The Civilianization Of Myanmar’s Civil War

More than 200 Rohingya Muslims landed in Indonesia’s Aceh Province on Tuesday, local authorities told Reuters. They are the latest group of refugees to flee the violence and instability plaguing Myanmar. Targeted campaigns of violence against the Rohingya minority and intense fighting between Myanmar’s military junta and separatist groups in recent years have forced millions of people out of the country, causing one of the world’s most dire humanitarian crises. 

The exodus of the Rohingya, which the United Nations has described as “the most persecuted minority in the world,” began in August 2017 when deadly attacks erupted across Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Over 700,000 people—half of them children—migrated to neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh, India, and Thailand, often traveling through dense jungles and turbulent waters in search of refuge from mass killings and other human rights violations. 

UN-appointed human rights expert Tom Andrews said that conditions have worsened since the Myanmar military launched its coup in February 2021. The devastating effects of Myanmar’s ongoing civil war include “1.3 million displaced people, 28,000 destroyed homes, villages burned to the ground, more than 13,000 children killed… a looming food crisis and 130,000 Rohingya in de facto internment camps,” the Human Right Council said in September. 

As pro-democracy forces gain ground against the ruling junta, military leaders have resorted to extreme tactics, such as obstructing aid deliveries to displaced populations and intensifying campaigns of indiscriminate murder, sexual violence, and torture against civilian targets, to retain their grip on power. On October 25, air strikes by Myanmar’s military allegedly killed about 80 people attending an outdoor concert in Hpakant township, CNBC reported. 

As the case of Myanmar demonstrates, humanitarian law is inadequate to govern the position of civilians in armed conflict. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project estimated that political violence in Myanmar has caused nearly 30,000 deaths since February of last year. Even if the rules of modern warfare permit adversaries to unintentionally take civilian lives, the intentional killing of innocent people appears to violate the principle of noncombatant immunity. 

However, civilian agency in today’s armed conflicts is increasingly pervasive and ambiguous in nature. The ranks of rebel groups battling Myanmar’s military junta have swelled with recruits from civilian communities, while refugee flows provide a means of trafficking small arms and light weapons across borders. In this way, the blurring of lines between civilians and combatants has deepened the involvement of civilians as both perpetrators and victims of violent hostilities. 

Unfortunately, the civilianization of war has exacerbated the humanitarian consequences of the fighting in Myanmar and other intra-state conflicts around the world. The rising death toll of innocent people should therefore come as no surprise—neutralizing individuals through military action will remain highly destructive and likely to backfire because of the difficulty distinguishing between combatants and civilians in complex conflicts.