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Myanmar: The Next Failed State?

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
September 2011
Current History

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Along the country's northern and eastern borders, the central government's laws and policies are routinely ignored. Ethnic minority militias roam large swaths of territory, skirmishing with the government's army, the battles often leaving entire villages in ruins, burnt to the ground. The national military frequently takes civilians captive; local militias in turn target civilians believed to be aiding the government. The most powerful militia, which has been expanding its forces and buying new heavy weaponry, now has over 20,000 men under arms and has supported itself by building one of the largest narcotrafficking organizations in the world. As fighting flares, refugees flee across the country's frontiers. Heroin traffickers, gem dealers, and weapons sellers also move across porous borders, supporting insurgent movements and drug dealers in neighboring nations.

This could be Pakistan, or Somalia, or Yemen, three of the highest-profile failing states in the world. But this also describes Myanmar, where the government, despite its authoritarian rule, has for years exerted weak influence over border areas, and where today entire regions of the country are becoming ungoverned zones of conflict. (Myanmar is also known as Burma, the name still used by the democratic opposition and the US government.) Since November 2010, when Myanmar held a national election dominated by military parties, the government has sought to disarm the ethnic minority militias roaming many of these areas, or tried to make them part of a regime-controlled border guard force. Not surprisingly, many insurgent groups have resisted laying down their arms, and several are instead boosting their arsenals.

As a result, a real possibility exists of an outbreak of armed conflict in these regions, a conflict that would spark even greater refugee flows, and, most likely, accelerate the spread of pandemic diseases and narcotrafficking, both of which flourish amid the instability and chaos in Myanmar's frontiers. Renewed conflict could even destabilize the larger region, including parts of China, India, Bangladesh, and Thailand.

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