Guest Column

Re-imagining Myanmar - The Mother of All “Critical Junctures”

By Ashley South 24 February 2021

These are extraordinary times in Myanmar, which will shape the country for many years to come. Although the military’s intervention has been a disaster, it could lead to a re-imagining of relations between the Bamar majority and ethnic nationality communities. Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) will have key roles to play.

This is already the most significant political upheaval in Myanmar (then Burma) since the 1988 democracy uprising.

The Tatmadaw’s pretext for the Feb. 1 military coup was a narrative of irregularities in the November 2020 elections.

However, the main problem with last year’s election was that millions of ethnic nationality citizens — especially those working overseas or living in conflict-affected areas —were denied the right to vote.

Meanwhile the National League for Democracy government enjoyed incumbent advantage, especially with COVID-related restrictions on smaller parties’ ability to campaign. Not surprisingly, the Myanmar Army’s pretext for seizing power did not mention the rights of ethnic nationality citizens.

In the first week after the coup, several friends questioned whether it would make much difference to ethnic communities. As one person said, “Changing a parliamentary dictatorship for a military dictatorship won’t mean much for ethnic nationality people. The NLD-led government did little to help ethnic nationality communities or achieve progress to peace process. Why should we campaign for them now?”

However, the massive protests since Feb. 6 and the new regime’s increasingly violent repression mean the country has entered new territory, involving all citizens in these momentous events.

The State Administrative Council (SAC) seems likely to attempt dividing the opposition. The regime’s strategy is reportedly to divide the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) between supporters of the previous NLD government and “Generation-Z” youth, many of whom were not previously interested in politics. Having co-opted a number of ethnic nationality leaders (and a couple of ethnic political parties) into joining the SAC, the junta also seeks to separate ethnic nationality activists from the broader CDM.

Given these dynamics, some have criticized EAOs for a perceived lack of support for the counter-coup protests. In reality, EAOs have adopted varying positions.

EAO positions

Ethnic Armed Organizations in the north and west of Myanmar have arguably had little room to maneuver, given reported pressure from China not to intervene. However, after a slightly slow start, EAOs in the southeast have been much more proactive.

On Feb. 13, the New Mon State Party (NMSP) became the first EAO to explicitly stand with the people, issuing a statement unequivocally denouncing the coup and supporting the CDM. The next day the Karen National Union (KNU) issued a similarly strong statement.

On Feb. 2, the day after the military coup, the Peace Process Steering Team (PPST, coordinating group of 10 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signatory EAOs) had issued a statement expressing grave concerns. This was followed on Feb. 20 by another PPST statement, confirming Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signatory groups did not recognize and could not engage with the SAC. Although not explicitly cancelling the NCA, this statement effectively suspended the agreement during the period of illegal military government rule.

Other EAOs have adopted varying positions. On Feb. 11, the Kayan New Land Party negotiated with security authorities to secure the release of seven activists in Kayah State. The Karenni National Progressive Party has been supportive of CDM behind-the-scenes. The Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) has issued several statements, including protesting against Myanmar Army attacks on RCSS positions, stating that these violate the NCA. The Kachin Independence Organization also issued a statement on Feb. 17 supporting the people’s efforts and calling for protection of protesters, without outright denouncing the coup or the SAC.

On the ground, the KNU’s Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) has intervened to protect and allow free passage of protesters, for example in Taungoo (Feb. 11); in Kawkareik (Feb. 19); and in Myawaddy (Feb. 21). Thus far, EAOs have not intervened directly, but have presented themselves on the edges of protests. On one occasion, on the weekend after the coup (Feb. 7), Democratic Karen Benevolent Army personnel were credited with protecting protesters from armed police in Myawaddy.

All of this has happened against the background of increased Myanmar Army aggression in some ethnic areas. Since mid-December, the Tatmadaw has launched a series of violent assaults on civilian communities in northern Karen State and eastern Bago Region, in the context of increasing militarization – building new roads and resupplying army bases which are perceived locally as occupying forces. Myanmar Army shelling and other attacks on civilians has driven more than 6,000 Karen Internally Displaced People to flee since mid-December.

According to the Free Burma Rangers, more than 700 Karen civilians were forcibly displaced in the KNU’s 5 Brigade area between Feb. 20-21 alone. Ongoing Myanmar Army attacks have created significant needs for protection and assistance. With the increasing suppression of protests, and attacks on civilian communities in urban areas, Myanmar Army aggression may force more people to flee.

The KNU has established a committee to receive any refugees (technically, Internally Displaced People) from the protests, should violent crackdowns lead to a repeat of Burma’s 1988-1990 experience, when protesters fleeing violent oppression in the cities fled to EAO-controlled border areas. The KNU is developing contingency plans for creating a degree of quarantine in reception centers, in case recent events drive a new outbreak of COVID-19. The NMSP has established a similar committee.

The mother of all ‘critical junctures’

The past three weeks have been a time of anger and sadness. This period of rapid change and political realignment (or “critical juncture”) has the potential to inspire a deep transformation of peace-building in Myanmar.

Before the coup, things were not going well for ethnic nationality communities, especially in conflict-affected areas. The ceasefire was stalling, with new Myanmar Army attacks on civilians. The present crisis could be an opportunity to change the narrative, and re-imagine Myanmar, transforming relationships between different communities in their struggle against the new junta.

The protests have seen an important emerging alliance or coalition between NLD members and activists, ethnic nationality individuals and groups, and the “Gen-Z” youth. There are echoes here of 1988, when violent military suppression of the democratic uprising drove a generation of students to the border areas to seek common cause with ethnic nationality groups who had long been struggling against the military regime. One result of the SAC junta’s oppression of the people is to provide a common experience, bonding different elements of Myanmar society together in new and creative ways.

The realignment of politics and society currently underway in Myanmar comes only once in a generation (thankfully). Based on bonds of solidarity, a deep re-orientation and re-imagination of identities and interests could be an opportunity to begin re-making the country in a more equitable and inclusive way. Taking just one example, in its statement of Feb. 8 the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hlutaw (the committee formed by legally-elected members of Union Parliament) recognized the importance of a broad-based anti-coup coalition, including the roles of EAOs.

New alliances in the struggle against the illegal military coup could prefigure transformed relationships between different stakeholders, including members of the Bamar majority community and ethnic nationality or minority peoples. Under decades of military rule, few members of the Bamar majority community had the opportunity to understand the realities, concerns and hopes of ethnic nationality people in conflict-affected areas. New bonds are now being forged, which can have major implications for the future of Burma.

(Dr Ashley South is an independent analyst, and a Research Fellow at Chiang Mai University, specializing in politics and humanitarian issues in Burma and South-East Asia. His views are his own.)

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