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Myanmar resistance gains bring hope, but also a rise in civilian abuses 

‘We’re seeing an appalling uptick, an exponential increase, in atrocity crimes.’

People’s Liberation Army forces fight the Myanmar junta army near Sagaing Region in Myanmar November 23, 2023. Stringer/Reuters
Forces from the People’s Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of Burma, fight members of the Myanmar junta's military in Sagaing Region, on 23 November 2023.

Gains by the armed opposition in Myanmar have been heralded as a hopeful sign of a turning point three years after the junta seized control, but some groups are allegedly committing abuses in their push for progress, while reports of military violations are also mounting.

“Ultimately, what we’ve seen is that, as part of the drive to push the junta out, they are willing to engage in unlawful practices,” Manny Maung, Myanmar researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The New Humanitarian, referring specifically to opposition groups in eastern Shan state. “Just because their position is garnering support from the rest of the population doesn’t mean they should be committing violations as they go along.”

Such violations allegedly include sexually assaulting women, forcibly recruiting civilians, and robbing homes – acts that had typically been synonymous with the military rather than the resistance.

On 1 February 2021, the military ousted the civilian government led by now-imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi and has since killed almost 4,500 people, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), an activist group that has been recording killings by the security forces.

In response to the coup, hundreds of pockets of resistance arose, including civilian-founded local defence groups (LDFs). Some of these operate independently, while others are known as the People’s Defence Forces (PDFs), of which certain pockets are backed by the exiled National Unity Government (NUG).

Then there are the ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), originating from states such as Chin, Kachin, Karen, Shan, and Karenni. These existed prior to the coup and were fighting between one another and against the military over contested territories and resources. They were born out of the persecution many minority groups have experienced in Myanmar and the complex interstate politics that, according to Action on Armed Violence, worsened under British colonial rule and the subsequent military leadership.

Even under the civilian government that followed, fighting continued and groups such as the Rohingya were still heavily persecuted. As it stands, the military government recognises 135 Indigenous ethnic groups while excluding many others, including the Rohingya, leaving them open to discrimination, limited employment opportunities, and heightened levels of poverty.

The oldest armed group, the Karen National Union (KNU), a version of which was formed in 1885 and renamed in 1947, represents the needs of the Karen people who have long endured land confiscation, attacks, and forced labour. It works to protect the state with the support of its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).

Today, the EAOs have largely put their disputes aside, united in their mission to push back the military, and together the various factions of resistance are estimated to be 55,000 strong

Reports of abuses are piling up

On 27 October, three EAOs – the Myanmar National Truth and Justice Party/Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNTJP/MNDAA), the Palaung State Liberation Front/Ta’ang National Liberation Army (PSLF/TNLA), and the United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA) – carried out the resistance’s most coordinated operation yet, pushing the junta back in a series of simultaneous attacks in northern Shan state.

Rejuvenated by the subsequent weakening of the military’s position, other EAOs in places such as Sagaing, Kachin, Kayah, and Rakhine initiated their own attacks. Since then, as of mid-January, local media estimated that the resistance has wrested back control of over 30 towns from the junta, including Laukkai, Namhsan, and a China-Burma trade zone outside the city of Muse.

In response, the junta’s approach has been to double down on its tactics: recruiting child soldiers, burning villages, and torturing those who oppose its rule.

“We’re seeing an appalling uptick, an exponential increase, in atrocity crimes,” Christopher Gunness, executive director of the Myanmar Accountability Project, which is building criminal cases against individual military members, told The New Humanitarian. The majority are being committed by the military, he said. But amid the intensification of fighting, reports have emerged of resistance groups also violating international humanitarian law.

In December, Human Rights Watch shared that it had received reports of an EAO in Shan state, the MNDAA, “forcibly recruiting” 14 men.

A worker with a women’s empowerment organisation in northern Shan state said it had documented over 100 young people from different ethnic backgrounds that the MNDAA had arrested with the intent to enlist them. “They shouldn't force other ethnic people to be their soldiers,” she said.

In Rakhine, on social media platform X, an armed group linked to the Arakan Army, an EAO, has been accused of multiple robberies and abductions. Maung said she had also heard reports of certain groups engaging civilians in forced labour and sexual assault.

Not all allegations are so recent: In 2022, allegations emerged of a resistance group in Sagaing region, raping three women and killing seven people it suspected of being military informants.

A spokesperson for the Kachin Women's Association Thailand (KWAT), which supports survivors of gender-based violence along the China-Myanmar border, said it had heard reports of such acts by resistant groups but hadn't come into contact with direct survivors yet.

Sexual violence in conflict zones is often never officially reported for fear of stigma or ramifications and, even when it is, it can be hard to verify. “Harassment and verbal abuse specifically of women, that is what we have received a lot of,” said the spokesperson. 

“If there are organisations, governments, individuals with any influence over those opposition groups, they need to impress upon them that violations of any kind with the aim of taking over the Myanmar armed forces are not justified and really throws [away] credibility to their cause,” said Maung.

KWAT, according to its spokesperson, helps to educate communities on the Geneva Convention, and Aung Kyaw Moe, deputy minister for the NUG’s ministry of human rights, said it is providing its PDFs with training on international humanitarian law.

Yet NUG-led PDFs have also been accused of human rights abuses. One issue, according to local media, is that many NUG leaders are located outside of the country and therefore lack connection to – and authority over – what’s happening on the ground. It has, however, established a Complaint Resolution Committee to investigate potential crimes committed by resistance members.

Kyaw Moe said the NUG is also instructing groups under its leadership to support aid delivery. The junta, since holding power, has imposed various restrictions on both local and international NGOs, making it difficult for them to operate, and has withheld aid from reaching certain populations.

Impact on aid

Since October and Operation 1027, as the coordinated attack is known, Meredith Bunn, founder of the non-profit Skills For Humanity, which focuses on providing education and emergency medical services during and after attacks, said she has seen EAOs dedicate more time to trying to make sure that food, water, and medical aid reaches people safely.

 “We have had infants that are basically starving to death because they didn't have formula.”

This is sorely needed, said a Shan-based local, explaining that many people have had to limit their intake to two meals a day as supplies dwindle.

In Arakan state, many villages have been blocked off by the recent fighting and are struggling to access food and water, while landmines littered by the junta encircle internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps, making it impossible for people to leave to find necessities, Bunn said, adding: “We have had infants that are basically starving to death because they didn't have formula.”

At the same time, as the fighting encroaches on towns such as Loikaw, Kamphat, and Rikhawdhar, more people are having to flee their homes. According to the UN, the number of those displaced since the fighting intensified in late October had already risen by 660,000 by mid-December.

The hope was that this could plateau with the installation of a China-brokered temporary ceasefire, announced on 12 January. Few details on the exact areas it would cover were shared but reports of military assaults along the Myanmar-China border have since emerged despite the agreement. “The SAC is doing reinforcement in the EAOs’ active areas during this ceasefire and the fighting was still happening…on 13 January,” said the Shan-based local, whose identity is being protected for security reasons. 

Elsewhere in the country, fighting continues. On 26 January, conflict between the junta and the Arakan Army, led to the destruction of 40 homes and numerous civilian casualties, according to the Burma Human Rights Network. It called for the EAO to stop using civilian areas to stage attacks and to respect international law.

But as EAOs gain more ground Bunn hopes it will become easier for aid groups to reach vulnerable groups. According to the United States Institute of Peace, many fighters are from the communities they are trying to serve and driven to support their people.

The KNLA, for example, has historically prioritised humanitarian aid, said Phil Thornton, author and founder of Karen News – a media outlet centred on reporting by Karen journalists on issues that shape Karen communities: “It's always looked after refugees and, very importantly, it's always tried to move IDPs out of harm's way and deliver what it can.”

Looking ahead, a Yangon-based source asked what will happen between EAOs and civilians in the areas they’ve reclaimed when the conflict ends. Right now, they are united over their common enemy, the military, but once the conflict ends, groups that have long fought one another may resume hostilities. “What we know, from before, Myanmar was not only fighting between the armed actors and the military, it was fighting between the armed actors [over] contested territories, resources and so on,” said the source.

This could be especially problematic, some reports suggest, if the military is defeated and EAOs find themselves operating in territories not pertaining to their own minority group, and if there is no central authority to ensure peace is maintained.

On the eve of the third anniversary of the coup, four EAOs – the NUG, the KNU, the Karenni National Progressive Party, and the Chin National Front – issued a joint statement laying out their vision for the “establishment of a federal democratic union” and a “Transnational NUG” that would include representatives from all “allied parties” and ensure all armed forces operate under the same civilian-led government.

But this is coming only from four of the hundreds of EAOs in existence, even if Padoh Ta Doh Moo, general secretary of the KNU, said others are being consulted and expected to join.

For the people of Myanmar, there’s no guarantee that an end to military rule is imminent, nor that it will necessarily equate to the end of civilian suffering. 

Edited by Ali M. Latifi.

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