Ethnic Minorities Eye Autonomy in Post-Junta Myanmar 

By Ashley South 29 April 2022

Following the 2021 coup, there is no viable central government in Myanmar. The junta is illegal and illegitimate and unable to effectively deliver government services. Instead, a range of ethnic armed and other resistance organizations have emerged as viable and legitimate governance entities.

Recent debates have questioned whether Myanmar is a failed state and if this concept is relevant.

However, Burma has never achieved credibility as a state with which the majority of its citizens can identify.

As David Steinberg pointed out last year, political leaders have since independence failed to achieve a common sense of belonging among ethnic nations, especially between elites from the Burman majority and ethnic communities, which constitute at least a third of the population.

For many conflict-affected communities, the centralized state has been a disaster, seemingly determined to forcibly assimilate or eradicate autonomous ethnic nationality and other opposition groups.

It is unlikely that a coherent and credible Myanmar will emerge in the near or middle-term future – except perhaps in the form of a loose federal union, as proposed by the broad opposition movement forming the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) and National Unity Government (NUG).

The impacts of climate change and growing geopolitical chaos across the world will likely exacerbate these tensions. If Myanmar does not recover as a coherent entity, what remains is a set of largely ethnically defined states claiming sovereignty.

Many of these existed before or during the colonial period but were never fully integrated into the post-independence union.

The peace process, an experiment which proved that Myanmar doesn’t work

Following decades of armed conflict, the period from 2011 to 2015 was one of hope that the semi-civilian, military-backed U Thein Sein administration might be willing to do what its predecessors had not: engage in serious discussions with ethnic nationality leaders about the future nature of the union.

For the first time in decades, political negotiations were on the table, including the promise of a federal political settlement to decades of armed and state-society conflict.

For several of Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), now often referred to as ethnic resistance organizations (EROs), it was worth experimenting with peace after decades of conflict and suffering.

However, under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government from 2016, the promises of peace proved elusive. Neither the military nor NLD were willing to address ethnic communities’ grievances or aspirations. Nevertheless, the peace process was a useful experiment, proving that Myanmar’s central government – and particularly its military – are fundamentally unwilling to address ethnic grievances and aspirations or deliver genuine federalism. The situation has not improved since the coup.

Even if the current State Administrative Council could consolidate a brutal SLORC-like control, it seems unlikely the junta will succeed in bringing all territory currently defined as “Myanmar” under its control.

The brave resistance fighters across the country will doubtless continue their struggle, whatever the odds.

Ethnic and other resistance organizations

Several EAOs have sided with the junta, at least by default, by not opposing the regime. Others, such as the Arakan Army (AA), sit on the fence, although fighting may return in Arakan or Rakhine State.

It seems likely that sooner or later the regime will turn against the AA, for which reason the AA may decide to strike first.

Several other armed ethnic groups are resisting and are these days often referred to as EROs. These include the Karen National Union (KNU), which has been particularly active in supporting the opposition alliance.

Groups like the KNU, Kachin Independence Organization and New Mon State Party control extensive territory and deliver a wide range of education, health, natural resource management and administrative services.

Achieving just and equitable federalism in Myanmar will require constitutional change and other elements of “top-down” negotiation and political settlement. Federalism can also be “built from below”.

For example, providing quality mother tongue-based multilingual education, through a network of more than 1,500 schools, is one of the EROs’ most significant achievements. The schools run by various EROs provide an alternative model of education, distinct from that provided by the Ministry of Education under previous governments.

Ethnic language basic education is based on internationally recognized best practice and is a key component of a practical approach to achieving federalism in Myanmar.

In some areas, similar roles may be played by people’s administrative bodies (PABs) associated with anti-junta people’s defense forces (PDFs), especially in Bamar-majority areas, matching the EROs’ administrative services.

In liberated areas, some PDFs and PABs have already assumed responsibilities for law enforcement, public works and education, often under the guidance of the NUG. In several areas, PDFs have been cooperating closely with longer-established EROs. In some cases, there is a clear command-and-control relationship between these actors. In lowland areas, it will be a great challenge for the PDFs to maintain their positions until the junta is defeated, however that is defined.

Another new set of stakeholders is the state-level ethnic coordination bodies. So far since the coup, these have been established in Kachin, Mon, Karenni (Kayah), Chin and Shan states, including in Ta’ang areas, and Tanintharyi Region.

As yet, there is no Karen ethnic coordination body, a reflection of the long-standing complexity of Karen society, spread across seven states and regions.

Some smaller Karen EAOs are aligned with Myanmar’s military.

Given long histories of mistrust and betrayal on the part of the central state and military, EAOs are very unlikely to give up their guns.

Towards ethnic sovereignty

The plethora of armed, political and governance actors since the coup is difficult to track and frontiers between different areas of authority shift and overlap.

There are significant risks in associating ethnic identity with specific territories, including the potential marginalization of vulnerable sub-groups.

Nevertheless, future constitutional and political negotiations may need to address the challenge of boundaries to reflect the distribution of ethnic populations and recognize that all “ethnic” areas are in fact multiethnic, with many “minorities within minorities”.

This would need to be undertaken in a conflict-sensitive manner with inclusive consultations among different stakeholders.

Myanmar continues to be recognized by the United Nations. In reality, a much looser, federal-style union seems to be emerging, at least among legitimate political actors.

Particularly in upland areas, these zones of autonomy predate the official state.

Whether the long-suffering minorities opt to remain in a future federal union remains to be seen.

There are powerful incentives to support certain shared and centralized functions, such as a common currency, an internal customs union and external defense.

Not all EROs are equipped to establish the institutions of an autonomous state, although there are significant capacities with the support of ethnic civil society.

Meanwhile, international partners must be ready to work with credible autonomous resistance governments and alliances.

As often during periods of transition, political structures and alliances are challenged to address shifting realities on the ground.

Some of these issues may be resolved in talks underway in the NUCC, the opposition’s peak policy body.

Under the Federal Democracy Charter, which was revised in March, the NUG has an important role to play as a light-touch federal coordinating body.

However, authority rests with the ethnic states, and PDFs and PABs which can resist the military. These bodies say they are struggling for a new Myanmar, based on the sovereignty of the people and the historic independence of ethnic entities. They are also best positioned to provide humanitarian aid to millions of citizens affected by military rule and more broadly by militarisation and violence in Myanmar.

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