When the National League for Democracy closed its first term in government last year, peacebuilding in Myanmar was already at a crossroads.
Now, following the military coup, observers are asking what approach the generals might take to secure the “eternal peace” prescribed in the declaration justifying the emergency state.
Armed conflicts in the ethnic areas are Myanmar’s seemingly never ending drama. They were even cited as the cause of the major political crises of the 20th century, followed by power grabs by other men in uniform. This time, however, the military is citing election irregularities and the smuggled walkie-talkie of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
At least, the generals are not seeking to antagonize the various ethnic groups. According to the military line, the NLD was responsible for the stalled peace-making process, so that party needed to be swept away to make way for the junta-led peace-making – or peace-extorting – institutions.
At first glance, on February 1, the known order of things collapsed for all people of Myanmar, regardless of ethnicity.
Ethnic armed groups did not differ, inking renewed statements with their time-worn postulates of the need for peace, self-determination, and federalism.
The acting chairman of a group representing 10 armed groups which signed the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) also condemned the coup. But the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, reached out to the NCA parties very quickly after the coup, reassuring them that the ceasefire remains in force.
For the time being, more and more armed groups are giving indications of their plans to boycott military-led institutions. Importantly, one ethnic armed group, Pa-O National Liberation Army, which signed a peace agreement in 2012, has already declined to engage.
Following the abolishment of the previous government-led National Reconciliation and Peace Center, the scheduled talks with the Northern Alliance have been cancelled. The Northern Alliance comprises the Arakan Army, Kachin Independence Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army. Their stance on working with the new government remains to be seen.
The temporary ceasefire with the Arakan Army in conflict-torn Rakhine State was built on the promise of holding elections in the future. Will they actually happen? The November ceasefire agreement helped the Tatmadaw declare victory, which was very important for the sake of image enhancement. Soldiers started returning home after they had curbed insurgent activities.
It is highly debatable why generals broke the power-sharing consensus enshrined in the 2008 constitution, which the military drafted, but they must be aware that conducting a coup is equal to playing with fire. At heart, however, the Tatamadaw-NLD struggle is a contest between two players representing the Burman ethnic majority. What does the infighting mean for Myanmar’s ethnic minorities?
For Lum Zawng, things do not look black and white. He is an ethnic Kachin activist, honored by many international bodies, and was jailed in 2018 merely for making statements about the military. Regrettably, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government did not respond to any appeals for release from abroad, sending a chilling message to other peaceful demonstrators.
Lum Zawng says that the “military is very clever now, and they are not acting offensively toward the EAOs [ethnic armed organizations], only focusing on the NLD and their followers.”
Ethnic groups have suffered from the Burmanization and centralization inflicted by both the NLD and the military, he adds.
In his opinion, because the military leader wants to build transitional peace and gain credit for it, they will be making renewed agreements with the armed groups.
Due to the dynamics of the situation, no one knows if the EAOs will decide to interact with the military government. Furthermore, some ethnic politicians have accepted joining the new government.
The Arakan National Party, which was ignored by the NLD during its term, declared that the party will work with the military government – a move that will give the generals a bit more credibility. They will be joined by other at least one other ethnic politician from the Kayin People’s Party.
In sum, the military is eager to work with whomever dislikes the NLD, in line with the philosophy that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Politicians who had been at odds with Aung San Suu Kyi are now taking government positions thanks to the military’s intervention, despite their meager performance in the elections.
On the other hand, the generals were always free to do whatever they wanted in making war or peace. The intensification of the armed conflicts in 2020, not to mention the Rohingya crisis, exemplifies that the Tatmadaw was never constrained by anyone.
But if we suppose that the military intends to end the emergency state in due time, they might offer up some significant reforms, which could help better secure the rights of parties that are hostile to the NLD – and thereby limit the power of their main opponents.
The previous Union Electoral Commission, controversially filled with NLD appointees, has been already replaced by a new body (obviously of military-affiliated members).
Another sore point with ethnic groups is that the NLD had blocked federalization reform, which would have allowed for the local selection, rather appointment by the center, of state and regional ministers. The military-linked opposition, the USDP, had advocated for that change, probably due to the fact that in regional bodies, the popularity of the USDP could outweigh that of the NLD.
In Shan State, Myanmar’s largest by landmass, the USDP was ahead of both the NLD and the ethnic parties in the 2015 elections, which some explain by the strong presence of military camps. Noticeably, however, in 2020, the NLD won more seats, to the shock of the generals. The disappointing results for the USDP were what powered the military’s accusations of electoral fraud.
It is doubtful, however, that the military, which has always sought to centralize power, would conduct meaningful federalization reform. Nevertheless, the mere offer could be a game changer, potentially causing divisions among protesters that have demonstrated against the coup, including people of all ethnic backgrounds.
For the time being, ethnic parties such as the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy Karen National Party, Asho Chin National Party, Kachin State People’s Party, and Democratic Party for a New Society have rejected the offer of cooperating with the military government. Ethnic parties have had little success in the past in dealing with the USDP and the generals. Despite the NLD’s own deeply imperfect record in relations with ethnic groups, distrust against the military – with its long record of brutality against ethnic peoples – runs deep.
On the other hand, for Myanmar’s generals, pushing the peacemaking process forward and conducting reforms is of reputational significance in the country and abroad. As time passes, the ethnic armed groups, or even some of the ethnic parties, may come to view the fall of the NLD-branded democracy as irreparable, and may feel forced to cooperate with the institutions headed by the generals.
In recent years, the Tatmadaw modernized its weaponry and showed off its capabilities. The military always negotiates from a position of strength, and has a long history of breaking its own commitments. With the borders being sealed off and ethnic conflicts failing to win much attention abroad, rebel groups are at the mercy of generals who will not hesitate to enforce their solutions.
Robert Bociaga is a photojournalist based in Myanmar.