Guest Column

Visions of a Federal Future for Myanmar are Fading Fast

By Ye Myo Hein 1 September 2021

The chief of the Arakan Army (AA), Major General Tun Myat Naing, declared in his latest interview that the political objective of his troops is to restore the sovereignty of the Arakan fatherland, now known as Rakhine State, lost by its invasion and colonization by the Bamar Konbaung dynasty in 1784. He enunciated that “there was no bargaining in our attempt to regain the lost sovereignty of Arakan and there won’t be in the future either”. It is not the first time that Maj. Gen. Tun Myat Naing has used this sort of language. Since early 2019, he has persistently insisted on confederation as the chief objective of the AA. His first proclamation in January 2019 was that “we prefer a confederation of states like Wa State which has a larger share of power in line with the Constitution”. At the time, his statement raised a hullabaloo, drawing censure and condemnation from the Bamar majority, politicians and particularly from the Myanmar military.

However, he was relatively modest in his claim by referring to a “Wa-styled power-sharing arrangement in line with the constitution”. Now, he does not even conceal his grander intentions. He did not mention a Wa-style power sharing arrangement or the constitution before. His clear message is “restoration of Arakan’s lost sovereignty”. Intriguingly, there has been no serious response this time, with even the military staying silent. In fact, the AA has been more assertive, not just in words but also in deeds. Since November 2020, when a ceasefire was tacitly agreed between the AA and the Myanmar military, the AA has carried out its ambitious plan to tighten its grip on Rakhine State. With the military occupied with suppressing resistance to their February 1 coup, the AA has strategically stepped up to institutionalize its de facto authority in Rakhine.

Although the AA’s main power base was previously in northern Rakhine, it quickly extended its sway to the south following the coup. Consequently, the AA is now believed to control over three-quarters of the entire state. Since the coup, the AA has made a handful of significant gains thanks to the junta’s policy of appeasing its once bitter enemy. The junta lifted the world’s longest internet shutdown in Rakhine State, delisted the AA as a terrorist organization and released Rakhine political prisoners, including prominent figures such as Dr. Aye Maung and the AA chief’s relatives. In return, Rakhine State has been somewhat quiet despite the intensive anti-coup resistance mounted in other parts of the country. AA chief Maj-Gen Tun Myat Naing even said that he does not want the pro-democratic Civil Disobedience Movement and street protests spreading to Rakhine State. Consequently, the AA has been accused by the Bamar majority, and even by some analysts, of collaborating with the junta.

The AA leader repudiated those allegations, claiming that the AA is unwaveringly implementing its own “way of Rakhita” – “the struggle for national liberation and the restoration of Arakan’s sovereignty to the people of Arakan”. He elaborated the AA’s current position by conceptually dividing the revolution into four stages – the initial stage, the revolutionary stage, the rivalry stage and the conquest stage – and by placing the current struggle of the AA in the third stage.

In a bold attempt to vie with the junta’s power, the AA issued a stay-at-home order to control the COVID-19 outbreak in Rakhine State. Around 75% of Rakhine residents, according to AA officials, have complied with that order, which demonstrates the AA’s powerful influence on the Rakhine people. The AA went a step further by establishing its own administrative mechanism and, recently, judiciary in Rakhine. So far, the military has refrained from reacting harshly to the AA’s obvious political moves, preoccupied as it is with ongoing fighting in other parts of the country that is stretching its resources thin.

The AA’s northern allies have also been using Myanmar’s post-coup turmoil to their own advantage. The United Wa State Army (UWSA), the largest non-state armed group in the Asia-Pacific region, has knowingly ignored the country’s wider suffering and shrewdly focused instead on institutionally strengthening its de facto status as a semi-independent state. On the leash of China, the UWSA has been distancing itself from the democratic and federal struggle in Myanmar, as its leaders know very well that the federal arrangement that other ethnic leaders have promoted could not guarantee its current status. 

Current Position of FPNCC members

Similarly, the UWSA’s smaller southern neighbor, the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), also known as the Mong La group, has also been silent on the military’s coup. In April, the junta’s peace negotiating team visited the UWSA and NDAA to explain the reasons for their coup and the current political situation, and asked them not to become involved in anti-regime resistance. The UWSA and NDAA, according to informed sources, listened to the junta, while pledging nothing. In fact, they have no stake in the anti-coup or anti-democratic movements as their main concern is to prevent the political crises and conflicts of other parts of Myanmar permeating their regions.

Other groups of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) led by the UWSA, such as the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Shan State Progressive Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA-N) have been trying to consolidate their sway in northern Shan State. The TNLA and MNDAA, together with the AA under the umbrella of the Three Brotherhood Alliance, released a statement calling on the junta to stop terrorizing and killing peaceful anti-regime protestors, and to move quickly to resolve political problems.

At the end of March, after an initial period of silence, they threatened that continued violence would lead them to support and cooperate with the ethnic people fighting in the “Spring Revolution”. The TNLA and MNDAA have engaged in sporadic fighting with the Myanmar military in northern Shan State since the coup, but the military has not reacted automatically to those attacks because its troops are overstretched elsewhere. Both the TNLA and MNDAA have exploited the uncertain situation to expand their territory in northern Shan State. The TNLA has also reportedly cooperated with the SSPP/SSA-N to drive another ethnic Shan armed group – the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-S (RCSS/SSA-S) – out of northern Shan State.

These ethnic armed groups have received fierce criticism for fighting against each other instead of targeting the military, but the critics are not aware of the underlying political dynamics of that region. In fact, these members of the FPNCC have strategically sought to expand the territory they control and to strengthen their sway in those areas. These moves were not actually made in collaboration with the junta but are strides towards fulfilling their own political agenda. Although they rarely articulate their objectives, it seems that, based on their political moves, their political future does not lie in a “federal” arrangement. The FPNCC, despite its name starting with ‘Federal’, has apparently not accepted federalism as a future structure of the state. Indeed, its proposals for the political future are tantamount to a confederated political system. However, FPNCC members, apart from the AA, have avoided explicitly disclosing their stances as that could draw an enormous backlash from backers of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and even from other ethnic armed groups that embrace the promise of a federal solution for Myanmar. Now, this concealment is no longer necessary as the post-coup situation has enabled them to make real progress towards their political goals.

Only the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), another member of the FPNCC, has been actively engaging in intense fighting with the military since the coup. The KIA has perhaps strategically maneuvered to recapture bases previously seized by the military, and extended its grip in Kachin State, which has triggered a brutal and lethal response from the junta. Additionally, some members of the Kachin Political Interim Coordination Team (KPICT), which is believed to include some representatives of the Kachin Independence Organization, the political wing of the KIA, took key positions in the National Unity Government (NUG), with Duwa Lashi La becoming the acting president.

However, based solely on the inclusion of KPICT representatives in the NUG, it is politically naïve to claim that the KIA has been fighting for the NUG or a federal future. Currently, the KIA appears to be realistically concerned with taking back control of as much territory in Kachin State as it can, while fighting against the common enemy, the military regime, instead of being dedicated to some form of future political structure. The obvious fact is that the KIA has been mute on the federal vision, especially after its resignation from the Union Nationalities Federal Council and joining the FPNCC in 2017, despite being a champion of federalism in the past.

Beyond the KIA, the federal discourse has not proved very popular, even amongst the ethnic armed groups who have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). Building up a democratic federal Union is a key vision of the NCA and signatories have been obsessive about that vision since signing the NCA. In reality, however, the NCA is invalidated in the post-coup political scenario, with the military violently imposing its dictatorial rule and with armed conflicts engulfing the whole country. Out of ten NCA signatories, some brigades of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) – the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU) – and the Chin National Front (CNF) have resumed fighting with the military since the coup.

To be continued…

Ye Myo Hein is the executive director of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies and a fellow with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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