In Myanmar’s borderlands, the atrocities of the junta are not a recent event. As such, the ethnic residents of these territories have faced the outcomes of the February 2021 coup with different levels of engagement and various strategies. They also have faced the consequences in differing ways.
Recent weeks have seen renewed attempts to unite under one banner while at the same time, the junta has extended an invitation to armed groups for negotiations. What are the chances for a liberated Myanmar with more autonomy for ethnic groups, and how to see the role of the National Unity Government in it?
Yawd Serk, the leader of one of Myanmar’s most influential ethnic armed groups, has previously not spared critical words toward the regime that has killed almost 2,000 civilians. Nowadays he’s welcomed in the palace by the junta leader.
The leaders of the army council “must be held accountable,” he said after the coup, adding that “the 10 armed groups firmly stand with the people.”
Yawd Serk’s Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) is among the 10 armed groups that previously signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) but after the military takeover have declared their support for the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) – a movement that has sought to paralyze the junta’s administration, energy sector, and encourages army defections.
Back in 2019, Yawd Serk also said that “first, our governance system has to be a federal democratic system. We all know that the military dictatorship is absolutely no good.” At the time, the Shan leader pointed at the need to change the 2008 constitution, and “to focus on discussing how Myanmar military would change in regards to the security issue.”
But fast forward to mid-2022, after a year of fighting, and displacement of thousands across Shan State, Kayah State, and elsewhere in the country, Yawd Serk was the first representative of ethnic armed groups to shake hands with the regime for peace talks. The talks went “smoothly,” Yawd Serk said, mentioning the lack of differences between the two.
In the meantime, accounts about the attacks of regime forces, such as setting fire to more than 40 houses in Shan State, have continued to flow in.
Many have expressed outrage at Yawd Serk’s lending validity to the junta, while for the others it was a stark reminder of the fact that all the people holding arms in Myanmar do not have a democratic legitimacy.
These developments come after reports of growing tension among the residents of Shan State, Myanmar’s largest by territory. In March, the chairperson of another ethnic organization, Ta’ang National Party, was murdered along with his family. Many blamed the SSA-S for that act but the group denied the accusation, saying that the incident was to intentionally damage the organization. However, it was enough to sow doubts on the cordial relationships between different ethnic groups living in Shan State. In the face of lack of trustworthy investigation in the post-coup Myanmar, the accusations multiply.
A House Firmly Divided
In the past, attempts to unite ethnic armed groups in Shan State initiated by religious groups have failed. This despite the broad criticism of the fighting that, according to many local commentators, has the traits of proxy wars waged in the interest of either the junta, China, or both, rather than that of the people.
The situation has always been convoluted, mirroring also the complexity of internal affairs in other regions. Forming a military alliance between ethnic armed organizations, and the People’s Defense Forces (PDF), the forces that are on the side of National Unity Government (NUG), Myanmar’s government-in-exile, is in fact an “impossibile negotium” – a task impossible to complete.
Divisions have persisted and will persist.
Although many armed groups took a wait-and-see approach shortly after the coup, the junta was able to motivate or cajole some of their leaders in recent months.
This was demonstrated in the list of participants to the peace talks led by the generals. Myanmar has 21 ethnic armed organizations, 10 of which accepted invitations to the peace talks, the military council’s spokesperson, Maj.-Gen. Zaw Min Tun, claims. Very recently, seven have received honorary titles from the junta, setting the stage for the smooth proceedings of the peace talks.
Some groups, such as the Karen National Union, Kachin Independence Army, Karenni National Progress Party and Chin National Front, which are actively engaged in armed struggle against the dictatorship, however, rebuffed the meeting, calling it non-inclusive after the NUG and PDFs were excluded.
In the face of it, many believe that the peace talks will not bring a lasting peace, given the junta’s long tradition of breaking its own commitments, and that the meetings serve only as a pretext to encourage divisions and persuade the armed groups to distance themselves from the NUG — once and for all.
On the surface, the recent events are the blow to the NUG. It has sought to position itself as the only legitimate representative of the people, holding the placards of unity and democracy.
But looking deeply, the junta’s PR success is built on unstable terrain as it is highly unlikely that they will grant any form of self-determination to the ethnic people, as hoped by the invited leaders. The coup leaders reaffirmed recently the need to uphold the 2008 Constitution, scrapping the chance for any meaningful autonomy.
Because the regime plans to hold a general election next year, talks on federalism will be put off until then. Critics doubt, however, whether without replacing the constitution a federal country can be built at any point in the future. Therefore, most probably, in the coming months, we will witness prolongation of the armed struggle between the competing parties, with many siding with the junta, or abstaining from the fight at best.
Against this background, a member of Myanmar’s government-in-exile recently met Malaysia’s foreign minister. The lack of positive replies on Malaysia’s minister call to open informal channels with the NUG by the members of ASEAN brings to question how far they are ready and willing to push for changes on the status of Myanmar and its internal strife.
Nevertheless, with China’s and Russia’s backing, the junta has little to worry about. International pressure has brought very limited results, and the resistance groups go on with their struggle, demanding arms supplies from the West, as observed in the case of Ukraine.
Looking at that European country, many wonder whether the EU, the United States, and others have done everything possible to support pro-democracy forces. The strength of the response to the Putin’s war has stunned many observers, not to mention Putin himself who clearly overcalculated his chances.
With “Myanmar suffering from fickleness of news media attention” as James Rodehaver of the United Nations said, the crisis in Southeast Asia might be falling into the zone of neglect, indifference, and silence. Myanmar gets a much smaller share of the attention that Ukraine gets. The question is whether the cause of the Myanmar people should be of less importance to us.