Guest Column

Responsibilities and Opportunities to Save Myanmar

By Ashley South 10 March 2021

Over the past week or so, the illegal junta which seized power on Feb. 1 has unleashed increasing violence on unarmed protesters, who are demanding justice and democracy in Myanmar. At least 60 people have been killed, and the death toll keeps rising.

The people of Myanmar are demanding protection, but who will provide it? The country’s Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) have crucial roles to play. Bold action now could help redefine the EAOs’ position and prospects, in a rapidly changing Burma.

The “Responsibility to Protect”

In 2005 the UN World Summit Outcome Document endorsed the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), according to which international actors may intervene in situations of acute crisis, in order to prevent, mitigate or otherwise respond to widespread rights violations. The R2P doctrine endorses intervention in four instances: the threat or acts of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing.

Arguably, all of these violations are present in Myanmar today.

I am not a lawyer, but the deadly suppression of protests on the streets of Myanmar most closely fits the definition of “crimes against humanity,” while decades of attacks on ethnic nationality communities actually constitutes “ethnic cleansing.” The Myanmar Army’s brutal campaign against the Rohingya, which the previous government did little to stop, is arguably a case of “genocide.”

The R2P doctrine has been contested — especially by some authoritarian states. Nevertheless, it has become a widely cited (if imperfectly understood) doctrine. However, in international law, the R2P doctrine relates solely to activities initiated by the UN Security Council, which may mandate UN agencies or others to act under its authority. There is an important discussion regarding what types of international intervention are useful and possible, beyond the necessity of targeted economic sanctions.

In the meantime, human rights activists have long sought to mobilize the R2P doctrine more broadly, in order to justify a range of rights-based interventions. Unfortunately, international human rights and humanitarian law, including doctrines such as R2P, rarely acknowledges the agency of local actors – whether that is engaged citizens, civil society actors or non-governmental organisations.

In the unique circumstances of Myanmar today, EAOs have important roles to play and, arguably, a responsibility to protect the public.

Karen National Union/ Karen National Liberation Army soldiers provided security for the anti-regime protesters in a village in Dawei district, Tannitharyi region on March 8.

The roles of EAOs

As discussed in The Irrawaddy on Feb. 24, the Karen National Union (KNU) released a statement day after the coup. 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 Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). The next day the 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) 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 State Administration Council (SAC). Although not explicitly cancelling the NCA, this statement effectively suspended the agreement during the period of illegal military government rule.

Meanwhile, EAOs in the north and west of Myanmar (most of which are not NCA signatories) have arguably had little room to maneuver, given reported pressure from China not to intervene. Nevertheless, the Kachin Independence Organization also issued a statement on Feb. 17 supporting the people’s efforts and calling for protection of protesters.

Several EAOs have also responded with practical interventions. The KNU has said it will protect protesters, and the KNU’s Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) has intervened to protect and allow free passage of protesters, in a number of Brigade areas. For example, on March 5 KNLA and KNU members were seen protecting civilians in Kamamaung, Papun and Kawkareik, and probably elsewhere also. On March 8, troops from the KNLA’s 4 Brigade in Tanintharyi Region led a people’s protest march from Myitta to Dawei.

When EAO personnel join the protests, this sends an important symbolic message of solidarity, showing that groups like the KNU stand with the people. So far, there have been no instances of EAOs’ participation in the protests exacerbating the situation, providing a pretext for further attacks by the junta forces. Nevertheless, great caution is required to avoid any escalation of the violence. Furthermore, while the KNU can offer some protection to protesters in regions close to its areas of operation, there is little that EAOs can do to help people on the streets of Yangon or other major cities.

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. According to the Free Burma Rangers and other sources, Myanmar Army shelling and attacks on civilians have driven more than 8,000 Karen Internally Displaced People to flee since mid-December. There have also been recent attacks on the KIO in Kachin and northern Shan States.

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 and NMSP and other EAOs have both established committees 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.

Arguably, one has to go back to 1988 to find another series of events of comparable importance in Burma. This is indeed the mother of all “critical junctures,” with the potential to inspire a deep transformation of peace-building in Myanmar.

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. 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, based on bonds of solidarity.

These 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. The way in which Myanmar’s EAOs (and especially the KNU) have stood up to defend the people should ensure that they play a leading role in such debates and discussions.

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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