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Myanmar’s brutal, two-year war against its people, explained

Popular resistance, though fierce, is fragmented and outgunned by the Tatmadaw junta.

Protesters hold a portrait of Min Aung Hlaing during a demonstration while wearing matching white and red outfits
Burmese protesters gather outside the Myanmar Embassy in Thailand on February 1, 2023, to mark two years since the Myanmar military seized control from the civilian government.
Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

The death toll from an attack on civilians by Myanmar’s military junta continues to rise, reaching around 170 people including 30 children. Tuesday’s airstrike on the opening of an administrative office in the rebel-held village of Pazigyi is the deadliest so far since the junta took power in a coup just over two years ago.

Tuesday’s attack exemplifies the regime’s indiscriminate violence against civilians, including women and children; two years on, 3,000 civilians have reportedly been killed by the Tatmadaw, though the number of civilian deaths caused by both the junta and the resistance is likely higher. The airstrike is also indicative of the junta’s determination to retain power no matter the cost, despite its inability to maintain territorial control.

Though Myanmar has a long history of brutal and repressive military rule, the stunning violence of the current regime has made it “the worst regime in Southeast Asia since the Khmer Rouge,” according to former US Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel, referring to Pol Pot’s murderous dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s.

The junta, or Tatmadaw as it’s called in Myanmar, has solidified the country’s status as a pariah state with its repressive tactics and scorched-earth military attacks. Yet it has stated its plans to hold elections this year in order to legitimize its control of the government on the international stage — or at least make an attempt to do so.

In addition to its scorched-earth attacks, the junta has chipped away at any semblance of democracy; last month, the government dissolved the National League for Democracy (NLD) and 39 other opposition groups, the New York Times reported at the time. It also previously jailed the NLD’s leader and longtime symbol of democracy Aung San Suu Kyi for 33 years — almost certainly a life sentence for the 77-year-old.

Meanwhile, opposition to military rule has morphed from protests to outright conflict, as armed factions aligned with Myanmar’s many ethnic groups battle government forces for territorial control. Though many groups fight under the banner of the shadow government, the National Unity Government (NUG), the opposition has thus far proven ineffective at — and perhaps uninterested in — building the coalitions necessary to create a future democratic government, according to David Scott Mathieson, an independent analyst.

“They have missed so many opportunities already and have to redouble efforts to build a coalition, and that means understanding who potential allies are regardless of ‘loyalty’ and seeking to understand and incorporate multiple perspectives,” Mathieson told Vox via email. “The one thing the military state has is discipline around one force, regardless of internal disagreements.”

Myanmar’s military is escalating a cycle of brutality

Myanmar has been under military rule for much of its modern history. The country gained independence from Britain in 1948 and by 1962, it experienced the first of many military coups, setting up a governing system marked by extreme brutality and repression. That political dynamic has turned Myanmar into a pariah state, with few allies and minimal interaction with the international community.

The head of the Tatmadaw and the chairman of the State Administration Council, the Tatmadaw’s political arm, is Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, a longtime military officer who led the coup. After his Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) performed poorly in the November 2020 elections, the party and the military falsely claimed election fraud; on February 1, 2021, the military arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint and Hlaing took over the government.

Hlaing previously came to notoriety for waging a ruthless battle against Myanmar’s primarily Muslim Rohingya ethnic group in 2017. That campaign, marked by widespread murder, destruction, rape, and displacement, followed the “four cuts” strategy the Tatmadaw previously used against other ethnic and political minorities.

Hlaing’s forces are now applying the “four cuts” strategy — indiscriminate airstrikes and artillery bombardment, attacking and razing civilian villages to force displacement, and blocking humanitarian access — in their effort to maintain control over the Burmese people, even if they are unable to consolidate territorial gains.

In January of this year alone, the Tatmadaw destroyed an estimated 39,000 properties; according to an OHCHR report from March, government troops also looted homes, immolated people, and destroyed livestock and food storage supplies during these attacks. The government is also reportedly carrying out forced disappearances, sexual violence during interrogations and village raids, and extrajudicial killings.

Since the coup, the Tatmadaw has also jailed scores of journalists, shutting down independent media and making the flow of verifiable information difficult. According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Tatmadaw has also detained 20,000 political prisoners, who face overcrowding, lack of access to healthcare, food, and water, and unsanitary living conditions.

The junta and resistance are locked in an interminable battle

Despite the misery it has sown and gestures toward elections, the junta is not interested in victory or even governing, but rather maintaining the illusion of control, Mathieson told Vox. “For the Myanmar army, outright victory [or] total defeat of its opponents is eschewed in place of containing and regulating violence,” he said. There’s an understanding within the Tatmadaw that there will always be some area in rebellion against the government, as has long been the case; the Tatmadaw deploys its resources in a concentrated attack against its enemies — both real and perceived — then moves on to the next.

“The regime is essentially making things up as it goes along, with a very rudimentary kind of plan but no real sophistication or end destination in mind, it’s just about survival and the very basics of making it appear as if they are in control.”

Because of the lack of independently verifiable information coming out of Myanmar, it’s impossible to tell with any real confidence how many troops either side has left, or who controls what territory after two years of intense battle. And given the unpopularity of the junta, convincing military-aged men to join the fight has already become a struggle.

Still, the Tatmadaw, as Mathieson told Vox, “remains a centralized and effective force with reliance on airpower and heavy artillery.” The opposition, meanwhile, comprises several different armed ethnic groups loosely confederated under the People’s Defense Forces, the military arm of the NUG, making for a fluid and dynamic conflict.

“There is no ‘one size fits all’ description in the battle-scape of Myanmar, but multiple configurations that change from location and the scale of engagement and cooperation,” Mathieson told Vox.

Though the opposition and the NUG have cultivated some international support, the PDF is significantly outgunned by the Tatmadaw, which has its own domestic arms industry to draw on, as well as some level of military and political support from China, Russia, and India. “The military is flush with weapons it needs to maintain a technological advantage in the air as long as Russian resupply can be maintained,” Mathieson said, although whether that will continue given Russia’s own conflict in Ukraine “will be a big question.”

Given that the Tatmadaw controls all of Myanmar’s state enterprises, including the oil, mining, and timber industries, it can — and will — continue its horrific campaign as long as those resources hold out, even as that battle plunges the country into extreme poverty.

According to a 2022 report from the UN OHCHR, the Tatmadaw government “has collapsed in many areas nationwide, the public health system has effectively broken down, and more than half of all school-aged children have not accessed education for two academic years.” Ye Myo Hein, a global fellow at the Wilson Center and visiting fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, tweeted in late March regarding the fuel cuts and energy crisis affecting Myanmar, noting that, “The country has been experiencing increasingly frequent and disruptive power cuts — up to 14 and 15 hours a day in some areas.”

But neither side has the impetus to negotiate a solution so that Myanmar can rebuild its society and economy, nor does either have a particularly convincing vision for the future. If the Tatmadaw does manage to hold elections, they will be a sham and will convince few besides themselves of their mandate to govern.

Should the resistance somehow outlast or defeat the regime, it will have to grow from a symbolic government-in-exile to a unifying political force capable of not only rebuilding the nation and its economy, but also establishing a diverse governing coalition that reflects the Burmese people’s interests.