Bridging the ‘Burma Gap’ in Conflict Studies

David Scott Mathieson suggests new ways to understand the world’s oldest civil war.

As Burma’s civil war enters its 70th year— the longest running internal armed conflict in the world— fighting between the state and non-state armed groups is escalating across the country. A several years-long peace process is floundering. War amidst peace talks has been a paradoxical feature of the conflict for many years. More international attention on the conflict since 2011 has tended to emphasize the peace process, but not the actual dynamics of the political, social, economic and armed struggle which has divided the country since independence. There is lamentably little known about the history of the civil war or about the micro-dynamics of conflict. It begs the question: why is Burma almost totally absent from the academic and reportage canon of conflict literature? In academic research and related human rights documentation and journalism, there is generally only passing mention of Burma’s conflicts within historical and academic surveys of civil war.

This is what I term the ‘Burma Gap’ in conflict studies. The gap is also found, in different ways, in policy formulation and in the popular debates that occur within the NGO and media fields. As Burma’s transition faces one of its most difficult phases, there should be more linkages forged between scholarly, donor and policy debates, and the communities affected by civil war. The first step is actually recognizing the seminal studies in the field of Burma conflict studies and gauging the absence or inclusion of the Burmese civil war as a key case study— asking not only how it can be used to inform both academic debates and policy formulation, but also how conflict studies can be used to broaden our understanding of the conflict and peace processes inside Burma, as well as to inform debates within communities here.

Burma: The Curious Exclusion in Conflict Studies

Why has the rich field of academic conflict studies often overlooked Burma as a case study? Prominent recent texts studying civil wars’ duration and dynamics include those by Jeremy Weinstein, Stathis N. Kalyvas, Paul Staniland, Ana Arjona, James D. Fearon, David D. Laitin, and William Reno, who have all produced excellent books and journal articles on determinants of civil war duration, rebel recruitment, ethnicity and conflict, the use of violence in civil war, rebel governance, warlordism, and many other issues in the field of conflict studies, within political science. In addition, we have the work of many notable anthropologists, such as Elizabeth Jean Wood, who have deepened our understanding of conflict at a local level. But Burma is scarcely mentioned in much of the fine research produced in contemporary conflict studies— not as a case study nor even as an example of civil war’s long duration. Although, increasingly, the country is being included in the syllabi of some conflict courses.

The small number of scholars working on conflict in Burma have been compelled to look for parallels and lessons in the conflict literature and find methodological pathways without the signposts of case studies many of these works contain. Sri Lanka, Colombia, the incessant destructive and complex wars of the Great Lakes region and Sub-Saharan Africa have been the key case studies in many scholarly studies of modern conflict. While the lack of inclusion within the broader literature may be frustrating at times, there is the excitement of new opportunities to bring conflict studies into conversation with Burma studies, and to help bring Burma into conflict studies research, as a new case study. This is gathering pace, even as the war itself rages and howls for more in-depth attention.

During the vexed ‘greed versus grievance’ debate in conflict studies, Burma was barely mentioned except in a few case studies often with superficial analysis of the natural resource dimensions of the conflict, especially the jade trade, illegal logging, and Burma’s opium and methamphetamine production and smuggling networks. The emerging field of ‘rebel governance’, especially the signal works of Ana Arjona, Nelson Kasfir, Zachariah Mampilly, and Reyko Huang amongst others, provide important theoretical direction for the widespread phenomenon of base area, liberated zone and ‘mixed governance area’ studies inside Burma. Contemporary cases such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) bases of Laiza and Ma Jai Yang, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) redoubt of Pangshang and the isolated and embattled base area of the Shan State Army-North at Wan Hai in Central Shan State are examples, and historical cases of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) bases at Manerplaw and Kawmoora, and General Khun Sa’s Mong Tai Army (MTA) base at Ho Mong are all other potential case studies.

Epic studies of the hundreds of years’ history of guerilla warfare often fail to mention Burma, especially the ruthless carnage of British pacification of Northern Burma following the Third Anglo-Burmese War, or the Hsaya San Rebellion and its brutal repression of the 1930s. Burma was one of Britain’s most violence-prone colonies and a laboratory for brutal counter-insurgency, yet it barely features in the history of colonial wars. The two-volume War in the Shadows: The Guerrilla in History by Robert Asprey, and Max Boot’s Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present are magisterial works, but reading from a Burma studies perspective they are ultimately unsatisfying. Something has been missing. Burma’s experience during the Second World War, especially the innovation of behind-the-lines deployed strike forces such as the British Chindits (Long Range Penetration Groups) or the American Merril’s Marauders and OSS Detachment 101 and their Kachin Ranger allies (a collaboration immortalized in the statue that stands in the forecourt of the United States Embassy in Rangoon) have been thoroughly studied in that period, but, since then, very little post-1948 scholarship on the civil war has followed.

In the many academic journals dedicated to conflict studies, from International Security, Civil Wars, Conflict, Security and Development, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism and others, articles on aspects of the conflict have only emerged in recent years, as more attention focuses on Burma. There are very few academic conferences or books produced that really delve into the complicated dynamics of decades of war and state building. Scholars who worked on Burma during the long years of socialist and military rule were few and often had only restricted or limited access to the country, and little to no access to the military. There are a great many reasons for this exclusion. Access to Burma during the 70 years of war was very difficult. Access to the government side was almost always blocked off. There was also a statist bias in the international perception of the conflict, until the late 1980s and early 1990’s when the growth of the Burmese and international human rights movement made the study and documentation of abuses the focus more than on the actual dynamics of the war beyond general reporting of battles and refugee flows.

This was partly mirrored by trends in university research and policy analysis. The scholarly study of counter-insurgency went into a slump in the post-Vietnam War academic and policy fields in Western military and academic studies. Despite the Cold War sparking numerous internal proxy conflicts, the end was decided through massive military spending focused on conventional conflict. Yet the growth of what Mary Kaldor called the ‘new wars’ of the 1990s dented the euphoria of the Western ‘victory’ in the Cold War. But it was the post-September 11, 2001 United States’ ‘War on Terror’ and the surge of insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan that really drove the renaissance of counter-insurgency studies (COIN) in the academy and policy fields, especially with scholar-practitioners such as David Kilkullen, who was a key writer in this resurgence.

But the ‘relearning COIN’ movement in military staff colleges around the world, and the proliferation of ‘understanding violent extremism’ workshops for government and the aid and development sector as a parallel (if estranged) school of ideas, failed to seize on the Burmese civil war as a case study, even when the post-2011 international interest in Burma’s transition started. The French experience in Algeria was one main case study of the resurgent COIN movement, both Alistair Horne’s book A Savage War of Peace and the seminal film Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo experienced a second life of popularity. This re-learning process excluded Burma because there was no awareness of the situation, and, rather obviously, no actual engagement with the conflict itself as the emphasis was on the wars in the Middle East.

It is a relief that Burma does not feature in the many quantitative databases that proliferate in conflict studies. When it does, the details are often so grossly distorted as to make any quantitative analysis highly questionable. Having reviewed many of the data sets available for armed conflict that mention Burma, the inescapable conclusion is so many of them are not just glaringly incomplete but riddled with factual errors. This is not a rebuke to quantitative analysis of conflict, but a reflection that part of the ‘Burma Gap’ is because of unreliable or non-existent statistics of conflict. A project I began in 2012 reviewed all the known international academic and think-tank quantitative databases to determine death counts in the civil war and found many of them riddled with errors or incomplete data: there is simply not enough reliable data to currently undertake anything but the most generalized analyses. Seth G. Jones’ book Organizing Insurgent Warfare released in 2017, has included some data on wars in Burma that is encouraging and hopefully indicates that a better generation of statistical studies of the war is on the way. But almost all previous databases that crunch figures on conflict in Burma have little credibility after closer scrutiny.

A Rich Canon of Conflict Literature

What explains the “Burma Gap” in broader Burma Studies? There are two classics in the genre of Burma’s civil war that are largely ignored in the contemporary peace-industrial complex in Burma and the academic canon of conflict studies: Bertil Lintner’s Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948 and Martin Smith’s Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Insurgency. Anyone involved in conflict or peace issues in modern Burma should make the digestion of these two books a priority, as the key studies to understanding the civil war’s complex history. These are not just seminal texts for any historical understanding of Burma, but should be core texts of any course on conflict studies.

The Burmese military, or Tatmadaw, and its seven decades of state building and war making, has been rigorously explored by Burma scholars: Mary P. Callahan’s Making Enemies, Andrew Selth’s Burma’s Armed Forces: Power Without Glory, Maung Aung Myoe’s Transforming the Tatmadaw, and Yoshihiro Nakanishi’s Strong Soldiers, Failed Revolution. Many of these studies should be informed by increasing public scholarship from intellectuals such as Ko Min Zin, whose volume of collected columns Wave or Eddy? is one of the best guides to the transition, as are the essays of Sai Wansai in Tracking the Transition. There is a proliferation of senior army officer’s memoirs in Burmese, but they are often inaccessible to a broader Western readership. The prominent writer/commentator Maung Maung Soe has been producing valuable analysis of the conflicts in the north of Burma. Mandy Sadan’s recent edited volume on lessons from the Kachin ceasefire, War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar is a trailblazing addition to understanding the history of the conflict and failed previous peace processes, and its sub-national analysis is a model for future studies.

The ‘rebel perspective’ is often one missing from the body of local literature, as many leaders fail to pen memoirs (and tend to be quixotic, if not myopic, in their methodology when they do), and oral history projects are few and far between. Chao-Tzang Yawnghwe’s The Shan of Burma: Memoirs of a Shan Exile is one of only a few, a seminal autobiography and story of the origins of the Shan State Army.

Much of what has been written is filtered through a human rights lens, an important body of work that illustrates the deeply felt and long endured grievances of local populations to state counter-insurgency practices. A whole body of work from international human rights organizations— and since the early 1990s grassroots ethnic human rights documentation groups that investigate patterns of sexual violence, forced labor, torture and extra-judicial executions, and child soldiers— represent an important source of information for scholars. Christina Fink has done a notable job bringing these reports to an academic audience, especially her “Militarization in Burma’s ethnic states”. There has been an egregious disregard of scholars, journalists and policy makers in acknowledging and fully engaging with reporting from NGOs who do serious work, such as the Ta-ang Women’s Organization (TWO), Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), and the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO).

Too often these reports were dismissed by urban Burmese, government officials, and many foreigners— who simply refused to believe the scale of the war and its attendant widespread and systematic abuses perpetrated mostly by the Tatmadaw— but also many ethnic armed groups: this omission represents a major challenge for academic conflict studies and Burma studies to redress. There is so much we simply do not know about seventy years of war.

There is also the distorted genre which tracks the international adventurer based on the allure of travelling in the often choreographed rebel-lands of Burma, and there have been a dozen lamentably self-serving books produced on various insurgencies (although Jon Lee Anderson’s Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World, which has an excellent case study of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), and Andre and Louis Boucard’s Burma’s Golden Triangle: On the Trail of the Opium Warlords are notable exceptions and daring investigations). Much media reporting is often overwhelmingly sympathetic to the ethnic perspective over more balanced assessments, as rebel-connected intermediaries ensure trip itineraries and many insurgents are cynically adept at staging public spectacles of military parades and ceremonies that bewitch short term visitors: the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS)/Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) events in their mountainous headquarters of Loi Tai Leng are the gold standard of this insurgent performance art. Given the sheer number of EAOs, their longevity, the complexity of the conflicts and the impacts on Burmese society, it is surprising that the conflict has not received more attention from scholars.

Why has Burma been ignored in the burgeoning field of conflict studies? It is not a new phenomenon, and there is no easy explanation. Partly, it must be lack of access. Professor David Steinberg, a long time Burma academic, travelled in remote conflict zones of Shan State in the late 1950’s before the 1962 military coup, but after that researchers couldn’t access conflict zones from government controlled areas. Both Lintner and Smith were intrepid; they ventured into the conflict zones long ago when there wasn’t an easy KBZ flight close by, and the dangers were real and immediate. They spoke to leaders and commoners in the disparate ethnic areas of the country, and both books have narratives that leap off the page with lived experience. Lintner’s Land of Jade should be a central text of conflict reportage, the record of the epic trek he and his wife Hseng Noung (and their newly born daughter) took through the rebel-lands of Burma in the mid-1980s.

Often it is photographers who have closely observed the civil war who produce words and visuals that immeasurably deepen our understanding of the conflict and the scope of civilian suffering, such as Nic Dunlop’s Brave New Burma and Thierry Falise’s Burmese Shadows. It is baffling why these and many other excellent studies of the conflict are not discussed more. They should be the foundational texts for any deeper understanding of Burma’s wars.

To contribute to conflict studies debates on conflict commodity issues, there is a new generation of Burmese and international scholars who also straddle the policy and INGO field for their research. Tom Kramer and the Transnational Institute (TNI) have produced invaluable reports on the peace process, the opium trade and land rights for many years. Equally invaluable is criminologist Ko-Lin Chin’s The Golden Triangle: Inside Southeast Asia’s Drug Trade. On development issues tied to the conflicts, Kevin Woods’ “Ceasefire Capitalism” and Curt Lambrecht’s “Oxymoronic Development” are modern classic articles that should be key reading items on any conflict studies course. John Buchanan’s 2016 Asia Foundation report Militias in Myanmar is a keystone report demonstrating how academic approaches can inform analysis of this complicated conflict, in regard to the hitherto overlooked phenomenon of local government-aligned militia groups. Important scholarship on ethnic conflict have been produced by Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, Ashley South and others. One of the challenges of bridging the Burma Gap is to foster greater linkages between Burmese and international scholars with their own institutions and Burmese universities, especially support for those institutions in ethnic states often overlooked by international donors who privilege Rangoon University. Instead, educational initiatives must look for ways to inform, foster and listen to students and faculty of regional universities who are within conflict zones.

So many international actors deem the beginning of the peace process to be 2011, or when they arrived in-country and decided to be involved. This is folly. The ahistorical discussion of the conflict rankles the ethnic communities who have suffered and fosters resentment at the perceived lack of sympathy of many foreigners working on the peace process. The lack of historical context and understanding is often reflected in the state-centric perspective of many ‘peace actors’ and donors: not to mention what should be a monthly fluency test by the ubiquitous international ‘conflict-advisors’ in the acronym-laden jargon of the conflict, not just the peace process.

Many international reports being produced about the peace process since 2012 pale in comparison to the foundational or core texts of Burma’s conflicts, although there are notable exceptions to this rule: the reports of the Transnational Institute (TNI), Global Witness and the Myanmar Peace Monitor, periodically produced by Burma News International which is culled from local news reporting, and a (conditional) treasure trove of contemporary details on the conflict and peace process. There is no doubt that analysis is improving, but many of the reports produced are ‘internal’ and fail to even approach bridging the Burma Gap between rigorous academic methodology and Burma studies more broadly.

Another dimension relates to the fact that the international community responded to the peace process with a developmental approach, or with peace building models. But there has been a widespread and fundamental misunderstanding of the war, and many ‘international actors’ were in denial over the rising conflicts in Kachin and Northern Shan States over the past several years of escalation. This is partly explained by the international community’s fixation on Rakhine State and the terrible plight of the Rohingya Muslims, but it was also a result of trying to preserve a fragile peace process the world wanted to believe in. But this approach rendered any report or criticism of human rights violations, land grabs, breaches of the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire (NCA) open to charges of being a ‘spoiler’, part of the patois of peace that practitioners sometimes employ to deter any perceived naysayer (when reading Stephen John Stedman’s classic “Spoiler Problems in Peace Processes” one will realize the term is often misapplied in Burma).

Bridging the Burma Gap

To bridge the Burma Gap I suggest looking at three areas: 1) the academy; 2) policy formulation around the peace process and conflict monitoring; and, 3) the public space of discussion in Burma over conflict analysis and how the disparate gaps can be bridged, and traffic and innovation in conflict studies encouraged.

Academic Conflict Studies

Burma has increasingly become a zone of interest for international conflict scholars, and more should be done by universities and governments to encourage prominent academics and researchers to visit Burma and conduct workshops and research, and to deepen linkages. This is, of course, not without its challenges: the current peace process is in a trough and the Tatmadaw increasingly touchy about its conduct in Arakan, Kachin, and Shan States. The 20 or so ethnic armed groups are divided into ‘signatories’ (ten now) of the 2015 NCA, the members of the United Nationalities Federal Council who want to sign if the conditions are right, and the several groups of the United Wa State Army (UWSA)-led alliance called the Federal Political Negotiation Consultative Committee (FPNCC) that includes some of Burma’s newest and oldest insurgent groups such as the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). Understanding the complicated dynamics of these conflicts from a historical and scholarly perspective is one way to seek the genuine resolution of these long-standing conflicts, not the short-term time-frame of an international donor.

Part of the call for bridging the Burma Gap is to replicate volumes such as Mandy Sadan’s with sub-national analyses of conflict areas and how they relate to the peace process and governance in mixed areas. Donors in foreign capitals and Rangoon should help to foster a great range of academic conferences and the production of volumes of rigorous academic work merging theoretical, historical and contemporary dynamics of the wars in Burma. And these activities must break out of the Rangoon and Naypyidaw traps, where so many conferences speak only to Burmese and foreign elites, and conduct research and conference workshops in Myitkyina, Kengtung, Hpa-an, Lashio and other state and regional capitals, places where the wars have taken place in close proximity and the affected populations have intimate and valuable knowledge for researchers, donors and journalists.

Policy Debates on Conflict in Burma

As previously noted, many of the policymakers and donors based in Rangoon are increasingly divorced from the theory and practice of civil war and appear intent on peace and development as the salves to Burma’s seven decades of conflict. There should be a more rigorous set of linkages between conflict studies and debates, programs and support for the peace process that will involve intensified collaborations between academics, donors and ‘conflict advisors’. This would involve comparative research and seminars that range from long-form academic studies to smaller and more dynamic policy briefs that can help inform contemporary government, EAO, and donor policy and the long-term inclusion of Burma into the field of conflict studies.

One of the few attempts to bridge this divide between policy and the conflict was academic and practitioner Mark Duffield, the author of Global Governance and the New Wars, who came to Burma a decade ago and produced a seminal report called “On the Edge of ‘No-Man’s Land’: Chronic Emergency in Myanmar”, which helped to bridge the academic and policy divide at a moment when progress in Burma seemed elusive. In this endeavor, newly emerging think-tanks such as the Institute of Strategy and Policy (ISP) and their flagship periodical Myanmar Quarterly (and soon a televised policy analysis show) are central partners in the merging of academic and policy initiatives, and should be recognized as key partners by international donors. The Irrawaddy and DVB have regular television debate and talk shows that address the armed conflict. Combining academic studies and policy analysis helps to inform many facets of the ongoing conflict, peace process and inclusion of important yet marginalized voices such as those associated with women’s participation, youth inclusion and with the fringes of the formal process— groups often overlooked or ignored by the donors who set agendas with often ill-informed decision-making, stemming from a poor understanding of recent history or lack of clear understanding of key actors.

A National Debate and Local Linkages

Many communities affected by conflict feel that elite-level dynamics exclude them. Grievances are often misunderstood, leaders’ motivations under suspicion, and the economic micro-dynamics of civil war subject to speculation rather than detailed research. Connecting international and Burmese scholars with local level conflict researchers, beyond the excellent work already being done, could help to inform government and international policy makers.

The currents of Burmese journalist reportage on the conflict are centrally important, and often overlooked. The situation is routinely informed by a new generation of conflict reporters, including by Esther Htusan of the Associated Press and Lawi Weng of The Irrawaddy, and Mratt Kyaw Thu of Frontier magazine, alongside many others. Anthony Davis of Jane’s Defence Weekly, Phil Thornton and Bertil Lintner are the main foreign journalists of the conflict.

As a conspicuously lumbering Western man, I know that there is only so much access foreigners like me can have, and that is why many researchers draw from insights and support from local NGOs and journalist colleagues who have the real contacts and grounded knowledge to navigate the complexities of the conflict. I think especially of my colleague Eaint Thiri Thu (now a Fulbright Scholar in the United States) with whom I worked several times in conflict areas of Kachin, Northern Shan State and Rakhine States. These valuable partnerships are essential to on the ground investigations in conflict studies.

There is widespread despair over the moribund peace process in Burma, and the ongoing fighting in Kachin and Northern Shan State— that should not be seen as side-shows to the horrific violence in Rakhine State— and the escalating armed conflict between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw. Serious people should take the study of the long and complicated conflict in Burma more seriously and start by reading about all its complexity and seeking comparative and theoretical insights as valuable sign-posts. One of the features of peace process action is the ubiquitous ‘study tours’ to other countries. But study tours within Burma hardly feature. This has to change. As travel permissions and blockades of humanitarian assistance get even tighter, and official legal action and Tatmadaw threats against local and international reportage or research intensify, more avenues must be explored to broaden our understanding of the ground reality in order to inform academic, policy and local debates on conflict.

The many studies about the conflicts and the actual areas they have raged in should be the focus of more attention, and both Burmese and foreign peace process actors should be spending more time in the actual spaces of the conflict, speaking to people and hearing the micro-dynamics of motivations, history, survival and resistance. To bridge the Burma Gap, more effort can be made to build linkages between the study of civil war and its Burmese reality. Better understanding of the longest internal armed conflict in the world is crucial to realistic efforts to end it.

David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon based independent analyst working on conflict, peace and human rights issues.