Commentary: As Myanmar coup persists, ethnic armed groups come under greater pressure to act

SINGAPORE: Since the Myanmar military’s Feb 1 coup, the Tatmadaw has killed more than 500 civilians across the country.

This has heightened conversations about the role of Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) in the future of the country — when, if at all, will they intervene against the military coup?

Observers and activists of the civil disobedience movement and civilian resistance to the military coup have called for broad multi-ethnic unity that draws on a variety of groups and actors from all ethnicities and regions.

The militarised version of this argument seeks the involvement of the country’s 20 or so EAOs in a collective bid to put military pressure on the Tatmadaw from all fronts, even invoking the spirit of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), an international norm authorising force to protect civilians from crimes against humanity.

There has also been speculative talk of a Federal Army that combines EAO elements and Burmese resistors into a collective armed uprising.

READ: Commentary: Has Myanmar coup sparked rethinking on non-interference among ASEAN countries?

CALLS FROM ETHNIC GROUPS GROWING

Myanmar’s insurgent EAOs, located mainly in the peripheral highlands of the country, number around 80,000 in fighting strength.

By comparison, estimates of the size of Tatmadaw forces are said to reach 400,000. Still, EAOs like the Arakan Army (AA) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have caused notable problems for the Tatmadaw in recent years through military operations.

While the EAOs had not been initially forthcoming in their support for the resistance, statements condemning the coup or calling for the protection of civilians are growing. The Karen National Union (KNU), the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), and the New Mon State Party (NMSP), and the KIA have condemned the military coup, offering protection to protesters fleeing security forces.

Ten previous signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement have announced the suspension of negotiations with the Tatmadaw. The Karen and Kachin groups have begun taking limited hostile actions against nearby Tatmadaw forces, with reprisal attacks leading to the displacement of thousands of Karen refugees into Thailand.

To the north, the Brotherhood Alliance, whose unilateral ceasefire expired on Mar 31, has only stated cryptically that it will “stand alongside” the protestors should the Tatmadaw not cease its killings.

But many other EAOs have remained largely silent.

READ: Commentary: Defiance in Myanmar’s diplomatic ranks threatens the military’s power

WAIT AND SEE?

A natural explanation for this reticence is that many EAOs are lying low and not throwing in their lot with either side at this stage.

Statements of support for the coup will change little — it builds no reliable capital with the Tatmadaw; it will only make enemies with the Myanmar people. Strong statements condemning the coup run the risk of creating grudges with the notoriously vindictive military which might well prevail.

READ: Commentary: Myanmar learnt the wrong lessons from Indonesia’s political transition

Another explanation is that the EAOs remain detached from what they see as the Burmans’ fight — seven decades of civil war and the marginalisation of ethnic minorities at the country’s borders have left them suspicious of any calls for solidarity led by the Bamar majority — civilian or otherwise.

As David Scott Mathieson, an independent analyst, points out: 

The CRPH [representatives of the ousted parliamentarians] recently removed all EAOs in Myanmar from their terrorist and unlawful associations list, which is a welcome gesture, but many groups will wonder why the NLD [Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy] didn’t grant more of these good-will gestures while in power from 2016-2020.

FEW BENEFITS IN COMMITTING TO ACTION

Perhaps the EAOs simply cannot see the benefit of commitment at this stage, with two historical precedents surely weighing on their minds.

First, in the period after the 1988 military coup and the crackdown on pro-democracy protests at urban centres, the EAOs at the peripheries were offered a slew of bilateral ceasefires by beleaguered Tatmadaw leaders, who needed to buy breathing space.

In fact, the Tatmadaw announced a unilateral month-long ceasefire from 31 March.

Second, the EAOs recall the failures of past pan-ethnic alliances (which included Burmans) — the Democratic Alliance of Burma of the 1990s, and even the Communist Party of Burma in the 1970s to 1980s.

The Myanmar military?s deadly crackdown on anti-coup protests has angered some of the country?s

The Myanmar military’s deadly crackdown on anti-coup protests has angered some of the country’s ethnic armed groups, prompting fears a broader conflict could erupt. (Photo: AFP)

Outside of the NLD and Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the political landscape is filled with political parties divided along ethnic lines.

NO DIVIDE-AND-RULE

Yet seeing the EAOs as calculating actors risks reducing them to cynical opportunists.

The EAO leaderships are not in fact detached; they understand well the consequences of divide-and-rule; they have a genuine interest in the well-being of the country that they ultimately see themselves as part of. This is especially so with the younger generation among the ethnic minorities.

But before calling for EAO involvement, political actors should better understand the differences between the 20-odd groups. Some are more aligned with China, others with the West — each bringing their own political baggage and worldviews to the mix.

The range of military capabilities and modus operandi is great, as are their governing mechanisms.

READ: Commentary: Thailand as a model? Why Myanmar military may follow Prayuth’s example

READ: Commentary: Myanmar protesters are not giving up so easily

One should also be careful what one wishes for. Can all EAOs really be seen as popular movements with the support of the people, or are they simply the ethnic minority version of the Tatmadaw? Are they another duplication of militarised or oppressive power structures?

While their military strength was surely needed to prevent Tatmadaw encroachment in the past, what potential for internal reform do they hold?

This has been a true strength of the Tatmadaw — it not only created different ethnic constituencies who do not easily see their fates and interests as intertwined, but replicated its extractive militarised structures of governance all over the country.

The coup and resistance may hopefully offer an opportunity to rewrite this past.

Dr Andrew Ong is an Associate Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  This commentary first appeared on ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s Fulcrum.

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