How Myanmar’s civil war is rippling into the U.S. and around the world

More than three years after overthrowing a democratically elected government, the Myanmar military is battling to hold on to power as a protracted civil war in the Southeast Asian country draws in neighbors such as China and India and fuels a rise in cybercrime and drug trafficking that reaches around the world.

Ethnic militias have been fighting the Myanmar junta since February 2021, when the military ousted Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s leader. But a coordinated offensive by an alliance of armed groups has made stunning advances since last fall, with resistance forces claiming the junta controls less than half of the Texas-sized country.

“This is a people’s revolution,” Kyaw Zaw, a spokesperson for the National Unity Government, Myanmar’s government-in-exile, told NBC News in a phone interview.

“In three years, we have achieved so much success that we switched from defense to offense,” he said, “and are now staging the offensive against the military forces which people thought cannot be defeated.”

The proportion of territory controlled by Myanmar’s military could not be independently verified.

The last few years have taken a huge toll on Myanmar: thousands of people killed, 3 million displaced, entire towns destroyed and the middle class cut in half. “Myanmar stands at the precipice in 2024 with a deepening humanitarian crisis,” the United Nations said in a statement in May.

But the implications of what’s happening in Myanmar are not limited to its 55 million citizens. The war is wreaking indirect havoc on the lives of people in the U.S. and elsewhere, as a country widely referred to as a “failing state” becomes what experts say is a “global hub of organized transnational crime.”

According to the U.N., at least 120,000 people in Myanmar have been forced to work in scam centers that run online fraud operations such as “pig butchering,” in which victims all over the world, including in the U.S., are conned out of huge sums of money by scammers posing as successful investors or potential romantic partners.

The drug trade has also flourished: In December, the U.N. said Myanmar had surpassed Afghanistan as the world’s top producer of opium, the base ingredient in heroin. In addition, an international watchdog has blacklisted Myanmar alongside North Korea and Iran for terrorism financing and money laundering.

“They’re not just laundering their own cash, they’re laundering on behalf of criminal enterprises all over the world,” said Richard Horsey, a senior adviser for Myanmar at the International Crisis Group.

So how did Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, get here?

A decade of progress wiped out

Myanmar’s military, also known as the Tatmadaw, has been a powerful force in government since the former British colony gained independence in 1948. Over decades of fighting with an array of ethnic rebel groups, the military in Buddhist-majority Myanmar has been accused of persecuting and killing thousands of members of minority groups including the mostly Muslim Rohingya, almost 1 million of whom remain stateless years after fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh.

The U.N. and others say the Rohingya are once again under threat amid escalating conflict between the junta and armed groups in the state of Rakhine, their traditional home, including forced recruitment. “The situation is increasingly dangerous for all civilians, including Rakhine, Rohingya, and other ethnic communities,” the U.S. and other governments said in a statement last week.

The military’s persecution of the Rohingya, which according to the U.N. has included summary executions, mass rape and the burning of villages, tarnished the reputation of Suu Kyi, who defended the military against allegations of genocide at the International Court of Justice in 2019.

Aung San Suu Kyi in Bangkok on Nov. 3, 2019.Manan Vatsyayana / AFP via Getty Images file

Suu Kyi, 78, the daughter of an assassinated independence activist, had become leader of Myanmar after her National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in 2015 in the country’s first democratic election in 25 years.

Though her civilian government had to continue to share power with the military, whose formal rule ended in 2011, it was a hopeful time for Myanmar both politically and economically. Tourists filled the streets of Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, and international companies such as Coca-Cola, Unilever and KFC invested heavily in the country.

Gross domestic product grew 6% annually from 2011 to 2019, and poverty levels in 2017 stood at less than half of what they were in 2005, said Kanni Wignaraja, the U.N. Development Programme’s Asia chief.

In November 2020, Suu Kyi and her party easily won re-election. Claiming without evidence that the results were illegitimate, the military deposed her in a coup on Feb. 1, 2021.

Tens of thousands of mostly peaceful protesters turned out to demand a return to elected government. The junta responded with deadly force, leading foreign companies to withdraw and the U.S. and other Western countries to impose sanctions targeting the military.

Myanmar’s coup has “wiped out 10 years of slow but steady progress,” Wignaraja said, noting that the country’s GDP fell 18% in 2021.

Suu Kyi, who has been detained by the military since the coup, faces 27 years in prison for a range of crimes, all of which she denies. Although the junta has promised elections, they have yet to be scheduled.

“But people didn’t just accept that, ‘Oh, we’ll learn to live with it,’” Horsey said. “They decided to fight back.”

Rebel forces uniting

United in their opposition to the junta, Myanmar’s disparate rebel groups have loosely organized themselves into the People’s Defense Force, the armed wing of Myanmar’s shadow government. But until recently, they acted mostly independently and rarely operated outside their home communities.

The tide began to turn last year when three of those armed groups formed an alliance, seizing control of multiple towns and military bases near the border with China. Their astonishing success inspired other resistance groups to launch their own offensives.

As a result, the junta has lost territory “faster than any time in recent history,” Horsey said.

The junta did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.

The conflict has created instability in areas near the five countries that Myanmar shares borders with: China, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Laos. For about two weeks in April, rebel forces led by the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU) controlled the town of Myawaddy, a critical trading post on the Thai border, leading Thailand to step up security in its border town of Mae Sot as thousands of Myanmar civilians and soldiers tried to cross over.

Karen KNLA and PDF forces raided the army's 275th military garrison in Myawady town, prompting more than 100 soldiers to attempt to flee to Thailand across Friendship Bridge No. 2.
A Thai soldier stands in front of refugees from Myanmar in Mae Sot, Thailand, on April 12.Kaung Zaw Hein / SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

In the coming months, the junta “will be getting into trouble a lot, politically, militarily, diplomatically, economically,” KNU spokesperson Saw Taw Nee told NBC News via text message.

“Our single objective is removing the coup makers,” he added.

Neighboring countries such as Thailand have also been grappling with an influx of refugees from Myanmar, an exodus Wignaraja said might worsen with the junta’s announcement in May that it would start restricting conscription-age men from leaving the country.

In early May, India began deporting some of the thousands of Myanmar refugees who have fled there since the coup.

Myanmar’s military government “barely controls its international borders,” Horsey said.

China has been especially dissatisfied with Myanmar’s inability to control its border areas, which have become hot spots for crime. In November, Myanmar authorities handed over more than 31,000 telecom fraud suspects to China as part of a crackdown by both countries on online scams.

For now, neither the junta nor the rebel groups seems to be letting up, and Kyaw says the only solution for Myanmar, and the stability of the region, is for it to have a democratic government.

“As long as the military holds power, our country will not be peaceful and that will impact regional stability,” he said.

“This is a time that numerous people have decided enough is enough.”

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