Dissidents Fleeing Myanmar Junta Find Shelter and Support with Ethnic Armed Groups
By The Irrawaddy 23 March 2021
An increasing number of activists, dissidents and politicians have sought refuge in Myanmar’s eastern borderlands with ethnic armed groups, in particular the Karen National Union (KNU). But this situation is not new for the ethnic armed groups. In 1988, thousands of students and activists fled to the Thai-Myanmar border and the border with India to seek shelter and to take up the armed struggle against the then junta. Those areas were known as “liberated areas.”
Now hundreds of newly-arrived activists (including journalists fleeing the military regime) have taken refuge in insurgent-controlled areas in Karen, Kayah, Mon and Shan States along Myanmar’s eastern border with Thailand.
On Monday, military-owned Myawaddy Television announced that the regime was looking into reports that many NLD members and supporters had fled to KNU-controlled areas in the country’s southeast.
Military information team leader Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said during a press conference on Tuesday that more than 1,000 people had fled to border areas in the country’s southeast to evade arrest.
Known as ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), the ethnic groups have publicly denounced the junta’s Feb.1 coup and the rule of the military’s State Administration Council (SAC). Karen insurgents in Karen State deployed troops to protect peaceful anti-regime protesters.
The Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) has stated publicly that it will shelter and support any victims of the SAC and the military.
Several ethnic groups, with the notable exception of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), in the north of Myanmar along the border with China are supportive of the coup and will likely focus more on signing ceasefire agreements with the military.
Most notably, a parallel government – the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) – has formed in the areas under the control of the EAOs. The CRPH is made up of elected lawmakers from the ousted National League for Democracy-led (NLD) government.
The same thing happened in 1990 after the then military regime refused to hand over power to the elected representatives of the NLD following its 1990 election victory. Then, many MPs fled to the eastern borderlands to escape imprisonment and the junta’s crackdown. Those MPs formed the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB). That government in exile was known to be ineffective but received backing from the US and the West. The exiled government was dissolved in September 2012.
Talks between the CRPH and several ethnic groups in the south are ongoing. Sources said that without military representatives sitting in the meetings, there is a free flow of discussion between the CRPH and EAOs without fear.
There has been some talk on social media about the idea of creating a “federal army”. Just like in 1988, some young activists who have fled to areas controlled by the EAOs now want to receive military training from those ethnic armies. But it is not known how and where they will find support and resources.
A number of new EAOs, such as the Arakan Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) have emerged in the last 10 years, but initially they received assistance and backing from the KIA and, subsequently, from other powerful ethnic armies along the Chinese border. They have been allowed to open offices and to run businesses in China.
The SAC has warned ethnic groups not to establish contact with the CRPH. But a member of the Peace Process Steering Team along the Thai-Myanmar border said that the two sides continue to hold talks. Last week, the CRPH removed all EAOs in Myanmar from the terrorist and unlawful associations list. Several ethnic armies have had unstable relationships with the NLD government in the past.
The junta has now invited EAOs to attend the upcoming Armed Forces Day on the 27thof March in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw. Many have declined the invitation.
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