Myanmar in Trouble: Urgent Need for Reconciliation

Date
17-04-2024

Since its independence in 1948, Myanmar has seen military dictatorship, civil war, poor development and governance and widespread poverty. The military, known as the Tatmadaw, has responded to any opposition to its preponderance with a forceful crackdown curbing dissent affecting smooth democratic functioning in the country.1 The impact of such a dictatorship is further exacerbated by social fragmentation within the Burmese landscape.2

On 11 April 2024, a group of armed ethnic insurgents led by the Karen National Union (KNU) wrested control from the Myanmar army (junta) and established their hold over the border town of Myawaddy, on Myanmar-Thailand border. Myanmar has witnessed internal armed resistance which is receiving a boost from the ethnic rebel groups challenging the military’s territorial control across large parts of the country.

There are over 135 ethnic minorities in Myanmar; they are primarily concentrated in the mountainous border areas of the country. The struggle for power and resources has contributed to tensions and ethnic conflicts. While Myanmar is rich in natural resources such as oil, gas, timber, and minerals, access to these resources has been highly unequal.3 Acknowledging the need for land reforms and implementing them in the country’s peace process is crucial to bringing the country out of its decade-old civil war. New laws should be brought in aimed at diluting the existing system of centralised governance, and guaranteeing ethnic autonomy. The inequitable distribution of resources between the centralised Burmese State and the resource-rich ethnic periphery is one of the key drivers of ethnic conflict in Myanmar.4 In a multi-ethnic state like Myanmar, it is believed that devolution of powers to the periphery alone can take care of the aspirations of the ethnic minorities struggling for their rights in an army-dominated political system with little respect for the non-Burman population in Myanmar.

The 2015 shift towards a government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar marked a significant step in the country’s democratic transition, yet it coincided with a setback for ethnic minorities, who faced increased marginalization both politically and militarily. Despite efforts to involve minorities in decision-making, the November 2015 elections resulted in significant underrepresentation of ethnic minority parties in the Burmese parliament, with only 55 out of 498 seats secured by such parties.5 This electoral disparity is attributed to factors such as political fragmentation, competition, and the first-past-the-post system favouring larger parties like the NLD. Upholding channels for minority representation is crucial for fostering trust and inclusivity in the country's political landscape.

The economic liberalisation policy of 1988 brought about a shift in Myanmar’s economic landscape. While the policy increased employment opportunities for many individuals, it also resulted in resource exploitation of a kind that put an unfair burden on the minorities in the peripheral areas nestled in the Burmese mountains where armed resistance has raised its head. The economic liberalisation also heightened income disparity and made the gap between Burmans and the minorities in different areas like accessible healthcare and education more visible. Due to barriers to entry for minorities in the formal sector, informal employment sectors like agriculture remained the primary source of income for ethnic minorities in the country.6 The policies of the NLD did not appear to be sensitive enough to the demands and requirements of the minorities. The centralising reflexes of the Myanmar state continued to guide the NLD’s approach during 2015-2020. It was said that NLD could not perform according to its promises and potential because its efforts were checkmated by a corrupt judiciary and an entrenched military.  

The COVID-19 pandemic coupled with the military coup in February 2021, whereby the Pyidaungsu or the bicameral national assembly was dissolved by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing through a coup, led to the Burmese economy seeing a 20 per cent economic crash The simmering internal turmoil ever since has engulfed the entire country resulting in continuing armed resistance and largescale internal displacement and external migration. A large number of people fleeing Myanmar has taken shelter in many of the north-eastern states in India, especially in Mizoram. On 11 April 2024, two Myanmar nationals, including a woman, were reportedly arrested for possessing 1.5 kg of heroin worth ₹ 10.65 crore in Champhai district, eastern Mizoram, as per the Assam Rifles posted there. The narco-trafficking angle has made the India state even more anxious about the possible negative fall-out of the continuing turmoil in Myanmar. Keeping the disturbances in Myanmar, India had to relocate the CGI (Consulate General of India) and staff from its consulate in Myanmarese city of Sittwe to Yangon. There were even reports of kidnapping of three Indian nationals. While India has traditionally been sensitive to the close ethno-cultural relationships among people straddling the India-Myanmar border, the security concerns have dictated some contingency planning, which include decision to fence the border and end the Free Movement Regime that was in vogue in the area between the two countries for a long time. The capture of Myawaddy, Myanmar's main transit point for trade with Thailand by rebel forces is being seen as a significant development indicating declining hold of the junta over power.

Conflict and poverty has crippled the post-coup economy. Sanctions and international asset freezes have obstructed the country’s access to the global financial system. The unending conflicts have reduced productivity and growth in the region further driving away investment.7 Alongside this, the pandemic resulted in many companies reducing their workforce and caused a shortage in cash-flow.)8

Large-scale economic decline and unemployment have caused a food crisis and a surge in fuel prices making survival harder for most of Myanmarese citizens and especially so for ethnic minorities. While incomes have declined, the cost of living has increased. Compared to 9 per cent in 2020, 30 per cent of the households in the Rakhine State reported being without food in 2021. In the Chin State, 58 per cent of households said they were eating less than 21 per cent of what they consumed in 2020.9

The present situation is also captured in grim news reports around the world. For example, the World Bank report on Myanmar’s economic repair plan asserted that “economic recovery falters as conflict and inflation weigh” in and “broad-based slowdown anticipated across productive sectors”. Conflict has increased in the region since October 2023 leading to the displacement of over half a million people. Additionally, the slowdown of productive sectors like agriculture, manufacturing and the trade secret has led to further decline of Myanmar’s economy.10 While there is some optimism attached to Myanmar’s garment industry, this growth has already hit the ceiling due to international competitiveness. With “the operating environment deteriorating and uncertainty about the future increasing”, state firms are focussing on survival rather than growth.

Myanmar’s journey towards stability remains an arduous one and has been tainted by military tensions, ethnic conflict, and economic disparity. The country must move towards democratisation to ensure peace with and representation for its ethnic communities. In the absence of such measures, there is little scope for an accountable government or positive social or economic reforms. Stability and equality must be the common goal that Burmese political parties ought to drive towards. Myanmar is badly in need of a process of reconciliation that would involve all the stakeholders including the powerful military and all the ethnic groups and evolve a new social contract enabling and empowering them all. This would also ensure the upliftment of sanctions and facilitate the flow of funds and humanitarian aid to the country and offer Myanmar an opportunity to reinvent itself.

All this would require a change in the mindset in the ‘Tatmadaw’ or the Myanmar military as well as the approach of the Burman elite to grant devolutionary powers to the minority ethnic groups and weave all ethnicities together into a unified whole. This can only happen in a truly inclusive democracy and not under a centralised dictatorial rule.

Ms Kirti Advani is an Intern at International Centre for Peace Studies, New Delhi. The views expressed are her own. She wishes to thank Dr Ankita Sanyal for her inputs during the preparation of this comment.


1. Joshua Kurlantzick, “Myanmar is a failing state— and Could Be a Danger to Its Neighbors”, In Brief, Council of Foreign Relations, 16 September 2021, (accessed on 26 March 2024)
2. World Bank Report on Myanmar,  (accessed on 26 March 2024)
3. Marte Nilsen and Stein Tonnesson, “Myanmar’s ethnic minorities marginalised more”, East Asia Forum, 13 April 2016, (accessed on 26 March 2024)
4. Tom Kramer, “Ethnic Conflict and Lands Rights in Myanmar.” Social Research 82, no. 2 (2015): 355–74.  (accessed on 26 March 2024)
5. See note 3.
6. Than Tun, Adam Kennedy and Ulrike Nischan, “Promoting Agricultural Growth in in Myanmar: A review of policies and an assessment of knowledge gaps”. ReSAKSS-Asia Working Paper 7. Washington, D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) , (accessed on 26 March 2024)
7. Jayendu De and Sanaa Nadeem, “Six Charts on Myanmar's Economy in the Time of COVID-19”, IMF Asia and Pacific Department,  (accessed on 26 March 2024)
8. Bhowmick Soumya & Sreeparna Banerjee, “Myanmar: Coup, COVID-19, and the ongoing economic crisis”,  15 June 2022, ORF Online,  (accessed on 26 March 2024)
9. Htwe Htwe Thein, and Michael Gillan, “Poverty and conflict cripple Myanmar’s post-coup economy”; East Asia Forum, 27 February 2024  (accessed on 26 March 2024)
10. Myanmar economic recovery falters as conflict and inflation weigh”, Wprld Bank Press Release, 12 December 2023,  (accessed on 26 March 2024)