It is a bad cliché, of several decades’ vintage, to say that a given civil war is ‘complex’. Normally, this is a dodge on the foreign correspondent’s part. He either wishes to hide his lack of knowledge from you, or to pretend that without him holding the reader’s hand, they could never hope to understand the story.
I ask you to forgive me for making use of it. The civil conflict in Burma (Myanmar, according to the regime) really is complex.
Last week, the Burmese military, also called the Tatmadaw, excelled itself in savagery. It launched a very nasty attack at a place called Pa Zi Gyi. Awful photographs exist of the dozens of people – most of them civilian – who were killed, and of the weaponry used by the army to kill them.
The war has been characterised by attacks on schools, village meeting halls and markets. This is the pattern of a vicious war.
But first, some explanation is necessary.
Violence like this is the culmination of a war which began when the Burmese army perpetrated a coup against a joint civilian-military government in 2021. The civilian leaders of the previous government are all in jail. They’re not expected ever to be released. The former governing party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been banned, and its candidates prohibited from running in any subsequent (and no doubt rigged) elections.
The NLD is now an underground organisation, its militias fighting alongside a diverse array of ethnic groups and political parties in an umbrella organisation called the People’s Defence Force (PDF).
Together, this motley coalition of former enemies and allies fend off ferocious military attacks while attempting to legitimise their joint National Unity Government (NUG).
The NLD used to be full of standard-bearers for democracy in Burma. Its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was a Nobel laureate and a much-sentimentalised figure.
When the country appeared to be opening up last decade, Suu Kyi went into government with the hated military which had imprisoned her for years. Very quickly, she found power to her tastes and the army’s other activities to be acceptable to her.
Those activities included genocide: unequivocal attempts to destroy the demographics of more than one of Burma’s many ethnic groups.
The army had been doing this, to one internal enemy after another, since the 1970s. But during Suu Kyi’s term as ‘state counsellor’, the victim of choice was the Rohingya people. Already confined to villages which were like concentration camps, the Rohingya faced even worse treatment when in 2017, they were expelled from the country in their hundreds of thousands.
Their villages were stormed and razed to the ground. Their homes were burnt. The women were raped in astonishing numbers; the children killed ferociously, as a warning to others; and 700,000 Rohingya were forced at gunpoint to flee to Bangladesh, where they still languish.
Suu Kyi defended the army vocally, and said that all the above was fake news, or justified.
The army is hated by most of the country for these atrocities. Burma’s civil war has shown their willingness to use the same tactics against anyone. Meanwhile, it is not unreasonable for many of Burma’s ethnic groups to view the NLD with a jaundiced eye.
That’s complexity. Reason, perhaps, to throw one’s hands up and decide not to pay the country any mind.
But bear in mind that the post-2021 civil war has been made muddy quite deliberately. Tutting over ‘complexity’ benefits the army most of all. Press coverage from within the country is almost impossible, although brave people still try to report on the war regardless.
In Burma, the army is under orders to shoot anyone they see holding a camera. That’s how much they don’t want their war to be understood abroad. Yet news still leaks out.
Realistically, the wider world cannot affect the course of the war within Burma – not least because it is not, in general, the slightest bit interested in doing so. A campaign to have neighbouring countries refuse to sell the army jet fuel, to make its airborne attacks on villages harder, has gone nowhere fast.
But the world can do more than it is currently doing to ensure that whatever happens in the war, the crimes of the recent past are not forgotten.
Quietly, at the same time as new atrocities play out, a legal action is going on in the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Brought by Gambia, this is an attempt to accuse the military-civilian apparatus of Burma of genocide in 2017. The case is progressing at a snail’s pace, but it is moving. Some semblance of justice inches closer to being done.
It’s not much. It won’t stop the war. It won’t ‘make people whole’ in that piece of legal jargon. But it’s something: in an age where many trivial things are minutely documented while vital, world-historical events can be almost forgotten, establishing the truth of an opaque conflict ought to matter.
The war is complex, no doubt. But we can hope that the crimes of the country’s army will not be hidden forever in imprecise speech and muddy waters.
This piece was originally published in The Spectator.