Civil War: Myanmar/Burma (1968-1995)

Joakim Kreutz. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


On May 27, 1989, the official name of Burma was changed to the Union of Myanmar by the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC). Although the change has been recognized by the United Nations, many ethnic minorities and opposition parties have rejected the new name. In this article, the two names are used interchangeably, but Burma is used in reference to events during the period prior to June 1989, whereas Myanmar is used for events after that date. Further, this article follows the precedent of the majority of scholars studying the country, for whom Burman is an ethnic term identifying a particular group in Burma, whereas Burmese is a political term including all the inhabitants of the country— Burman, Karen, Shan, and so forth.

The sparse news coverage from Myanmar in the last decade has largely focused on the weak democracy movement in a country ruled by an authoritarian military government. Following months of political protests, student-led demonstrations were brutally repressed by the armed forces in September 1988. These events and the reluctance of the government to accept the election results two years later have been criticized on a global scale; and sanctions have been imposed by such powers as the United States and the European Union. This has not led to a change in government policy, but the democracy movement, led by Nobel Prize-winner Aung San Syy Kyi, has maintained its struggle by nonviolent means.

The civil war in Myanmar/Burma has been fought between government forces and numerous different rebel forces for decades. The war, which actually consists of several different, intertwined conflicts, has effectively halted the economic development of the country since independence and has affected generations of Burmese people. The complexity of this war can hardly be exaggerated; it has included a socialist government fighting socialist rebels, different rebel groups fighting each other over control of resources while simultaneously trying to establish unified fronts against the government, and local warlords who shift allegiances from rebels to progovernment militias and back to rebels again.

Many of the causes of the civil were evident even before the country became independent in 1949, and several rebel organizations started their armed struggles even earlier, but this article focuses on the period of intense fighting in the years 1968-1995. During that period, it is estimated that at least 267,500 people were killed, and more than 1.3 million Burmese became refugees. It should be noted that these estimates are notoriously unreliable, as the government has deliberately restricted access to information, especially in conflict areas. Fighting has been accompanied by severe atrocities against the civilian population and the fostering of a substantial drugs industry in the hills of the Union of Myanmar.

Country Background

One factor that must be taken into account in any discussion of the conflict’s background is that, to a great extent, Burmese people tied their political allegiances to perceived ethnic identities. Interestingly, the different ethnic groups in Burma all share a similar background, tracing their ancestry to different waves of migration from China (Smith 1991, 32-33). Substantial interaction and intermarriages between different ethnic groups have taken place for centuries, but grievances and political activism have often been expressed along ethnic lines. The main division has been between the Burman majority population, which lives on the central plains, and the different ethnic minorities, who live in the surrounding hills. Following centuries of wars between different kingdoms in present-day Myanmar, the Burman Konbaung Dynasty defeated their Mon and Shan rivals and expanded west in the early nineteenth century. This led to conflict with the British colonial rule of India, and in 1886, following a series of wars and alliances with local warlords, Burma became a British colony.

The defeated Burmans became part of British India, whereas the hill tribes became subject to a policy of indirect rule. Local rulers were accorded considerable autonomy concerning customs, religion, and local administration, provided they acknowledged British supremacy and paid annual tribute to the colonial authority (Renard 1996, 26). Other groups, such as the previously enslaved Karen, as well as people living in regions near the present-day border with Bangladesh and India, quickly became loyal to the British and featured heavily in the colonial administration. Furthermore, several ethnic groups converted to Christianity as a result of the activity of missionaries in the late nineteenth century (Po 2001; Tucker 2001, 14-22).

Thus, the anticolonial resistance movement was formed primarily by ethnic Burman nationalists who claimed that the British, the southern Indian immigrants, and the hill tribes all were part of the colonial administration. During World War II, part of the independence movement allied with the Japanese to defeat the British in 1942 (Maung Maung 1990). When the British were defeated, Burman gangs committed atrocities against former British “loyalists,” targeting especially the Karen population and Muslims in southern Arakan state. Throughout the war, Karen and Chin forces continued to fight the Japanese occupation as guerrilla forces linked to the British army (Smith 1991, 62-63; Yegar 1972, 95). When it became clear that the Japanese military administration had no plans to actually transfer power to the Burmans, the same independence leaders contacted the British army in India. In secret, different Communist groups linked up with the leadership of the Burma Army and created a unified front as the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL). On March 27, 1945, the Burmese army defected from the occupation military administration and joined the British forces against the Japanese (Colbert 1977; Koonings and Kruijt 2002, 73; Maung Maung 1990, 145).

After the Japanese defeat, negotiations began between the AFPFL, headed by Aung San, and Britain about the creation of an independent state. The AFPFL remained an unstable alliance, and ethnic riots were common in the years 1945-1947, as several political leaders created personal armies (tat) to strengthen their position. During this transition period, the British organized a new Burma Army, in which the ethnic Burman battalions were separate units from the ethnic forces who became, for example, the Chin, Karen, and Kachin Rifles. As the British-Burman negotiations came to a close, the AFPFL started to disintegrate. A Communist faction had left the alliance and begun to prepare for a Communist revolution, when, in January 1947, an agreement between Aung San and the British Prime Minister Lord Attlee outlined the process for Burmese independence. The plan was immediately met with resistance from Karen leaders, who demanded a separate, independent state, while Shan, Kachin, and Chin ethnic leaders declared that the agreement was not binding on their territories (Tucker 2001, 121). Eventually, the AFPFL negotiated a compromise with the Shan representatives stipulating that their region could secede from the Union ten years after independence. A similar provision was made for the Karenni region, but no such specific agreements were made for territories inhabited by other ethnic groups (Smith 1991, 79).

Following independence, the outbreak of several insurgencies severely inhibited the government’s ability to create effective institutions. The instability contributed to the creation of a brief military caretaker administration in 1958-1960, and on March 2, 1962, General Ne Win overthrew the democratically elected government. The new military rulers—officially named the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP)—declared that their main objective was to preserve the unity of the country while introducing the “Burmese Way to Socialism” (Koonings and Kruijt 2002, 279). This was an ideology of mixed Marxist, Buddhist, and nationalist principles that included one-party rule, nationalization of the economy, and measures to make the country the most politically isolated in the world.

As a consequence of the postcoup nationalization programs, the faltering Burmese economy suffered further, as the control over an expanded black market trade was virtually handed to ethnic and Communist insurgencies. Twenty years later, this trade was estimated to constitute an annual US $3 billion, or 40 percent of the Burmese gross national product (GNP) (Taylor 2001, 16). Following an intramilitary coup in 1988, the country has invited foreign investments and has established joint economic projects with neighboring countries in several areas. Although the standard of living showed some minor improvements during the 1990s in the major cities, particularly Rangoon, the economy remains one of the least developed in the world. Many international institutions have complained about the lack of credible statistics for the country, which makes it difficult to correctly assess the economic situation. In 1998, Myanmar remained classified as a least developed country (LDC) and was ranked 131 of 173 countries by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Index. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated a national growth rate of about zero for 2005, while the World Food Program—one of the few UN institutions still allowed in the country—has reported that malnutrition remains a severe and growing problem (Taylor 2001, 85).

Conflict Background

It can be argued that the first Burman civil war began even before the country had become independent. In the months preceding Burmese independence on January 4, 1948, the leader of AFPFL, Aung San, was assassinated by unknown attackers, several communist factions left the AFPFL to prepare for a revolution, the Karen and Karenni political leaders were about to declare independent states, and Muslims in Arakan had pledged themselves ready to fight for an Islamic state (Smith 1991, 87; Tucker 2001, 138-44).

The fighting during the first decade of independence pitted numerous forces against the government, but the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) and the Karen National Union (KNU) soon became the most powerful insurgent groups. Although both of these groups were militarily superior to the government forces, divisions among the different opposition armies, and the sudden appearance of defeated Chinese Kuomintang (KMT) troops in northern Burma in the early 1950s, led to a decrease in conflict intensity (Tucker 2001; Zakaria and Crouch 1985,). The ongoing conflict strengthened the position of ethnic Burman nationalists and the armed forces in the Rangoon government. Any suggestions aimed at appeasing the ethnic minorities through a more federal state were actively opposed by the military leadership. Instead, the government pressured the peaceful ethnic Shan leaders to relinquish their constitutional option to secede from the Union in 1959. These moves fueled a growing Shan nationalism, and in the late 1950s, several groups began to prepare for an armed struggle. In an attempt to unify the country against the Communist rebels, the government of U Nu 1960-1962 introduced efforts to make Buddhism the state religion. This was considered discrimination by the mainly Christian ethnic Kachin, who formed the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in 1961.

As the U Nu government declared a willingness to offer some autonomy to the ethnic minorities, the army became increasingly concerned. On March 2, 1962, General Ne Win took power and declared a socialist, one-party state. From 1963 on, the regime arrested political opponents, nationalized key sectors of the economy, expelled “foreigners” (including the substantial Indian and Chinese business communities), and abolished independent media and nonstate-controlled education (Koonings and Kruijt 2002; Zakaria and Crouch 1985). Several measures introduced by the government during the period 1963-1966 had significant implications for the subsequent escalation of the civil war near the end of the decade.

The BSPP’s first concern was to eradicate political opposition, and it soon proved willing to use any means necessary. Student activists, political opponents, powerful Buddhist monk organizations, and independent media were attacked, arrested, or closed down by government troops. At the same time, the government invited the insurgents to peace talks. When negotiations failed in November 1963, the BSPP quickly arrested several ethnic political leaders. The most substantial effect was the arrest of the Shan leadership, which led to the collapse of local administrations as the region became subjected to virtual military occupation (Smith 1991, 204-20). But although negotiations had failed, the peace parlay had led given the rural rebel movements a chance to reestablish connections with antigovernment activists in the cities. Furthermore, after a government “demonetization” of the Burmese currency in May 1964, thousands of citizens lost their savings, making rebel recruitment a good deal easier. Although the rebels became stronger as well as more diverse, the new government substantially increased military spending. Further, the army introduced a system of local Ka Kwe Ye (KKY; “defense”) militias, especially in the Shan state. The KKY system consisted of government-conferred legitimacy for militias created by local warlords. Many of these militias had first been created as self-defense units against the KMT who settled in the region during the 1950s (Lintner, 1994, 187-88; Smith 1991, 221) Several former KMT forces remained in Shan state and competed for control of drug trafficking with some of the warlords who now joined the KKY program (McCoy 2003, 425-26).

The appearance of KMT troops in northern Burma connected the civil war to the regional security situation in the 1950s. KMT had strong links to Taiwan and U.S.-sponsored anti-Communist operations in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. The different insurgencies were also trying to access military resources from abroad. The KNU had suffered an internal split over whether to cooperate with the Chinese-supported Communist Party of Burma or to improve links with the U.S.-allied Thailand (Smith 1991, 214). After the formation of the KIO, explicit requests for military support were made both to India and to the Thailand-based KMT remnants, and the group temporarily joined the World Anti-Communist League (WACL) (Lintner 1994, 190). Despite these alliances, the main outside actor that continued to influence the fighting in the civil war in Burma was China. In 1960, Burma and China signed a border agreement, as the Chinese policy of “peaceful coexistence” was manifested in the early 1960s through aid projects such as construction of bridges and power stations in Burma. Relations remained friendly, despite Beijing’s concern following the 1962 coup and the subsequent expulsion of ethnic Chinese. Rather, the downturn of Burmese-Chinese relations followed internal political developments in China. When Mao Zedong initiated the Cultural Revolution in 1966, its primary focus was an internal purge of the Communist Party. However, the nationalism of thousands of ethnic Chinese students in Rangoon provoked communal clashes with the Burman population. Violent riots in late June 1967 led to the destruction of Chinese buildings and property as large Burmese mobs killed hundreds of people and attacked the Chinese Embassy in Rangoon. The Chinese broke off diplomatic relations with Burma, and on August 15, 1967, Beijing radio broadcast a message about the “profound friendship” between China and Burma’s Communist rebel movement, CPB. At the same time, preparations had started for an offensive by Chinese “volunteers” into northern Burma (Smith 1991, 226-27).

The Insurgents

Throughout the course of the conflict, numerous insurgent organizations have been active in Burma, although this article focuses on the largest and most significant in the time period covered. The oldest of these was the Communist Party of Burma, originally formed in opposition to the British colonial rule. After the nationalist Student Union at Rangoon University became influenced by Bengali Communists in present-day India, the CPB was formed on August 15, 1939, with Aung San as its first general secretary (Maung Maung 1990, 22; Tucker 2001, 85). In the tumultuous years that followed, the CPB split into several factions, as the original leadership became more concerned with the politics of the independence umbrella organization AFPFL. When Burma became independent in 1948, some Communists had already been outlawed and were fighting the new government. In late March 1948, the main faction of the CPB left the AFPFL and took up arms. Still, it took several years for all the different Communist groups to unify in their opposition to the government (Lintner 1994; Smith 1991, 106)

Somewhat ironically, the first CPB offensive was halted by contributing troops from the Karen Rifles ethnic battalions of the Burma Army. The same troops that saved the first independent Burmese government deserted less than a year later from the Burma Army and became the rebel army of the Karen National Union. Different political Karen parties had unified as the KNU in 1947 after it became clear that the Attlee-Aung San Agreement would not include the most important objective for the ethnic Karen population—an independent Karen state (Tucker 2001). Although the AFPFL had negotiated the conditions for the handover of power, several Karen delegations that had argued for independence, or at least an autonomous region within the new country, had been ignored (Smith 1991, 82-87). Throughout 1948, communal violence between Karen and Burman militias escalated; in fact, many of the first KNU military units were created simply to improve the security of local villagers.

Sources: Doyle and Sambanis 2000; Marshall and Jaggers 2002, Smith, 1991; UCDP 2006.
Notes: * Doyle and Sambanis distinguished between Burma II (1968-1982) and Burma III (1983-1995). According to their data notes, however, this is solely based on previous (COW) literature; Doyle and Sambanis collapse Burma II and III into one observation in their analysis, and this practice has been chosen for this article (Doyle and Sambanis 2000, 25). Furthermore, the substantial conflict escalation began in January 1968, but it is assumed that it took a few months of battle before Doyle and Sambanis’s required threshold of 1,000 deaths occurred.
** KNU and MTA are designated as the main insurgent organizations by Doyle and Sambanis (2000). They constitute two of the main ethnic armies, but a description of the conflict would be incomplete without numerous other groups. Of these, at least the CPB and KIO undoubtedly also reached the threshold of war as defined by Doyle and Sambanis.
War: CPB, KIO, KNU, MTA vs. government
Dates: March 1968-December 1995*
Casualties: 267,500 (including 14,000 battle deaths)
Regime type prior to war: -7 in 1967 (Polity 2 variable in Polity IV data— ranging from -10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
Regime type after war: -7 in 1996 (Polity 2 variable in Polity IV data— ranging from -10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
GDP per capita year war began: US $415 (constant 1960 dollars)
GDP per capita 5 years after war: US $1,200 (constant dollars)
Insurgents: Communist Party of Burma (CPB), Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), Karen National Union (KNU), Mong Tai Army (MTA)**
Issue: Control of central government; ethnic independence or autonomy
Rebel funding: Drugs, gems, timber, cross-border trade, support from China
Role of geography: Very substantial, war characterized by guerrilla warfare
Role of resources: Very substantial role in onset, duration, and outcome
Immediate outcome: Conflict continued at lower intensity.
Outcome after 5 years: Low-level conflict continues.
Role of UN: None
Role of regional organization: None
Refugees: At least 1,333,700
Prospects for peace: Unclear; armed conflict is barely active, exiled political opposition is strong.
Table 1: Civil War in Myanmar/Burma

The consequences of the different insurgencies, as well as political instability following the murder of Aung San, limited any attempts at state building in the country during the 1950s. The lack of development and security in the hill areas bothered such ethnic groups as the Shan and the Kachin. After a decade of civil war, the government considered the CPB the main threat to national security and focused its efforts on limiting Communist recruitment. An attempt to launch an ideological campaign by projecting the CPB as a threat to Burmese nationalism, as manifested by religion, backfired. When Buddhism was suggested as Burma’s official state religion, the Christian Kachin leadership argued that the move was unconstitutional and against the spirit of voluntary membership in the Union. Kachin nationalists already claimed that the Kachin population was not treated equally with the Burmans, citing the example of a border demarcation in 1960 that handed three Kachin villages to China. The Kachin nationalist cause became an armed insurrection on February 5, 1961, when the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) was formed (Smith 1991, 191).

Likewise, frustration with the government was becoming increasingly common in the neighboring Shan state. The Shan nationalists tied their argument to the government’s 1957 declaration that any move toward secession would be tolerated, thus ignoring the provisions agreed on at independence a decade earlier (Lintner 1994, 150). The first Shan rebel force was the Noom Suik Harn (Young Warriors [NSH]), formed in 1958, but from 1959 on, several uprisings broke out across the state. In 1964, the three biggest Shan rebel organizations agreed to join forces as the Shan State Army (SSA) and immediately invited other Shan opposition groups to join an alliance (Smith 1991, 220). Some local militias rejected the SSA offer, for example, the Loimaw Anti-Socialist Army led by Khun Sa (“Prince Pleasant,” originally named Zhang Qifu). This militia had formed as one of several local self-defense groups against the KMT forces that settled in Shan state in the 1950s. When the Shan insurgencies grew in strength, the government introduced a tactic that previously had been successful in resisting the KMT invasion: the establishment of local paramilitary forces (Tucker 2001, 172). After a few months of fighting the government, Khun Sa joined the new government-sponsored program in 1964 as one of more than twenty KKY units. The KKY system gave the militias responsibility for policing and trade in their territories, and most of them, including the force of Khun Sa, became important actors in the lucrative drug trade of the Golden Triangle (Lintner 1994, 187; Smith 1991, 221). After the KKY system was abolished by the government in 1973, Khun Sa’s forces renamed themselves the Shan United Army (SUA), with the ambition to fight for an independent Shan state. Numerous other rebel groups were active in the region during the following decade; but in 1985, after SUA had been joined by the forces of a rival faction, the Tailand Revolutionary Council (TRC) and changed its name to the Mong Tai Army (MTA), it became the leading Shan insurgent force (Smith 1991, 343).

When the conflict escalated into a full-blown war in 1968, it seemed as though the rebel forces were getting simultaneously stronger and weaker. The most dramatic case was the Communist Party of Burma, which suffered as well as benefited from China’s domestic politics during the Cultural Revolution. At the time of the military takeover in Burma in 1962, the rural Communist forces were on the defensive and had lost most of their contacts with like-minded urban movements. The repression of the new military government—officially creating a socialist state—created an exodus of urban activists to join the CPB forces. Furthermore, the 1963 peace talks offered another opportunity for the CPB to strengthen its position as rival Communist groups either joined the CPB or became largely anonymous. By the end of 1967, the CPB had reestablished urban networks, was getting increasing support from China, and was the only opposition army with roots in the ethnic Burman population (Smith 1991, 202, 223). At the same time, the ideas of the Cultural Revolution also inspired the CPB to initiate internal purges to root out “right-wing opportunism.” The activity of the Burmese Red Guards changed the CPB leadership, as dozens were killed, including several intellectuals who had joined the party in 1962 (Lintner 1994, 196-97).

It would be incorrect to call the CPB a Chinese proxy, as the policies of the party were specifically Burmese, but the importance of support from its northern neighbor can hardly be underestimated. Even though government offensives in 1968-1975 eliminated all Communist forces in central Burma, the CPB established a strong presence in the north of the country, effectively controlling the Burmese-Chinese border. This presence was based on campaigns against the Burma Army, the ability to make alliances with local warlords to join under the CPB umbrella, and offensives against ethnic Kachin, Shan, and other rebels in adjoining territories. With the support of China, the Communists became the best-equipped rebels, with access to safe bases and hospital resources across the border in Yunnan. Direct Chinese aid to the CPB decreased when the new leader, Deng Xiaoping, announced in 1978 that economic reform and growth would be the prime objective for Beijing. This decision was criticized by the aging CPB leadership who remained staunchly loyal to Maoist principles. Somewhat contradictory to its ideology, the CPB’s loss of foreign support was quickly replaced by a free market economy as the organization became increasingly dependent on taxation of border trade (Lintner 1990a, 193). All contraband exported from Kachin areas, as well as much of the black market goods filtering into central Burma, had to pass through CPB-held territory, and the organization established an effective transport network between Yunnan, northern Thailand, and different parts of Burma. Moreover, some CPB commanders received extra income through opium production, even though it never was officially endorsed by the leadership. In 1985, the CPB leadership announced that all party members involved in the drug trade would be severely punished, and it has been suggested that this decision contributed to the sudden breakup of the organization just a few years later (Lintner 1994, 294-95).

In contrast to the Communist insurgents, the ethnic armies received less support from the outside and remained poorly equipped in comparison. The different armies also displayed different characteristics, although there were many similarities between the two biggest ethnic insurgencies, the KIO and the KNU. Both organizations were the leading representatives in the promotion of their respective ethnic causes and were organized as quasi-states with well-developed leadership structures. Although the organizational structure of both groups borrowed much from Communist terminology, the groups remained reserved in their contacts with the CPB. Many prominent members in the KIO had been active in Kachin nationalist student organizations during the 1950s, and although the leadership changed substantially in the mid-1970s, it remained drawn from this intellectual background (Tucker 2000, 88-90). The younger generation of KIO leaders was more moderate in its approach and replaced the original demand for independence with the goal of Kachin autonomy within the Union of Burma.

The change of leadership also led to a military alliance with the CPB in 1976 after more than eight years of intense clashes between the two rebel groups. This led to an increase in the support the KIO was already receiving from China (Lintner 1990a, 170). Ammunition, however, remained sparse, and the KIO relied on a well-disciplined fighting force based on Kachin conscripts and the efficient use of guerrilla tactics. Despite limited resources, this strategy was so successful that the rebels managed to control almost all the territory in Kachin state for most of the war, with the notable exception of the city of Myitkyina and a small area in the very north, where a local self-defense militia managed to rebuff advancing KIO troops in the mid-1960s. The governments’ tactics consisted of aerial bombardment of rebel camps and villages, and temporary short-term offensives with the intent to capture main roads (Lintner 1990a, 138-39) Apart from dropping bombs, Burmese airplanes also sprayed the countryside with herbicide as part of the antinarcotics policy. The Kachin hills have a long history of poppy cultivation, but the KIO had already begun to limit drug production for commercial use in 1964 (Renard 1996). The income from drugs was not necessary for the Kachins, as the region produced the worlds’ finest jadeite, as well as gold, rubies, and other precious stones. During the first decade of the war, most of the contraband was sold across the border in northern Thailand with the help of former KMT groups. This link remained but became less important throughout the 1980s as the economic reforms introduced in China made it possible to link up with Yunnanese businessmen (Global Witness 2003, 93; Lintner 1990a, 141, 145).

The Karen National Union managed to establish a quasi-state along the southeastern border with Thailand similar to the territory controlled by the KIO. Rebel-held territory, officially referred to as Kawthoolei, was ruled by the KNU, who maintained good relations with smaller ethnic armies nearby (Rotberg 1998, 141). Indeed, the KNU were directing joint military operations with Mon, Karenni, and student rebels, who otherwise kept their own camps and pursued their own antigovernment struggles. The KNU leader Bo Mya was actively trying to unify all rebel groups through various alliances, even though the central Karen leadership remained cautious concerning any cooperation with the Communists (Rotberg 1998, 142). Several rebel groups, however, were more interested in securing support from the Thai government and possibly the United States. Throughout the war, the KNU was allowed to establish bases on the Thai side of the border, usually in or around the camps set up for Burmese refugees. Thailand also supplied some arms to the rebels but only to a limited extent, as Bangkok was worried that a victory for the ethnic armies could have a destabilizing effect on border relations (Phongpaichit, Piriyarangsan, and Treerat 1998, 129).

The KNU were numerically inferior at all times to the Burma Army troops in the region but managed to establish superiority through the use of guerrilla tactics and intricate defense systems, which depended heavily on intimate knowledge of the terrain and the location of minefields. Furthermore, the KNU generally had a strong support base in the local civilian population, owing to both the history of the movement and the treatment of the villagers by the rebels and the army. The KNU had been founded in part by existing village self-defense militias, whereas the government’s counterinsurgency tactics included an element of civilian repression designed to sever the links between rebels and civilians (Tucker 2003). During the years of the government’s policy of economic self-sufficiency (1962-1988), territories under Karen control became the most active trading points for black market goods entering and leaving Burma. The KNU were not involved in the drug industry but rather derived their income from taxing the border trade in consumer goods, as well as small-scale logging operations along the border (Global Witness 2003, 59-60).

In Shan state, the situation was quite different from that in Kachin and Karen territories, although government repression of the civilian population was even more common, and some groups received support from Thailand. In particular, three factors contributed to the different characteristics of the war in this territory. First, the influence of the former KMT commanders who remained in the area despite the official transfer of these troops to Taiwan in 1961 led to access to more weapons, owing to their strong links to Thai, Taiwanese, and U.S. security agencies. Second, a main goal for these groups was control of the drug business in the area. In 1994, it was estimated that the profits of narcotics trafficking in Thailand amounted to US $85 billion annually, and the vast majority of these drugs originated in the Burmese part of the Golden Triangle (Phongpaichit, et al. 1998, 86-88). Third, the historical roots of the Shan insurgency, as well as the competition over drugs, led to the establishment of numerous rebel groups, which sometimes unified in alliances but more often used their arms in intrarebel fighting. It was not until 1985 that the Mong Tai Army managed to become the foremost organized-rebel group promoting the Shan cause. The MTA established such a strong control over the drug trade in the late 1980s that there was severe skepticism both from outside and inside the MTA concerning whether the group had any political or nationalist objectives (McCoy 2003, 438). Local commanders of previously independent rebel groups that had chosen to join forces with MTA declared that the best chance for the insurgents was to unify, and as the MTA was military strong, it made sense to accept the leadership of Khun Sa. It has been implied, however, that there were few direct clashes between the Burma Army and the forces of MTA directly under Khun Sa’s command, as these were more concerned with protecting the opium convoys (Lintner 1994, 264; Uppsala Conflict Data Program 2006).


At the time of conflict escalation in 1968, some areas of Burma had been outside government control ever since independence. Even when the Burma Army captured rebel territory in the conflict, there were few areas in the hills where the government permanently replaced the insurgents. By 1968, both the CPB and the KNU had established a strong presence on the central plains and in the Irrawaddy River delta southwest of Rangoon. After a series of large-scale government offensives in the early 1970s, these areas were lost, which effectively cut off the rebel armies’ links to the urban population and also frustrated future attempts to initiate cooperation between different rebel movements.

The geographic features of Burma can be said to resemble a huge basin surrounded by hills. After the Burma Army’s successes, the lowlands remained controlled by the government, as the rebels used the surrounding steep hills and thick jungles to set up protected bases. Furthermore, the country is divided by three main rivers—the Irrawaddy, the Chindwin, and the Salwan—as well as the smaller but strategically important Sittang, which flow from north to south. Into these rivers feed thousands of others, and during the monsoon, which lasts from May to October, almost all watercourses in Burma become impassable. According to Tucker (2001), “This [the monsoon] too has tended to the isolation of Burma’s hill minorities, for no commander, whatever the size and power of his forces, would commit them to expeditions extending into the monsoon” (Tucker 2001, 9).

The conflict has been fought almost exclusively in rural areas and hillsides, and the rebels have often relied on their superior knowledge of the terrain in their military planning. Apart from the geographical features, which have made it relatively easy for smaller rebel units to avoid direct confrontation, abundant natural resources and relations with neighboring countries have influenced the dynamics of the conflict. Apart from the drug trade, Burma is also famous for its gemstones, especially rubies, sapphires, and jade, as well as numerous mineral resources, including oil and natural gas. Other such resources include tin, lead, silver, and zinc; marble is quarried in the western part of the country, and logging is common in the northern and eastern regions. During the first twenty years of the conflict, the isolationist policies of the Burmese government made it possible for the different rebel groups to receive income from the export of these resources. Since the intramilitary coup in 1988, the new government of Myanmar has actively sought to establish business links with foreign firms to capture the rents from these resources, which have played an important role in affecting the outcome of the conflict.


The capabilities and, indeed, the tactics have been different for the rebel armies, with the ethnic organizations KIO, KNU, and MTA all focusing on small-scale guerrilla tactics, while the CPB chose a different approach. A short description of the characteristics of the respective groups is followed by a more thorough look at government counterinsurgency tactics, as these have received international condemnation. The ethnic rebel armies mainly used guerrilla warfare against the government, although some more substantial military installations were built at times, especially around the KNU headquarters at Manerplaw. Most of the fighting consisted of clashes with small arms or mortars, as the KNU artillery often discouraged the government from using its aerial superiority (Carey 1997b, 131). Most of the arms used by KNU and MTA were smuggled from Thailand. The majority of these were either bought legally with the income from cross-border trade or illegally through contacts within the Thai armed forces. Another important source of arms was stockpiled weapons from previous conflicts in the region, such as those in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia (Phongpaichit, et al. 1998, 127).

The KIO received almost all its weapons from China, especially after the alliance with the Communists in 1976. The KIO had already established cross-border connections as part of a network in which China had provided military training to ethnic and Communist rebels in northeast India since the mid-1960s (Lintner 1990a, 82; Maitra 1998, 68, 71). By far the best-equipped rebel organization was the CPB. It received substantial official support from China in 1968-1981 and could still import arms through Yunnan in the period that followed. With more advanced military capabilities available, the CPB were more inclined to use “traditional” military tactics in their offensives. The leadership was also influenced by Chinese military strategy, which largely focused on strength in numbers, and thus the CPB “human wave” attacks usually led to high casualty figures for both the government and the rebels (Lintner 1990a, 198-200).

Focusing on the government forces, increased resources were directed toward the army from 1962 on, as the government initiated an offensive strategy against the different insurgents. Apart from a direct increase in military expenditure, the army also benefited from indirect allocation of resources, as different army organizations became increasingly important business actors in the Burmese state-controlled economy (Koonings and Kruijt 2002, 279). With regard to military strategy, the army has used a dual approach. In the distant border areas, alliances were sought with local militias to attack rebel bases, whereas the main military machinery would be deployed against one area at the time. This was visible through the KKY system during the period 1964-1973, as well as in the cease-fires offered to rebel groups after 1990. Also, since 1966 the military has focused on a counterinsurgency tactic known as the Pya Ley Pya (Four Cuts). The four cuts strategy consists of cutting the four main links (food, funds, intelligence, and recruits) between insurgents, their families, and local villagers. Details have been provided by Smith (1991):

To begin with, selected rebel areas, just 40 to 50 miles square, were cordoned off for concentrated military operations. Army units then visited villagers in the outlying fields and forests and ordered them to move to new “strategic villages” (byu hla jaywa) under military control on the plains or near the major garrison towns in the hills. Any villager who remained, they were warned, would be treated as an insurgent and ran the risk of being shot on sight. After the first visit, troops returned periodically to confiscate food, destroy crops and paddy and, villagers often alleged, shoot anyone suspected of supporting the insurgents. (Smith 1991, 259)

In 1979, the first major offensive was launched in Shan state, and soon thereafter, fighting intensified closer to CPB bases (in 1982) as well as those of the KNU (in 1984) (Lintner 1990a, 210; Lintner 1994, 267).

The expansion of the military in the period of the BSPP (1962-1988) remained marginal in comparison to the military buildup that followed the intramilitary coup in 1988. During the first six years of the new government, the army grew from 180,000 to some 300,000 troops. At the same time, the government announced a new political outlook, referred to as “peace through development.” It consisted of several aspects, both military and political, and took into account relations with neighboring countries. The military was expanded and modernized; several large arms deals were secured from China and— more recently—India; and efforts were made to improve the infrastructure of army positions rather than withdraw during the monsoon (Rotberg 1998, 203-204). The new policy further escalated the human rights abuses of the army, as forced labor became more common in these infrastructure and agriculture projects (Soe Myint 2004, 17). Several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—as well as UN agencies—have collected statements about army harassment, torture, rape, and extrajudicial killings from Burmese refugees in Thailand, accusations that have been denied by the government.

Apart from strengthening the military positions, the government started offering cease-fire agreements to rebel groups under which they would be allowed to keep their arms and remain responsible for policing and developing their respective territories. One common provision of these agreements obligated cease-fire groups to help the government fight remaining rebels in the area, which further increased the pressure on the insurgent organizations (Rotberg 1998, 205). The final aspect of the government’s new political outlook was improving relations with neighboring countries. In the mid-1980s, the army had managed to capture some strategic trading locations on the Chinese and Thai borders, which led to a significant loss of revenue for the KNU and the CPB. Starting in 1989, Burma initiated joint infrastructure projects with neighboring states and offered concessions in logging and resource development to foreign firms. The consequence was a strengthening of Burmese military presence in border areas and a decrease of foreign support for the rebels (Carey 1997a, 80-82, 117, 149; Taylor 2001, 142-243)

Causes of the War

Besides the background causes just described, some additional factors contributed to the sudden escalation in 1968. For the ethnic rebel armies, the attempted peace negotiations in 1963-1964 had provided evidence of the military government’s unwillingness to compromise on issues of autonomy for the hill tribes. At the same time, it had also become clear that opposition to the government was widespread. The demonetization of currency in 1964 and severe shortages of rice and other foodstuffs in Rangoon in 1967 contributed to an increase in rebel supporters and recruits, while the growth of black market trade provided more funding for the insurgencies (Lintner 1994, 197; Zakaria and Crouch 1985). By the end of 1966, the ruling BSPP government had managed to establish its one-party rule, remove opposition parties, and nationalize the economy. It then started preparing for a large-scale offensive against the insurgents, utilizing the four cuts strategy with the intention of focusing all capabilities on one area (Smith 1991).

The third—and possibly most influential— causative factor was the breakdown of Burmese-Chinese relations in 1967 following the Cultural Revolution and ethnic riots in Rangoon. In the Yunnan province of China, just across the Burmese border, a substantial invasion force was assembled to support the CPB. Although most of the Chinese support was administered through the Yunnanese regional government and thus was not official policy, the Communist rebel forces were boosted by thousands of Chinese “volunteers.” The CPB plan was a large-scale offensive to push the Burma Army out of present-day Shan state and continue south until the invasion forces linked up with the pockets of CPB guerrillas in central Burma. On New Year’s Day 1968, the Chinese-backed forces attacked and initiated an offensive that would not halt for five more years. As the CPB forces also became entangled in fighting local warlords and other rebels such as the KIO, the government concentrated on the Karen forces in the Irrawaddy Delta and the Communists in central Burma (Lintner 1990a, 209-10).


The four cuts campaigns in the early 1970s were successful in expanding government control over territory in central Burma, but the different rebel forces remained in charge of the border and hill areas. During the 1980s, the situation stabilized; annual dry-season hit-and-run offensives were conducted by the government troops, while the rebels remained in control of their respective territories. The government was employing the four cuts strategy all over Burma, and the insurgents were desperately trying to bring the human rights violations to the attention of the international community (Lintner 1990, Tucker 2000). Although intense fighting continued until 1995, a series of events in 1988-1989 eventually determined the outcome of the conflict.

As the cost of fighting the insurgents continued to increase, with as much as 40 percent of the Burmese budget spent on defense services, economic problems became evident in the mid-1980s (Koonings and Kruijt 2002). In 1987, Burma was accorded least-developed country (LDC) status by the UN, for the country was unable to cope with payments of its US $3.5 billion foreign debt. The government’s decision to demonetize the three highest denominations of bank notes in September 1987 provoked an outcry from the business communities and student unions—as it happened, just days before annual university fees were due to be paid in cash (Lintner 1990b; Steinberg 2001).

Riots erupted outside Rangoon universities; as discontent among the general public continued to grow, more student-organized antigovernment rallies were held from November 1987 through June 1988. All protests were met by violent repression by the police. Demonstrations spread during the summer of 1988, and martial law was declared as the student movement began to mobilize the entire Burmese population (Lintner 1990b; Steinberg 2001). On August 8, 1988, the biggest public protest in decades was organized; several hundred thousand Burmese participated in strikes and antigovernment protests throughout the country. When night fell on the demonstrations, the government response began. After interviewing eyewitnesses, Lintner (1990b) described the scenes in Rangoon: “[A]t 11:30, trucks loaded with troops roared out from behind the City Hall. These were followed by more trucks as well as Bren-carriers, their machine-guns pointed straight in front of them …. Two pistol shots rang out—and then the sound of machine-gunfire reverberated in the dark between the buildings surrounding Bandoola Square. People fell in droves as they were hit” (Lintner 1990b, 97).

Army suppression in the days that followed killed an estimated 3,000 people in Rangoon and countless others throughout the country. The international community condemned the regime, and antigovernment demonstrations continued. On September 18, the government announced over state-run radio that the military had assumed power to “bring a timely halt to the deteriorating conditions …” (Lintner 1990b, 131). The newly appointed government, calling itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council, announced forthcoming elections but acted principally to repress the continuing demonstrations. Machine-gun fire and mass arrests cleared the streets, and order was reestablished within a few days of the intramilitary coup. In the weeks that followed, 8,000-10,000 student and urban activists fled to the border areas to join the rebel armies against the government (Fink 2001; Lintner 1990b).

The new SLORC government quickly focused its attention on reforming the socialist economy. The state remained the main economic actor, but a concerted effort was made to increase official foreign trade and limit the opportunities for rebel income. Following offensives in 1984, the Burma Army had established bases along parts of the Moei River, which constitutes the Burmese-Thai border, making the KNU-controlled cross-border trade more difficult. In January 1987, the army captured Pangshai, the main trading post on the border to China, and in May 1987, the KIO headquarters at Na Hpay and Pa Jau fell into government hands (Lintner 1994, 267-71). In 1989, the government began to give concessions to Thai timber firms, and these were soon followed by projects to exploit Myanmar’s fish and mineral resources. Since 1993, the number of joint Thai-Burmese projects has continued to increase and has included energy production through hydroelectricity and gas pipelines in border areas (Carey 1997a, 117, 149; Rotberg 1998, 136; Taylor 2001, 121). Similar agreements were made in the northern part of the country; six Sino-Burmese trade and economic agreements were signed in November 1989. These agreements were accompanied not only by Chinese military aid but also by investments and beneficial loans that made it possible for Myanmar to improve its infrastructure (Carey 1997a, 80-82). As a consequence of increased foreign investment in the area, both Thailand and China tried to influence the Burmese rebels to end their armed struggle and sign cease-fire agreements (Taylor 2001, 129).

After 1988’s turmoil in the cities, it seemed as though the rebel armies were in an ideal position to launch a decisive strike in the civil war. However, the rural-based rebels were hardly aware of the opportunity, for the government’s four cuts tactics had severed links between the rebels and the urban populations. Thousands of students fled into the jungle with the expectation, based on government propaganda, that the rebels were substantially stronger than they actually were. Many quickly became disillusioned and returned to the cities or continued into exile. However, the years 1988-1990 established a link between the student-led democracy movement and the ethnic armies, especially at the KNU headquarters at Manerplaw (Lintner, 1990b).

Regardless, the key event for the outcome of the conflict occurred a few months later and had no connection at all to the democracy movement. The strongest rebel movement in early 1989 was the CPB, which controlled substantial territory in northern Shan state, coexisted peacefully with the KIO in the areas bordering China and India, and also controlled some pockets of territory along the western border with Bangladesh and India (Lintner 1990; Tucker 2001). Within the CPB, some discontent was growing. The politburo’s aging leadership, mainly ethnic Chinese who adhered strictly to Maoist ideology, had never really become popular among their forces. The military strength of the CPB had been based on Chinese support and the ability to defeat or incorporate local militias as part of the CPB structure, usually by providing them with military equipment. This arrangement was most obvious with the ethnic Wa population, which made up nearly 80 percent of the Communist army. The Wa—based mainly in the northeastern part of Shan State— had declared at Burmese independence their intent to withdraw from any type of state formation. In the early 1970s, some Wa tribes formed a rebel movement to fight for autonomy, whereas other tribes remained focused on self-sufficiency and traditional customs (which included head-hunting) for another decade. The independent Wa had been defeated in the CPB offensives during the 1970s and then had enlisted as CPB troops. After the Chinese withdrew their support of the CPB in 1981, the benefits to local commanders decreased, the more so when the Communists lost some control over the cross-border trade in 1987. The human cost of the conflict was felt mostly by the Wa tribes, as the “human wave” military strategy preferred by the CPB leaders created substantial fatalities in each offensive. Additionally, most local Wa commanders also depended on income from drug trafficking, and so another reason for concern was the CPB leadership’s 1985 edict that all involvement in the opium trade would be severely punished.

All these factors can help explain the sudden implosion of the Communist insurgency in Burma. In March 1989, some Kokang Chinese CPB troops rebelled, and the mutiny quickly spread into all Communist areas in the northeast. The Wa units joined the mutiny in April, the CPB split into several ethnically based forces, and the party leadership fled into exile in China. When news of the events spread, the Myanmar government reacted quickly, making contact with the newly formed groups and offering them agreements whereby they would remain in autonomous control of their respective territories (Lintner 1994). Several groups quickly signed the cease-fire agreements, including the largest army formed from the remains of the CPB, the United Wa State Army (UWSA). One of the provisions for the ceasefire with the 20,000 troops strong UWSA was that the organization would help the government defeat other rebels in their vicinity (Carey 1997b).

After the signing of the agreement, the UWSA declared it had no intention of fighting against the KIO, as it had no grievance with the Kachins, but it quickly launched an offensive against its main competitor in the drug trade, the Mong Tai Army. Repeated UWSA offensives against the MTA, with logistical support of the government, led to an upsurge in fighting in Shan state in 1990-1993 (Lintner 1994; McCoy 2003). After substantial battlefield successes, in 1993 the UWSA began to suggest the formation of an autonomous Wa state in the north, which led to the deployment of more government troops for a final push in the region (Lintner 1994). Following years of constant retreat, the MTA commander, Khun Sa, invited 1,500 Burma Army troops to occupy his headquarters on New Year’s Day 1996, where he quickly negotiated surrender (Rotberg 1998, 188). Khun Sa was moved into a luxurious villa in one of Rangoon’s nicest areas, where he continued to pursue his business interests in gambling and tourism (Lintner 2002; McCoy 2003; Tucker 2001). The remaining MTA troops were demobilized, but the rebel army had weakened considerably during the prevous year—only 1,800 troops participated in the surrender (out of the prior year’s estimate of 10,000). Many had defected to continue the insurgency on a lower scale in several newly formed Shan organizations.

Another aspect of the cease-fires in 1989 was their influence on the fighting ability of the KIO. The new agreements led to the isolation of a KIO brigade in Shan state, in territory controlled by cease-fire groups; this unit also signed a cease-fire with the government in 1991. Negotiations were opened with the KIO leadership as their contacts in China began to promote the idea of a settlement as beneficial to cross-border trade and Kachin economic development. After a de facto cessation of hostilities in 1993, a permanent cease-fire between the KIO and the government of Myanmar was agreed to in early 1994, in which the Kachin were allowed to keep their armed force and develop their region. The KIO still maintain, however, that they remain an armed insurgency organization and that the cease-fire should not be considered an acceptance of the Myanmar military government (Global Witness 2003; Tucker 2001).

The joint effect of the cease-fires in the north and the modernization of the government forces combined to increase the military pressure against the KNU. In 1992, it was reported that Myanmar forces deployed along the western border had increased from 5,000 to more 55,000 men in a few years. Military spokespersons claimed that the KNU would be defeated within months as a new offensive was launched in the first months of 1992. After months of heavy fighting, in which government troops allegedly even attacked from the Thai side of the border, the fighting came to a standstill. Then, on April 28, 1992, the government announced a unilateral cease-fire. Although smaller skirmishes continued, attempts were made by Thailand to initiate negotiations; these quickly broke down (Carey 1997a, Tucker 2001), fueling feelings of discontent that had been growing among the Buddhist part of the Karen population for a few years. Although the leadership of the KNU remained mainly Christian, some 70-80 percent of the field soldiers were Buddhist. Generally, these soldiers had been recruited from among the poorer, less educated Karen villagers, who felt excluded from the income provided by taxation and from promotions to high-ranking positions in the army (Gravers 1999, 89). The sense of discrimination among the Buddhists was further enhanced when U Thuzana, a leading monk in the Myaing Gyi Ngu monastery, and the KNU leader, Bo Mya, disagreed over the construction of a new pagoda. U Thuzana become a popular leader among the war-weary population after predicting in the late 1980s that peace would follow after fifty pagodas had been built in Karen state. The KNU leadership agreed to the building of a new pagoda according to U Thuzana’s plan but did not allow the pagoda to be painted white or a monastery to be established in it, for it was located on a mountaintop overlooking KNU headquarters (Gravers 1999, 90-96).

It is believed that the growing discontent among the Buddhist KNU was fueled by government agents. In December 1994, a few hundred soldiers mutinied and declared the formation of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). Almost immediately, the DKBA announced a cease-fire with the government and helped guide Burma Army troops through the minefields and other obstacles into the KNU headquarters of Mannerplaw. After a few weeks of intense fighting in January 1995, the KNU retreated across the border into Thailand; joint DKBA and government offensives continued, even into refugee camps in Thai territory (Carey 1997b; Fink 2001; Rotberg 1998, 203-205) The KNU lost most of the territory it previously had controlled, but it continues to fight against the Myanmar government on a lower scale. During the last decade, the KNU political leadership has become closely linked to the exiled democracy movement, and KNU troops still launch guerrilla strikes on government forces from time to time (UCDP 2006).

Conflict Status

Of the four rebel organizations discussed herein, only the KNU remains active a decade later. The intense fighting has subsided, and the influence of the rebel groups has decreased substantially, but the main grievances remain and are significant to the political future of the Union of Myanmar. The present ethnic insurgent groups have created a common front with the former student movement and are unified in their demands for a democratic state with ethnic minority rights. Even though some fighting occasionally is reported, there is great uncertainty concerning the amount of conflict activity in Myanmar. Several NGOs are active among refugees on the Thai-Burmese border, documenting continuous abuse—rape, forced labor, torture, and killings—by Myanmar government troops as part of counterinsurgency operations (Soe Myint 2004, 17).

The Kachin areas under KIO control have received increased income from the logging industry, and there has been an influx of ethnic Chinese into all of northern Myanmar (Global Witness 2003, 84-85). It is a sign of strength that the KIO can maintain the cease-fire while also officially acting as an opposition organization in criticizing the government. By far the most powerful cease-fire group is the UWSA, which formed after the mutinies of the CPB. It has established control over two Wa regions with such military strength that Myanmar government officials need permission to enter. Originally dependent on income from the drug trade, the group has ventured into other business activities and have also launched crop substitution initiatives in their areas. However, the group has also clashed with the Myanmar government a few times, and when the army recently suggested disarming the cease-fire groups, both the KIO and the UWSA declared unwillingness to comply (UCDP 2006). The actual reasons for the conflict remains, along with several political organizations, but the governments’ combination of strong military rule and economic development has limited armed activity during the past decade.

Duration Tactics

The events following the military coup of 1962 set the stage for the outbreak of intense fighting and provided the basic structure that led to the long duration of the conflict. Arguably, the ethnic armies benefited from the support of their local populations, but events of the last decade have shown that this could only influence duration to an extent. The economic program of radical nationalization initiated in the name of the “Burmese way to socialism” increased the capabilities of the rebels, as official trade with neighboring countries was discontinued. The rebels, who controlled the resource-rich border regions, quickly established links with China and Thailand and benefited immensely from the upsurge in black market trade. It should be noted that, while resources such as drugs, gems, and timber were being transported out of Burma, consumer goods in large quantities were imported through rebel-held areas. In the mid-1970s, one of the busiest markets in Rangoon became unofficially renamed the Yodaya Zei (“Thailand market”) for its abundance of imported goods in a country largely closed off from the world (Renard 1996, 47).

However, one might argue, if the rebels received support from neighboring countries and controlled the income of almost half of the Burmese economy, why did they not succeed in defeating the government? The reasons have to do with the counterinsurgency tactics of the government as well as the relations between the dozens of rebel armies active in Burma throughout the conflict. Even though Burma became, and remains, a police state where abuse of human rights continues to be reported, the government’s tactics were successful in one important aspect: Possible political links were cut between the Burman opposition, the urban activists, and the rural insurgents. The geographic and cultural barriers that made it difficult for the government to defeat the rebels also made it difficult for the rebels to find opportunities for decisive offensives. At the same time, the numerous reasons for fighting against the government often made the insurgencies less a threat than the sum of their parts. Throughout the civil war, the different rebel groups have fought among themselves, thus limiting their ability to defeat the government. With regard to the time period and the groups covered here, the most serious incidents were the full-scale war in 1968-1976 between the KIO and the CPB, and the intra-Shan fighting in the early 1980s, which eventually made the MTA the strongest group. Later, this fractionalization among the rebels was exploited by the Myanmar government, contributing in a major way to the outcome of the conflict.

External Military Intervention

The conflict did not see any outright external military intervention, although it is suspected that Chinese troops were involved in the great CPB offensive that began in 1968. No official acknowledgement was made; however, it has been argued that the CPB’s ranks were boosted by Chinese “volunteers” following the reports of attacks on ethnic Chinese in Burma in the preceding year.

Conflict Management Efforts

As mentioned in the introduction, international concern with Burma has centered on the situation between the democracy movement and the government since 1988. During recent years, the international community has become more concerned with the treatment of ethnic minorities, as shown, for example, by the appointment of a UN special envoy to Myanmar in 2000. However, during the period covered in this article, little attention was given to the civil war. In the last decade of the conflict, both China and Thailand tried to influence rebel groups to accept a cease-fire with the government; however, it is arguable that this effort had much to do with these countries’ ambition to improve economic interaction across the border. Although there have been several proposals for negotiations from both sides of the conflict, these hardly led to anything more than exploratory talks. The cease-fires with different rebel groups since 1989 have not led to any outright attempts to manage the issues of the conflict. Indeed, the conditions set for former fighters “returning to the legal fold” are very strict, and many choose to flee to Thailand. According to one former soldier, the terms of his amnesty stipulated that he had to report to the nearest police office on a daily basis, which in effect meant he could not settle on his family’s farm (conversation with the author, 1999).


Two military takeovers influenced the increase and decrease of fighting in the Burma civil war. Both were followed by military buildup and increased repression, but different approaches to economic development created strikingly different outcomes. To claim that it was all about money would be to oversimplify the complex political landscape of Burma, but economic issues have certainly had a substantial impact on the war. In writing about the civil war in Burma/ Myanmar, one is strongly tempted to begin almost every sentence by introducing yet another ironic turn of events. The government tried to build a Soviet-style, isolationist, Communist state while predominantly fighting Communist rebels. The Communist rebels became dependent on the development of a large-scale capitalist economy. Different rebel groups have spent as much energy fighting each other as they have fighting the government, and so on. After more than fifty years as insurgents, the rebel groups have become increasingly unified in the last decade, since government offensives have ended the large-scale fighting. The very same issues that were disputed when the Burmese leader Aung San demanded independence from the British colonial empire at the end of World War II remain unsolved and have further exaggerated the divisions within the Burmese society. After one of the most intensely fought civil wars for decades, with millions of refugees, the international community is starting to focus on the problems in Myanmar—following government repression of a nonviolent political movement.