A coalition of three ethnic armed groups has pledged to support the protesters railing against last month’s military coup in Myanmar, raising the possibility that the country might soon slip into full-fledged civil war.
In a statement today, the Three Brotherhood Alliance said it would join protesters in what they call a “spring revolution” against the military, or Tatmadaw, if it doesn’t stop the killing immediately or meet calls to restore democracy.
“Our Brotherhood Alliance is now reviewing the non-ceasefire agreement following acts of the Tatmadaw after the coup,” the groups said in the statement. “We will continue to cooperate with other organizations for border stability, COVID-19 containment, people’s safety, and international anti-terrorism acts.”
The statement (available in Burmese here) came after a weekend that saw security forces gun down scores of civilians protesting its seizure of power at the beginning of February. Security forces have now killed at least 510 civilians in the two months since the military’s seizure of power on February 1, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which notes that this is likely an underestimate.
The Three Brotherhood Alliance, which includes the Arakan Army (AA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, had previously remained muted about the coup.
Its statement also indicates that the country’s crisis may precipitate the breakdown of the fragile ceasefire between the military and AA, one of the most formidable forces challenging the Myanmar army. The ceasefire was established shortly after the national election in November, in talks brokered by a Japanese peace envoy. It curtailed two years of fighting in Rakhine State and parts of Chin State that had killed and injured hundreds and forced some 226,000 people from their homes, and raised hopes of a lasting peace.
The ceasefire persisted despite the February 1 coup. On March 11, the junta removed the AA from its list of terrorist groups, a concession designed to prolong the ceasefire and give it a freer hand in crushing anti-coup protests in central regions of the country.
The status of that ceasefire now hangs in the balance as the AA and its allied ethnic armed groups promise to join the “spring revolution” against the military dictatorship. The statement follows a statement by AA spokesperson Khine Thu Khahe said on March 23, in which he described the actions of the army and police as “very cruel and unacceptable,” adding that “the oppressed ethnic people as a whole will continue to fight for their freedom from oppression.”
The statement from the Three Brotherhood Alliance also raises the possibility of the junta’s worst nightmare: an alliance between anti-coup forces and a significant portion of the 20-odd ethnic armed groups that have been fighting for autonomy for decades in outlying regions of the country.
The outline of such an alliance has been sketched out by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a parallel administration set up by members of the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government. The CRPH has reportedly agreed with the major ethnic groups on establishing a National Unity Government to contest the junta’s legitimacy. Anti-coup organizations are hoping to announce the formation of such a government by April 1, when the term of the last NLD administration formally expires.
The CRPH is working with several ethnic groups on writing the text of a new constitution, Dr. Sasa, a CRHP spokesperson, told Bloomberg last week, without naming the specific groups. He said it included progress toward the creation of a Federal Union Army, in which ethnic minorities would be permitted to retain their own armed forces.
Some ethnic armed groups taking a harder line on the coup. In a recent statement, the Karen National Union (KNU), which has been fighting for autonomy for more than seven decades, refused an invitation to meet with Min Aung Hlaing plans saying it would only do so after the military meets a series of demands that included transferring power to a National Unity Government.
Gen. Yawd Serk, the head of the Restoration Council of Shan State, told a reporter from Sky News, “If they continue to kill peaceful protestors, we will not stand by.” He added, “If the Burmese army is going to continue to use their weapons and kill peaceful protestors, the ethnic groups are not going to sit back and do nothing. There could be big fighting.”
While the CRPH, anti-coup groups, and ethnic armed organizations are united by a shared opposition to military rule, transcending this with the creation of some kind of positive program will pose significant challenges. The Three Brotherhood Alliance has not given any indication of whether it would join a National Unity Government or Federal Union Army, and it remains unclear how many of Myanmar’s more than 20 ethnic armed organizations would join.
Leaving aside the logistical difficulties in negotiating such an agreement between so many potential signatories, the different sides will need to overcome the mistrust that has built up over the decades, and find a way of bridging their divergent interests. These challenges will be particularly prodigious in the case of a putative Federal Union Army, which would need to be placed under unified command if it was to pose an effective deterrent to the Tatmadaw.
However, the increasingly oppositional stance of ethnic armed groups to Myanmar’s coup government suggests that the conflagrations currently engulfing the country’s cities and towns could soon align with the latent and active conflicts of the periphery, pushing the country further along the road to full-blown civil war.