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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 26, New Delhi, June 12, 2021

A tentative unity among Myanmar’s anti-coup forces | Mikael Gravers

Saturday 12 June 2021


by Mikael Gravers*

8 June 2021

The Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) continues its terror and arrests amid increased civilian resistance to the February 2021 coup — resistance which has included armed civilians attacking soldiers. Hospitals, education, transportation and banks are paralysed by strikes. Food and fuel shortages are looming. Meanwhile anti-coup forces have formed a National Unity Government (NUG) and drafted a federal constitution as an alternative to the 2008 military constitution.

The NUG includes parliamentarians from the National League for Democracy (NLD), ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), civil society organisations, women and young Generation Z activists from the civil disobedience movement. Besides the NLD parliamentarians, who now operate underground, the NUG symbolically includes the ousted president Win Myint and state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. The prime minister is from the Karen ethnic group. One third of the 27 ministers are from non-Burman ethnic groups, termed ethnic nationalities.

The NUG Charter of a Democratic Federal Union emphasises equal rights among Myanmar’s states, who would have their own constitutions and legislative and judicial powers. ‘Member states’, it declares, ‘are the original owners of sovereignty’ and ‘the original owner of all land and resource management is the people who live in the land’. Further, states will have the right to use land and resources, while the union receives revenue through a federal fiscal sharing.

The Charter rejects the 1982 citizenship law under which only descendants of ethnic groups who lived in Burma before colonisation fully qualify for citizenship. The law has been used to exclude many Muslims and Hindus, including those who previously had full citizenship. The Charter states that all citizens who have adopted citizenship, although not born in the Union, have full rights as citizens. Time will tell if the Rohingya are included.

The Charter emphasises human security and states that a federal army and its budget will come under democratic control. Each state will have its own army and police force within the Union forces. This is a complete break with the politically independent security system under Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s command. Meanwhile, the NUG announced the formation of a People’s Defence Army, trained by the EAOs, in preparation for a federal army.

Regarding the peace process between the government and ethnic nationalities, the Charter refers to the Panglong conference in 1947 when Aung San Suu Kyi’s father accepted ethnic ‘internal administrative autonomy’, a commitment that is still yet to be achieved.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s 21st Century Panglong Peace Process became a major scene of political confrontations in 2020. The Tatmadaw prevented non-ceasefire EAOs from participating and accused the NLD government and the EAOs of using it as a forum to change the constitution. The Tatmadaw also prohibited bilateral talks. The EAOs were not convinced that Aung San Suu Kyi would endorse federalism in the sense of real ethnic political self-determination. For example, the government had appointed NLD chief ministers in the seven ethnic states. It had not tried to deal with the Tatmadaw’s widespread land grab in ethnic areas or to ensure the ceasefire monitoring processes prevented military incursions in ethnic areas. Thus, the old deep inter-ethnic mistrust prevailed.

The ethnic unity expressed in the NUG’s Charter declaration does not address the numerous conflicting interests among the members. The 20 to 30 participating EAOs are divided, and some have not joined the alliance, such as the United Wa State Army, the largest numbering 20,000 soldiers, and the Restoration Council of Shan State. Both have strong ties with China and also probably want to guard their resources, including the drugs trade. The Kachin Independent Army, the Ta-ang National Liberation Army and the People’s Defence Force in Chin and Kayah states are among the most active fighting Tatmadaw. The Karen National Liberation Army (of the Karen National Union or KNU) is divided. KNU Chair Saw Mutu Sae Poe recently said that the political problems are only solved through negotiation and has developed close contact with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. But three of the seven Karen brigades and the Democratic Benevolent Army, including Karen deserters from the Border Guard Force, are now fighting and the KNU is training young activists and military deserters.

The main problem is how many states the federation will include and how the NUG will divide areas where several ethnic groups live, like Shan State. There have been local inter-ethnic conflicts over control of land, resources, and constituencies during elections — problems require careful consideration. Previous inter-ethnic alliances have never lasted long.

The combined total number of soldiers in the EAOs is estimated at 80,000, but only half are currently involved. The Tatmadaw’s force — estimated at 350,000 — has been modernised with Russian helicopters, aircrafts and heavy weapons. A police force of 80,000 is also under military junta’s command. But the Tatmadaw seems to harbour low morale and poor discipline in many units. Some officers and police constables have deserted. A Karen source estimated that only around 80,000 are effective combat troops. Their families suffer scorn and social isolation following the post-coup atrocities. They fear for their future if their power, privileges and wealth are not protected. This is a challenge to the unity and loyalty that holds together the military power network of soldiers, nationalist monks and cronies.

Despite some problems, a key positive aspect of the NUG’s Charter is that it opens a new interface of inter-ethnic dialogue and collaboration, one which is not manipulated by the Tatmadaw. The Charter addresses important issues: eradication of dictatorship and sexual violence, collective political leadership, peace, democracy, freedom, equality and diversity, minority rights, a fair judicial system and the separation of religion and politics. However, it is urgent that the international community provides the NUG and its People’s Defence Army with the support it needs to give the Charter a chance of being adopted.

* (Author: Mikael Gravers is Associate Professor Emeritus at the School of Culture and Society in the Department of Anthropology, Aarhus University.)

[The above article from EastAsiaForum Has been reproduced here under a Creative Commons License for non-commercial use]

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