Perspectives on War, Peace, and Rebel Politics: Introduction

This is an introduction to a four-part commentary on David Brenner’s monograph, Rebel Politics: A Political Sociology of Armed Struggle in Myanmar’s Borderlands (Cornell University Press, 2019), in which the authors reflect on war and peace in Myanmar from various scholarly and activist perspectives. 

Part One, by Lee Jones, discusses the merits of the book in light of wider trends in the fields of Myanmar Studies and Conflict Studies. Part Two, by Shona Loong, reflects on the relevance of David’s book to peacebuilding efforts in Karen State. Part Three, by Kai Htang Lashi, reads David’s book from the perspective of a Kachin diaspora activist. Each of these pieces reflects the unique point of view of individual authors. Finally, in Part Four, David responds to these critiques.

In 2020, Myanmar’s decades-long civil war continues unabated. In many ways, the country’s ethnic conflict seems more protracted than ever. Over the past decade, Myanmar has not only undergone profound political transformations. But conflict and violence have also intensified across most parts of the country’s borderlands.

Since 2009, fighting has again become a permanent feature in northern Myanmar since a series of long-standing ceasefires between armed ethnic organisations (EAOs) and the Tatmadaw – Myanmar’s military – collapsed, most prominently with the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) in 2011. Large-scale violence has escalated in the country’s western Rakhine State since 2012 too, including state-led atrocities and ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims, communal violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, and the resurgence of an armed Rakhine insurgency.

By contrast, Myanmar’s eastern border areas have often been viewed as a success story after a 2012 ceasefire between the country’s longest-running ethnonational rebellion – the Karen National Union (KNU) – and the Tatmadaw enabled nascent stability for the first time since independence. To many observers this ceasefire seemed particularly significant. Unlike northern EAOs, the KNU had not signed a ceasefire ever before. Since the ceasefire with the Tatmadaw, the KNU became a leading voice in Myanmar’s new peace process as it advocated for the so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).

That said, Karen State has seen new tensions between the KNU and the Tatmadaw nonetheless, which has resulted in open conflict since 2018. As a consequence, the KNU suspended its participation in formal peace negotiations with the Tatmadaw for over a year.

David Brenner’s new book Rebel Politics: A Political Sociology of Armed Struggle in Myanmar’s borderlands analyses Myanmar’s puzzling waves of war and peace, including variation across space and time. It compares the politics of the KNU with the politics of the KIO, which returned to the trenches in 2011 after its own seventeen-year-long ceasefire broke down.

In doing so, Rebel Politics focuses on the social foundations of Myanmar’s ethnonational rebel movements. It analyses the relations between rebel leaders, their rank-and-file, and local communities in the context of wider political and geopolitical transformations. Drawing on social theory and ethnographic methods, the book explains how revolutionary elites capture and lose legitimacy within their own movements and how these internal contestations drive the strategies of rebellion in unforeseen ways.

Rebel Politics will be available free and open access until 30 June 2020 through this link by courtesy of Cornell University Press.

(Cover image courtesy of David Brenner)

Dr David Brenner is Lecturer in International Relations at Goldsmiths, University of London. His work explores the politics of conflict, (in)security and development. Informed by long-term research in Myanmar’s borderlands and sociological theory, it sheds light on the politics of rebel movements, (non-)state formation, ethnic conflict, and the cultural politics of domination and resistance. You can follow his work on Twitter @DavBrenner.