Neophytes might understandably feel intimidated when they begin delving deep into Myanmar’s internal complexities, finding out firsthand why the country’s civil war is perhaps the world’s most difficult to comprehend. There’s an overwhelming amount of information available about the ethnic and military situation inside of Myanmar, but most references tend to pander to one or another extreme when attempting to describe this. For example, the mainstream media narrative stereotypically simplifies the issue by misleadingly painting it as a basic struggle between a “military dictatorship” and “ethnic minority freedom fighters”, whereas the plethora of academic texts that are available have a propensity to overanalyze minute identity traits about one, some, or all of the players and entangle the reader in a mess of unfamiliar and daunting lingo.
What’s crucially needed is an easily readable briefing that balances between these two media and academic extremes and supplies the reader with a solid understanding of the general dynamics that are at play. The present research endeavors to satisfy this imperative by presenting a review of the dueling dichotomies that characterize Myanmar’s internal situation. Following that and after having informed the reader of the unstable foundations on which the country rests, the work then moves along to describing the main theaters of current and potential conflict and explaining the goals that their varied rebel forces one day hope to attain. Finally, the last part of this section illustrates the present state of affairs in Myanmar’s civil war by relevantly juxtaposing it on a map of the transnational infrastructure projects that are passing through the country, thus allowing the reader to recognize the connection between the two and more properly understand the Hybrid War forecasts that the author will make in the concluding part of the research.
The ethnic and civil war situation in Myanmar is most easily and effectively encapsulated as a set of four interconnected dualities:
Center vs Periphery:
The broadest theme that one can observe in Myanmar is how the country’s geographic periphery is at conflict with the center, which geo-physically speaking, pits the mountainous border regions against the low-lying plains and river valleys (except in the case of Rakhine State).
Titular Nation vs Minorities:
Digging deeper into why the center and periphery are at odds, it’s relevant to indicate that the ethnic-majority Bamar inhabit the central region while a diverse group of ethnic minorities live in the periphery. The Bamar constitute around 60% of the population whereas the over 135 ethnic minorities account for the remaining 40%, the greatest proportion of which are the Shan, Karen, and Rakhine.
Neither of these two categories are inherently racist against the other, but it’s just that the identity separateness between them encourages the minorities to seek autonomy, federalization, and/or independence from the titular majority, with this sentiment clearly being susceptible to foreign manipulation.
Labor Resources vs Natural Resources:
Extrapolating further into the center vs periphery dichotomy, it’s revealed that the former is rich in labor resources whereas the latter is extraordinarily wealthy in natural ones such as precious minerals. This complicates the existing arrangement, since theoretically speaking, on their own, each of the two categories of central/titular and peripheral/minorities can economically subsist without the other.
In fact, the sparsely populated peripheral areas, especially Kachin State, could convincingly make the argument that they would have a greater GDP per capita if they were allowed to retain all of their natural resource revenue and fully develop their deposits without what they consider to be central inference into their internal affairs. Contrarily, Naypyidaw’s consistent position has been that the peripheral regions constitute an integral part of the unitary country and that no region should be allowed to hoard its internal wealth all to itself.
The difference between these two positions is naturally irreconcilable, ergo the reason for the world’s longest-running civil war, and the only foreseeable solution is if one side or the other compromises on their deeply ingrained position owing to a change of situational circumstances.
Unitary vs Federalist:
The final, and perhaps the most substantial, dichotomy in facing Myanmar today is how each side has a diametrically divergent vision for how the country should be internally organized. The military has been fighting to maintain a unitary state, whereas the ethnic peripheral rebels, wowed by their substantial natural resource wealth, want to revert back to the federal-like system enshrined in the Panglong Agreement. As was just mentioned above, the only way to resolve this conundrum is for one of the sides to enact a concession on their previously held position, which in this case appears to be what’s happening with the Myanmar state as a result of the US’ multipronged Pivot to Asia that’s being waged against it right now.
The synchronized combination of ‘personal enrichment’ for the generals alongside the rise of Suu Kyi has created a situation where Naypyidaw is much more flexible to the federalist solution that the rebels have been agitating for, and which in the context of the New Cold War and the Pivot to Asia, is exactly what the US would like to happen as well. At this point, it appears unlikely that Myanmar will remain a unitary state in the coming future, with the civil war conflict progressively shifting from the battlefield to the boardroom. The highest echelons of the military seem to have been bought out and/or pressured into acceding to this scenario, and the main bone of contention will now be the specific details pertaining to the forthcoming federalism, which will be addressed in the final Hybrid War section.
There are 15 primary rebel groups fighting against the Myanmar government, over half of which signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in October 2015. There’s a lot of information that can be learned about each and every one of them if the reader commences a Google search on these groups, but it’s not the aim of the present research to reiterate easily retrievable details. Rather, this part of the study aims to describe the general dynamics of what’s going on in each area and highlight only the most important fact that are relevant for the reader to know. All other information can be accessed via simple internet searches, whereas the contextual analysis offered below uniquely integrates everything that’s already been discussed and sets the stage for understanding the Hybrid War scenarios that will be examined later on:
This is the largest geographic region in Myanmar and is inhabited by the Shan, the most populous ethnic minority in the country and around 9% of the total population. Both Shan State and its namesake ethnicity are extremely complex and comprised of a varied amount of separate identities. For example, the Shan ethnicity itself is a categorical term used to refer to a number of closely related identity subgroups that inhabit the Shan Hills. It’s unascertainable whether all of the “Shan” self-identify with that label or if some of them prefer to be more associated with their specific sub-ethnic identity. It’s reasonable to infer that there’s a richness of self-aware identities within the Shan community, especially since Shan State itself used to be a federated entity of 34 separate units during the period of British occupation. With varying degrees of civil war tension occurring in Shan State since 1947 and fully taking off after Ne Win’s 1962 coup and revocation of the Panglong Agreement, it’s very probable that the kaleidoscopic identity present in this region was retained to a large extent and probably even strengthened in some areas.
Shan state’s internal identity arrangement is very important in the larger context of Myanmar’s civil war because it gives rise to the suggestion that this internally divided ethnos-region might continue its fratricidal conflict even after the full cessation of hostilities. For example, a significant amount of the lingering violence that’s still ongoing in the country is between dueling rebel groups in Shan State, which despite having been fighting against the government for over 60 years already, have never managed to totally unite during this long period of time. The rebel divisiveness that has plagued Shan State can presumably be attributed to the multitude of identities present in the region, some of whom might have remained mutually suspicious of one another to this day.
From the standpoint of the military, this is actually an ideal situation that allows the authorities the opportunity to divide and rule the rebels by playing off one group against the other, and truth be told, this is actually what’s been thought to have occurred for some time already. Correspondingly, this state of internecine affairs has been totally against the interests of the overall Shan State autonomy, federalization, and independence movements, and it’s a problem that they urgently need to rectify as the country predictably lurches towards federalization. Failure to resolve this long-running internal spat could lead to a renewed outbreak of hostilities among the various rebel groups here, which of course in the grand scheme of things would play to the military’s interests.
Given the existing situation and its long-documented development, it’s not likely that all of the Shan State rebel groups will ever unify into a cohesive and long-lasting front, with any possible successes in this direction being only ephemeral tactical conveniences for each side. With this in mind, it’s probable that Myanmar’s imminent move towards internal reorganization could see the region doubly federalized, first in the sense of its entire territory being a separate federal unit on the national level, and then through a sub-entity federalization between the internally opposing elements within it (which might nowadays be less than the 34 that previously existed under the British).
The result of this complex internal overlay is that Shan State’s individual component parts will become prized geostrategic trophies for the US and its allies as Washington gradually proceeds unimpeded in its march towards the Chinese border. Along the same lines, however, China could also play this game in order to acquire a degree of strategic depth via the de-facto creation of pro-Beijing buffer territories inside of the divided Shan States, motivated to a large part by the need to protect the China-Myanmar Energy Corridor. Taken together, it’s projected that the US’ New Cold War proxy aggression against China might eventually lead to a Shan State civil war inside of post-federalized Myanmar, since the US wants to acquire controlling influence over China’s sought-after strategic corridor through the country (which specifically runs through Shan State), while China actively wants to defend its Malacca-detouring investment.
The civil war battleground in Rakhine State has been an off-and-on problem since the beginning of the conflict, with the specific nature of this ethno-regional conflict taking on a different nature throughout the years. It’s important for observers to understand that there are two primary identity groups in this region, and those are the original inhabitant Buddhist Rakhine ethnic majority and the recently immigrated Muslim Bengali “Rohingya” minority. At this point, a few words need to be said about these actors, since the rampant and self-interested “political correctness” of Western mainstream media outlets has blurred the reality of the conflict between the two and presented it in a completely decontextualized manner that’s easier for them to manipulate.
Rakhines and “Rohingyas”
To begin with, the Rakhine and the state that they inhabit used to be the Kingdom of Mrauk U, which the research has earlier confirmed was totally separate from the present-day Myanmar state for centuries before its incorporation. Thus, it’s understandable why there’s such a strong degree of identity separateness among this ethnic group and historical pride in its verifiable uniqueness, both of which were strongly insulated by the Arakan Mountains that kept outside influences and invading forces at bay. The ethnic Bengali “Rohingyas”, on the other hand, are new arrivals to this territory and are mostly concentrated along the international border in the north. They’re the descendants of ethnic Muslim Bengalis that found themselves in Burma after the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent, and in the decades afterwards, they facilitated the illegal immigration of many of their identity kin to their new host country. In the early days after independence, they even waged a mujahedin Islamic insurgency against the government, capitalizing on the regional trend of religious identification as the premier factor of separateness and self-determination. This conflict then evolved into a Salafi terrorist campaign after the 1971 independence of Bangladesh, and there have been reports that Al Qaeda has infiltrated the movement and currently uses it for recruits.
The Bengali “Rohingya” issue only received international attention in 2012 when the Western media began focusing on the legal plight of this community, as technically speaking, they are ineligible for citizenship due to the 1982 Nationality Law. The government formally refuses to recognize the “Rohingya” as a separate ethnic group, rightly describing the presence of most of them in the country as the direct or indirect consequence of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. Granted, there were Bengalis in the British colony of Burma prior to independence, but their number and concentration weren’t as large as they currently are. Even accounting for high birth rates, it seems implausible that this community naturally increased on its own to its present size, thus circumstantially confirming the government and the native Rakhines’ accusations that rampant illegal immigration is to blame. Given that the West typically disguises its self-interested geopolitical activities with “humanitarian” rhetoric, it can be ascertained that its information campaign in support of the Bengali “Rohingyas” was merely a ruse designed to add pressure to the Myanmar government and contribute to its destabilization. There are certainly legitimate humanitarian concerns to be expressed when discussing the Bengali “Rohingyas”, but they’ve been manipulated for geopolitical purposes by the very same information organs that purport to be acting in their interests, thus regretfully discrediting the international media blitz about this issue and doing nothing to resolve the intercommunal conflict between them and the native Buddhist Rakhine.
Pertaining to that, the Bengali “Rohingyas” burst into the international limelight after they became victims of a targeted pogrom by hyper-nationalist Buddhist monks in Rakhine State. After a series of escalations between these two communities, the details of which are disputable and not independently confirmed, the ethnic majority Buddhist Rakhines attacked the minority Muslim Bengali “Rohingyas”, causing many of them to flee for their lives into the ramshackle internal refugee communities that a large number of them still live in to this day. To avoid the impression that the author is taking sides in this conflict, it’s necessary to add a few words about the local Buddhist position towards the Bengali “Rohingya”, not to in any manner excuse the violence committed against this community, but to provide a framework for understanding the perception that the ethnic Rakhine have towards them and how this could realistically be manipulated in the future.
The Buddhist Rakhines believe that the illegal immigrant Muslim Bengali “Rohingyas” are carrying out a strategic repopulation campaign so as to promote the creeping Islamization of the region and facilitate their separatist ambitions. From the way that they see it, the historically Buddhist homeland that they’re so proud of is under threat by this group, yet the central authorities are not properly dealing with the problems there out of concern that their international reputation would be adversely impacted by any heavy-handed response, especially as Naypyidaw warms to the West and embraces the US as part of the latter’s Pivot to Asia. In their view, provoked by what they interpreted as the government’s neglect of their native interests and reacting to simmering provocations from the Bengali “Rohingays”, the Buddhist Rakhines felt compelled to act in one way or another, and this unfortunately turned into a one-sided bloodbath.
To reiterate so as to preempt any potential misunderstanding, the author does not hold a partisan viewpoint towards the Rakhine-“Rohingya” conflict and endeavors only to help the unfamiliar reader better understand all aspects of this situation. Having once more emphasized that point and recognizing that the conversation has already entered into “politically incorrect” territory from the viewpoint of Western pundits and “human rights” activists, the author can speak more freely about the current state of affairs surrounding this topic. No matter what their individual or group motivations may be, the present status is that a looming Hobbesian conflict appears to be on the horizon between the three primary actors in Rakhine State: the majority Buddhist Rakhine, the minority Muslim Bengali “Rohingya”, and the military.
Certain groups of Rakhine are hostile to the Bengali “Rohingya”, whereas others are antagonist to the authorities both because of their reluctance to decisively intervene in addressing the Bengali “Rohingyas” issue and because they also harbor ambitions of autonomy, federalization, and/or independence. The Bengali “Rohingyas” do not like the Buddhist Rakhines and clash with them to defend themselves from pogroms and agitate for autonomy, federalization, independence, annexation to Bangladesh, and/or the imposition of Sharia law. Similarly, they’re suspicious of the central government for passively allowing the recent pogroms against them to take place and having carried out multiple security operations against them in the past decades. Altogether, from the government’s perspective, both groups can be troublesome in their own way and represent unique asymmetrical threats to the country’s stability and unity, especially since the Rakhine-“Rohingya” conflict has distinct contours of a provoked Buddhist-Muslim civilizational clash. International Western sympathy for the latter might lead to a scenario where a “South Asia Kosovo” is a possibility, and this potential eventually will be returned to when describing the Hybrid War threats against Myanmar.
The destabilization in Rakhine State doesn’t exist in a geostrategic vacuum, and it’s closely connected with the US’ grand plans to contain China and disrupt its multipolar transnational connective infrastructure projects. The China-Myanmar Energy Corridor transits right through this territory on its way to the Indian Ocean, thereby making it just as pivotally important for Beijing as its counterpart entity of Shan State is. Furthermore, Myanmar’s recent decision to allow China to develop a deep-water port at Kyaukpyu indicates that Beijing is capable of cutting strategic deals with Suu Kyi’s government and portends that it might one day seek to revive the Myanmar Silk Road. In such a case, it’s absolutely predicted with near-certainty that the US would utilize its influence over one, some, or all of the abovementioned multisided conflict actors in order to destabilize the project and sabotage its eventual fulfilment. After all, this is the very essence of what Hybrid War is about, and China’s infrastructural investments in such a potentially volatile area as Rakhine State, despite its ideal geographic location, is a serious vulnerability for Beijing.
Of pertinent interest, however, is that India’s Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Program also runs through Rakhine State, thus presenting what on the surface would be a strategic conundrum for the US. Conventional wisdom dictates that the US would not want to sabotage its allies’ infrastructural projects unless it felt as though there was no way to realistically avoid doing so, and that’s exactly how it plans to proceed concerning this dilemma. Washington would rather avoid disrupting India’s plans if it could help it, but it’s not shy about throwing its partner under the bus if this was the only way to increase the chances of Rakhine State being destabilized to the degree that it adversely affects China’s possible Myanmar Silk Road. From the American-Indian perspective, while it would be inconvenient if a scenario develops that interferes with the Kaladan Program, this doesn’t necessarily mean that New Delhi’s general strategy for diversifying its Northeast trade routes is irreparably damaged. After all, it can still utilize the ASEAN Highway that it’s constructing through Myanmar to Thailand and which does not pass through Rakhine or Shan States, although its eventual vulnerability in Kayin and Mon States will be addressed in the next section.
These two ethno-regional territorial units are located right next to one another along Myanmar’s eastern/southeastern border with Thailand. Although they’re identity-separate from each other, they’re grouped together in this present analysis out of the geostrategic imperative to more clearly describe the US’ Hybrid War intrigue. As a simplistic backgrounder, the Mon used to rule over a broad swath of southern Myanmar for hundreds of years, using the Hanthawaddy Kingdom as their vehicle of administration. They were finally defeated by the ethnic Bamar Toungoo Dynasty in 1539, which began a steady outmigration of Mon from the region and towards their current location along the Thai border. While most of the remaining population in the Irawaddy Delta assimilated and integrated into the developing Bamar-majority state, those that moved to the eastern/southeastern border region strove to retain their traditional identity and culture. After Myanmar’s independence, they some of them started to fight against the authorities, unhappy at the administrative status that they were given. This conflict continues into the present day, although it’s generally one of the most subdued elements of the country’s civil war and isn’t as dramatic or dynamic as the events in Kachin and Shan States.
The situation with the Karen in Kayin State is remarkably different than it is with the Mon, since the Karen National Union was the first organization to formally rebel against the government in 1949 and spark the entire civil conflagration. As some useful background information, the word “Karen” is actually refers to the composite identity of a diverse group of frontier-dwelling tribes. In that sense, the Karen are very heterogeneous and have struggled to foster a sense of communalism ever since they were first categorized together by the Christian outsiders.
Most of this group is still Buddhist, although around a third of the Karen are Christian, as is the majority of the Karen National Union. It should also be noted that Christian Karen collaborated with the British and were handsomely rewarded with prestigious colonial positions and imperial prestige, whereas the Buddhist Karen were mostly disregarded by the authorities and treated with the same type of contempt as all the others.
The growing intra-communal divide between Christian and Buddhist Karen eventually became one of the contributing factors to why the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army splintered from the Karen National Union in 1994, which undoubtedly hindered the Karen’s overall anti-government efforts. Even within these separate religiously affiliated camps, the Karen are still a very diverse people because of their separate languages and cultures, and most of this demographic lives outside of Kayin State and in the other parts of Myanmar. Taken together, it’s very challenging for the Karen’s rebel elite to foster a unified identity that could later translate into an autonomous, federalized, or autonomous state.
Mon and Karen States are very important for Myanmar because they are the only two minority regions through which India and Japan’s unipolar transnational connective infrastructure projects must pass, and accordingly, the Hybrid War chokepoint at which they’re most vulnerable to being destabilized. To elaborate in detail, India’s ASEAN Highway will connect to Mawlamyine in central Mon State, which is the fourth-largest city in the country. From there, it will then proceed alongside Japan’s East-West Corridor, which actually begins in that city, to the southern Kayin city of Myawaddy that’s located right next to the Thai border. Both of these projects, which can in a sense be seen as two strategically compatible and mutually complementary endeavors, strongly promote the non-Chinese unipolar vision in Southeast Asia.
These integral initiatives are essential to the viability of the Chinese Containment Coalition’s efforts in Myanmar, and as such, it’s highly unlikely that the US would encourage their disruption, even more so because both neither of these regions are connected to China in any physical or infrastructural way whatsoever. In view of this, it can be confidently forecast that that US and its allies will contribute whatever developmental and financial means necessary in pacifying and co-opting the rebellious Mon and Karen groups in this pivotal part of the country. Even in the unlikely instance that a disruptive conflict somehow re-erupts in these states, so long as it can be contained from affecting north-central Mon and southern Kayin (or in other words, occur only in southern Mon and northern Kayin), then the unipolar world will have nothing significant to worry about.
The next battleground in Myanmar’s civil war to be discussed is Chin State, which is important from the perspective of Hybrid War as a result of India’s Kaladan Project transiting through its territory. By and large, Chin State is one of the poorest, mountainous, sparsely populated, and least-developed areas in all of Myanmar, and it’s been relatively isolated from the rest of the country ever since independence. The Chin were Christianized by Baptist and Protestant missionaries during the colonial period, and most of them have still retained the religion that they converted to, thus giving them an added layer of identity separateness when compared to the majority Buddhist Bamar. Other than that, not much else is publicly available about this group and its ethno-regional state, underlining just how disconnected its half a million people remain from the rest of the world to this day.
What has importantly been established, though, is that a rebel group by the name of the Chin National Front has been active in the area since 1988, and they finally signed a ceasefire with the government in December 2012. The Chin were promised a stronger degree of cultural autonomy and that the military would notify the Chin National Front one month in advance of any incursions in certain designated areas within the state. In exchange, the rebels agreed to halt their attacks against government forces, which had the effect of stabilizing the region and securing the Kaladan Project. It’s plain to see that Naypyidaw decided to strike a deal with the Chin in order to safeguard the Indian-built project, and thus far, the arrangement is still in effect and appears to be a win-win for all parties.
The intermodal transport program is expected to be beneficial in bringing some much-needed foreign development to part of this reclusive state and be advantageous for some of the locals, but overall, it’s no longer as strategically important as it once was. India is also pursuing the ASEAN Highway that’s much more ambitious and passes through economically productive areas that can contribute to the bilateral trade flow along the route, unlike the Kaladan Project which goes through mostly virgin territory in Chin State. It’s not predicted that there’ll be any significant reoccurrence of ethno-regional violence in this area because the US has no interest in encouraging rebellions that don’t have any direct strategic relevance to containing China, yet there’s a chance that the fallout from any possibly contentious federalization agreement might be severe enough as to once more pit the Christian Chin National Front against the majority-Buddhist central authorities (among other similar peripheral-center conflicts that would likely break out again and/or intensify in this scenario).
If it ever happens that a domestic disruption in Chin State is severe enough to the extent that India’s initiative is jeopardized, suspended, or even cancelled, it wouldn’t have that much of an adversarial impact on either India or Myanmar aside from the money that they already invested. Where it could really have an effect is on the local Chin people, but then again, it wasn’t even predicted in the first place that most of them would benefit from this minor transit corridor in an obscure corner of their mountainous territory. Cynically speaking, the project is largely expendable and isn’t an absolute necessity to any party, functioning instead as a convenient supplement to the ASEAN Highway as opposed to its own independent trade corridor. In that sense, it’s largely inconsequential to the larger paradigm at play in the region, implying that Chin State will fail to factor into any of the Great Powers’ geostrategic calculations and will presumably remain irrelevantly obscure.
The Jade War
The northernmost state in Myanmar is the only one of the frontier and minority-majority regions to not have any transnational connective infrastructure project running through it, but that by no means dilutes its geostrategic importance to the country’s leaders and their neighbors. Kachin State is one of the territorially largest yet most sparsely populated areas of Myanmar, and its value to all players derives from its pivotal location along the Indian-Chinese border and its copious natural resource wealth. The area is renowned for its rich mineral deposits (especially its jade and gold reserves), and it has a lot of timber and hydroelectric potential as well. So profitable are these industries, particularly the mineral one, that it’s been widely reported that the conflict between the military and the Kachin Independence Organization is more of a war about resources than it is about self-determination.
That’s actually a pretty accurate description to a large extent, since both the military and the rebels have essentially been posturing themselves for control over these lucrative deposits and the right to legally trade them on the global market. The state has international legitimacy over the territory and its resources, and can therefore sell whatever it extracts to the rest of the world to the highest bidder that they find, but the rebels have no such legal freedom of trade and are forced out of necessity to informally sell their wares to the neighboring Chinese market. Although China has an apparently insatiable demand for jade, one of the most profitable of the many resources endemic to Kachin State, the fact that the rebels can only sell it to them illegally deflates the price below conventional market value and deprives them of the full profit that they could otherwise receive if they were legally selling it elsewhere abroad.
Out of their own economic self-interest, the Kachin rebels want to gain internationally recognized autonomy, federalization, and/or independence so that they can acquire the right to legally sell their minerals on the wider market and to major global companies, with the inference being that they would equitably distribute the proceeding wealth to the local population in a better manner than the military is currently doing. Reversely, the military does not want to lose its control over the jade mines that are presently under its command, having its own self-interest in sustaining the much-needed foreign currency flow that comes with this resource’s sale on the global market. For these economic reasons, the strategic state of the civil war in Kachin has come to a standstill, despite occasional violence between both sides that slightly adjusts the tactical balance between them.
To simplify the situation, both sides want to retain control over the jade and other natural resource deposits within Kachin State, yet there’s no ideal solution that satisfies the interests of both actors. The military’s promotion of a unitary state and/or non-self-rule autonomy/federalization/independence goes against the Kachin Independence Organization’s vision of economic sovereignty for the region, while the fulfillment of these aforementioned possibilities would deprive Naypyidaw of the very same revenue stream that the Kachin want to control. Even assuming that Myanmar moves towards a form of autonomy and/or federalism (whether through a standard nationwide implementation or an asymmetrical application on a case-by-case basis), there’s no foreseeable scenario that would be acceptable to both parties without one or the other compromising.
The military might concede some form of autonomy or federalism to Kachin State, but only over the parts of the region that it doesn’t control. This plan would obviously undermine the Kachin Independence Organization’s claim to have authority over all of their namesake state and deprive it of ever exercising control over the western half that the military would retain, so it’s unlikely that they’d agree to this. Additionally, it’s not expected that any other rebellious ethno-regional state such as the Shan and Kayin ones would be pressured to accede to the internal administrative partitioning of their territory per the speculated plan for Kachin State, so the Kachin clearly wouldn’t agree to a lopsided arrangement that puts them and their people at a national disadvantage or negative asymmetry when compared to its counterparts.
Unless the military surprisingly recants its position and agrees to grant Kachin State with full control over its entire internal economic affairs via autonomy or federalization, then the only way to break the negotiating deadlock would be through a renewal of large-scale hostilities in order to force the other into submitting to its demands. However, it’s possible that neither side would want to make the first move and tangibly destroy the spirit of ‘goodwill’ that all negotiating parties are expected to abide by if there are no other similarly tense disagreements between the central authorities and the rest of the ethno-regional representatives. Taking this into account, it can be forecast that one of the sides might engage in a false flag attack against the other in order to justify their preplanned militant response to breaking the political deadlock, which might have the consequence of unravelling the entire negotiation process through a rapid chain reaction of conflict that suddenly returns the country to civil war.
Just because no transnational connective infrastructure projects currently go through Kachin State does not mean that the region is forever doomed to geo-economic obscurity. Forecasting two separate, but not mutually exclusive, visions for Kachin State, it’s possible that the existing Mandalay-Myitkyna Railroad could be expanded to one day connect to China’s Yunnan Province and further afield to its envisioned regional transport hub of Kunming. Similarly, there’s also a chance that the aforementioned train route could achieve intermodal connectivity with India’s ASEAN Highway that will pass through Mandalay, thus giving New Delhi access to the region’s resources and competitively diverting them away from the Chinese marketplace and towards India’s instead. It’s already a well-documented fact that both Asian Great Powers are fiercely competing across the continent, so it’s not unrealistic that their rivalry in Myanmar will one day extend to the shared frontier region of Kachin State. With infrastructural investments and enhanced transportation connectivity being powerful instruments of 21st-century diplomacy, and with both India and China already employing these tools in Myanmar via the ASEAN Highway and China-Myanmar Energy Corridor and prospective Myanmar Silk Road respectively, it can be safely assumed that they will also try to find a way to integrate Kachin State into their grand projects.
Should they actively compete to do this, then China may find itself to be at a relative disadvantage to India not only because the present political situation in the country is mildly hostile to its interests, but because the people of Kachin State have previously displayed a simmering sense of Sinophobia. Myanmar indefinitely suspended China’s plans to construct the gargantuan Myitsone Dam project there in September 2011, ostensibly claiming that this was in response to growing environmental protests against it. To be sure, Naypyidaw took this move not in order to appease its citizens, but as a goodwill measure towards showing Washington that it was serious about implicitly cooperating with the Pivot to Asia grand strategy that was to be publicly announced the month afterwards. For that reason, its claims of doing so in order to mollify a growing protest movement are misleading but semi-plausible. The truth though is that the US and its affiliated NGO organs have been waging a prolonged information campaign against the hydroelectric projects that China has endeavored to build throughout Southeast Asia, and that it was actually somewhat successful in instigating various protests in Myanmar against the Myitsone Dam. Having said that, the degree to which most Kachin were genuinely against the dam is unascertainable, but it can be strategically assessed that the US’ “pro-environmental” campaigns in Myanmar and elsewhere in the region carry within them a euphemistically disguised Sinophobic slant that play on existing local stereotypes in order to gain wider support.
Racist stereotypes are always wrong and can never be justified, but in the interests of seeking a better understanding as to why some Kachin are disinclined towards China, it’s relevant to briefly remind the reader about the genesis of this attitude. China’s international economic forays initially began in its neighborhood through outreaches with neighboring states, especially the isolated Myanmar government during the 1990s. Totally new to the practice of targeted international investment in a newly globalized world, China sloppily made some mistakes in disregarding local sensitivities in its quest to churn out higher profit margins in its foreign areas of operation, which in this context, also included Kachin State. These missteps therefore had the unintended but predictable effect of imbuing certain members of the Kachin community with a negative attitude towards China, and regretfully one which remains partially in existence to this day and is subject to foreign manipulation. The soft power damage that China’s earlier business errors and the US’ ongoing overemphasized magnification of them have done to the Kachins’ grassroots attraction to other Chinese outreach efforts has made it relatively more difficult for Beijing to leverage its influence in turning the state into a geopolitical buffer, which when brought back into the context of the Indian-Chinese rivalry in South and Southeast Asia, heavily plays to New Delhi’s advantage.
While not typically recognized as a battleground in Myanmar’s civil war, Saigaing Region might turn out to be one of the most pivotal in terms of terms of the potential internationalization of the conflict. It’s not the majority Bamar that pose a risk in this regard, but the minority Naga that inhabit a thin slice of territory along the northern border with India. This ethnic group was divided along state lines after the end of British colonialism, with most of the demographic finding themselves in what would later become the Northeastern Indian state of Nagaland, while a scattering of them wound up in Myanmar. Technically speaking, it was the British that first administratively divided them from one another when they imposed the 1826 Treaty of Yandabo on Burma after the end of the First Anglo-Burmese War and acquired control of what is now Northeastern India. It was only after the Third Anglo-Burmese War concluded in 1885 that the British ‘reunited’ both Naga groups under their imperialist yoke, before once more administratively dividing them when Burma was decreed to be a separate colony in 1937. This division remained in effect after independence and continues to this day, as has been the desire of some nationalist Naga in India to formally reunite with their Myanmar-based brethren.
The Naga Conflict
The causes of the Naga Conflict in India are varied and the situation itself is complex enough to warrant an entire study into (of which there have already been many), but for the relevance of this research and in becoming familiarized with one of the forthcoming Hybrid War scenarios that will described in Part IV, the author needs to take the time right now to briefly introduce the reader to this topic. To condense decades of history into as few words as possible, the Naga National Council began agitating for the Naga Hills District of Assam to receive separate state status in 1947, and their movement eventually transformed into an insurgency in the early 1950s. While this was happening, there were also some Naga who did not even agree with their community’s incorporation into post-1947 India and started advocating for independence right away. New Delhi sought to compromise with the community by enacting a strategic decentralization in 1963 that created the state of Nagaland out of Assam, but this wasn’t enough to assuage the more nationalistically inclined Naga that continued to fight for an independent state. As time wore on and the conflict intensified, the Indian government began designating some of these groups as terrorist organizations in response to their violent actions. Nevertheless, this did not deter some organizations such as the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, which continued their campaign and even took it transnational to Myanmar, using the latter’s secluded northern jungle zones as refuge for planning new cross-border attacks and recruiting from the local population there.
The post-1963 generation of Naga nationalists has been motivated to create what they term to be “Nagalim”, or the unification of the Naga ethnic group under a single political leadership. It’s at this point where the goals of these organizations have begun to diverge. There are some Naga groups that want the Naga-inhabited regions of neighboring Northeast Indian states to be included into Nagaland, which would then either remain part of India or became an independent state. The other branch of Naga nationalists want to create a transnational independent “Nagalim” that incorporates the Naga-inhabited areas of India but also the newly created Naga Self-Administered Zone in Myanmar, thus representing a threat to the territorial integrity of both countries instead of only to India like before. The situation becomes further complicated because the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) (NSCN-K) has been operating in Myanmar for years and is one of the signatories to the government’s truce agreement, which itself legitimized the creation of the Naga Self-Administered Zone after the passing of the 2008 Constitution. Therefore, while the NSCN-K is a terrorist group in India, it’s a legitimately recognized state partner in Myanmar despite having chosen to not sign the October 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. This of course makes for a tricky cross-border situation that will later be revealed in Part IV of the research to be rife with Hybrid War potential.
The State of Affairs
To recap, the longest-running and most brutal episodes of Myanmar’s civil war have been fought in Shan, Kayin, and Kachin States along the country’s eastern borderlands. The destabilizations in Rakhine State, Chin State, and the NSCN-K’s activities in Sagaing Region have also been rightfully grouped into this larger conflagration, thus creating a situation where just about all of Myanmar’s ethno-regional periphery has been up in arms against the central government at some point in time. Being the world’s longest active conflict, the country’s civil war is extraordinarily complex and multifaceted, and different sides have turned against one another throughout the protracted course of this fratricidal bloodbath. While the war stubbornly slogged on for almost the past 70 years, the international scene underwent many dramatic changes, with the most relevantly pronounced one occurring when the US military decided to pivot most of its foreign focus from the European and Mideast theaters to the Asia-Pacific one.
Even before formally announcing this policy in October 2011, the US had already taken moves to facilitate its Pivot to Asia, pressuring Myanmar’s military government to accede to its grand strategic designs through a carrot-and-stick combination of ‘personal enrichment’ and Color Revolution blackmail, both of which ultimately succeeded in enacting the geostrategic concessions that Washington was seeking from Naypyidaw. As part of this arrangement, the US seriously began considering what a post-civil war Myanmar would look like, ideally envisioning that it would be an Identity Federalized state that’s tightly integrated into a chain of unipolar transnational infrastructure projects spearheaded by Chinese Containment Coalition-members India and Japan. Corresponding to its plans, it encouraged Myanmar to move forward with its Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement of October 2015, which the author analyzed in-depth in a prior publication entitled “Myanmar: Drawn-Out Peace Or Battle Lines Drawn?” Concurrently with throwing its rhetorical support behind that agreement, the US also implicitly signaled that it backed its proxy Suu Kyi’s inferences that the rebel groups should wait until the November election and the inauguration of a new government before making any deals with the authorities.
This schizophrenic approach is clearly explainable by the fact that the US generally favors the initiation of the conflict resolution process regardless of which side is supporting it, since its grand strategy has now changed to the point of being eager to stabilize Myanmar so that it can be more useful in ‘containing China’. Specifically, the implementation of Identity Federalism could create a checkerboard of new geopolitical ‘real estate’ inside the country that sudden enters ‘into play’, which would then allow the US and its allies to advance their political, economic, and military influence closer to the mainland Chinese border. In a state of continued civil war, the possibility of doing so is much more difficult and costly in the physical, financial, and strategic senses, hence the need to resolve the conflict and craft a facilitative domestic mechanism that could masquerade as a “win-win” solution for accomplishing this. The military and Suu Kyi’s dual-track engagement with the rebel groups, despite the former pressuring them to sign a deal before November and the latter pressuring them to do so afterwards, had in common the shared goal of advancing all parties towards an eventual ceasefire and the commencement of a forthcoming multilateral negotiation process that the author refers to as Panglong 2.0.
As taken from the previously cited article that the author published on the topic, the following is a list of signatories and non-signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement:
|Signatories (Pro-Government)||Non-Signatories (Opposition)|
|* All-Burma Students’ Democratic Front||* Arakan Army|
|* Arakan Liberation Party||* Kachin Independence Organization|
|* Chin National Front||* Karenni Natl. Progressive Party|
|* Democratic Karen Benevolent Army||* Lahu Democratic Union|
|* Karen Natl. Lib. Army – Peace Council||* Myanmar Natl. Democratic Alliance Army|
|* Karen National Union||* Natl. Soc. Council of Nagaland – Khaplang|
|* Pa-O National Liberation Organization||* New Mon State Party|
|* Shan State Army – South||* Ta’ang National Liberation Army|
|* United Wa State Army|
In order to aid the reader in more clearly understanding the present dynamics of the civil war after the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement was signed and incorporating the relevant infrastructure information presented in the earlier research, the author created a custom map that roughly delineates the territory of the signatory factions and illustrates the transnational connective infrastructure projects traversing through the country:
* Blue – anti-government rebel-controlled areas
* Black Dots – Myanmar’s three SEZs, from north to south they are Kyaukpyu, Thilawa, and Dawei
* Yellow Dot – The capital of Naypyidaw
* White Line – China-Myanmar oil and gas pipelines
* Lavender Line – India-Thailand Highway
* Lime Green Line – Japan’s East-West and Southern Corridors
* Navy Blue Line – India’s Kaladan Project
A comprehensive description of the battleground situation in the country was offered in the article that was earlier cited, and it’s recommended that the reader reference that material if they’re interested in the specifics of what the map addresses. In the interests of remaining relevant to the present research’s particular focus on Hybrid Wars, the author will instead dedicate the proceeding analysis to explaining how the map relates to the overlap of transnational connective infrastructure projects and the US’ destabilization scenarios for Myanmar:
The most pertinent observation that can be gleaned from the map is that the China-Myanmar Energy Corridor (which Beijing one day hopes to expand into the Myanmar Silk Road) is doubly vulnerable to destabilization via its transit through rebel-influenced Shan and Rakhine States, a condition which does not afflict India’s ASEAN Highway nor Japan’s East-West and Southern Corridors. While the areas that the Chinese project passes through are technically under government control, Naypyidaw’s hold over them might be revealed to be tenuous if a renewed stage of civil conflict ensues, be it a return to large-scale conventional hostilities in Shan State or ethno-religious riots in Rakhine State. The only real factor keeping China’s projects safe at the moment is the goodwill exhibited by the military, which has a vested economic self-interest in protecting Beijing’s investments and would assuredly respond to any attacks against them. However, in the changing geopolitical environment that Myanmar finds itself in, it might be less interested in doing so if cooperation with its new partners equals or exceeds the profitability of cooperating with China.
For example, Naypyidaw might one day calculate or be made to believe that responding to rebel provocations against China’s infrastructure investments might entail too much of a political cost to be worth it, figuring that a militant reaction to any attacks might undermine the entire national peace process and disrupt the geopolitical redirection that it’s commenced towards the unipolar world. Recalling how the US has expertly employed the carrot-like tactic of ‘personal enrichment’ to embed its influence deep into the country’s military elite, it’s possible that some influential individuals in this institution might have a direct economic self-interest in doing whatever they can to avoid the perception that they’re behaving in a “hostile” manner and “obstructing the peace process”, desperately seeking to avoid any type of scenario that could lead to the reimplementation of sanctions.
Another vulnerability afflicting the China-Myanmar Energy Corridor and the possible Myanmar Silk Road is the degree to which any possibly autonomous and/or federalized entities in Shan and Rakhine States would exercise their economic sovereignty over the project. Just as Ukraine has become a massive obstructionist in blocking Russian-European energy cooperation, so too could either of these two transit states do something similar in hassling China’s relations with the Myanmar central government and/or its outside partners via its Indian Ocean terminal in Kyaukpyu. These subnational units, emboldened by what might predictably be a strong degree of economic self-rule within their reformatted territories, might try to squeeze outrageous transit fees out of China that damage the profitability of the pipeline, thus raising the ‘maintenance’ costs of this strategic project so much that it eventually turns into a financial sinkhole. Beijing would likely object to any sort of economic blackmail being carried out against it, let alone by subnational governments, but Naypyidaw might be unwilling to forcefully intervene in settling any forthcoming dispute because it wouldn’t want to risk reigniting the civil war simply over settling one of its internal states’ pipeline payment disputes with China (especially if the given state’s rebel groups are reconstituted into a legal subnational military).
Faced with a situation where the physical and economic security of its pipelines is uncertain, China will be less likely to enhance its strategic engagement with Myanmar on the state-to-state level, seeking instead to do so on the state-to-autonomous/federalized unit one. Beijing has already shown an indication that it’s moving in this direction, having hosted leaders of the Rakhine National Party in an attempt to curry their favor. Clearly, the reason that it did this was to cultivate a pragmatic working relationship with the political individuals that might one day be more influentially positioned within the state than the national authorities themselves. The missing piece of China’s dual-level diplomacy in Myanmar is fostering a friendly political force in Shan State. Right now, the area is still engulfed in civil warfare and divided amongst a diverse variety of warring factions, so it’s much too early for China to commit to resolutely supporting one or the other. Besides, none of them are presently capable of exercising control over the entire administrative unit, and more than likely, no such political power might ever arise. Thus, China’s best bet appears to be in waiting to see which force will ultimately control the particular portion of the sub-state access route which its pipelines currently pass through, and then rapidly finding a way to ingratiate itself with that group after they’re solidly in charge of the territory.
The Mandalay Meeting Point:
Positioned almost directly in the center of the country, the city of Mandalay is a key hub in managing north-south trade throughout Myanmar. Its position is best exemplified by the fact that both the Chinese and Indian projects run through it, with the ASEAN Highway obviously being of greater tangible benefit to the city and its inhabitants than the China-Myanmar Energy Corridor. However, if China is able to one day acquire direct rail access to the city, be it through an expanded version of the Mandalay-Myitkyina Railroad or the parallel integration of a Myanmar Silk Road alongside its existing energy pipelines, then Beijing would likely enter into fierce economic proxy rivalry with New Delhi over the whole of northern Myanmar. As it stands, China already exerts a strong economic presence in the region, amplified by the migration of tens of thousands of Chinese citizens to Mandalay over the past couple of decades and their enormous influence within the city, but the lack of a reliable trading corridor between the two states has prevented this part of the country from totally falling under China’s soft power purvey. Additionally, the existence of mild Sinophobia, the roots of which were explained earlier in the research, acts as an inhibitor to the advancement of further Chinese influence in the area and accordingly positions India as an attractive economic ‘balancer’.
It’s difficult at this point to predict the future of the Chinese-Indian economic rivalry in northern Myanmar, particularly over Mandalay and its surrounding environs, but the present state of affairs indicates that India certainly has the advantage via the ASEAN Highway. As such, it can also be said that New Delhi has the initiative because its transnational connective infrastructure project has the potential to directly benefit the local economy. In many ways, this is exactly what China’s multiple Silk Roads are expected to do all across the world, and it’s ironic that it’s India, not China, which is physically fulfilling this vision in Myanmar at the moment. For these reasons, Beijing understands that its economic sway over the country will inevitably be mitigated with time, since each passing day that the ASEAN Highway is in service and the Myanmar Silk Road isn’t represents a relative degradation of its soft power capabilities that will only get worse the longer that this asymmetry continues. Again, the supreme irony rests in the fact that it’s typically China that’s inflicting such indirect damage to its competitor’s capabilities and not the other way around, meaning that this situation is largely unique for China and one in which it doesn’t have any precedential experience to draw from.
The Mon State Juncture:
Tiny Mon State, nestled in the southeast of Myanmar between the Indian Ocean and Kayin State, happens to be one of the most geo-critical areas of the country. Its importance derives from it connecting India’s ASEAN Highway to Japan’s East-West Corridor, with the key junction being the port city of Mawlamyine. From here, both transnational infrastructure projects proceed along an identical route to the Karen city of Myawaddy before splitting ways once inside of Thailand. Because of the significance that these projects occupy in terms of the unipolar world’s grand strategic planning, it’s imperative that both of them are properly safeguarded in order to maximize their viability. For the most part, there aren’t any lingering problems in Mon or Karen States since the Karen National Union, this part of the country’s premier rebel group, and a smattering of its offshoots have signed on to the government’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. The problem, however, is that the New Mon State Party (NMSP) is not a signatory to the agreement and could therefore pose a theoretical threat to either of these projects.
It’s difficult to access reliable information about the NMSP and its activities in Myanmar, but it doesn’t appear as though this group is that formidable of a threat at the moment. The author wasn’t able to find any information indicating that they tried to sabotage or attack India and Japan’s projects, and it’s probable that if they would have made an attempt to do so, it could have likely been documented and disseminated as pro-Mon propaganda on the internet somewhere. Also, such an attempt would likely have resulted in a military response, and this too would surely have been recorded and predictably used in some manner or another to impugn the government. Because of the unavailability of these resources on the internet, it can be assumed that they either haven’t happened recently, or if they did, then they were so low-scale and inconsequential as to barely merit any mention. It’s questionable, then, why the NMSP would refuse to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement if it’s as weak and uninfluential as it seems to be, obviously not having any militant control over the state’s territory along either of the two transnational infrastructure projects’ routes. A plausible explanation might be that the NMSP wants to hold out for as long as possible in order to hopefully reap the dividends of autonomy or federalization for their home state, believing that if they multilaterally negotiate to do so together with some of the other, more influential rebel groups across the country that have also refused to sign the agreement, then they might be able to achieve political rewards disproportionate to their size, power, and influence.
In the event that the NMSP tries to disrupt India or Japan’s projects, it’s very likely that the military will instantly crack down on them and put a stop to the problem before it gets out of control. The US and its allies will probably support this move because the ASEAN Highway and East-West Corridor occupy a much higher position in their list of strategic priorities than pandering to the interests of a tiny ethno-regional rebel group. It could be that the US and some of its Western European (NATO) allies issue a rhetoric denunciation of the military in order to ‘save face’ before the ‘human rights’ lobby in their countries (provided of course that they even become aware of any potential military-Mon clashes), but in that case it wouldn’t be sincere and should only be interpreted as a tactic for domestic political consumption. Despite Naypyidaw making a move to snuff out the rebels, they might not be ultimately successful, especially if the NMSP has somehow acquired the proper guerrilla warfare training to effectively stage hit-and-run attacks and then seamlessly blend in with the local population. In such a situation, it might be counterproductive for the military to launch a large-scale crackdown and other means would have to be attempted instead.
Other than the forceful measures that could be employed if the NMSP tried to attack the unipolar project, the other most likely response could be that Washington, New Delhi, and Tokyo proceed to bribe the group into stopping its offensive, that is, if they don’t already have them on the payroll by now anyhow. The NMSP is small and thus susceptible to being easily influenced by relatively insubstantial amounts of cash, so a metaphorical ‘drop in the bucket’ for one of these state actors could translate into a lifetime of luxury for all of its leadership. If this didn’t work for whatever reason (e.g. the NMSP is more patriotic than profit-minded) and the three actors did not want to give the Myanmar military the green light to wipe the rebel group out, then they could use their influence over Naypyidaw to ensure that Mon State receives some sort of autonomy or federalization during the forthcoming internal administrative reformation and that the NMSP is guaranteed a position of legally recognized leadership within the territory.
Andrew Korybko is the American political commentator currently working for the Sputnik agency. He is the author of the monograph “Hybrid Wars: The Indirect Adaptive Approach To Regime Change” (2015). This text will be included into his forthcoming book on the theory of Hybrid Warfare.