For the past few decades, Myanmar has suffered perpetual threats of internal violence that arise as a consequence of the admirable multiplicity of stakeholders. Even though there is a clear majority ethnicity ruling the country, in certain areas of Myanmar the population of minorities reigns over the territory, demanding autonomy. Consequently, Suu Kyi and her government faced numerous and dangerous secessionist armed conflicts throughout the country. In her time as leader, Suu Kyi failed to reconcile with them, adding to the conflict currently plaguing the country.
External stakeholders also posed a threat for Suu Kyi. On the one hand, China seemed to be benefiting from the armed conflict in Myanmar, and was allegedly supplying arms to the combatants to continue the violence. On the other hand, historical conflicts with neighboring countries, such as Bangladesh, were always on the verge of resurfacing as a consequence of Myanmar’s ongoing internal conflicts; aka conflict spillover. In addition to these physical confrontations, Suu Kyi constantly faced strong opposition from Western countries in the shape of strong sanctions and condemnation.
Besides other sources of unrest when transitioning to democracy, this Southeast Asian country has had to take into consideration the personalized demands of more than 135 different ethnicities. Many of them –as a response to the horizontal inequalities they’ve endured- have formed extremely violent and varied armed groups. Consequently, Myanmar’s greatest internal threat comes from the presence of these armed militias rooted in ethnic identity politics. One of the most internationally known groups is the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. This group was responsible for the spark of the Rohingya genocide after they killed Burmese police officers in 2017. Nonetheless, the list of ethnic militias is much wider.
Suu Kyi’s government had to struggle particularly with the Arakan Army. This is the largest insurgent group in the Rakhine state and they have been fighting for Arakanese nationalism and self-determination, particularly in response to oppression by the military components of Suu Kyi’s government. In 2015, they won majority seats in the Rakhine state but allied with Suu Kyi with the hope that they would be able to nominate their own minister in the region. Nonetheless, the NLD assigned its own and ignored their pleas for autonomy. Consequently, in 2019, they launched an attack that killed 13 officers, to which Suu Kyi responded with extreme hostility, calling for the military to “crush them”. They haven’t been too successful. In fact, they have been humiliated by the Arakan army’s hybrid and non-exhausting guerrilla fighting. But, to be fair, Suu Kyi was fighting on many fronts.
Other actively violent groups include the United Wa State Army, which is constituted of more than 20,000 trained troops and is thought to be the largest insurgency group in the country. The Kachin Independence Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army have also posed great threats for the Burmese State. The complexity of the issue lies in the dynamism of these militia: there are smaller branches of these armed groups, alliances formed between them, and a continuous process of eliminating and creating new branches.
There have been some attempts for peace in the past. In 2015, a National Ceasefire Agreement was signed by eight armed groups and the government as an attempt to pave the way for political talks. This eased the dissipation of groups such as the Karen National Union or the Restoration Council of Shan State. Nonetheless, Suu Kyi’s government also explicitly left out newly formed groups in the fear that their recognition would promote further armed group creation. This, in turn, further angered the non-signatories who then formed alliances such as the United Nationalities Federal Council and the Brotherhood Alliance in order to hit the Tatmadaw harder.
If all this clutter of mutually exclusive notions of identity wasn’t enough trouble, Myanmar’s rising illicit drug market has developed a symbiotic relationship with these armed groups. The instability caused by the violence is the perfect incubator for drug manufacture, which -in turn- provides these armed militias the necessary funds to continue their violent struggle. Before it was overtaken by Afghanistan, Myanmar was catalogued as the largest source of opium and heroin in the world.
The South Asian country is now a close second that offers a large variety of heroin, methamphetamine and high purity crystal meth. These drugs are mainly produced in areas ravaged by conflict, particularly the Shan State. As of now, the Shan State’s illicit market is so large that it dwarfs the formal sector and has become the center of its economic development. But the issues aren’t solely economical. Besides fostering armed conflict in the country, the illicit drug market has also caused skyrocketing levels of national drug abuse; it is estimated that 30% of the local population consumes either heroin or meth.
Suu Kyi unfortunately did not do a great job tackling this issue. In fact, her government’s violence and repression of ethnic minorities in Myanmar led these groups to become even more violent as they felt betrayed and even more marginalized than before. Suu Kyi advocated for democracy and inclusion her entire life, and yet gave them nothing but continued repression and violence as State Counselor.
Myanmar’s biggest external threats during Suu Kyi’s governance years were its closest neighbors geographically: China and Bangladesh. On the one hand, China was employing “diplo-terrorism” by allegedly supporting some of Myanmar’s national terrorist groups in pursuit of its own foreign policy. Why? Quite simply because a weakened Burmese state would force Myanmar to rely more heavily on its risky Chinese economic ties. For example, the Tatmadaw suspected China was selling arms to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which operates in the Rakhine State. These allegations came as the Burmese army observed how this terrorist group would act violently against many actors, but without disrupting any Chinese projects in the region. Moreover, as the army seized arms from rebel groups, they realized that more than 90% of them were of Chinese origin. Additionally, this terrorist group had a precedent of receiving aid from outside groups in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
On the other hand, Bangladesh (being a Muslim majority country) has faced a lot of tension with Myanmar as it has hosted most of the Rohingya refugees that have fled Myanmar. As a result, it has become one of the more outspoken countries to criticize the Burmese government’s actions against its people. Burmese-Bangladeshi relations are also in constant turmoil over who controls the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Bay of Bengal as it contains high levels of natural gas. This has led to several military standoffs over its resources.