Myanmar’s Troubled History: Coups, Military Rule, and Ethnic Conflict
Backgrounder

Myanmar’s Troubled History: Coups, Military Rule, and Ethnic Conflict

The 2021 coup returned Myanmar to military rule and shattered hopes for democratic progress in a Southeast Asian country beset by decades of conflict and repressive regimes.
A protester holds an image of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing during an anti-coup march in February 2021.
A protester holds an image of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing during an anti-coup march in February 2021. Getty Images
Summary
  • Myanmar, also known as Burma, has suffered decades of repressive military rule, widespread poverty, and civil war with ethnic minority groups.
  • The transition away from full military rule starting in 2011 spurred hopes of democratic reforms. But the military maintained control over much of the government and began a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.
  • The military launched a coup in February 2021 and then cracked down on protests. The opposition formed a shadow government and fighting force, leading to a civil war and humanitarian crisis that could spill over Myanmar’s borders.

Introduction

Throughout its decades of independence, Myanmar has struggled with military rule, civil war, poor governance, and widespread poverty. A military coup in February 2021 dashed hopes for democratic reforms in the Southeast Asian nation.

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Myanmar has now entered a violent new chapter. The military, known as the Tatmadaw, faces widespread, fierce opposition from ethnic armed organizations it was fighting even before the coup and ordinary citizens who organized militias. Vowing to resist the military junta, former lawmakers and activists formed a shadow government and mobilized fighting forces across the country. The military has responded with a brutal crackdown on opposition forces and protesters. But it still has not been able to consolidate control over large areas of the country, and experts warn that violence is all but certain to escalate in 2022.

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The coup has also brought economic turmoil, wiping out modest gains in poverty reduction made over the past decade. The economy shrank by nearly 20 percent in 2021. Additionally, the health-care system has collapsed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of people are facing hunger, and tens of thousands have fled to other parts of Myanmar or across the borders. Because of the coup, Myanmar has become a failing state, CFR’s Joshua Kurlantzick says.

What has happened since the 2021 coup?

In February 2021, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and other military leaders staged a coup. The move came after the military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), suffered a major blow in the 2020 elections. The junta—officially called the State Administration Council—detained and charged de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi with corruption and other crimes. It placed lawmakers from her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and other parties, as well as many activists, under house arrest.

Massive protests erupted nationwide in the weeks after the coup. Tens of thousands of people, including health workers, bankers, and teachers, joined what was originally a peaceful civil disobedience movement, refusing to go to work until the elected government returned to power. Eventually, ousted NLD lawmakers, protest leaders, and activists from several minority groups established a parallel government known as the National Unity Government (NUG). It aims to bring together the disparate groups opposed to the junta, foster greater unity among ethnic groups, create an agenda for a post-junta Myanmar, and cultivate support from foreign governments. In September, the NUG declared war on the junta and formed an armed division known as the People’s Defence Force.

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The military’s brutal crackdown on dissent and widespread abuses in the conflict have drawn condemnation from the United Nations, foreign governments, and rights organizations. In the initial aftermath of the coup, military forces shot live ammunition at civilian protesters and into people’s homes. By late 2021, the military was destroying entire villages believed to support the opposition, massacring both civilians and opposition fighters. At least 1,500 people have been killed by the military, which is likely an undercount, according to Thailand-based nonprofit ​​Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma). The junta has arrested more than eight thousand people, including journalists, medical workers, and NLD politicians.

By January 2022, analysts reported that clashes between the People’s Defense Force and the military were occurring in most of the country. “We’re seeing fighting now in townships that have not witnessed any form of fighting since Myanmar’s independence,” Jason Tower of the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) says. Notably, violence is not limited to the areas on Myanmar’s borders that have large ethnic minority populations, but is also occurring in major central cities such as Mandalay and Yangon. The widespread violence has led thousands of civilians to flee into neighboring India and Thailand.

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The opposition has prevented the military from consolidating control over the country, leading the International Crisis Group’s Richard Horsey to warn that “a protracted and increasingly violent confrontation appears inevitable.” However, USIP’s Tower says that given the Tatmadaw’s significant losses on the battlefield, the People’s Defense Force could overrun the military’s control of as much as half of Myanmar’s townships by mid-2022.

Has Myanmar always been ruled by the military?

Myanmar has been ruled by a military junta for many of the years since it gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948. The Union of Burma began as a parliamentary democracy, like most of its newly independent neighbors on the Indian subcontinent. But representative democracy only lasted until 1962, when General Ne Win led a military coup and held power for the next twenty-six years.

Ne Win instituted a new constitution in 1974 based on an isolationist foreign policy and a socialist economic program that nationalized Burma’s major enterprises. The economic situation deteriorated rapidly, and a black-market economy took hold. By 1988, widespread corruption, rapid shifts in economic policy related to Myanmar’s currency, and food shortages led to massive protests. In August 1988, the army cracked down on protesters, killing at least three thousand and displacing thousands more.

In the aftermath of the 1988 crackdown, Ne Win resigned as chairman of his party, although he remained active behind the scenes as another military junta took power. In 1989, the new military regime changed the country’s name from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar, and the capital, Rangoon, was renamed Yangon. In 2005, the military government moved the administrative capital to Nay Pyi Taw, a city it built in central Myanmar. The junta argued that the name “Burma” was a vestige of the colonial era that favored the Burman ethnic majority, and that “Myanmar” was more inclusive. Official U.S. policy still refers to the country as Burma, though most nations call it Myanmar.

In 2007, the so-called Saffron Revolution—widespread anti-government protests that were sparked by fuel price hikes and named after the saffron-colored robes worn by participating Buddhist monks—broke out. Faced with international pressure, the junta began to loosen controls, believing it could continue to rule Myanmar even if it stepped back slightly. It also possibly wanted to attract investment and reduce its reliance on China.  It pushed forward a new constitution in 2008, which is still in place today, that gave the military widespread powers even under civilian rule. The military junta officially dissolved in 2011 and established a military-dominated civilian parliament for a transitional period, during which former army bureaucrat and Prime Minister Thein Sein was appointed president.

President Thein Sein spearheaded some reforms, including granting amnesty to political prisoners, relaxing media censorship, and implementing economic policies to encourage foreign investment. In 2015, Myanmar held its first nationwide, multiparty elections. Suu Kyi’s opposition NLD party won a landslide victory. New lawmakers elected Htin Kyaw, a longtime confidant of Suu Kyi, as president. But the real power was in the hands of Suu Kyi, who was appointed to the newly created position of state counsellor and became the de facto head of the civilian government. However, the Tatmadaw still retained control over domestic security, most aspects of foreign relations, and many other matters related to domestic policy. Indeed, the 2008 constitution [PDF] includes several provisions to protect the military’s dominance, such as reserving parliamentary seats for the military.

Who is Aung San Suu Kyi?

Suu Kyi, the daughter of independence hero General Aung San, rose to prominence during the 1988 protests. After the crackdown, she and others formed the NLD opposition party. She was detained in 1989 and spent more than fifteen years in prison and under house arrest until her release in 2010. In 1991, Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while still under house arrest.

Aung San Suu Kyi reaches out of the top of a car and holds a supporter's hand.
Aung San Suu Kyi shakes hands with supporters in November 2012. Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

Suu Kyi became Myanmar’s de facto leader in 2015. (The constitution prevented her from assuming the title of president.) She enjoyed widespread domestic support, but CFR’s Kurlantzick says she had little to show for her time in power, as she tried to pacify the military by defending its abuses against the Rohingya and by restricting press freedoms. “She failed to strengthen democracy in recent years and create democratic bulwarks,” Kurlantzick wrote.

After the 2021 coup, Suu Kyi was detained and held incommunicado in a house in Nay Pyi Taw. The military has brought about a dozen cases against her, including for COVID-19 rule violations, illegal ownership of walkie-talkies, and corruption, which she has denied responsibility for. Although Suu Kyi is listed as one of the NUG’s top leaders, the NUG has actually moved beyond her leadership, working to build a broader consensus and selecting representatives from minority groups.

Why has Myanmar endured so many ethnic conflicts?

Myanmar is a diverse country, with the state recognizing more than one hundred ethnic groups. Forming roughly two-thirds of the population, ethnic Burmans, known as the Bamar, have enjoyed a privileged position in society and have held a majority of government and military positions. Many ethnic minority groups, on the other hand, have faced systemic discrimination, a lack of economic opportunities and development in their regions, minimal representation in government, and abuses at the hands of the military.

Divisions purposely created under British colonial rule and ongoing discrimination have fueled lengthy armed conflicts between the Tatmadaw and more than a dozen ethnic armed organizations, as well as dozens of smaller militia groups, producing what some analysts have described as the world’s longest continuing civil war. Following the country’s independence, several ethnic armed organizations fought for greater autonomy. Tensions were exacerbated in 1962, when the military junta took over, curtailed ethnic minorities’ rights, and used scorched-earth tactics against some ethnic armed organizations. Some of the more recent fighting has centered around control of natural resources and of illegal activities including illicit gem mining and the drug trade.

Before the 2021 coup, fighting primarily occurred in Myanmar’s border areas [PDF]. Those clashing with the government forces have included the Karen National Liberation Army in Kayin State; the Kachin Independence Army in Kachin State; and the Shan State Army in Shan State; among other groups. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the conflicts. For many years, human rights monitors have documented the Tatmadaw’s abuses against civilians in areas mainly populated by ethnic minority groups; these include extrajudicial killings, forced labor, rape, torture, and the use of child soldiers.

More than one million people fled abroad as refugees before the 2021 coup. Hundreds of thousands more remain displaced internally. Many of these refugees in recent years have been Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority that has faced decades of repression. In 2016 and 2017, the Tatmadaw and local security forces mounted a brutal campaign against the Rohingya, killing thousands of people and razing hundreds of villages. Rights groups and UN officials suspect that the military committed genocide against the Rohingya. In 2019, Gambia filed the first international lawsuit against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice, accusing the country of violating the UN Genocide Convention. Both Suu Kyi’s government and the military have denied that ethnic cleansing is taking place, and Suu Kyi defended the military at a tribunal in The Hague. Representatives of the military junta are expected to raise initial objections to the case in early 2022, and a final ruling could take years. Most Rohingya have sought refuge in Bangladesh, where resources and land to protect refugees are limited. Bangladesh has continued to insist that Rohingya refugees be repatriated to Myanmar, but the coup stalled talks between the countries.

The coup ended the shaky peace process that the Suu Kyi government started between the central government and armed ethnic organizations. Most ethnic armed organizations have opposed the military junta, and multiple have collaborated with the NUG. Others have tried to consolidate control over their territories, with fighting breaking out between some groups.

What is Myanmar’s economic situation?

Myanmar has long been poorer than most of its neighbors due to isolationist policies favored by the military junta in the 1960s and 1970s, economic mismanagement since then, and ongoing conflict, among other issues.

Much of the population relies on agriculture to make a living. Poverty has remained high in rural areas, where most people live. The country’s significant mineral deposits, particularly of jade and rubies, and natural gas reserves have drawn international attention. But some countries, including the United States, have sanctions on exports of many types of gems from Myanmar, because gems, natural gas, and other resources are often directly controlled by military-dominated firms or by firms close to the armed forces.

Reforms launched in 2011, including opening up to trade and investment, led to some modest economic gains and a burst of foreign investment. By 2019, gross domestic product (GDP) per capita reached around $1,400, nearly double what it was in 2008. The country’s poverty rate dramatically declined, falling from 48 percent in 2005 to 25 percent in 2017. Donors, such as the European Union, Japan, and the United States, dramatically increased their aid to Myanmar.

However, many of these gains are now being reversed. The pandemic-induced economic downturn, as well as widespread political unrest and violence in the wake of the coup, has led the UN Development Program to warn that Myanmar will slip into a level of deprivation it has not seen in decades. The poverty rate is expected to double in 2022 compared to its pre-pandemic level. Myanmar’s GDP is also likely to fare significantly worse than its neighbors, with a contraction of 18 percent in 2021.

Even before the coup, many foreign investors had pulled out of Myanmar. Now, even more foreign firms are leaving due to significant constraints, civil unrest, and foreign sanctions. (Many Chinese companies, as well as some Japanese firms, have remained.) Cash is often difficult to access, and the financial system is near chaos. The tourism industry, a vital source of hard currency, has also collapsed.

What is Myanmar’s relationship with China?

China, which borders Myanmar, has been the country’s largest trading partner and its closest diplomatic ally in recent years. After the coup, Beijing eventually gave the military leaders de facto recognition. (Russia has emerged as one of the strongest international supporters of the junta, with Moscow boosting military and economic cooperation with Nay Pyi Taw.)

China’s interests are multifold: protect and expand its infrastructure projects and investments in Myanmar; prevent outright civil war, especially near its borders; maintain itself as the dominant influence over the junta as Russia’s involvement grows; and prevent extensive involvement by leading democracies—including the United States—in a country on its periphery. China has wielded significant influence over the junta, while also pushing for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to lead the international response to the coup. However, in the year following the coup, ASEAN has done little in response. Some ASEAN members, such as Thailand, are close to the junta.

China has funded infrastructure and energy projects throughout Myanmar as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. Oil and natural gas flow through pipelines from Myanmar to China. Beijing is also working to create a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor in Rakhine State to connect China’s landlocked Yunnan Province to the Indian Ocean. The coup stalled work on these development projects and led to attacks on several Chinese-run factories. Work on development projects has since resumed. But attacks have continued into 2022, with opposition forces disrupting a China-backed nickel plant in January, for example.

At the same time, some of Myanmar’s top military leaders have long been wary of China, fearing that Nay Pyi Taw could fall too deeply into Beijing’s sphere of influence, according to the International Crisis Group. Analysts believe that this fear in part drove military leaders to institute the 2011 reforms and begin developing ties with other countries.

What is U.S. policy toward Myanmar?

The United States maintained a distant relationship with Myanmar after the late 1980s, enforcing broad-based economic sanctions on the country in the next two decades. Myanmar’s return to quasi-civilian rule led the United States to reestablish ties with it and drop broad-based sanctions. But the coup has brought another downturn in the relationship.

President Barack Obama ushered in a new approach to U.S. relations with Myanmar. His administration boosted humanitarian aid, eased bans on new U.S. investments, and in 2012 named its first ambassador to the country in twenty-two years. (The United States had kept an embassy in Myanmar, but it had been run by a chargé d’affaires.) Obama visited Myanmar twice, and President Thein Sein made a trip to Washington. Obama removed most U.S. sanctions a year after Myanmar’s 2015 elections, though a variety of noneconomic restrictions remained in place, including an embargo on arms sales and visa restrictions on some officials.

The Donald Trump administration continued on a similar path, welcoming increased ties with Myanmar but maintaining sanctions on some individuals and certain restrictions on U.S. relations [PDF] with the country. The administration imposed targeted sanctions on top military commanders, including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, due to their role in overseeing the killings of Rohingya. Some members of Congress called for additional restrictions over what the administration labeled as ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.

Since the 2021 coup, the Joe Biden administration has taken a tougher approach. The Biden administration sanctioned individuals in the military and others involved in military companies and conglomerates under its control. Officials have condemned the junta’s human rights abuses and pushed ASEAN countries to increase pressure on the junta. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met virtually with the NUG in October. Washington also granted temporary protected status to people from Myanmar who were in the United States when the coup occurred. In addition, Congress passed legislation requiring the administration to make a plan to respond to the coup in 2022, urging actions including imposing costs on the junta and legitimizing the NUG. But activists and analysts say Washington could do more, such as increasing aid to the NUG, pressuring countries that provide military supplies to the junta, and sanctioning Myanmar’s oil and gas revenues.

Recommended Resources

CFR’s Joshua Kurlantzick writes that Myanmar is a failing state and could be a danger to its neighbors.

The International Crisis Group unpacks how the coup has shaken up Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts.

Reuters provides a timeline of the events since the February 2021 coup.

The National War College’s Zachary Abuza suggests eight steps the United States could take to advance its interests in Myanmar.

In this timeline, the Irrawaddy traces Myanmar’s ethnic armed resistance movements over seventy years.

This Backgrounder explains the Rohingya crisis.

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Eleanor Albert and Beina Xu contributed to this Backgrounder. Will Merrow created the graphics.

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