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Why the War in Myanmar Matters

An escalating civil war threatens to break apart a country of roughly 55 million people that sits between China and India. That has international consequences, but the conflict hasn’t commanded wide attention.

Over the past six months, resistance fighters in Myanmar’s hinterlands have been defeating the ruling military junta in battle after battle, stunning analysts. That raises the possibility that the junta could be at risk of collapsing.

The war is already a human rights catastrophe. Myanmar’s implosion since a 2021 military coup has wrecked its economy, throwing millions of people into extreme poverty. Its reputation as a hub for drugs, online scam centers and money laundering is growing. And its destabilization has created strategic headaches for China, India, the United States and other countries.

Here’s a primer.

Myanmar is not a democracy. The junta allowed elections more than a decade ago, enabling Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of an assassinated independence hero, to sit in Parliament. She later led a civilian government. But the junta controlled key levers of power through a military-drafted Constitution.

In 2021, the generals arrested Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi — who by then had lost her halo as a human rights icon — and staged a coup. That set off demonstrations, a brutal crackdown on mostly peaceful protesters, and waves of resistance from armed fighters.

The civil war is not new. Myanmar’s Army has been on a war footing since the former British colony gained independence in 1948. The recent fighting is unusual because many civilians from the country’s Bamar ethnic majority have taken up arms alongside ethnic groups that have been battling the army for decades.

In the years before the coup, Myanmar was emerging from decades of isolation under oppressive military rule. Companies like Ford, Coca-Cola and Mastercard made big investments. In Yangon, the largest city, tourists wandered among gilded pagodas and grand colonial-era buildings.

Now, bombings have put Yangon on edge, Western nations have imposed financial sanctions on members of the military regime, and thousands of middle-class people have fled to jungles to fight alongside ethnic insurgencies.

Civilians are bearing the costs. The fighting has killed thousands and displaced nearly three million others. The country is now littered with land mines, and extreme inflation has contributed to a drastic shrinking of the middle class, according to the United Nations.

The health sector is in crisis, partly because the regime has targeted doctors. Among the many problems, childhood vaccinations have essentially stopped, and malaria has increased substantially. Experts worry about the spread of H.I.V. and tuberculosis.

Rebels have seized large chunks of territory since October, the month an alliance of ethnic groups near the China border, in Shan State, captured several towns. Some have attacked the capital, Naypyidaw, with drones and made swift advances in several border regions. In recent weeks, rebels from the Karen ethnic group captured a trading town that lies east of Yangon along the Thai border — a once-unthinkable target. Neighboring Karenni State could be the first to entirely free itself of junta control.

There have also been advances in Kachin State, in the northeast, where the army controls lucrative jade mines, and in the western border state of Rakhine, where Myanmar soldiers and their militia allies once slaughtered members of the Rohingya Muslim minority, causing hundreds of thousands to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.

Some analysts say the Arakan Army, a powerful ethnic militia in Rakhine, could soon take Sittwe, the heavily guarded state capital.

The war has regional and international consequences. Russia and other countries have sold the Myanmar army at least a billion dollars’ worth of weapons since the 2021 coup, according to the United Nations. China sees threats to the infrastructure projects it has funded across the country. And India, which has long feared chaos in its borderlands, is deporting Myanmar refugees.

Thailand, Myanmar’s eastern neighbor, is similarly concerned about the estimated 40,000 or more refugees that the United Nations predicts will cross the border this year. Bangladesh sees obstacles to its efforts to repatriate the Rohingya. And the United States has started to provide nonlethal aid to armed resistance groups.

So why doesn’t the war get more attention? One reason could be that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has gone from a Nobel Peace laureate, kept under house arrest by generals, to an apologist for their murderous campaign against the Rohingya.

Richard Horsey, an expert on Myanmar and an adviser to the International Crisis Group, said that her fall from grace killed the “democracy-versus-the-generals narrative” that would have helped to generate interest in the war.

The fairy tale narrative is gone,” he said. “And, you know, Sudan, right? Haiti? They don’t get as much attention either.”

Sui-Lee Wee contributed reporting.

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