Can you imagine living in a country that has been enduring a civil war? Most people in the world cannot understand what that must be like. In my own country, the American Civil War in the 1860s was horrific. Reading the history and visiting places like the battlefields of Gettysburg, PA, I am astounded and sickened at not only the massive loss of life, but how long the war lasted, just over four years. Four long drawn-out years of devastation. But get this…four years is the blink of an eye if you’re from Myanmar.
It is Current Events week on the blog, and in the first post here and second post here, we’ve talked about Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan, what it means to love our neighbors, and how Faith Church gained some new neighbors when we rented our church to Burmese Christians. In this post we dig into the history of their country, Myanmar, and why they have been fighting a civil war for a very long time.
In 1948, the country then called Burma gained its independence from the United Kingdom, and almost immediately, insurgencies began. Since that time, the country holds the distinction of having the longest civil war in the world, spanning seven decades. The war is largely based on ethnic violence, though there have also been uprisings due to political and religious ideology. After the British left, three successive civilian parliamentary governments led Burma, but in 1962 the Tatmadaw, which is the name of Myanmar’s armed forces, ousted the civilian government through a military coup. From 1962 until 2011 the military led a country at war with itself. During this time Myanmar became one of the least developed and most isolated countries in the world. Numerous uprisings were brutally put down by the military, which used torture, rape and scorched earth warfare.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a woman named Aung San Suu Kyi led a movement to turn Myanmar into a democracy. Ms. Suu Kyi is the daughter of a well-respected leader, Aung San, who led the country in the 1940s during and after World War 2, as Myanmar was in the process of becoming independent. Sadly just before independence, he was assassinated. To this day, he is considered the Father of Myanmar. In 1990 the new political party his daughter, Ms. Suu Kyi, helped create, the National League for Democracy, won an election in a landslide. But the military leaders refused to recognize it, placing her under house arrest where she remained for 15 years. While on house arrest, Suu Kyi continued to work to bring democracy to Myanmar, and during that time she won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Throughout the years of military control, people repeatedly tried to rise up against the military, thus continuing the civil war. As a result, through the 1990s and 2000s, the military started attacking numerous ethnic groups. Estimates reports that between 500,000 and 1 million people were displaced between 1996 and 2006.
Amazingly the uprisings and international pressure slowly inspired change. A new constitution, approved in 2008, led to political reforms between 2011 and 2015, including the release of thousands of political prisoners. One was Aung San Suu Kyi. The new constitution also created self-administered ethnic zones, so civilian governments began to rule. Suu Kyi was elected as State Counselor (which is like a prime minister) and her National League for Democracy took power. There was still tension with the military, however, which held on to more power than many were comfortable with.
While there were peace conferences in hopes of ending all conflict, many criticized these efforts for not going far enough, and for allowing too much power in the hands of the military. Uprisings continued in 2016, and the military would often strike back. Also, while she was in office, Suu Kyi was criticized for Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya minority. Myanmar considers the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants, denying them citizenship. Thousands were killed and more than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh through an army crackdown in 2017. As a result, Suu Kyi appeared before the International Court of Justice in 2019 where she denied allegations that the military had committed a genocide.
In November 2020 Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won another landslide election. The military responded, claiming that the there was widespread election fraud, and they demanded a re-vote. Myanmar’s election commission said there was no evidence to support the military’s claims. The military ignored the election commission, and on February 1, 2021, they took control of the government through a coup. After only about five years of civilian government, the commander in chief of the military, Min Aung Hlaing, became the new head of state. The military arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and several other senior members of the government, who are currently being held at an unknown location. Declaring a state of emergency which will last for a year, the military claimed they will hold free and fair elections.
Since the February 1 military coup, people have responded in mass protests. Most have been non-violent, but some have tried to fight the military. Citizens are training to become an insurgent military. On March 27, over 100 people were killed in clashes with the military. There was a ceasefire April 4th, but it didn’t last a month. Various groups continue to fight the military, and news of attacks are being reported almost daily. So far over 800 protestors have been killed by the military, including at least 44 children. About 5000 people have been detained.
In some states in Myanmar, religion is a source of conflict. For example, in northern Kachin State the people are historically predominantly Christian. Likewise, some estimates say that 95% of Chin state is Christian. In the next post, we’ll learn how the military has been attacking the Christian areas of Myanmar.
If you prefer a video history of Myanmar, this one is excellent: