Myanmar, a state with over 53 million inhabitants and dozens of ethnic as well as many religious groups, has been ruled by the military for five decades since its independence from the British in 1948. During the long military rule and the subsequent coups that Myanmar faced, the junta cited Myanmar's secessionist movements as one of the reasons why the armed forces should hold the reins of the government.
Aung San, the founding father of Myanmar and a military commander, signed the historic Panglong agreement back in 1947 that granted Myanmar's ethnic minorities like Kachin, Shan, Chin and other groups autonomy giving them the freedom to be governed by themselves rather than the federal government which was largely made up of ethnic Bamars, who were and still to this day, are the majority population in Myanmar (68% of the population). The federal government's interference in the affairs of various minority regions in the latter days turned Myanmar into an active warzone for decades as different ethnic groups started demanding separate states with armed insurgents claiming swaths of lands around the country.
Here are a few major armed secessionist movements active in Myanmar which have claimed countless lives and resulted in horrific confrontations as well as human rights abuses from both sides.
The Karen Conflict
The Karen People, speakers of a Sino-Tibetan language and native inhabitants in Southeast Asia for thousands of years, sought an autonomous state during the final days of the British Empire in Asia. The Japanese occupation made the relationship between majority Bamar and Karen people complex as the newly independent Burmese government sought to extend its power over all of areas previously held under British-Burma authority. Since the Bamars are predominantly Buddhists and the Karens happen to be generally Christians, this made the matter worse when religious conflicts began emerging along with rising ethnic tensions between the groups.
When the central authorities began purging Karen officials and army officers from the military, the people's doubts about the viability of an autonomous Karen region under the Bamar-dominated government shrunk dramatically. The attacks on the Karen people in 1949 as well as events like the arrest of General Smith Dun, an ethnic Karen, all but convinced many that the central government won't grant the Karens any autonomy resulting in the founding of Karen National Union and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
These along with many other smaller insurgent groups have been fighting a guerrilla war against the Myanmar government for 72 years now resulting in thousands of deaths in the Kayin state, situated in southeast Myanmar and populated by the Karen.
The Tatmadaw, Myanmar's Armed Forces, has been accused by the human rights groups for using scorched earth policy in Kayin which resulted in the burning of villages, homes as well as extrajudicial killings and mass rapes. The ethnic cleansing of Karen people has led more than 200,000 refugees to stream into Thailand for shelter and food. Warlords have reigned supreme in many places for many years too. Landmines used by both the army and the insurgent groups have claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent villagers around the state making the Karen conflict one of the bloodiest ongoing conflicts.
Though the Army and KNLA have signed multiple ceasefire agreements in 2012 and 2015, the conflict is far from over as both parties remain firm on their respective demands.
The Kachin Conflict
The Kachin people, a heterogeneous group of multiple ethnic groups who inhabited the Kachin hills for years, are part of another ongoing conflict in northern Myanmar.
The Kachin people were promised autonomy under the Panglong Agreement back in 1947 before the British left the Burmese shores but after a coup in 1962, General Ne Win abrogated the original constitution of 'Union of Burma' plunging the country into chaos.
Kachin Independence Army (KIA) as well as other insurgent groups began forming quickly by the dissidents fleeing from the Tatmadaw, the national armed forces and even joined by many ethnic Kachin soldiers who previously served the national army.
The bitter and bloody conflict cut the Kachin state out of Myanmar financially and administratively for years making illegal jade trading and narcotics trafficking possible. Though the conflict froze after the Tatmadaw took control of the jade mines and forced the Kachin insurgents to sign a ceasefire in 1994, it reemerged after 2011.
The insurgency, termed Civil war by many, has claimed thousands of lives and resulted in countless human rights abuses that include extrajudicial killings of prisoners, illegal weapons' trade and rapes. Child soldiers have been used on both sides stirring the International Labour Organisation to lodge protest against child labour. The UN estimated more than 100,000 people have been forced to leave their homes and have fled to China.
The Kachin Women's Association Thailand (KWAT) reported back in 2013 how the Tatmadaw deliberately committed war crimes in Kachin refugee camps and burned around 364 villages. The air raids by Tatmadaw on Kachin cities and towns as well as on mines attracted international criticism from the global community which indiscriminately has killed many people.
Yet, the Kachin Independence Army still seeks to establish a sovereign Kachin state free of Burmese control keeping the conflict alive indefinitely.
The Shan Conflict
The Shan people are the second largest ethnic group in Myanmar making up over 9 percent of the population and they, like other minorities, were promised autonomy by the founding father of Myanmar, Aung San. The promise was eventually broken by subsequent authorities after Aung San's assassination by political rivals.
The Army's rampage in Shan-populated regions in the 1940s and 1950s (during and after the Second World War) created dissatisfaction among the Shan people who accused the Army of looting, torturing and raping the civilian populace.
After the 1962 coup which saw the 1st President of Myanmar Sao Shwe Thaik, an ethnic Shan, imprisoned (who died in the prison) by the junta, a government-in-exile was formed demanding an independent and sovereign Shan Republic.
The Shan state army, created by the insurgents, has fought a brutal guerilla war against the Tatmadaw since the 1960s causing immeasurable harm and destruction to the native people. The Tatmadaw, Myanmar's armed force, has attacked and forced a large number of Shan people to Thai refugee camps.
Shan males and females have suffered indescribable sufferings and humiliations over the years as they are forced by the government forces to do manual work without pay causing many to flee the country or join the insurgency. The women have faced rapes and abuses too during this long and unforgiving conflict.
The Chin Conflict
The Chin people too have demanded a separate state in Myanmar. Being a predominantly Christian society, the Chin people are quite different from the ruling Bamars. The Chin state, situated on the northwest side of Myanmar, hosts a varied number of ethnicities who for years have been persecuted by the Burmese central authorities.
To save their culture and way of life, the Chin people in the form of CNA (Chin National Army) have fought the Tatmadaw to create a free and sovereign Chin state causing violent reprisals from the authorities.
Horrific accounts of how village elders have been beaten and murdered, and how innocents have been abducted, tortured and kept under horrific conditions surfaced after many Chin victims had fled to Thailand and India. The brutal war between Chin nationalists and the Tatmadaw have left many homeless and dead.
Forced labour, detention, rapes and killings have defined this decade old conflict leading the BBC to call the Chin people 'one of the most persecuted people on earth'. The demand for a sovereign Chin state therefore remains as the conflict rages on with arms and blood flooding the region.
The Rakhine Conflict
The conflict in Rakhine state in northwest Myanmar has been multifold. The Arakan Army, comprised of many ethnic groups, seeks autonomy from the central government for the Arakanese people clashing with the Myanmar Border Police and the Army for years.
The northern part of the state is inhabited by Muslim Rohingya people, who have been deprived of rights and citizenship by the central authority of Myanmar resulting in the making of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
The Rohingya people have been persecuted by the Tatmadaw for decades as they are kept in concentration camps and after an attack by the ARSA group on Myanmar's defense installations that killed 71 people, the army cracked on the Rohingyas harshly. The indiscriminate killings have claimed more than 50,000 lives and forced more than 700,000 Rohingyas into Bangladesh in 2017 causing a global crisis. Torture, forced labour, rapes, beatings all have been used by the Tatmadaw to force the Rohingyas into submission which led in the insurgent groups to desire an independent Rakhaine state even more.
Apart from these, Myanmar's Armed forces have also been in conflict with other ethnic groups such as the Mon, the Wa and other people. The Tatmadaw, with more than half a million soldiers and modern weaponries supplied by states like China, India, Pakistan and Israel have held a tight grip on the regions of Myanmar causing immeasurable pain and bloodshed along the way.
With the latest coup by the military and the imprisonment of the civilian government on 1st February this year, one can only expect these conflicts to get more complicated in the future.