Is Myanmar’s Civil War Pushing the Country Toward Fragmentation?
Today, Myanmar stands at a critical juncture in its history. The escalating losses of the Myanmar military due to the coordinated attacks by resistance forces and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) throughout the country have ignited a pivotal debate, both nationally and internationally, about the country’s future trajectory. Is Myanmar heading towards fragmentation and chaos?
Ye Myo Hein, a prominent Burmese military analyst, claims that the junta is now facing an existential threat. Concurrently, Professor Zachary Abuza of the National War College in Washington, D.C. states that it’s time to begin “planning the postwar future of Myanmar’s military,” recognizing that effective rebuilding is contingent on comprehensive reform of the security sector.
Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the weakening Myanmar military faces potential collapse, which, unless carefully managed by both the National Unity Government (NUG) and leading EAOs, could lead “the country to disintegrate into a series of groups, lacking a common enemy, who could easily turn their guns on each other, creating total bloody chaos and completely gutting the remainder of the Myanmar state.” Meanwhile, editorials in the Japan Times have raised concerns about Myanmar potentially becoming “a failed state.”
In contrast, veteran journalist Bertil Lintner argues that despite the Myanmar military’s current weaknesses and opposition gains, a decisive victory by either side remains unlikely due to factors like the resistance’s disunity, the military’s enduring cohesion, and China’s strategic interests, leaving the civilian population to suffer in an unresolved conflict.
Concerns about the fragmentation of Myanmar have historically been raised by Myanmar’s generals as a justification for their rule. A notable example was when Gen. Ne Win overthrew the U Nu government in a coup in 1962, claiming he was seizing power because the country was on the brink of breaking apart. Similarly, before the escalation of concerns about current fragmentation and chaos among political analysts, Myint Swe, the president of the junta’s State Administration Council, issued a warning for the first time in early November. In a National Defense and Security Council meeting, he spoke about the risk of Myanmar’s fragmentation, attributing this risk to the losses of the junta forces.
This warning came a week after the launch of Operation 1027 by the Three Brotherhood Alliance, comprising the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, also known as the Kokang group, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and the Arakan Army. The operation, conducted in northern Shan State along the Myanmar-China border, aimed to combat the junta’s armed forces and allied militias.
Similarly, on November 29, Dr. Tu Hkawng, the NUG’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation wrote on social media that if the current crisis in Myanmar is not addressed, the country could divide into two entities: “The Federated States of Myanmar (Ayeyarwaddy) and the Min Aung Hlaing Dynasty Myanmar.” This scenario resembles a less violent separation akin to “South and North Korea.” It considers those in major cities who desire peace and fear urban destruction. Without this separation, a more destructive conflict, potentially devastating cities, seems inevitable, leading to the eventual establishment of “a federal state.”
Amid concerns about Myanmar’s fragmentation and chaos, questions arise about whether Myanmar has ever been a “real union,” particularly given that the country has experienced a considerable degree of “fragmentation” since gaining independence from the British in 1948, and about what possibilities exist for uniting all ethnic groups into a new, genuine union.
Myanmar as a “Real Union” or “Fragmented Union”?
The idea that Myanmar has never been a “real union” and has long been a fragmented entity is deeply rooted in its historical, ethnic, and political context. This perspective is widely shared among scholars and ethnic minority groups within the country. If advocates of this position are asked whether Myanmar is a “real union,” the responses would likely be unanimous. Scholars might say that Myanmar has never truly been a union, while ethnic minorities might argue that the country, based around a Bamar ethnic majority core, has never really belonged to them.
Thant Myint-U, a prominent historian, describes Myanmar as an “unfinished nation,” highlighting the country’s ongoing struggle to forge “a shared national identity.” This challenge is compounded by the diverse composition of Myanmar, which includes numerous ethnic groups such as the Chin, Kachin, Karenni and Shan among many others. The failure to fulfill promises made in the 1947 Panglong Agreement, led by Gen. Aung San, has left deep scars of betrayal among these minorities. This agreement, which was supposed to grant certain degrees of autonomy to various ethnic groups, was not honored, leading to long-standing grievances.
The history of ethnic conflict in Myanmar further illustrates the fragmented nature of the nation. Following independence in 1948, various ethnic groups have continually fought for autonomy and self-determination, reflecting their sense of exclusion from the Bamar-dominated central state. For instance, the Karen National Union initially fought to establish a Karen nation known as “Kawthoolei,” shifting later to a demand for greater autonomy. The Kachin Independence Organization also moved from an initial fight for “Wunpawng Mungdan” to a narrower aim of self-determination. More recently, the Arakan Army, representing Rakhine State in the west, has been fighting for the restoration of its sovereignty and the establishment of a “fatherland of Arakan,” evolving its stance towards advocacy for a confederation.
These aspirations are not limited to ideological battles but are reflected in tangible governance structures. Across Myanmar, particularly in the east, northeast, west, and along the border areas, EAOs have maintained their own administrative and judicial systems for many years. These entities operate independently of the central government, further demonstrating the deep divisions within the country. These regions under EAO’s control are effectively separate from the Myanmar state, operating with their own governmental mechanisms and often having little to no allegiance to the central regime. Indeed, some of these areas have never been under the direct control of a central Burmese state.
The two most prominent and arguably successful examples are the Wa and Mong La regions on the China border, where the United Wa State Party (UWSP) and the Peace and Solidarity Committee have ruled for decades. These two regions have specific boundaries and exercise total military and administrative control over their territories. This marks an ideal situation to which other non-state armed groups might aspire.
This fractured political landscape, marked by a lack of a unified national identity and ongoing struggles for autonomy among ethnic groups, underscores the argument that Myanmar has never truly been a unified nation-state. The continuous efforts for self-rule and the existence of parallel governance systems in various regions of the country further reinforce the notion that Myanmar, for a significant part of its history, has been more a collection of disparate entities than a cohesive union.
A New Chapter for Myanmar?
Despite their divisions, Myanmar’s ethnic groups, including the Bamar people, have a shared grievance against the military regime that seized power in February 2021. Since then, it has indiscriminately killed people regardless of their race, gender, or religion across the country. As an example, the steep rise in nationwide coordinated attacks on the junta regime, which totaled 360 Degree Separate attacks in the month after Operation 1027, demonstrate this. These assaults have resulted in the seizure of over 300 military outposts and bases, as well as at least 17 towns across the country.
Yet, the road to unification is hindered by insufficient political commitment, particularly between the NUG and leading ethnic armed groups. The NUG’s concerns mirror those of the junta regime, focusing more on the fear of the country breaking apart rather than on constructive, programmatic approaches to nation-building. The lack of a figure with the same unifying influence as Aung San, who once brought hope of autonomy and inclusion to various ethnic groups, is acutely felt. Aung San’s legacy, particularly his promise in the 1947 Constitution offering ethnic groups like the Karenni and Shan the option to leave the union if they were dissatisfied with it, remains a symbol of unfulfilled aspirations for self-determination and autonomy.
Today’s political climate demands innovative leadership from the NUG, akin to Aung San’s vision but with greater accountability and firmer agreements. Meanwhile, the approach of the National League for Democracy (NLD), particularly its insistence on recognition of the 2020 election results under the 2008 Constitution, does not seem conducive to the opening of a new chapter for the country. Another concern is about the potential political impact of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s release. Based on her term in office, there are reasonable questions to be asked about what actions she will take and whether she will support the resistance, and the agreements between the NUG and EAOs, or choose a different path. Otherwise, the NUG still appears focused on toppling the junta first and deferring political commitments, a strategy that has failed to resonate with many EAOs. These groups, having previously supported pro-democracy movements, felt betrayed by the NLD after its subsequent rise to power in 2016.
In this revolutionary period, another significant initiative that the NUG should undertake is to begin planning some fundamental reforms. These should include a reevaluation of the country’s name, national anthem, and flag as well as the reconsideration of the current seven states and seven divisions, each of which was imposed by the military without the people’s consent. However, all these reforms must foster a sense of belonging among all ethnic groups in the country.
As long as the NUG remains unchanged, growing skepticism among EAOs regarding their role in this union, especially concerning the feasibility of swiftly overthrowing the junta, is likely. It is understood that overthrowing the junta would be a step toward a more inclusive Myanmar, but not a complete solution. In the event of an absence of a concrete political argument, EAOs might begin to consider alternative approaches, including fully committing to their political goals through fighting or adopting strategies similar to those of the UWSP and the Mong La group. As an example of alternatives, as the Arakan Army has articulated, if Rakhine cannot achieve the desired political status within the Union of Myanmar, they are prepared to create it themselves.
Although the EAOs are aware that the current international climate does not support separatism, this doesn’t mean they will not strive for it.
Given the lessons of history, success will depend on how the NUG approaches these challenges, focusing more on creating solutions rather than worrying about the country’s possible disintegration. It is evident that the NUG has opportunities to lead the path towards a new, genuine union if it chooses to do so.
To conclude, Myanmar stands at a crossroads where the path to unification requires not just a cessation of conflict but a deep, structural transformation involving inclusive political strategies, genuine autonomy for ethnic groups, and a reimagining of how, and by whom, the nation is governed. The challenge lies in crafting a Myanmar in which diverse identities coexist under a shared national framework, moving beyond the decades-long legacy of division towards a future of peace, unity, and cooperation.