Myanmar's military coup of February 2021 dashed hopes that the country's recent democratic transition would be irreversible and plunged the Southeast Asian nation into a crisis that's escalated into a full on armed conflict, pitting the ruling military against the opposition national unity government and various ethnic armed organizations united in their resistance against the regime. While it may have fallen out of the headlines, the war continues with seemingly no end in sight but in the past couple of weeks, the resistance forces have been buoyed by the recent successes of a new operation that's seen them capture key locations from the military in regions bordering China. So in this article, I'll explain the significance of these recent events, as well as looking at the wider conflict and context, beginning with a brief history of how things got to where they are today.
Myanmar, then Burma gained independence from the United Kingdom back in 1948, having been under British rule for more than a century and Japanese occupation for a few years during the Second World War. Throughout its entire history as an independent state, Myanmar has been marred by largely ethnic based conflicts of varying intensities, meaning that the country's civil war is effectively the world's longest running armed conflict. Myanmar's first 14 years after independence were as a parliamentary democracy, but this brief democratic experience was cut short by a military coup in 1962 that brought General Ne Win to power, who would go on to lead a repressive, totalitarian one party state until 1988. His resignation amid nationwide protests and demonstrations did not mean the end of military rule, but the events of 1988 did see Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the father of the nation, emerge as one of the most prominent pro-democracy leaders. The military government had pledged after 1988 to hold multi-party elections, which in 1990 were won in a landslide by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for democracy, or NLD.
However, the military refused to honor the results and maintained their grip on power for another two decades, having first been placed under house arrest in 1989. Aung San Suu Kyi spent 15 of the next 20 years in detention, as did many other opposition figures. Eventually, Myanmar began a very tentative transition towards democracy in the late 2000, in part due to anti-government protests and ensuing international pressure, which prompted the military regime to begin to loosen its control. An election in 2010 that was boycotted by Suu Kyi's NLD brought a nominally civilian but military backed government to power. That carried out a number of reforms, including a relaxation of press restrictions and the freeing of thousands of political prisoners. Then, in 2015, the country held its first nationwide multi-party elections in decades. The NLD participated and won a sweeping victory and Suu Kyi became Myanmar's de facto leader through the new position of State counsellor.
Nevertheless, the military remained influential, retaining significant control over security and other domestic policies. The next elections held in November 2020, saw the NLD win again. However, on February 1st, 2021, a day before the newly elected parliament was due to meet, the military deposed the government, declaring that the November election had been invalid and arrested Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint as well as many other politicians, officials and civil society activists. The coup received international condemnation while at home. It spawned a widespread campaign of peaceful civil resistance, which was met with a violent crackdown. In the following weeks and months a parallel government called the National Unity Government, or NUG, was established by ousted lawmakers, civil society activists and representatives from a number of minority groups. It was quickly declared illegal and a terrorist group by the military. Then in May, the NUG announced that they had formed an armed wing called the People's Defense Force, with a goal of resisting the military and protecting their supporters from its repression, which had escalated since the coup. The situation was quickly growing into a full on armed conflict between the People's Defence Force and the military, and also between the military and various ethnic armed organisations who'd been fighting the state for decades, seeking greater autonomy.
Eventually, in September 2021, the NUG declared a people's defensive war against the ruling military, calling on all the citizens within the whole of Myanmar to revolt against the rule of the military terrorists in every corner of the country. The war since then has touched basically every part of the country. It's created a devastating humanitarian situation, with thousands killed and millions displaced inside and out of the country. Despite keeping hold of the main population centers, the military has lost swathes of territory to the resistance, meaning the People's Defence Force and the ethnic armed organisations that fight not underneath it but are effectively allied to it. The military and its proxies have been accused of terrible acts of violence and, as the conflict has evolved, have been increasingly reliant on seemingly indiscriminate airstrikes at a huge cost for civilian life. A recent report from UN inspectors said the military and its allies were engaging in more frequent and audacious war crimes and crimes against humanity, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians from aerial bombing, mass execution of civilians and detained combatants and large scale and intentional burning of civilian homes and buildings.
But in recent weeks, a new campaign has given energy to the resistance movement in its fight against the military junta. Operation 1027, launched on October the 27th, is an anti junta offensive in the northern Shan states, being carried out by the Three Brotherhood Alliance, a resistance movement comprising an ethnic armed organization called the Arakan Army, plus the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army. Within a matter of days, the alliance had reportedly captured dozens of military outposts and bases, as well as taking control of crucial transit points and capturing the town of Chinshwehaw, a key trade point on the right of the border with China, which alongside Russia has been a key ally of the otherwise isolated military regime. The recent escalation near the border has sparked concerns from China, prompting it to call for an urgent ceasefire in the area, especially as during the military's counterattack last week, a shell inadvertently landed on the Chinese side of the border.
Operation 1027 is still in its early days, and while limited in its geographic scope, it could prove to have a significant impact on the wider resistance movement. Other resistance groups including the National Unity Government and its People's Defense Forces plus various ethnic armed organizations, have expressed their support for the operation, which has seemingly inspired said groups to intensify their anti regime operations. People's Defence Force fighters alongside local ethnic groups, have since captured the town of Kawlin in the neighboring Sagaing Region, marking the first capture of a district capital by resistance forces. The capture of key transit points in the Shan State is also expected to deny the military junta of a key source of its income, which it gets from the flow of trade between China and Myanmar. Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether or not the momentum built by operation 1027 continues to grow, but it certainly signals the beginning of a new chapter and could end up marking a crucial turning point for the resistance movement.