Dr. Nai Ponnya Mon
Ethnic nationalities including ethnic political parties, civilians, and EAOs have been accused of for being
quiet and for not participating in demonstrations in against the military coup. The accusation may be true
to some extents, especially for Mon and Arakanese, but there are reasons. One of the reasons, especially
for Mon case, was that these ethnic groups have bitter experience with the NLD government. In other
words, the NLD’s ethnic unity policy failed them to participate in the demonstration or to work together
to fight against common enemy. Instead of seeing NLD a democratic partner, they see the NLD as a
democratic dictator. They believe if one dictator will be removed, another dictator will take place. Thus,
they refrained from joining the demonstration. In other words, ethnic nationalities who have bitter
experience with NLD, they are less likely to participate in demonstrations.
Another reason is that they see the demonstration is the fight between NLD and the military. Thus, they
stay neutral and urged the NLD and the Tatmadaw to find a peaceful solution. However, there are also
groups who see removing the military dictator is priority and removing democratic dictator as secondary.
Thus, they join the demonstration.
Today’s uprising is different from 1988’s uprising in term of ethnic unity. In 1988, both Bamar and non-
Bamar suffered only one type of military dictatorship. They were unified under one goal and one voice
which were fighting against military dictator and demanding democracy. Today, ethnic nationalities have
experienced two types of dictatorships: democratic and military dictators. While the NLD supporters don’t
accept only military dictators, ethnic nationalities don’t accept both types of dictators. As they are not
clear with the goals and the directions of demonstration, most of them are standing by. They may
participate if the goal and the objectives are clear– removing any forms of dictators including abolishing
the 2008’s constitution which is supporting the dictatorship. Moreover, there is also no leaders who can
lead the movement and who can bring all ethnic groups including Bamar together to lead the movement
to reach the set goals.
1988 uprising and ethnic political party’s alliance with NLD
Today’s uprising is different from 1988’s uprising. In 1988’s uprising, the uprising was apolitical. No party’s
politics was involved. The demonstration was purely civilians or students against the military. There were
also no political parties involved. The demonstrators were also not divided along political party lines.
Indeed, the military blamed Burma Communist Party for imposing its political agenda into the innocent
demonstrators and accused of the demonstrators as communists. Demonstrators had one voice and one
goal which was demanding democracy. Although they were no leaders at the beginning of the
demonstration who could lead the demonstration to national level, later on, the demonstration found a
leader, which was Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Thus, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi became the leader of democracy’s
movement which she brought people from all walks of life and all different ethnic groups into the
movement. Please note that there were no groups supporting the military as USDP does today in 1988’s
uprising. Even though the movement was not successful, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was able to bring all ethnic
groups together to fight against the military dictator. Even after NLD was formed and won a landslide
election in 1990, ethnic political parties and people stood together with NLD to continue fighting against
the military rules. Ethnic political parties and NLD became one of the longest alliances in history of Burma
in fighting against dictatorship. After NLD was successfully negotiating with the military, NLD abandoned
its long-term alliance and decided to contest the mid-term election in 2012.
Failure of NLD’s ethnic unity policy
After NLD has power in 2015, ethnic nationalities and ethnic political parties expected better ethnic unity
policies from NLD toward ethnic nationalities. However, rather than continuing its alliance with ethnic
political parties, NLD makes alliance with the Tatmadaw and launched military attacks on the EAOs,
especially Arakan Army (AA). Instead of stopping the war, the NLD government gave mandate to the
military to eliminate AA at any cost. Moreover, it imposed chauvinist policies on ethnic nationalities.
Naming Khaung Zone (Beelue Kyunt) Bridge as General Aung San Bridge in Mon State was the first test of
NLD’s ethnic unity policy failure. Even though thousands of Mon people demonstrated against the policy,
the NLD ignored their demand and went ahead imposing its policy. Even though NLD supporters or Bamar
ethnic group see this issue minor issue, Mon people felt they were bullied and betrayed by NLD policy.
They believed that if NLD government could not give rights to ethnic groups in small issue, how they can
be trusted on big issue such as federalism. Mon National Democratic Font (NMDF) had allied with NLD
for many years during political oppression of the military rules. They have never thought that democratic
government, NLD, would do such thing to them.
The second issue is erecting General Aung San statues in ethnic states. In case of Karenni (Kayah) State,
thousands of Karenni youths demonstrated against General Aung San statue in Karanni State. But NLD
government ignored it and went ahead with its chauvinist policy. Some of Karenni youths were arrested
and jailed. The third issue is giving approval to the military to attack on Arakan Army (AA). The attack
could be one of largest military offensives in Burma history fighting against EOAs. The military used all
means of forces and power such as navy, air forces, ground forces, cut off internet, arresting Arakan
leaders and AA’s supporters. These are a few examples of the failures of NLD ethnic unity policy. Thus,
these ethnic groups felt that even though they have allied with NLD for over 20 years fighting against the
military, finally NLD turned against them. They felt that they have been betrayed by the NLD.
Military taking advantages of the NLD failure policy
After the military see the failure of NLD’s ethnic unity policy, it is taking advantages of it. In other words,
as the military see cracks between NLD and ethnic political parties, the military is taking advantages of it.
As soon as it took power on 1st February 2021, it offers positions to ethnic political parties in the State
Administrative Council (SAC), released Arakan leaders including Arakan prominent leader, Dr. Aye Maung
, and stopped military offensives against AA in which NLD government has given mandate to eliminate it.
As I mentioned above, the 2021 uprising is different from 1988 uprising. In 1988 uprising, there was no
politics or no political parties were involved. It was purely the fights between civilians and the military. In
2021 uprising, there was politics involved. The uprising was started after the military took over the elected
NLD government under the claim of election fraud. Different ethnic groups and political parties have
different views on the coup. Some see it that it is the problem between NLD and the military. Other sees
it as it is the problem of the whole country. Some others even see it as it is the problem of 2008’s
constitution. Different groups have different voices. The USDP or military supporters demonstrated
supporting the military; NLD supporters demonstrated supporting NLD and demanding releasing NLD
leaders; and some ethnic groups demanded federalism, and so on. During 1988 uprising, people uniformly
demanded for democracy. There were no political parties controlling behind the demonstration.
Another different of today’s uprising with 1988’s uprising is that people have experienced in democratic
rules for some years under both USDP and NLD governments. Now they understand how democracy feel
like under the two governments. Even though ethnic nationalities don’t expect much from USDP
government, they do have expectation from the NLD on the ethnic policy such as basic culture and
literature rights. As NLD has rigid ethnic policy and imposing its chauvinist policy on ethnic groups, they
see NLD as another type of dictatorship under the democratic system. Now they have to think deeply if
they have to fight the military dictator first or both at the same time. Some of them have already started
fighting both as their slogans to remove all types of dictators. Indeed, unless NLD supporters support it, it
is less likely to be succeeded. There is no doubt that after the military dictator will be removed, the NLD
will have power again. If NLD keeps its chauvinist policy, there will be another fight under the NLD
National movement or NLD movement?
Some claim that it is national movement while other claim it is NLD movement. If this moment is aimed
for national movement and want all ethnic people to be included, the movement should be heading to
that direction and make sure that this movement is apolitical and purely tried to remove all forms of
dictators and the ultimate goal is to build federal democratic union. In order to move that direction, we
need leaders who can lead to that direction. I think unless NLD acknowledged its failure ethnic unity policy,
it is not able to lead the movement to include all ethnic groups.
Therefore, there are reasons for some ethnic groups for being quiet and stay neutral in against the
military. I believe that all ethnic groups agree that military dictator is bad; no one wants to ally with the
enemy if they have choices. But sometimes, they have no choice and have to ally with the enemy for their
survival. In case of Arakan, no big demonstrations were held in Burma’s mainland when villages in Arakan
states were bombarded by the Tatmadaw and NLD government. For their survival, sometimes they may
need to ally with the enemy. Similarly, NLD also allied with Tatmadaw when needed. However, it is not
too late for NLD to acknowledge its failure ethnic unity policy and start building trust with ethnic
nationalities again in order to fight against the common enemy.
Political Analyst Dr. Nai Ponnya Mon is Executive Director of Ethnic Nationalities Affairs Center (ENAC)
and he did a lot of research on ethnic people’s political movement and thematic issues in relation to
Federalism in Burma/Myanmar.