concrete measures to prevent the recurrence of the situation that harms the Chinese people’s lives and property safety in the border areas,” said Wang Wenbin, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson.

As Myanmar’s military holds air superiority over insurgents, the next few weeks will be crucial in determining the course of the conflict. While the military junta may possess formidable capabilities, recent events have shown that they are not invincible.

Ethnic rebel groups jointly known as the Brotherhood Alliance on 27 October launched simultaneous attacks on the military junta in Myanmar’s Shan State. The alliance claims to have captured several towns and cut off vital trade routes to China. The junta has dismissed such claims as ‘propaganda’

The military is now facing a year in which its negotiating position, no longer backed up by perceived military superiority, will slowly diminish. Beijing may even press the junta administration to change its terms and lower its ambitions, given the recent border fighting, which would only diminish the military’s position further. Given these developments, it may be as good a time as any for outside observers to revisit the civil war and reassess long-held assumptions.

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