More than three weeks after the February 1 coup in Myanmar, in which the military toppled the civilian government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD), all attention is on the struggle between the junta and the disparate Civic Disobedience Movement, which has mobilized hundreds of thousands of (mostly young) people from across Myanmar’s geographical, social, and ethnic spectrum.
The protests have been covered in the international media much in the vein of the various “color revolutions” that have taken place in recent years: as a story of the people vs. the dictator. But a decentralized protest movement is not an actor, it cannot negotiate, and it is by itself unlikely to topple a regime. The reeling NLD is now finding its feet and has started building a shadow administration around the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, a collection of parliamentarians elected at November’s annulled election. In addition to setting up a network of local councils, it is reaching out to other domestic groups as well as to the international community.
In parallel, some smaller political parties have formed a General Strike Committee, and some ethnic political and civil society organizations formed a General Strike Committee of Nationalities, both of which supported the successful general strike on February 22. Though these efforts are not in sync with one another we can think of them as the beginnings of a proto-government. With two governments forming now, the junta and the proto-government in opposition, it will be crucial how ethnic political and armed actors align.
Ethnic minority organizations and armed groups detest the military. Myanmar has 135 recognized ethnicities but the successive military dictatorships that ruled the country from 1962 to 2011 have an awful track record of ethnic discrimination. In a bid to unify the country they pursued an extreme policy of “Burmanization” of all walks of life. Myanmar to this day is the only country that has different types of citizenship based on ethnicity. Ethnic armed organizations have fought the military dictatorships – and sometimes each other – for decades, in bids for autonomy for their respective ethnic groups. Around 20 ethnic armed organizations remain under arms in the “ethnic states” and border regions. They have been engaged in a peace process with successive Myanmar governments, which have sought to transform a variety of ceasefire agreements into a permanent peace accord. Many of those ethnic armed organizations hold pockets of territory lying beyond the reach of the central government, and many have a hand in Myanmar’s flourishing conflict economy. Some of those ethnic armed organizations have splintered over time, and certain factions have been co-opted by the military into so-called Border Guard Forces. The loyalties of these forces remain unclear.
While the junta has managed to enlist a few minority political actors since the coup it has made only modest progress in winning ethnic minority “hearts and minds.” The Arakan National Party (ANP), the biggest ethnic Rakhine political party, has joined the junta and accepted a national cabinet seat. A ceasefire between the military and the Arakan Army, the Rakhine ethnic armed organization, which has close ties to the ANP, continues to hold out. The Mon State Unity Party (MSUP), an umbrella group of ethnic Mon political parties, which was relatively successful in the 2020 elections, also joined the junta.
However, by no means all ethnic Mon, Rakhine, and Kachin actors are happy with these alignments. Smaller Rakhine parties and Rakhine civil society groups have condemned the ANP’s alliance with the junta. Similarly, the MSUP’s move was widely criticized within Mon civil society and by a Mon ethnic armed organization, while a number of Mon political leaders have resigned from the party in protest. The vice-president of the Kachin State People’s Party had to resign from her post because she cooperated with the junta.
Ethnic political, civil society, and armed organizations in eastern Myanmar have come out strongly against the coup. Civil society groups in Karen State were among the first to call for all ethnic minority people of Myanmar to join in resisting the coup. A group of 10 ethnic armed organizations have announced they will suspend all interaction with the junta and defend protestors. The Karen National Union, one of the most powerful ethnic political-cum-armed organizations, has dispatched troops to escort and protect protestors in some cities in southeastern Myanmar.
While a considerable number of ethnic armed and political actors are showing strong solidarity with the protest movement, they do not have much love for the NLD. As one senior member of an ethnic armed organization in eastern Myanmar told me, “The Civil Disobedience Movement was started by the people. It is being exploited by the NLD.”
To be sure, the NLD, a primarily ethnic Bamar party, collaborated with a number of ethnic political parties in the long years of underground opposition to the military dictatorships. Soon after the NLD first joined formal politics in 2012, however, it alienated many erstwhile allies when it – successfully – fielded its own “ethnic” candidates against ethnic minority political party allies, and voted down the constitutional amendments that they favored. Many ethnic armed organizations, moreover, are unhappy at how the NLD government ran the nationwide peace negotiations and its aggressive expansion of services in what they consider their territory.
Much will depend on where the ethnic political and armed organizations in northern Myanmar come down on the coup. Mostly supported by China, these groups have – like their sponsor – so far tried to remain above the fray. Some of them, in particular, the Kachin Independence Organization, may yet be drawn onside by an opposition unity government given the right conditions, most importantly the rejection of the Constitution of 2008. The new opposition proto-government is already trying to reach out, and it will need the support of all ethnic political and armed actors it can get. As Maw Tun Aung of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, one of the former NLD allies, told me, “NLD should be under no illusion. The military will crush them. They need to form a unity government to overcome the coup and build a new platform based on true federalism. Then there is a real chance to bring on board the ethnic armed organizations and turn them into the resistance army.”
Here then is the big dilemma for the proto-government as it seeks to craft a coherent position vis-à-vis the military: There are those in NLD who would operate within the Constitution with a view to being able to reach out to the military and find a negotiated solution. Another faction will be unlikely to entertain the thought of going back to the hated Constitution, a position held by many, if not all, ethnic political and armed organizations. The coup has pushed the demand for a federal democratic system firmly to the fore. Giving in to this demand may harm the chances of the NLD-led proto-government for a negotiated solution with the military in the short term, but holding out with a view to reaching a deal with the military will preclude it from being able to form a true “unity government” – bringing crucial ethnic minority organizations and armed groups onside – which it may need not only to survive the immediate crisis, but also to lay the foundations for a genuine nationwide peace in the future.
Philipp Annawitt worked for the UN Development Programme in Myanmar from 2015-2020. He now advises Myanmar’s Ministry of Planning, Finance and Industry.