There is a constant stream of news coming out of the conflicts in Burma/Myanmar, and it can get confusing to understand with words that blend together — words like, Rohingya, Burma, Myanmar, Yangon, Rangoon, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Karen, Karenni, Kachin, Shan … the list goes on.
However, in attempting to understand the longest civil war in modern history, the first step is getting a grasp on the geography. This map is courtesy of the Free Burma Rangers, an organization that has conducted relief operations in Burma for years; explanations to what you’re looking at are further down.
The Central Burmese Powers
The primary government, military and day-to-day infrastructure lies in the central and south-central Burma. Generally speaking, the further you depart from places like Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon, annotated as such here), the further away you drift from the veneer of peaceful southeast Asian society, like you might find in Thailand.
As a tourist, you could fly into Yangon, travel here and there from tourist destination to tourist destination, take a day trip up to Sagaing, and fly back out. Unless you just so happened to stumble across a major conflict in the cities, you would never know what the government was doing out in the jungle.
However, that’s not to say the tension and conflict does not exist in Burmese cities. In 1988 the “8888 Uprising” was a student uprising in Yangon that ended with thousands of civilians killed. Tensions have fluctuated and remained high ever since; the government tries to keep tight control over the media and over those who wish to speak out against them.
The ethnic states, who are usually the subject of violence and conflict, sort of sandwich the Burmese central power areas.
If you look to the east, you find Karen State. Before the current conflicts with the Rohingya, this is where a lot of the fighting was happening. The Burmese government’s attacks against civilians sent droves across the border into Thailand in huge refugee camps. The warcrimes they committed then are being seen again in the west with the Rohingya, from the same army.
This is a huge source of skepticism when it comes to the Islamic extremist angle preached by the Burmese government, justifying their actions against the Rohingya. They have been committing these same atrocities against the Karen, who are largely Christian, animist, or Buddhist — the same bashing infants against trees, using rape as a weapon and burning families in their homes — to a people on the opposite side of the country with little to no ties to the Rohingya. The common denominator here is the government and their methods of dealing with ethnic minorities.
The Karen are currently in an unstable cease-fire with the government that everyone hopes will hold, but few have confidence that it will. Many continue to work tirelessly to ensure that peace strengthens day after day.
To the west near Bangladesh, you have Rakhine State (annotated on this map and formerly known as Arakan State). This is generally home to the Rakhine people, but has housed the Rohingya for generations as well.
This is the center of media attention these days — and rightfully so. Well over 650,000 Rohingya have been driven by sheer violence into neighboring Bangladesh, and the numbers of civilians killed are astounding. Multiple aid organizations from multiple countries have all reported human rights abuses happening on a massive scale.
Much of the conflict stems from the fact that the Rohingya are not considered citizens, though during their initial move into the country they were not only treated as Burmese, but they were even given seats in government all the way up to parliament. Acts of violence have occurred between combatants on both sides for years, but the scale of targeting civilians in recent months has been unprecedented.
Other ethnic states
The other ethnic states have suffered through conflict with the Burmese government, and continue to do so to this day — the Shan and Kachin states to the northeast, the Karenni to the east, or the Chin state to the northwest. Large scale human rights abuses have occurred in all of these states, and while cease-fires and concentration of military forces tend to fluctuate, the country has not had a year of peace for well over 70 years.
Confused? You’re not the only one. The Burmese government actually has a history of changing states and city names when they get mired in controversy and conflict. For example, they renamed Rangoon to Yangon in 1989 just after the 8888 Uprising and subsequent massacre. In fact, the original names are kept by many of the locals — they see the government unfit to rename their cities and states, and refuse to recognize these changes. That is why many still call it Burma instead of Myanmar.
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.