Burma-Myanmar (1988 – first combat deaths)

Tasneem Jamal Asia

Updated: June 2015

Type of Conflict
Parties to the Conflict
Status of the Fighting
Number of Deaths
Political Developments
Arms Source

Economic Factors




The Conflict at a Glance

Who (are the main combatants): The government of Burma (Myanmar), which is currently ruled by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is opposed by ethnic rebel groups and the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Violence between the minority Muslim population and the majority Buddhist groups, especially Movement 969, is ongoing.

What (started the conflict): After independence in 1948, communist rebels rose up against the new government; ethnic conflicts then broke out in some provinces. The Karen, principally led by the Christian Karen National Union, began fighting for an autonomous Karen state. The government declared Buddhism the official religion, raising concern for the rights of Christians, Karen, Chin, Kachin and other minorities. Certain groups were favoured over others, exacerbating conflict. The government signed ceasefire agreements with 25 rebel groups in 2007, although many later collapsed. In 2011, the military junta turned over power to a democratically elected parliament, with 25 per cent of seats reserved for the military. Since 2011, all major rebel groups have signed ceasefire agreements, the country has become much more open, Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest and elected to parliament, and many countries have lifted sanctions against Burma.

When (has fighting occurred): One of the world’s longest running civil wars started after Burma gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1948. There was an uprising in 1988. Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD won the 1990 elections. The military junta did not recognize the results and instead placed Suu Kyi under house arrest. The military junta ruled from 1962 until 2011, with the Generals frequently accused of gross human rights abuses. Many ceasefires were signed in 2007, subsequently broken, and renewed in 2011 after the transition to a parliamentary government. In 2010, the NLD boycotted the elections and the pro-military USDP received 80 per cent of the vote. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest the week after the election. In early 2011, Thein Sein was named the new President and the transition from military to civilian rule began.
Where (has the conflict taken place): With many ethnic and rebel groups involved, fighting has taken place throughout the country. In 2013, there was significant anti-Muslim violence in central Burma.


2015 Fighting centred on Kokang and Kachin states, with violence seemingly higher in the first half of the year. Nevertheless, the government and ethnic armed groups agreed to a draft Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in March. The text of this agreement was finalized in August; in October an official ceasefire was signed by the government and eight of 15 ethnic armed groups. The following month, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won Burma’s first relatively free and fair election in 25 years; it should be noted that the Rohingya Muslim minority could not vote. Fighting between ethnic armed groups was taking place as the year ended.

2014 Fighting between ethnic and religious groups continued. Violent clashes killed more than 96 people, with most fatalities in Rakhine state. Despite negotiations, no ceasefire was reached. Many people were displaced by violence during Burma’s first national census in more than 30 years. People were not able to self-identify as “Rohingya” on the census. Rohingya face potential detainment and/or deportation with the new Rakhine State Action Plan, which had not yet been enacted. A proposed amendment to the constitution was rejected; the government decided to postpone changes until after the 2015 presidential election. The government was accused of delaying changes to prevent opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from running in the election. Legislative changes to national visa regulation and media restrictions were enacted. The government was pressured to draft legislation on religious conversion, interfaith marriage, polygamy and family planning. Burma faced criticism for delaying economic reforms, but continued to receive foreign assistance.

2013 Progress toward peace continued, despite some anti-Muslim attacks. In May, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the last major rebel holdout, signed a ceasefire agreement with the government. The government and rebel groups continued negotiations all year, and many political prisoners were released. The EU lifted sanctions and the United States eased visa restrictions for government members. The government formed a multiparty committee to review the 2008 constitution. In March, an outbreak of anti-Muslim violence killed at least 40, destroyed hundreds of buildings and displaced 12,000 people. The government imprisoned 20 Buddhists in July for their role in the attack. Anti-Muslim violence flared again in October, killing seven; 61 people were arrested. International groups encouraged the government to protect Muslims. Armed groups continued discussions of the draft text for a Nationwide Ceasefire Accord.

2012 Despite ongoing violence and at least 213 deaths, 2012 saw many positive developments. Democratic reforms were widely praised and international sanctions against the government were lifted. The National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, won 43 of 45 available seats in a by-election. Conflict raged in Kachin and Rakhine states, uprooting more than 200,000 and contributing to an estimated 429,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) at yearend. At the end of 2012 the government had signed ceasefire agreements with every major armed rebel groups except the Kachin Independence Army.

2011 Former general Thein Sein was named the first civilian president in what was by most accounts a sham election that saw military leaders exchange uniforms for civilian garb. But the year saw a string of reforms, including the freeing of political prisoners and looser controls on freedom of expression and the right to organize. In response, the United States, the European Union and a number of Western and Asian states began normalizing relations with Burma. Fighting in Kachin Province escalated and spread, with government forces reportedly committing what amounted to war crimes.

2010 Despite glimpses of hope, armed violence, human-rights abuses and oppression continued. The Toungoo, Nyaunglebin and Thaton districts experienced constant fighting and human-rights abuses. Violence flared up in Shan State in March and between Karen rebels in the east and the government before the November elections. On November 7, the first democratic elections in 20 years were held. The main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, boycotted the elections. A number of NLD members who disagreed with this boycott split away to form the National Democratic Force (NDF) and ran in the election. Amid claims of unfair discrimination, disenfranchisement and political oppression, the pro-regime Union Solidary and Development Party (USDP) claimed 80 per cent of the vote. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in the week after the election. In early 2011, Thein Sein was named the new President, and the first steps were taken to transition from military to civilian rule.

2009 The military government continued to deny civilians basic human rights and attack rebel-held territories, mainly in Karen and Shan States. Conflict-related casualties were believed to be in the hundreds; however, accurate estimates are not possible because media and independent sources are barred from conflict areas by the government. Official opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to another 18 months of house arrest for allegedly breaching conditions of her arrest. The corrupt trial and sentencing of Suu Kyi sparked renewed anger by the international community. However, continuing and new trade and investment sanctions on Burma had little effect in stemming the regime’s human rights abuses, with trade still strong between Burma and other Asian countries, such as China and Thailand.

2008 In the wake of cyclone Nargis, a government-supported constitutional amendment received 92.4 per cent support in a referendum. The international community declared the referendum a sham. Low-intensity conflict continued in Karen State in eastern Burma, where a further 25,000 villagers were displaced, contributing to totals of 500,000 in the region, and as many as two million nationwide. At least 14 civilian deaths were directly attributed to the conflict, adding to a total of at least 370 since February 2006. Following cyclone Nargis, the government was accused of withholding aid to further its military control in Karen State. There was a judicial crackdown on political dissidents, including extending the house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The junta’s actions drew further international criticism and more sanctions by the United States and the European Union.

2007 On October 2, 2007, the United Nations Human Rights Council implemented Resolution S-5/1, which deplored the violent repression of pro-democracy demonstrations by the Burmese army during August and September. More than 30 civilians died. An additional 76,000 people were displaced in 2007 by military attacks against Karen villagers. In response to international criticism, the junta appointed a liaison officer to meet with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and she was permitted to meet with other members of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) for the first time in three years.

2006 Military attacks against Karen villages intensified after the junta’s relocation of the capital to Pyinama, killing between a few dozen and 100 civilians, and displacing 20,000. Closed constitutional talks were held between October and December, but were criticized by political opposition groups and the international community. Burma was added to the UN’s list of countries that represent a threat to international peace and security. In December the United States introduced a long-anticipated resolution on human rights at the Security Council.

2005 Violence escalated as the Burmese army clashed with rebels near the border with Thailand and launched several large-scale attacks on the Burmese strongholds of India-based Naga rebels. Pressure continued to build at the UN Security Council for action against the military junta.

2004 Despite some clashes, a ceasefire between the Karen National Union (KNU) rebels and the military government further reduced conflict violence. UN and U.S. pressure on the government to make its so-called road map to democracy more inclusive continued.

2003 There were few reports of clashes between government security forces and armed opposition groups, with the only significant incident in May. But the political climate deteriorated as Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the main political opposition group, was under house arrest beginning in May.

2002 Sporadic fighting between rebel groups and the Burmese army along the Thai-Burmese border claimed at least 100 lives. The government released Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, from house arrest in May.

2001 Fighting between government forces and rebels continued, with some Burmese army units crossing into Thailand in pursuit of rebels and facing strong Thai army response. The ruling military regime began negotiations with the pro-democracy movement, releasing more than 151 pro-democracy activists from detention. More than 100 soldiers, rebels and civilians were reported killed.

2000 The military continued its crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. Government counterinsurgency operations, forced labour, forced relocation, extrajudicial executions and other abuses continued against several ethnic opposition groups. Hundreds of people, mostly civilians, were reported killed.

1999 Fighting escalated between Atatmadaw government troops and rebel groups. Government counterinsurgency measures in ethnic minority areas included forced labour, looting, rape, extrajudicial execution and the involuntary relocation of thousands. Beyond an unknown number of combatant deaths, dozens of farmers and villagers were killed by the military and several government officials were executed by insurgents.

1998 Skirmishes between ethnic opposition armies and government forces and government-backed attacks on villages in Burma and refugee camps in Thailand left dozens dead. The military government continued to forcibly relocate and extract labour from targeted ethnic civilian communities.

1997 Government offensives against ethnic insurgent forces and attacks on refugee camps resulted in the displacement of tens of thousands of refugees. The military government continued to demand forced labour from many civilians, including children, and to repress political opposition groups.

1996 Skirmishes between government troops and ethnic insurgents and government-supported attacks on refugee camps killed more than 100. Political repression, forced relocations and extracting forced labour from civilians by the military increased.

1995 Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in July. Hundreds of people died from government attacks on ethnic rebel bases and from government slave-labour projects.

Type of Conflict

State control
State formation

Parties to the Conflict

1. Government: In 1962 Burma was taken over by a military junta known as the Burmese State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). In 1997 SLORC became the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), headed for almost two decades by General Than Shwe. In 2006 Shwe transferred control of the armed forces to General Thura Shwe Mann, while retaining control of the SPDC. The military junta is supported by the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), which took control of government in early 2011. The USDA was formed by the junta in 1993 to rally support for the military government. It claimed to have won an 80-per-cent majority in the first democratically run election in 20 years in November 2010. In early 2011 Thein Sein, then prime minister, was elected Burma’s president by parliament; two other SPDC officials, Tin Aung Myint Oo and Sai Mauk Kham, were elected Prime Ministers 1 and 2. Laws have since been passed that lay out a timeline for a transition from military to civilian rule.

Vice-President Tin Aung Myint resigned in May 2012. He was replaced by Navy Chief Nyan Tun. In September all nine constitutional tribunal judges resigned after parliament voted to impeach them for incompetence. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won their application to register as a political party and in April 2012 by-elections won 43 out of 45 available seats. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the NLD, declared the NLD’s intention to amend the constitution—which currently stipulates that candidates with spouses and children of foreign nationalities cannot run for office—to allow her to run for president in 2015. In 2014 the government declared that the amendment to the constitution would be made after the elections. This was perceived by many as a way to prevent Suu Kyi’s candidacy.

A 2013 International Crisis Group report stated that the parliament established in 2011 “has turned out to be far more vibrant and influential than expected. Both its lower and upper houses have a key role in driving the transition process through the enactment and amendment of legislation needed to reform the outdated legal code and are acting as a real check on the power of the executive. Yet, some bills moving through the legislature have raised concerns that the authorities, both legislative and executive, may not be ready to give up authoritarian controls on the media, on civil society organisations and on the right to demonstrate.” Twenty-five per cent of the seats in parliament are reserved for the military.

According to The Military Balance 2015, Burma’s military has 375,000 active personnel in the Army, 16,000 in the Navy, 15,000 in the Air Force, and 107,250 in the paramilitary (including 72,000 in the People’s Police Force and 35,000 in the People’s Militia).

Supported by:

2. The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA): split from the Karen National Union (KNU) in 1994 and soon thereafter signed a ceasefire agreement with the military regime. The group has been allied with the government, fighting alongside government forces since 1995, sometimes fighting against other Karen rebel groups such as the KNU. In early 2009, the DKBA agreed to the junta’s plan to transform ceasefire groups into Border Guard Forces (BGF).


3. Political Opposition: The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, is the largest political opposition party in Burma. The military junta declared the NLD illegal in 2010 and “officially disbanded” it over regulations of the new constitution of 2008 that barred it from having party members with religious affiliations or criminal records (which effectively barred Aung San Suu Kyi from politics), and for failing to register for the November election. The party subsequently boycotted the elections. As a result, a number of former NLD leaders who wanted to contest the election formed the National Democratic Force (NDF), and maintained the same platform as the NLD.

Several other political parties exist, including the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy and the Arakan League for Democracy. Beyond Burma’s borders, the main political opposition is the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), which formed a government in exile after the elections in 1990 and resolves to dissolve once democracy and human rights are restored in Burma.

4. Armed Opposition Groups

The military junta has been opposed by dozens of armed ethnic guerrilla groups and other political factions. As of May 2013, all major rebel groups had signed ceasefire agreements and many were pursuing political objectives through nonviolent means. Opposition groups have included:

a. Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
b. All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF).
c. Mong Thai Army (MTA).
d. Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA).
e. Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).
f. United Wa State Army (UWSA). Before signing a ceasefire agreement, the UWSA fought alongside government troops against the SSA (see below).
g. Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). They signed a ceasefire agreement in May 2013.
h. Kachin Independence Army (military wing of KIO).
i. New Mon State Party (NMSP).
j. New Democratic Army – Kachin (NDA-K).
k. Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA).
l. Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).
m. Karen National Union (KNU). Peace agreement was signed in 2012.
n. Chin National Front. Ceasefire agreement signed in 2012.
o. Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP). Ceasefire signed in 2012.
p. Shan State Army (SSA), which merged with the Shan State National Army (SSNA) in 2005. The SSA and the government agreed to a ceasefire in 2012.
q. Burma Students Democratic Front. Signed a ceasefire agreement in 2013.

Other groups include: Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, Mongko Defense Army (MKO), National Democratic Alliance Army, Kachin Defence Army, Pao National Organization, Palaung State Liberation Party, Kayan National Guard, Karenni Nationalites People’s Liberation Front, Kayan New Land Party, Shan Nationalities People’s Liberation Organization.

Other Actors

6. Anti-Muslim Groups: Various groups, especially in Rakhine province where the majority of Burmese Muslims live, perpetrate anti-Muslim violence. A key group is the 969 Movement, a Buddhist and nationalist movement that is opposed to what they see as Islam’s spread in Burma. This movement is led by Wirathu, who was featured on the June 2013 Time magazine cover as “The Face of Buddhist Terror”; 969 and Wirathu claim that they are peaceful, scapegoats who are being blamed for the anti-Muslim violence. President Thein Sein and others in the government have defended them.

According to a 2013 Human Rights Watch report, contemporary violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan State is rooted in the Second World War, when the Rohingya (Muslim) remained loyal to the British colonial rulers, while the Arakanese (Buddhist) sided with the Japanese. “While both populations have faced oppression by successive Burmese governments after independence in 1948, governments in the predominantly Buddhist country have routinely persecuted and forcibly displaced the Rohingya population, altering the ethnic profile of Arakan State…. Burmese officials, community leaders, and Buddhist monks organized and encouraged ethnic Arakanese backed by state security forces to conduct coordinated attacks on Muslim neighborhoods and villages in October 2012 to terrorize and forcibly relocate the population. The tens of thousands of displaced have been denied access to humanitarian aid and been unable to return home.” Genocide Watch estimates that more than 300 Muslims have been killed and 300,000 displaced since 2011. There are reports that government forces either stand by and allow the attacks or actively participate.

Status of Fighting

2015 In January heavy armed clashes occurred between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the military. The following month at least 50 soldiers were killed when the Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) attempted to seize Laukkai, the capital of Kokang region (International Crisis Group). In March at least 16 military personnel were killed (International Crisis Group), but peace talks resumed, leading to the agreement on the text of a Nationwide Ceasefire Accord (NCA) on March 31. However, fighting continued between the military and the MNDAA; 21 soldiers were killed and 128 wounded in major clashes on April 13 and 15 (International Crisis Group).

In June the MNDAA declared a unilateral ceasefire. While armed groups initially refused to sign the NCA, in August the government and armed groups agreed to the final text. On October 15 eight of the 15 negotiating armed groups and senior government officials signed the NCA. On November 20 the government unilaterally halted attacks on the Shan State Army-North (SSA-North), paving the way for a six-point agreement between the two sides. The Ta’ang National Liberation Army and SSA South clashed multiple times, beginning with a deadly shootout on November 27.        

2014 Due to an upsurge in fighting during the 2014 census, humanitarian staff were evacuated from Rakhine state. The government draft for a ceasefire agreement with factions of ethnic combatants, was postponed several times. Religiously and ethnically motivated fighting broke out during the year. Rakhine state saw violent clashes in January, reportedly leading to dozens of deaths; in April the national census provoked more fighting, leaving several dead. Census unrest caused an estimated 5,000 people to flee their homes in Kachin state. In November, the Burmese military fired a mortar shell at a KIO training base, killing 23 trainees; the military claimed that the strike was unintentional. Approximately 378 child soldiers were released by the government.

2013 Although there was still sporadic anti-Muslim violence throughout the country, remarkable progress was made; the start of negotiations between the government and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) reduced violence significantly. In January, fighting escalated between the KIO and the government, displacing thousands. However, in May, the two parties agreed to a seven-point peace pact; at this point conflict between the government and all major armed groups in the country stopped. In March, an outbreak of violence in central Burma killed at least 40 people, destroyed hundreds of mainly Muslim buildings and displaced over 12,000, mainly Muslims. President Thein Sein imposed a state of emergency in the area and the situation de-escalated in April. In July, 20 Buddhists were imprisoned for their role in the violence. In August, the Burma Students Democratic Front signed a ceasefire with the government. In September, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights reported some progress, despite remaining challenges. In October, anti-Muslim violence flared in Thandwe, killing seven. An International Crisis Group report stated that “unless there is an effective government response and change in societal attitudes, violence could spread, impacting on Myanmar’s transition as well as its standing in the region and beyond.”

2012 Conflict in Burma was concentrated in two regions. Despite ongoing peace negotiations in Kachin state, violence continued, resulting in dozens of deaths and more than 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). In a worrisome development, it was reported that government offensives against the KIO involved attack helicopters and fighter jets. In Rakhine state, tensions between Buddhists and Muslims turned violent in June; a Buddhist woman was raped and murdered. In the following months at least 160 died and 120,000 were displaced in retaliatory violence. In November, President Sein asked Indonesia for help to resolve the conflict. According to the U.S. State Department, civilians were often wounded and killed in government offensives.

2011 Despite movement toward reform, violence continued in numerous parts of the country. In June, fighting escalated in Kachin State when a 17-year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Organization broke down. According to relief group Partners Relief and Development, Burma Army Battalions 74 and 276 committed what amounted to war crimes in the state of Kachin, including torture, extrajudicial killing and firing on civilians.

2010 The Toungoo, Nyaunglebin and Thaton districts faced constant fighting and human rights abuses, though it was difficult to provide an accurate death toll. Small numbers of individuals were killed or wounded at a fairly consistent rate. Elsewhere, violence erupted periodically, including a March 13 rebel ambush in Nam Zam township of Shan State that killed 20 Burmese army troops. (In this region opium growth increased fivefold between 2006 and 2009.) In April, during the Water Festival to mark the Lunar New Year, an explosion in Yangon killed nine and wounded 75. A series of explosions killed five. In June, the Karen National Liberation Army claimed to have killed 12 soldiers in Karen state. Elections in November sparked fighting between Karen rebels and government forces, forcing approximately 35,000 people to cross the border into Thailand.

2009 Violence, including extrajudicial killings, forced labour, torture, beatings, forceful confiscation of property and sexual violence, continued to be perpetuated by the Burmese military against civilians and rebel groups in ethnic conflict areas. In early January, the state army gained control of a Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) base camp. The camp held the region’s only medical facility. The army attacks destroyed the homes of more than 300 people. Karen rebels reported that approximately 20 government troops were wounded by landmines, likely planted by the KNLA. Also in January, thousands of marginalized Rohingya Muslims tried to escape from western Burma on boats to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, only to be turned away by Thailand. An attack by the army and pro-junta forces on a KNLA base camp in Karen State in April, which reported no casualties, was followed by a string of attacks in the same state, beginning in May and continuing throughout the summer. These attacks forced between 4,000 and 5,000 civilians to flee to Thailand in June and resulted in the displacement of countless other civilians who sought refuge in the jungle. Unverified Karen rebel reports indicated that 148 pro-junta forces and five rebels were killed or wounded. In July, army forces attacked 39 villages in Shan State, displacing an estimated 10,000 civilians. Brutal government attacks on other rebel towns in Shan State occurred in August. On August 28, the army seized a town held by the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), an official ceasefire militia. During these government offensives, between 30,000 and 37,000 ethnic Kokang and Chinese civilians fled across the nearby border with China. The government reported 26 army troops and eight Kokang militants killed; however, a Kokang fighter told Reuters that more than 500 had been killed. Throughout the year, both the Burmese army and non-state armed groups used landmines and targeted civilian food production. The recruitment of child soldiers by army and rebel groups continued despite pressure from the UN. The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army increased their recruitment this year. On March 30, 71 Karen rebels deserted the KNLA to join forces with the government army. A dire situation faced hundreds of thousands of people internally displaced by conflict because of government restrictions on aid groups in Karen, Karenni and Shan states.

2008 Sporadic conflict continued in Karen State between the Karen National Liberation Army (the armed wing of the Karen National Union) and the joint forces of the Burmese army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (a breakaway faction of the KNU). At least 10 villagers were reported killed and thousands displaced in December 2007 and January. Four civilian deaths were reported in April and May. The KNU estimated that 25,000 Burmese army soldiers in the Karen State continued to target ethnic Karens. While in some cases civilians fled their homes in fear of advancing conflict, more often the Burmese Army displaced civilians in a systematic attempt to keep them in areas of army control. Strategies included burning down homes and villages, the use of landmines around villages, forced labour (including “human minesweeping”), internment, destruction of crops, extortions and random executions. Amnesty International accused the military of crimes against humanity. International groups reported the use of child soldiers by multiple actors, including the Burmese army. An estimated 25,000 civilians were internally displaced by the conflict in 2008, adding to 500,000 internally displaced persons in eastern Burma. There were between one and two million IDPs in Burma. Approximately 144,445 Burmese refugees had fled the country, principally to Thailand. In November, Burma sent warships to the Bay of Bengal in an unresolved dispute with Bangladesh concerning offshore oil and gas.

2007 Offensives by the junta against Karen villagers continued. By 2007, more than 3,000 villages had been destroyed by the junta; the number of displaced people in eastern Burma was estimated to be at least 500,000. In 2007, an additional 76,000 Karen were forced to leave their homes and at least 167 villages were destroyed. In the wake of violent suppression of protestors during August and September, several ceasefire groups along the Burma-China border reportedly began to train new recruits. It was reported in April that Indian and Burmese security forces were conducting joint military operations along the 1,643-kilometre border between the two countries to neutralize insurgent groups. Troop presence in the northern Karen State and southern Karenni State reportedly increased from nine divisions to 10 by the end of 2007, with as many as 15,000 troops in these regions.

2006 After the junta’s move to Pyinmana in November 2005, neighbouring Karen villages became the targets of continued military offensives, including shootings, burning of crops and houses, landmines, rape, forced labour and other human rights violations. More than 200 villages were reported destroyed. The annual dry-season offensives against Karen villagers, the country’s largest ethnic minority were more intense than usual; the junta cited the need to suppress anti-government insurgency.

2005 Fighting escalated. Hardliners within the military government, who opposed ceasefires signed by the former prime minister, consolidated power. The Burma army clashed with Karen, Shan and Karenni ethnic rebel groups near the Burmese-Thai border and launched several attacks against India-based Naga rebels, who had bases in northwestern Burma. Intense fighting also took place between the Shan State Army and the United Wa State Army. A series of bombings in the capital Yangon killed dozens.

2004 The conflict began the year at a low level. The KNU, the largest rebel faction yet to do so, agreed to a ceasefire and entered into talks with the government. This virtually halted fighting. There were, however, reports of continued human rights abuses by government troops, primarily in the Karen state. All sides of the conflict continued to use many child soldiers.

2003 The only major clash between government security forces and armed opposition groups took place in May, a reportedly brutal attack by pro-government forces on members of the National League for Democracy. There were also scattered reports of bombings and violent confrontations. Government security forces continued to be criticized for their human rights violations, in particular their use of rape. Both government forces and several armed opposition groups were accused of ongoing recruitment and employment of child soldiers.

2002 Rebel groups engaged in battles with the Burmese army while government forces continued to kill and abduct Shan, Mon and Karen civilians. A report released by the Shan Human Rights Foundation and the Shan Women’s Action Network highlighted the army’s use of systematic rape of girls and women to terrorize ethnic groups in the Shan State. A Human Rights Watch report documented extensive conscription of child soldiers by Burma’s national army.

2001 Fighting between government forces and rebels continued, with heaviest fighting along the Burmese-Thai border. Tensions between Burma and Thailand ran high as Burmese armed forces pursued rebels into Thailand, prompting the Thai army to respond with force. In January, the twin teenage leaders of the rebel group God’s Army surrendered to Thai authorities.

2000 The military continued its crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. Government counterinsurgency operations, forced labour, forced relocation, extrajudicial executions and other abuses also continued against several ethnic opposition groups. In an attempt to take control of narcotic production centres along the Thai-Burma border, the Burmese-backed United Wa State Army (UWSA) moved thousands of soldiers and civilians into areas formerly controlled by the Shan ethnic group. Earlier, Karen rebels led by a pair of 12-year-old twins held hundreds of people hostage in a Thailand hospital before Thai government security forces freed all hostages and killed the nine rebels.

1999 Fighting escalated between government troops and rebel groups, notably the Karen National Union, the Karenni National Progressive Party and the Shan State Army. Government counterinsurgency measures in ethnic minority areas included forced labour, looting, rape, extrajudicial execution and the involuntary relocation of thousands.

1998 Skirmishes between ethnic opposition armies and government forces occurred; government forces attacked Burmese refugee camps inside Thailand.

1997 Government offensives against Karenni, Shan and Wa ethnic insurgent forces and a “massive offensive” against Karen National Union troops, combined with attacks on refugee camps, resulted in the displacement of tens of thousands of refugees and the forced labour of many men, women and children.

1996 Reports of sporadic skirmishes indicated a lower level of direct combat between ethnic armies and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in 1996. The SLORC-controlled Karen Buddhist faction continued attacks on refugee camps on the Burma-Thailand border.

1995 With the assistance of a breakaway Karen faction, the Manerplaw headquarters of the Karen National Union (shared with the All Burma Students Democratic Front) fell to SLORC forces in January. Remaining KNU bases on the border with Thailand were captured by February in an offensive described as the largest since 1992. Thai-Burmese tensions rose when SLORC and Karen defectors attacked the KNU in refugee camps in Thailand. Skirmishes between SLORC and troops loyal to opium warlord Khun Sa in the northeastern Shan state escalated when SLORC attacked the Mong Tai Army in March. Hundreds were reported killed in the dry-season offensive. SLORC broke its ceasefire agreement with the Karenni National Progressive Party in June, attacking KNPP headquarters.

1994 SLORC offensives against remaining opponents continued in 1994. In May, the SLORC intensified attacks on the Mong Tai Army of Khun Sa, warlord of the heroin-producing Shan state. In December, SLORC began attacks on the Manerplaw headquarters of the Karen National Union.

Number of Dead and Displaced

Total: Casualty rates for Burma are difficult to ascertain. The media is controlled by the government and foreign journalists have very limited access. An estimated 3,000 people were killed in the civic protests in 1988 alone. Hundreds of thousands may have died in the conflict. An estimated 2.5 million people have been displaced over the course of the armed conflict.

2015 As in previous years, an exact conflict death count was unavailable. International Crisis Group reported 87 soldiers killed and 128 wounded. The number of rebel deaths is not known. (International Crisis Group, 2 February 2015 to 4 January 2016).

Refugees and IDPs: The UNHCR calculated 458,381 refugees, 55,639 asylum seekers, and 538,500 internally displaced persons originated from Burma in 2015 (UNHCR). International Crisis Group reported that January clashes in Kachin state displaced 1,000 residents while armed conflict in Kokang state in February caused 30,000 inhabitants to flee into China. ICG estimated that between 6,000 and 10,000 villagers remained displaced following conflict between the SSA-North and the military (International Crisis Group, 4 January 2016).   

2014 At least 105 people were killed in armed conflict. This includes 48 Rohingya that were killed in January according to UN reports. The government denied these claims.

Refugees and IDPs: Census violence displaced an estimated 5,000 people in Kachin state. According to the UN, there were approximately 374,000 internally displaced persons—most in the east. Recent UN counts put the number of refugees at approximately 479,706 (more than 110,000 residing in Thailand) and the number of asylum seekers at 48,053. An estimated one million stateless people live in Rakhine State. Stateless people include IDPs and people living in IDP-like situations.

2013 Due to continued secrecy and a lack of press freedom, casualty figures are difficult to verify. Sources from International Crisis Watch indicate that at least 56 people were killed and 11 wounded. Of these, 47 were killed during anti-Muslim violence, three civilians were killed by the government shelling of Laiza and a series of bomb blasts killed a policeman and a civilian. There are no figures available for rebel deaths.

Refugees: According to the UNHCR, there are 415,373 Burmese refugees and 28,245 asylum seekers. There were also at least 632,000 IDPs as of mid-2013, although accurate figures are difficult to obtain. Not all people are displaced as a result of conflict; some had their land confiscated by the government and corporations. Humanitarian organizations have limited access to many of the conflict-affected areas; restricting access is seen as a political tool. Despite reduced violence in Karen state and efforts of the Ministry of Immigration, very few IDPs have returned.

2012 Reliable fatality records are difficult to obtain. International Crisis Group reports at least 213 deaths in 2012, although many references were made to clashes without noting fatalities. The actual death toll is likely higher.

2011 International Crisis Group reported at least 29 deaths. According to a report by Partners Relief and Development, government forces were committing war crimes in the state of Kachin, including torture, extrajudicial killing and firing on civilians; 10 civilian deaths were reported.

2010 Although numbers were unreliable, CrisisWatch reported at least 50 people killed this year, most soldiers. An estimated 35,000 Karen civilians fled to Thailand.

2009 Estimates placed this year’s death toll in the hundreds. Human Rights Watch reported that an estimated 500,000 internally displaced persons were in eastern Burma, as well as 140,000 refugees in camps along the Thai-Burmese border. An estimated 50,000 refugees crossed into eastern India and another 21,000 to 28,000 Rohingya Muslims were living in camps in Bangladesh, with hundreds of thousands more believed to be living around the camps on the Bangladesh-Burmese border.

2008 Fourteen villagers were killed in sporadic clashes in eastern Burma, while 25,000 more Burmese were displaced by the Karen conflict. Cyclone Nargis killed 84,537 and left 53,836 missing and 2.4 million at risk. The U.S. Defense Secretary called the government’s actions in the aftermath of the cyclone, including withholding aid and refusing visas to aid workers, “criminal neglect.”

2007 After the suppression of pro-democracy protests on September 26-29, the junta released a statement that 10 protestors had been killed. International human rights groups confirmed more than 31 civilian deaths (including targeted monks), but estimated the real number as beteween 1,000 and 1,500. As many as 100 Karen civilians were killed.

2006 As many as 100 civilians, mainly Karen, were killed. At least 20,000 people were displaced.

2005 More than 100 people were reportedly killed, including 20 civilians in a major bomb attack in May. The actual number of conflict deaths was likely much higher.

2004 Because of a ceasefire between KNU rebels and the government, there were few major incidences of conflict and fewer than 25 deaths.

2003 Independent media reports indicated that as few as 15 and as many as 85 people might have been killed in 2003. Precise numbers were not available. Human rights abuses continued to occur with almost absolute impunity.

2002 Independent media reports estimated that more than 100 civilians, rebels and soldiers were killed by fighting. Hundreds more were victims of human rights abuses committed by the government.

2001 According to media reports, more than 100 soldiers and rebels were killed, along with an unknown number of civilians.

2000 Hundreds of people, mostly civilians, were reported killed this year.

1999 Beyond an unknown number of combatant deaths, dozens of farmers and villagers were killed by the military and several government officials were executed by insurgents.
1998 Villagers and combatants were reportedly killed in skirmishes, ambushes and revenge attacks.

1997 Reported combat-related deaths exceeded 300, many Shan villagers executed by SLORC troops in June and July.

1996 Reported combat deaths exceeded 100, including 20 deaths in a January retaliatory attack by the Karen National Union on the Democratic Karen Buddhist Organization and “heavy casualties” in a SLORC ambush of Karenni troops in May.

1995 Hundreds of troops were reportedly killed during SLORC offensives and hundreds of civilians by widespread human rights violations.

Political Developments

2015 On February 2 the Burmese legislature voted 328 to 79 to give holders of Temporary Registry Certificates, mostly ethnic Rohingya, the right to vote. However, after public protests, the government decided that all TRCs would expire by March 31, effectively denying cardholders the right to participate in upcoming elections. In June the government issued new identity cards, but cardholders were not included on the voter list.

In April the Burmese parliament passed a controversial Population Control Bill, which the President signed into law the following month. Human rights advocates are concerned that the new piece of legislation could be used to discriminate against the Rohingya and other minorities (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

On June 25 the Burmese parliament barred Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president should her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), win the November election. The NLD did win Burma’s first relatively free and fair elections in 25 years, taking 79 per cent of the national parliament seats (International Crisis Group). In December Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD began the transition of power by meeting with the outgoing president and forming transition teams.

An October 2015 report by the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School found strong evidence that ongoing discrimination against Burma’s Rohingya people constituted genocide (Yale University Law School, Persecution of the Rohingya Muslims: Is Genocide Occuring in Myanmar’s Rakhine State – A Legal Analysis, 1). 

2014 Burma began its term as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). No ceasefire was established between the government and combatant factions, but a new agreement was regularly revisited and officials claimed that it was nearly ready to be signed. The government released more than 3,000 prisoners, including a few political prisoners. The operations of Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) were suspended in Rakhine state in response to government concerns that the organizationwas biased in favour of Rohingya Muslim patients. MSF resumed their work in December. In the first national census in more than 30 years, the option of identifying as ethnic Rohingya was removed by the government in response to widespread opposition by Rakhine nationalists. Enumeration was blocked to some extent in certain areas and the government extended the timeframe to allow the work to be completed.

The government declined to change the constitution, which does not allow anyone with a foreign spouse or foreign children to run for the presidency, in advance of 2015 elections, given the “present political and administrative scenario.” The government was accused of seeking to prevent the candidacy of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Reforms for article 436 of the Constitution, which reserves a quarter of the seats and veto power in parliament for the military, were rejected, although President Thein Sein acknowledged that military presence should decrease in the political sphere in the course of democratization.

The Peaceful Procession and Assembly Law was amended, although officials must grant permission for public assemblies. The Ministry of Information increased visa restrictions on foreign journalists, who may visit for only 28 days at a time, significantly reduced from previous stays of three-to-six months. It is known that one reporter died in detainment. The government was pressured to draft a new bill to restrict religious conversion, interfaith marriage, polygamy and family planning.The Rakhine State Action Plan was seen as a possible way to resolve concerns about political stability, physical infrastructure, resettlement of displaced people, citizenship of displaced people, socioeconomic development and regional peace for Rakhine State. In October, the plan was found to include measures to relocate an estimated 130,000 people from Rohingya camps and provisions to naturalize eligible Rohingya. People self-identifying as Rohingya would be required to provide proof of residency of at least six decades. They would then be granted naturalized citizenship—with fewer rights than full citizens—and officially classified as Bengali. Those who did not comply faced relocation to detention camps and even deportation. A representative of the Centre for Strategic International Studies claimed that the government had historically denied Rohingyas the documents needed to prove residency, thus blocking citizenship.

2013 In January, President Thein Sein met with the Karen National Union leadership and the government lifted a ban on public gatherings. In February, the government and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), part of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) umbrella group, resumed dialogue. The KIO offered to cease offensive military actions if the military reciprocated. The seven-point agreement reached in May between the government and the KIO marked the end of conflict between the government and major armed groups. In August, the UNFC called for a complete rewriting of the 2008 constitution and a federal system that included the armed forces. In October, the government and the KIO signed another agreement, in the presence of representatives of most ethnic armed groups, aimed at ending armed clashes. The next round of dialogue was postponed to early 2014.

In March, the government announced the formation of a commission comprised of representatives of different political parties and outside experts to review the controversial 2008 constitution. The ruling USDP party submitted recommendations to the constitutional review committee at the end of December. The EU lifted most sanctions on April 22 in response to reforms. President Thein Sein met with U.S. President Obama in May and visited the U.K. and France in July, where he committed to reviewing the cases of political prisoners and releasing them by the end of the year. The government released more than 300 political prisoners during the year, although an estimated 44 were still in prison at yearend. The United States extended some sanctions, but eased visa restrictions for government members.

2012 Significant democratic reform occurred in Burma; these efforts were widely praised by the international community. The year was marked by unprecedented visits by foreign dignitaries, including government ministers and leaders from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Italy, France, South Korea, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Economic sanctions were lifted and closer relations established with many western nations. Following the January release of nearly 1,000 political prisoners, including prominent dissidents, the United States announced the resumption of all diplomatic ties and exchange of ambassadors. Visa bans on politicians were lifted by the European Union.

Before April by-elections the government lifted restrictions on campaigning, allowing the National League for Democracy to hold rallies after it won the right to register as a political party. The NLD won 43 out of 45 available seats. This election was overseen by invited observers from Canada, the United States, Japan and the EU. After the strongly positive election result, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the NLD, declared the NLD’s intention to have the constitution amended to allow her to run for president in 2015.Amnesty International, while advising caution in the easing of sanctions, noted major human rights improvements. A U.S. official stated that Burma is “on the right track” to end military ties with North Korea.

In January, the government signed a peace agreement with the Karen National Union, raising hopes for an end to the 60-year-old conflict. Four KNU liaison offices were opened. A senior KNU leader was pardoned and released from prison, allowing him to participate in spring peace talks. In April, the KNU and government signed a 13-point agreement to a peace process. In January, the government agreed to a ceasefire with the Chin National Front; a 27-point plan for peace came later in the year. The Karenni National Progressive Party signed a ceasefire on March 7. The government and the Shan State Army rebels agreed to enforce a ceasefire agreement in May. In August, the government signed a ceasefire agreement with the Pa-O National Liberation Organization. By the end of 2012, the government had signed ceasefire agreements with every the major armed rebel groups except the KIA. According to the International Labor Organization, 25 children were recruited into the national army in 2012, compared to 119 cases in 2011. Armed groups also recruited child soldiers.

2011 In October, the government released more than 6,359 detainees as part of a general amnesty. According to Amnesty International, the government released at least 120 of some 2,000 political detainees. Prime Minister Sein signed preliminary peace agreements with the Wa and Mongla. Controls on freedom of expression and the right to organize were loosened. In response, the United States, the European Union and a number of western and Asian countries began normalizing relations with Burma; U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited in December. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and a statement made by various Burmese political parties representing different ethnic groups—Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, the Chin National Party, the All Mon Region Democracy Party and the Phalon-Sawaw Democratic Party—called for an end to sanctions against Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) urged the West to continue the sanctions, saying the embargo affected the military more than the general population. In March, former general and outgoing prime minister Thein Sein became president; following the November 2010 election most observers condemned as a sham. Sein was one of some 20 military chiefs who resigned from their army posts in 2010 to run as civilian candidates in the 2011 elections—a move that critics said was intended to secure the military’s grip on power. The NLD announced in November that it would register as a political party for the 2012 by-elections; it was anticipated that Suu Kyi would run for a seat.

2010 Democratic elections took place in November. In anticipation of the election, April, junta President General Than Shwe and 22 ministers resigned from their military positions but remained in cabinet. Early in the year, the National Democratic League (NDL) was officially disbanded for failing to register for the election. Electoral laws under the 2008 constitution banned anyone with a religious affiliation or criminal record from belonging to a political party, effectively barring Aung San Suu Kyi from politics. Suu Kyi and the NDL subsequently boycotted the elections. A number of NDL members split away to form the National Democratic Force, which participated in the elections. Thirty-five minority parties also ran in the elections. In late September, the military junta announced that it would release Suu Kyi from house arrest; it did so the week after the November 7 elections. The elections were marked by claims of illegitimacy: elections were cancelled in a number of ethnic minority states, disenfranchising a large part of the population; military force was allegedly used to influence voters. (Two-thirds of the 3,000 candidates were closely linked to the military junta.) The United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) claimed victory with 80 per cent of the seats.

2009 The military government continued to deny civilians basic freedoms and rights and arrested members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), human rights defenders and activists. The junta consistently denied foreign diplomats the opportunity to meet with both pro- and anti-government figures. On May 14, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the NLD, was arrested for “breaching” terms of her house arrest order. After a short, closed trial, Suu Kyi was sentenced to three years in prison, a verdict immediately changed to 18 months of house arrest on the order of President Than Shwe. The ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) released 6,313 prisoners in February and 7,114 more in September. Only 161 of those released were political prisoners. In anticipation of the 2010 elections, the SPDC instructed approximately 24 armed militias with longstanding, semi-official ceasefire agreements with the government, to disarm and to transfer into Border Security Guard forces. This demand heightened tensions between the government and the militias, which were unwilling to put down their arms. The SPDC continued to let aid groups into Burma in the aftermath of the devastating 2008 cyclone Nargis, but blocked access to many areas, including Arakan State and conflict zones in eastern Burma. Such actions and continued reports of human rights violations led to the continuation of trade sanctions by the European Union and the United States. However, due to Burma’s abundance of natural resources, countries such as Laos, Singapore and Vietnam continued to support and trade with Burma, while China and Russia provided diplomatic support.

2008 On February 9, the government announced that a referendum would be held to consider a newly drafted constitution. The constitution promised a “leading political role” for the military, according to the military-appointed chairman of its drafting committee. The referendum was held on May 10, eight days after cyclone Nargis struck. Voter turnout was reported at 99 per cent and support for the constitution 92.4 per cent. In the regions most affected by the cyclone, the referendum was postponed two weeks; 92.4 per cent also supported the new constitution. Meanwhile, humanitarian workers accused the government of political and ethnic discrimination by withholding international relief aid, particularly from ethnic Karens in the insurgency hotbed of the Irrawaddy Delta. Amnesty International accused the government of human rights abuses. In May, Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest was extended for another year. On November 11, 40 political dissidents were sentenced to prison terms of up to 65 years. Among these dissidents were the 88 Generation Students, whose attempted campaign commemorated the anniversary of the August 8, 1988 uprising. Amnesty International estimated that 1,850 political prisoners remained in poor conditions under government custody.

2007 Following the release of two human rights reports by Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Human Rights Commission, which detailed the use of excessive force, arrests and detainment during the suppression of the September protests, the government attempted to appease foreign criticism. A liaison officer was assigned to meet with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. On October 2, in Resolution 8-5/1, the United Nations Human Rights Council deplored the violent repression of peaceful demonstrations and made several recommendations concerning human rights. On November 9, Suu Kyi was allowed to hold talks with members of the NLD opposition for the first time in three years. Ibrahim Gambari, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights was permitted to visit the country in November; Gambari’s report strengthened widespread international condemnation of the junta. The international community called upon traditional allies of Burma, Russia and China, to withdraw their veto from Security Council Resolutions and allow action to be taken against the Burmese government.

2006 The junta’s relocation of the administrative capital to Pyinama was completed early in the year. The detention order of Aung San Suu Kyi expired in May, but was extended indefinitely. Constitutional talks resumed in October behind closed doors, but were decried internationally for failing to include opposition parties, such as the NLD. UN human rights investigators called on the government to stop targeting members of the Karen minority; Burma was added to the UN’s list of countries that represent a threat to international peace and security. UN Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambara visited the country after a three-year absence and met with leaders of the government and opposition.

2005 A highly disputed process of constitutional reform continued under the strict control of the ruling military junta while the government extended Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest for another year. Several countries, including the United States, called on the UN Security Council to take action on the military junta’s continued human rights abuses and lack of democracy. Officials linked to former prime minister Khin Nyunt were sentenced to long prison terms. In late December, the military junta began to relocate the capital from Yangon to Pyinmana, 300 kilometres north in the centre of the country.

2004 A surprise ceasefire between the military government and KNU rebels early in the year led to official talks. Although no agreement was reached, the ceasefire was extended to allow further negotiations. The United States and the UN continued to pressure the government to make their so-called road map for democracy more inclusive, with few results. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, remained under house arrest and out of the road map discussions even as the Burmese government released several thousand prisoners, including dozens of political prisoners and several high-profile opposition members. In October, the military government arrested and removed Prime Minister Khin Nyunt.

2003 Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) were arrested in May. International sanctions and public condemnations of the Burmese government were issued in response to Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention and the government’s human rights abuses. In August, General Khin Nyunt replaced General Than Shwe as Prime Minister.

2002 In May, the government released Aung San Suu Kyi after 19 months of house arrest, in response to intense international pressure. The military regime continued to violate human rights and repress freedom of expression. Tension between the Thai and Burmese governments remained high. The border between the two countries was closed in May after the Thai army fired shells into Burma during fighting between the Burmese army and ethnic Shan rebels along the border with Thailand.

2001 Following renewed dialogue in February with the democratic opposition, including leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese military leadership announced a program of “disciplined democracy” to achieve national reconciliation. By August, the military leadership had released 151 detained members of the opposition. In the same month, a United Nations special envoy arrived in Burma to facilitate talks between the military regime and the democratic opposition.

2000 Burma rejected criticism by the UN and the international community of its human rights record, stating it would pursue its own path of development. National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest and was prevented from meeting with party members and diplomats. In September, the NLD announced that it was drafting a new constitution and called on military authorities to convene a parliament and release all political prisoners.

1999 Government troops imprisoned more National League of Democracy members and forced many others to renounce party membership.

1998 In response to the decision of the National League of Democracy to establish an opposition parliament, the government arrested hundreds of party members, including nearly 200 representatives elected in 1990.

1997 Despite economic sanctions announced by the European Union, the United States and Canada early in the year, Burma was admitted into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in July. In anticipation of growing economic ties with Burma, Thailand began forced repatriation of Burmese refugees. SLORC continued to repress opposition groups and was cited for severe human rights violations.

1996 SLORC extended oppression of ethnic minorities and political opponents. Beginning in March, tens of thousands of people in the Shan and Karenni States were forcibly relocated; many, including women and children, were forced to work on road and railway construction. In May and September, hundreds of National League for Democracy members were detained and not all were released. More than 300 students were arrested during December demonstrations; at yearend, at least 50 were unaccounted for. In January, “drug lord” Khun Sa signed an agreement to end hostilities with SLORC and turn his Mong Tai Army into a government militia; at least one breakaway faction continued attacks. Ceasefire talks between the Karen National Union and the government made no headway. Economic pressure on SLORC from U.S. municipalities and states did not prevent additional investment in Burma by Singapore, Britain, Thailand and the United States, among others, or approval of Burmese membership in ASEAN. The Burmese economy deteriorated, with inflation at 40 per cent.

1995 In July, the Burmese military government unconditionally released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest; she had been confined since 1989. The National League for Democracy withdrew from the national constitutional convention that began in November.


In 1948, Burma was granted independence from Britain, but the autonomy promised to many of the country’s ethnic minorities by the British was never realized. As early as 1949, ethnic minority groups began taking up arms to demand greater autonomy. In 1962, a military junta seized power and subsequently waged war on many of the country’s ethnic minorities.

In 1988, pro-democracy demonstrations were crushed in a bloody coup by the military-backed State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar. SLORC later refused to acknowledge 1990 election results that favoured the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The coup led to the exile of thousands of political opponents and united political and ethnic opposition groups in a common cause. Ceasefire agreements with several ethnic groups and a “constructive engagement” policy pursued by nations with trade interests did not prevent regular SLORC offensives against opponents along Burma’s borders, resulting in tens of thousands of external refugees and over one million displaced people within Burma.

Economic sanctions were announced by the European Union, the United States and Canada in 1996 and 1997, but the military government continued violating human rights, including forcibly relocating and extracting labour from targeted ethnic communities.

In November 1997, SLORC expunged some leaders and changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). In 1998, SPDC ordered the detention of hundreds of NLD party members, among them 200 representatives elected in 1990. The main political opposition, the NLD, was further targeted by the government; NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi was detained on separate occasions in 2002 and 2003 and kept under house arrest. She was finally released shortly after 2010 elections.

In 2012 the military-backed civilian government allowed Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD to contest by-elections. The party won 43 of 45 seats (The BBC). Three years later, the NLD won 79 per cent of elected seats in parliament in the first relatively free and fair election in 25 years (International Crisis Group).

In 2015 a ceasefire was signed between the government and eight of 15 armed groups. Major armed groups, including the United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Army, remained outside the agreement. Human Rights Watch noted that security forces and Buddhists have clashed with minority Rohingya Muslims. The Rohingya have been prevented from participating politically and economically in Burmese society (Human Rights Watch, See video).

Although many of the ethnic groups opposed to the government initially fought for independence from Burma, their objectives altered over the course of the conflict to focus on greater control over local areas and increased political representation.

Arms Sources

China and Russia supply 95 per cent of Burma’s weapons imports, according to SIPRI. Approximately one million people are thought to be involved in opium production in Burma. Profits from opium sales were used by the Wa and Kachin rebels groups to buy weapons from unknown dealers.

In 2006 Burmese General Maung Aye visited Moscow, seeking to upgrade air-defence systems by procuring Russian-made Tor-M1 and BUK-M1-2 missile systems. In the same year India offered Burma a multimillion-dollar assistance package. Plans to sell British-made aircraft to Burma made headlines. In 2009 the UN was called upon to impose an arms embargo on Burma. As of February 2016, many countries, including Canada, continued to prohibit arms sales to Burma. However, the SPDC continued to buy arms from North Korea, China, and Russia.

According to the SIPRI Trade Register, among other items, Russia sent Burma 50 refurbished combat helicopters and 14 fighter aircraft in 2009 as well as 150 short range air-to-air missiles and 80 beyond visual range air-to-air missiles in 2010. China sent 50 tanks and 10 anti-ship missiles in 2009, and 76 infantry fighting vehicles and another 25 anti-ship missiles in 2011. Despite a UN Security Council resolution banning North Korean weapons exports, in August 2012, Japan intercepted a tanker with weapons materials bound for Burma from North Korea. It is believed that North Korea acquired the materials from China.

The Military Balance reported that Burma’s military spending was $2.18-billion in 2013, $2.37-billion in 2014, and $2.25-billion in 2015 (The Military Balance, Vol. 116, 486).

Economic Factors

Burma’s gem mines are strictly controlled by military authorities through the Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Company (UMEH). It is estimated that Burma accounts for more than 90 per cent of the global trade in rubies. In response to violent military attacks on protestors in August and September 2007, many jewellers in both Europe and North America voluntarily pledged to boycott Burmese gems, some in accordance with formal sanctions that block all imports from Burma. In 2006 and 2007, official trade in Burma’s gems was valued at $297-million (U.S.), an increase of 45 per cent over previous years. Burma is also the leading global producer of jade. An auction of Burmese gems in November 2007 saw a decline in sales, which could be linked to the boycotts. According to reports, almost 90 per cent of foreign buyers at the November auction were from China.

Both government and insurgent forces rely on heroin and opium production as a source of income. In 2006 the opium trade among Thailand, Laos and Burma was the greatest source of income for guerrilla forces. The government suppressed rebellion by undermining the ability of ethnic groups to farm and sustain local economies. More than one-third of the national budget is spent on the military. According to the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong, there is a clear link between militarization and food scarcity in Burma.

More recently, Russia, China and India increased their investment in Burma’s gas and oil sector; in 2005-2006, India invested $30.6-million (U.S.). An oil deal with the Russian company Zarabezhneft was seen by analysts as a trade-off for Russia’s continued military aid. Russian and Chinese military support of Burma indirectly aids Chinese energy security as China relies on Burma as a major outpost for securing oil supplies from the Middle East (via the Strait of Malacca). Some Chinese leaders fear that the United States might block the Strait to cut off Chinese energy sources. India’s recent military gifts to Burma were viewed as a means to offset China’s influence in the region. On August 15, 2007 the SPDC announced a sudden rise in fuel prices (as much as 500 per cent), leading to an immediate rise in the cost of basic goods and sparking civilian protests in August and September. During the height of the protests, India’s oil minister travelled to Burma to sign a deal granting India the right to explore for offshore gas. India’s involvement during this critical time indicated that sanctions imposed against the junta had been undermined by neighbouring countries keen to gain access to Burma’s energy sources and raw materials, as well as a strategic route to the Indian Ocean.

In 2009 the United States announced that it would maintain trade, investment and targeted financial sanctions, while the European Union set new restrictions on trade with Burma and extended its freeze on assets to enterprises controlled and owned by the government. However, China, Thailand and India remained major trade and investment partners. In March the Chinese government signed an agreement with Burma for a pipeline project that would transport natural gas from western Burma to China.

In response to Burma’s democratic reforms, western governments began easing economic sanctions, although arms embargoes remained in place. Japan pledged to cancel $3.7-billion of debt owed by Burma. The United States removed an investment ban, eased import restrictions, and lifted restrictions on loans from international financial institutions. In 2012 President Sein announced a new wave of economic reforms. In 2013 the EU lifted its sanctions against Burma, but maintained an arms embargo. In 2014 U.S. President Obama extended economic sanctions against Burma. The sanctions did not allow U.S. businesses and individuals to engage in business in Burma or with people accused of suppressing democracy in the country.

Thousands protested at a copper mine in November 2012, fighting the joint seizure of land by a Burmese military conglomerate and Wan Bo, a Chinese mining company.

In 2013 Burma’s economy grew 6.5 per cent. It hosted the World Economic Forum for East Asia in June; multinational corporations announced $1-billion in planned investments. Major donors have increased aid and development support to Burma; the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank issued grants. However, experts have said that planned financial reforms have been delayed. In 2014 the Central Bank of Burma did license the operation of several foreign banks.

In May 2013 the Kachin Independence Organization became the last of the major rebel groups to sign a ceasefire agreement with the government. International Crisis Group asserted that “major steps need to be taken to develop an equitable peace economy, and the exploitation of Kachin’s significant natural resources, if not appropriately regulated, could compound inequalities and trigger renewed conflict. Much remains to be done to avoid a repeat of the failures of the previous ceasefire process.”

Ethnic and religious minorities have been excluded from the economy by the Buddhist majority. Asma Masood of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies reported that employers refused to hire Rohingya women and the military denied internally displaced Rohingya permission to travel to take advantage of economic opportunity (Institute for Peace and Conflict). Businesses and government deliberately avoided awarding contracts to Muslim bidders for fear that they would take business away from Buddhist-owned firms (Institute for Peace and Conflict).

map: CIA Factbook

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