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10 Conflicts to Watch in 2024

 Volunteer members of Karenni insurgent forces walk in Moe Bye in Kayah State, Myanmar November 12, 2023. REUTERS/Stringer
Volunteer members of Karenni insurgent forces walk in Moe Bye in Kayah State, Myanmar November 12, 2023. REUTERS/Stringer

Myanmar

A rebel offensive that routed the army from tracts of Myanmar’s north east and fighting elsewhere pose the biggest threat yet to the junta that seized power nearly three years ago.

Over the course of 2023, a grim pattern had set in. Resistance forces – disparate militias that grew out of post-coup protests crushed by the junta – launched ambushes across a swathe of the country. The Myanmar military used airstrikes, artillery and mobile units to put down the uprising and punish civilians. For the first time in decades, violence engulfed Myanmar’s lowlands. The army targeted people from the Bamar majority, using the same savage tactics it has long deployed against ethnic armed groups in the highlands.

For their part, the ethnic armed groups had reacted in different ways to the coup. Some trained resistance cells, supplied them with weapons and sheltered their leaders. A few forged closer alliances with the National Unity Government (NUG), an opposition body composed mostly of ousted legislators, including many from the party of deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whom the military has imprisoned. Others stayed on the sidelines or stuck to ceasefires with the military.

The north-eastern offensive has shaken things up. A preexisting coalition of three ethnic armed groups, the Three Brotherhood Alliance, together with some resistance forces, seized several towns, overran scores of military positions, captured tanks and heavy weapons, and severed key trade routes to China. Sensing the army’s disarray, ethnic rebels elsewhere, often joining forces with or even under the banner of resistance groups, went on the attack, taking towns, part of a state capital and border posts in diverse areas of the country. Outside the north east, the military has put up a stiffer fight, though it still appears stretched.

China is part of the story. Beijing wants to crack down on online scam centres, run by transnational criminals, that have proliferated around the Mekong region. It was aggrieved that the junta and an allied paramilitary force did not close centres in a border zone they controlled. Beijing thus stood by as a Brotherhood Alliance army captured the area, pledging to shut down scam centres. The zone’s proximity to China makes it harder for Myanmar’s air force to bomb it.

More broadly, Chinese President Xi Jinping still chafes at the military’s 2021 power grab. The ensuing chaos has put a stop to China’s planned megaprojects in Myanmar. Xi liked Aung San Suu Kyi, who established good working ties with Beijing. He distrusts the Myanmar military, especially coup leader Min Aung Hlaing, who harbours particularly strong anti-China sentiment, given Beijing’s support for ethnic armed groups in Myanmar’s north east. Beijing will certainly not throw its weight behind a rebellion – it sees the NUG as a Western stooge – and might well hold its nose and provide the regime greater backing if it looked to be faltering. But it has tolerated rebel gains in the north east. It helped broker a temporary ceasefire between the military and a rebel army in December, which will probably consolidate the latter’s hold on territory it has taken.

For now, the junta appears likely to hang on. While many Bamar show new sympathy for Myanmar’s minorities, having now tasted the military’s brutality themselves, the country’s many ethnic armed groups and post-coup resistance forces are unlikely to coalesce. The regime does, however, face determined foes on several fronts. The coup set the country back decades: health and education systems have crumbled, poverty rates skyrocketed and the currency crashed. More than 2.5 million people are internally displaced (in addition to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas the military expelled in 2017). It is hard to see the crisis ending anytime soon.

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