Seven decades of ethnic warfare in Myanmar have produced an abundance of alliances, betrayals and uneasy pacts in the search for autonomy across a diverse and sprawling land.
But now, in the unprecedented months following the country’s February 1 coup, a cry for unity against the military has made for a sea change in the power dynamics between ethnic groups.
“The Burmese majority, they blamed us for 60 years, 70 years, saying that we are the bad guys in the country. Now it’s a big change for Burmese majority people,” Padoh Taw Nee, head of foreign affairs for the Karen National Union (KNU) told the Globe.
The announcement last week of an interim National Unity Government (NUG), formed by members of the elected government removed by coup, has ignited talk of cooperation between ethnic and political groups across the country. One of the unity government’s boldest calls is for the creation of a new federal army to resist the Burmese military, known as the Tatmadaw. That move would theoretically combine the fighting forces of ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) across the country, who have long upheld their own national interests.
But despite the shifting tides, Myanmar’s legacy of political dominance by the Bamar majority continues to loom over the discussions. The possibility of moving from one system of marginalisation to another is causing long-sidelined minority groups to hesitate in the face of a national call to pull together.
“We still need to talk with them to ensure our equality and self-determination,” Taw Nee said. “When we form our federal democratic country, the first step will need to be [moving] from centralisation to decentralisation.”
The KNU is not alone in its resistance to Bamar hegemony. Chief General Twan Mrat Naing, founder and commander-in-chief of the Arakan Army, notably silent since the coup, told the Globe the group’s decision to keep a low profile in the resistance movement was rooted in a mistrust of the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD).
“The NLD government after 1988 promised federalism and they pledged this to the ethnic people, but after they came to power they didn’t keep the promise,” he said. “So we have learned the lesson and we are not naive anymore.”
The NUG’s plans for its own federal army would serve to legitimise its governmental standing while preparing for any future armed opposition to the Tatmadaw regime.
The AA, the Kachin Independence Army and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the KNU, are among the most powerful ethnic militaries in Myanmar. This makes them critical assets in any unified government, especially a federal army, given the nascent unity government does not have its own arms or soldiers.
But while the notion of a federal army may offer an appealing counterbalance to the might of the Tatmadaw, the reality of such a group forming in Myanmar, amidst its long-running civil conflicts, is far more complex.
“We already have ethnic armed groups who have their own armies, but it’s very difficult to work together, to have coordination,” Taw Nee said. “Ethnic coordination is very, very difficult from the north to the south. They are different in their ideas, their thinking, their nature and history, as well as geographically.”
While the prospect of full cooperation remains distant, Taw Nee does recognise that, in principle, a unified force would be an ideal outcome.
“We really need to start from the first steps, little bit by little bit. But we deeply agree that we should have a federal army,” he said.
Twan Mrat Naing similarly said that he could not see the AA joining a federal army but would be more inclined to forming or strengthening a coalition among ethnic militaries, similar to the existing Northern Alliance among four such groups in Myanmar’s highlands.
“Working with EAOs and participating in a federal army are not the same. Forming one army is a different set of plans. You would have to place all armies in a single chain of command,” the chief general said.
“The idea is good, but in reality to substantiate this concept is not that easy or practical.”
We all understand that we cannot win alone. AA can never win alone, the Karens will never win alone. They know that, I know that, only together we will win
Despite the reservations of some ethnic organisations, NUG Minister of International Cooperation Dr Sasa does not agree with feasibility concerns. Sasa had previously expressed optimism to the Globe about the prospect of a federal army, and maintains that a single institution, rather than a coalition, is the only solution.
“In principle, it has to be one institution. We all understand that we cannot win alone. AA can never win alone, the Karens will never win alone. They know that, I know that, only together we will win,” Sasa said.
“It’s very easy to integrate existing armed organisations. The Kachin Independence Army could become the federal army in Kachin state. But they will send joint chiefs of staff to Naypyidaw to command under the chief of staff. This is how it has to go, whether we like it or not. This is the best way forward for everyone.”
A federal army has also been highlighted as a means of removing the current regime by incentivising defections among its ranks. Recently, Major Hein Taw Oo recently deserted his post in Mandalay to join the anti-coup demonstrations in Shan state, one of the highest ranking defections since the coup, claiming that a successful federal army would “erase” the fears of retribution among soldiers and they would “join it in droves”.
To this end, ethnic militaries, including the KNU/KNLA, have already begun offering refuge to those fleeing violence. The KNU’s Taw Nee stopped short of confirming speculation that new arrivals are being trained.
“We don’t have a policy where we can welcome all people. But when they [protesters] face difficult situations, we tell them they have the right to protect themselves,” he said. “At the end of the day we don’t know if we can form a federal army, but if they want to do that they can join with us.”
As part of political efforts opposing the military, the NUG – formed by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the provisional government composed largely of elected representatives from the NLD ousted in the coup – appointed a full cabinet and leadership on April 16. Only a week in, on April 22, the military’s state-run TV announced that all members of the NUG cabinet had been charged with high treason.
Within the NUG, senior NLD figures Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myint retain their posts at the helm, even under house arrest. However, the inclusion of Karen, Chin, and Kachin representatives, among others, to senior leadership positions is a split from the former government and an apparent appeal to diversity. Two of the NUG’s top leadership positions were filled by ethnic representatives, with Duwa Lashi La, ethnic Kachin, and Mahn Win Khaing, ethnic Karen, chosen as vice president and prime minister respectively.
However, as Taw Nee points out, ethnic representation is not the same as political representation. The new cabinet includes at least three Karen ministers or deputy ministers, but while some may have worked indirectly with the KNU, Taw Nee notes that many, including the prime minister, have close ties to the NLD and represent constituencies outside of Karen state.
“Ethnic nationalities are participating with the NUG, but we can’t see the substantial result that we had expected,” Taw Nee said. “Honestly, we do not see this as a genuine attempt to create an ethnically diverse body.”
A Kachin Independence Army spokesperson could not be reached for comment. But Hkahpa Tu Sadan, the foreign secretary of the Kachin National Organisation (KNO), a political organisation with close ties to the ethnic military but not representing the group, shared similar reservations surrounding the establishment of the new unity government.
“The NUG was initiated by the CRPH, and the CRPH is highly influenced by the NLD,” he told the Globe. “We worry about majority rule, and a democratic dictatorship, we don’t want a tyranny of the [Bamar] majority. This is the key ingredient in the forming of the NUG.”
Even those within the unity government recognise that greater reforms are needed. Na Hla Hla Soe, the government’s newly appointed minister for Women, Youths, and Children’s Affairs, and one of the Karen representatives in the new government, issued a public apology on April 22 for her inaction in the previous NLD government in failing to protect and promote ethnic voices.
Our enemy, once united against us, has now broken up and is fighting each other and they both want us to be on their sides
The dominance of Bamar and NLD representation in Myanmar politics continues to stir apprehension among ethnic militaries who want to ensure full ethnic rights and participation in the NUG before lending their support.
Once hopeful for greater political diversity under the NLD government – who swept to power in landmark elections in 2015 on a reformist agenda – the continued violence against minorities in the years since has diminished trust and faith among ethnic groups.
“Our enemy, once united against us, has now broken up and is fighting each other and they both want us to be on their sides,” said the Arakan Army’s Twan Mrat Naing, in reference to the former NLD government and the Tatmadaw. Under the toppled civilian government, Rakhine and Kachin states, where the AA operates, became one of Myanmar’s most conflict-torn regions as military forces initiated scorched-earth campaigns against the ethnic populations.
In a move to ease fears and start anew, a 20-page Federal Democracy Charter was made public by the CRPH on March 31. Beyond announcing the establishment of the NUG, it also committed to abolishing the military-drafted 2008 constitution and establishing a new Federal Democracy Union, guaranteeing equality and autonomy for ethnic minorities through a new constitution and national referendum.
The Charter also lays out plans for a National Unity Consultative Council, a consultative body overseeing the mission of the interim unity government that will be composed of different stakeholders from the national parliament, the Civil Disobedience Movement and ethnic groups. The body will ultimately be important in conferring legitimacy to the parallel government, according to Taw Nee.
“The NLD might be a major party and the ruling party, but many do not support them,” he said. “[These voices] will need to be part of this Consultative Council.”
Though uncertainty towards the NUG remains, a common enemy in the Tatmadaw is certain, and could be the driving force needed to finally establish a country drawn along more equitable lines.“We were not 100% against it [the coup], but now that we see what is going on, we will stand together in solidarity with the people of Myanmar,” said Twan Mrat Naing, referring to the mass violence committed by the military against civilians since February 1.
“We need to end this. We need to be good friends with all the people of Myanmar and all the ethnic people.”