Assessing Myanmar Civilian Government's Cooperation With Ethnic Minorities

By The Irrawaddy 7 February 2023

There are 17 major ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in Myanmar and the civilian National Unity Government (NUG) says eight of them are cooperating politically or militarily to bring down the junta.

NUG spokesman U Nay Phone Latt told The Irrawaddy: “We are cooperating [with EAOs] in practical terms. I can’t name them for various reasons but you can find them in reports from the frontlines.”

Observers have stressed the importance of interaction between the NUG and EAOs in defeating the regime and we will examine the extent of cooperation since the February 2021 coup.

The EAOs fall into four broad categories: those publicly cooperating with the NUG; groups supporting the NUG behind the scenes; organizations expressing sympathy for the NUG despite holding talks with the regime; and groups that are in talks with the regime and shunning the NUG.

EAOs that cooperate with the NUG

The Kachin Independence Army, Karen National Union (KNU), Karenni National Progressive Party, Chin National Front and All Burma Students Democratic Front all cooperate with the NUG.

They have provided military training for many of the estimated 65,000 resistance fighters that have appeared since the coup.

The Kawthoolei Army led by Major General Saw Nerdah Mya, which has split from the KNU following the coup, also fights alongside resistance forces.

Six EAOs say they cooperate with the NUG and the civilian government has formed three regional commands to ensure military cooperation between the groups.

Region one oversees northern and western Myanmar, region two covers southern areas and region three oversees central and eastern zones.

The NUG’s Central Command and Coordination Committee formed in October 2021 includes leaders from allied EAOs.

The parallel government cooperates on a political level to provide administrative duties in liberated territories.

The Interim Chin National Consultative Council, Kachin Political Interim Coordination Team, Karenni State Consultative Council, Mon State Interim Coordination Committee, Pa-O National Federal Council and Ta’ang Political Consultative Council are all working with the NUG.

They are political coalitions representing ethnic minorities.

EAOs providing hidden support

The powerful Three Brotherhood Alliance of the Arakan Army (AA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) is not conducting military operations with the NUG but it provides training and weapons to resistance forces.

MNDAA Brigade 611 that was armed in early January is a combination of at least six resistance groups, including the Bamar People’s Liberation Army, which is allied to the NUG.

The AA has trained resistance fighters in western Magwe Region and the TNLA has trained volunteers from Mandalay Region.

EAOs with sympathy for the NUG

Several EAOs have shown an understanding for the NUG’s armed struggle without making any public statements.

The United Wa State Army, Shan State Progress Party and National Democratic Alliance Army have ceasefires with the regime and have held talks with the junta but not conceded to its demands.

During talks last month in Naypyitaw, the regime demanded the three groups stop supporting the NUG and its allied groups. They rejected the junta’s demand.

A source told The Irrawaddy: “They asked us to sign an agreement not to support and sell arms to the resistance groups. We didn’t accept that. There was a heated argument and we threatened to walk out if they kept insisting that we sign.”

A source said the three groups feared the public would believe the junta’s misleading statements about the discussions.

The three groups clearly share an understanding with resistance forces, analysts have said.

EAOs in talks with the junta

Seven EAOs that are signatories to the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, including the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), New Mon State Party (NMSP), Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council, Arakan Liberation Party, Pa-O National Liberation Organization and a Lahu Democratic Union splinter group, only engage with the junta.

Only the RCSS and NMSP have relatively large armies while the others have few or no troops.

They have said they prefer to follow political means to solve problems and need to engage in dialogue with the junta.

Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has conferred honorary titles like Wunna Kyawhtin on some of their leaders. There is no open hostility towards the NUG from the groups.

The people will decide these groups’ fate, said U Nay Phone Latt.

“If they back Min Aung Hlaing’s terrorist military, they will be considered criminals. Some might be cooperating for their group’s survival. And some may be looking for an alternative path. Ultimately, it is the people who will decide their fate,” said the NUG spokesman.

Will cooperation with the NUG increase?

Only a third of EAOs with an estimated 40,000 troops in total are fully cooperating with the NUG.

Around a third of the groups are only partially involved in the revolution while about 7 percent of EAOs troops are allied with the junta.

There has been more military than political cooperation, ethnic leaders say.

Padoh Mahn Mahn, the KNU spokesman in Papun District, said: “The military cooperation is clear. We fight the dictatorship. We fight to defend the people. But political agreements are yet to develop properly.”

The NUG has reached a general agreement on establishing a federal democracy but is yet to ratify a constitution guaranteeing self-determination and equality.

“We haven’t been able to design an interim constitution that is satisfactory on equality and self-determination for ethnic minorities. Military cooperation has reached a satisfactory level but political cooperation is weak,” Padoh Mahn Mahn said.

U Nay Phone Latt said the NUG will realize the promises made by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s father General Aung San in the 1947 Panglong Agreement. The NUG opposes racial chauvinism and guarantees equality and self-determination within a federation, he said.

“While we can absolutely guarantee these things, there are also other issues that must only be decided through broader consultation with stakeholders in the future. The NUG is an interim government and we are not in a position to guarantee future policies,” said the NUG spokesman.

An observer said it is difficult for NUG and EAOs to reach political agreements because of their differing backgrounds and experiences.

“It is difficult to agree new systems of government. It will also be influenced by which revolutionary groups achieve success,” she said.

Another observer called for greater cooperation with allied EAOs. “The NUG must persuade neutral EAOs to join the fight, presenting overwhelming numbers to guarantee victory over the junta,” he said.