As the Conflict Worsens, Myanmar’s Junta Arms the Populace

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As the Conflict Worsens, Myanmar’s Junta Arms the Populace

The military administration’s recent decision to permit civilian ownership of firearms will generate further political chaos and instability.

As the Conflict Worsens, Myanmar’s Junta Arms the Populace

A policeman points his gun during anti-junta protests in Yangon, Myanmar, Friday, March 19, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo

On January 31, the Myanmar military administration’s Ministry of Home Affairs authorized a 15-page document regulation permitting citizens to possess firearms in Myanmar, as the civil war intensifies two years after the military takeover. Initially, media and political observers were uncertain of the news, since it was not published or broadcast in the regime’s controlled media, but only featured on pro-military social media accounts on Facebook and Telegram.

The speculation was later confirmed by the junta’s spokesperson, Zaw Min Tun, who stated that the military government had received “requests by the people for their self-defense” after a rash of assassinations of military-affiliated officials by the People Defense Force (PDF), the armed branch of the opposition National Unity Government (NUG). According to an unverified report from the coup regime’s National Defense and Security Council, PDFs, acting with the direct and indirect support from certain ethnic armed organizations, were responsible for 8,527 bomb explosions between February 1, 2021, and January 25 of this year. During that time, the report claims, PDF fighters killed 5,443 civilians and injured 4,577.

The issue of the right to possess arms has been frequently raised by pro-military media at the regime’s organized press conferences over the past year, citing the uptick in attacks by urban guerrilla units. In the absence of independent media, these press conferences are generally packed with pro-military personnel and some of the journalists’ queries are apparently pre-screened ahead of time. In this regard, the military could have had a plan to formally equip pro-military individuals but waited to see how the international community would react.

Informally, the military has already armed several organizations in order to aid the military and carry out underground dirty work, such as the assassination of pro-democracy supporters. The two most notable examples are Pyusawhti and Thway Thout, which are largely made up of radical Buddhist nationalists and members of the military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). A defector from the military intelligence service has claimed that the formation of civilian militia groups was an effort to “depict that there are some citizens who support the military actions.”

Indeed, in this regard, the military is using an old playbook, given that the name Pyusawhti first appeared in 1956 as a U Nu Government town and village defense scheme designed to assist military counterinsurgency actions. Thway Thout, translated as “blood comrade” or “blood-drinking group,” was subsequently created around April 2022 to operate in an underground assassin role, targeting anti-coup activists, including members of the National League for Democracy.

The formation of armed militias has not helped the military achieve victory in combat but has instead contributed to social unrest. The NUG and ethnic resistance groups now claim to control more than 50 percent of the country’s territory. Meanwhile,  the military also lost a significant number of soldiers through defection. Currently, approximately 10,000 members of the regime’s security forces – both the armed forces and the police – have defected and joined the Civil Disobedience Movement.

The regime’s new policy therefore suggests that the military is losing its administrative grip, failing to secure its networks, and facing difficulty in recruiting additional professional soldiers. On February 2 of this year , the coup regime imposed martial law in 37 additional townships, a reflection of its loosening hold on the country’s administration. As such, the new policy is expected to equip mostly military-related individuals in order to enable them to defend themselves from PDF attacks as well as increase militia numbers.

The present policy, a revision of 1977 legislation passed by late dictator Ne Win, permits only citizens above the age of 18 who are regarded as “loyal to the state” (in the coup regime’s interpretation, loyal to the military). The policy allows civilians to possess two different categories of firearms: 9 mm pistols, 12 mm (or smaller) gauge shotguns, hunting rifles, and air guns can be owned without a permit, but permission is required for handguns larger than 9 mm, assault rifles, and submachine guns. In terms of the application procedure, government officials must receive approvals or recommendations from their respective departments, while ordinary residents must receive approvals from their local police stations or village/ward administration offices. According to local news reports, soon after the policy was adopted the USDP had already arranged military training for citizens in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw by providing 100,000 kyats (less than $50) to attend the training.

Yangon-based diplomats have been mostly silent on this new policy, but experts and opposition parties have expressed concerns that the country would become more unstable as unregulated weapons proliferate. Ko Bo Gyi, a prominent human rights activist and co-founder of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), told The Diplomat, “The military enacted this law, not to protect people but to arm even more murderers. The junta thinks if it can flood the country with arms for its supporters, it will weaken the resistance.” Padoh Man Man, a spokesperson for the Karen National Union, an ethnic Karen armed group that has collaborated closely with the NUG, has warned that the policy’s implementation might result in “unnecessary shootings and killings.”

Two years of military rule extended Myanmar’s civil conflicts from the ethnic minority territories to the ethnic Burman heartland regions, and there is little indication that this will abate anytime soon. This has resulted in the country’s collapse into a semi-failed state, with the government dominating major cities and pro-democracy forces progressively extending their territories from their defensive positions. Dr. Sui Khar, the vice chairman of the Chin National Front, said that the new policy could empower “crime gangs and faith-based extremist armed groups” and push the country toward a fully failed state.

The new policy reflects the regime’s desire to reinforce its defenses in a context in which its offensive operations have been less successful than military leaders had anticipated. But unregulated arms flows will simply create more violence in Myanmar society. The policy will not necessarily strengthen the military, but it will undoubtedly generate further political chaos and instability. Its impact will persist long after the battles have ended.