Ethnic Groups Have Lost Faith in the NLD

By Lawi Weng 27 April 2018

The country is becoming more divided between the Burman and the other ethnic groups under the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. There are several reasons why.

Since the NLD government came to power, the Myanmar Army has launched a string of military campaigns in Kachin State and northern Shan State despite the ongoing peace process at the national level.

It prompts the question, why is the Myanmar Army launching more offensives now than during the reign of the former military-installed government of U Thein Sein?

U Thein Sein was from the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The Myanmar Army and USDP acted as one and yet the Myanmar Army rarely attacked the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) or the Arakan Army (AA), although it did launch several offensives against the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) during Thein Sein’s five years as president.

According to a leaked paper from the six monthly meeting of the Tatmadaw, the Ministry of Defense has instructed the army’s ground forces to focus their attacks on the KIA and TNLA to destroy their military capability.

The Myanmar Army has followed up on this order by launching a wide-ranging offensive in Kachin this year. The KIA and the Kachin people feel that the campaign is intended to eliminate the Christian ethnic Kachin who have a strong armed wing and a close-knit community in northern Myanmar.

At the same time, the Myanmar Army has launched a parallel campaign against the TNLA. Only this week, an army convoy of 60 trucks arrived in Lashio with plans to move further north to Namkham and Muse where the KIA and TNLA have bases.

The Myanmar Army has applied a different approach to dealing with the TNLA, using the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), a signatory to the NCA, as a proxy to attack the TNLA. According to TNLA leaders, the Myanmar Army has helped deploy troops from the RCSS, whose stronghold is in southern Shan, in the north of the state to attack TNLA positions.

The TNLA has used guerilla tactics when it attacked the Myanmar Army but a more defensive strategy when engaging with the RCSS. The TNLA this year has suffered heavy casualties and the loss of military material in attacks against the RCSS to maintain its control of some areas. In March, for example, the TNLA engaged in firefights with the RCSS around Kyaukme, causing hundreds of IDPs to flee the area.

This strategy has allowed the Myanmar Army to sit back, arms folded and watch the fighting between the TNLA and RCSS. On occasion it has brought in its long-distance artillery to shell the TNLA to support the RCSS, forcing the TNLA to open two fronts.

The civil war in Myanmar has raged for decades but one thing that is different now is the reaction of the general public. In the past, protests were held to demand the government and Myanmar Army stop its offensives against the ethnic groups. But this time there has been almost no show of public support for the Kachin, even when the Tatmadaw’s attacks have resulted in the deaths of civilians from air strikes or from artillery bombardments.

Why don’t members of the public criticize the Myanmar Army? Many people are apparently worried that their criticism will damage the relationship between the NLD government – which still has the support of the majority of the people in the country — and the Myanmar Army. Some supporters of the NLD have argued that the civilian government is not mature yet, and it was not the right time to criticize it.

This is why some Kachin civil society organizations have appealed to the International Criminal Court to take action against the Myanmar Army for killing civilians and causing thousands of local Kachin to flee while also blocking UN agencies from delivering aid to Kachin IDPs.

The Myanmar Army has used all its resources in the military offensive in Kachin including air strikes, ground force assaults and 120 mm long-distance artillery. Some KIA leaders and Kachin community leaders feel that Myanmar Army is acting as if it is locked in battle with a foreign enemy. But the ethnic Kachin are citizens of Myanmar and the KIA is fighting for equal rights for the ethnic Kachin.

When the other ethnic groups look at the situation in Kachin state, they increasingly view the NLD and Myanmar Army as one and the same. Both are Burmese. The NLD government keeps silent when the Myanmar Army attacks the Kachin.

But, who voted for the NLD?

I am an ethnic Mon person who told my family to vote for the NLD. Similarly, people from other ethnic groups who wanted to see the country amend the 2008 Constitution gave their votes to the NLD. We all believed the NLD was only party that would dare to challenge the Myanmar Army.

However, shortly after taking power, the NLD, which had told the country’s ethnic groups it would run the country as democracy under a federal system with equal rights for all, tried to name a bridge in Moulmein after Gen Aung San. Many ethnic Mon, including members of my family, were outraged. Ethnic Mon today no longer view the NLD as a party that will help them attain equal rights. It is just a party that tries to rule and manipulate the ethnic minorities to service its own purposes.

The story in Kachin State is the same, only more extreme. When the country went to the polls, the KIA leaders reportedly told ethnic Kachin to vote for the NLD. The Kachin also had high expectations of the NLD, but no one from the party has spoken out to condemn the actions of the Myanmar Army, which launched yet another big military offensive against the KIA today.

The NLD has built statues of Gen Aung San in Myitkyina despite ethnic local Kachin opposition. It has erected statues of Gen Aung San in other ethnic areas as well including Mon State. Such actions have resulted in more disappointment in the NLD government.

The installation of statues of Gen Aung San is not a minor issue. Gen Aung San is a hero of the Burmese, but not for all ethnic people. Some Mon are worried that the statues are intended to be a signal that all the ethnic areas will one day belong to the Burmans.