Ethnic political actors, the February coup, and the “Spring Revolution”

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Dr. Ashley South

Ethnic nationality communities in Myanmar have long suffered murderous attacks and a wide range of human rights abuses at the hands of the Myanmar Army. Nevertheless, villagers in conflict-affected areas, and many of the Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) which seek to represent and protect them, are extraordinarily resilient. Following the 1 February coup in Burma, they are more relevant than ever.

In the aftermath of the military coup, many government servants went on strike, with many bravely continuing to refuse to cooperate with the junta. In this context, the health, education, and other services delivered by EAOs, and their civil society partners, are the only effective and legitimate governance systems still functioning in many parts of the country. In southeast Myanmar, several EAOs have well-established and credible political agendas and enjoy widespread legitimacy among the communities they seek to represent.

For example, the Mon National Education Committee under the New Mon State Party (NMSP) administers nearly 200 schools, most of which are expected to reopen in June (having remained mostly open in the first two months after the coup, prior to the hot season vacation). The Karen Education and culture Department (KECD), under the Karen National Union (KNU) administers some 1500 schools. There are also two non-state school systems in Shan areas, and the Kachin Independence Organisation and Kachin CSOs operate their own systems also. The NMSP and half a dozen EAOs representing Karen, Karenni, PaO, Wa, Ta’ang, Shan, Chin, and other ethnic communities have parallel systems of government (often thinly stretched and under-resourced), in their areas of control and adjacent zones where EAO systems overlap with those of the Myanmar Army and state (areas of “mixed administration”).

The anti-coup Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (established 5 February 2021), and its National Unity Government (NUG, established 16 April), has emphasized the importance of developing and supporting territorial administration and services (and armed forces) independent of the State Administration Council junta. In this, the NUG will be highly dependent on and will need to recognize and support, the impressive capacities and legitimacy of EAO governance administrations and services delivery systems.

In the meantime, well over 1000 protesters fleeing violent suppression in urban and peri-urban areas have sought refuge in EAO-controlled areas. Thus, several of Myanmar’s EAOs are protecting a new wave of politically engaged civilians (including many people from the Civil Disobedience Movement) in their areas of control, in addition to existing villagers.

One consequence of key EAOs’ solidarity with the anti-coup movement has been a new understanding and appreciation of ethnic nationality actors, among many (especially young) people in urban areas. The present crisis may constitute a “critical juncture”, with the emergence of new bonds of solidarity and common understanding between urban-based (predominantly, but not exclusively, Burman) anti-coup and democracy activists, and those engaged in the long-standing struggle for ethnic self-determination. A further consequence of their opposition to the junta has been an increase in Myanmar Army attacks against ethnic nationality communities associated with anti-coup EAOs.

At the time of writing, there are some 25,000 Karen IDPs in Karen areas, and also many newly displaced people in Kachin areas. These are civilian villagers who have been forced to flee since late 2020 (when the Myanmar Army started attacking civilians in northern Karen areas). They join a quarter-million IDPs in southeast Myanmar (people who had not found “durable solutions” to their plight), and at least a hundred thousand in Kachin. Most of these people are living in EAO-controlled or influenced areas, where they often receive basic services and protection from ethnic authorities.

In the meantime, in southeast Myanmar, the NMSP had maintained a (sometimes very fragile) ceasefire since 1995. Together with the Wa, the NMSP was the only 1990s ceasefire group to be continuing in more or less the same manner.

Especially in the early days of protests, some CDM people had criticized ceasefire EAOs for lack of engagement with the counter-coup protests. In reality, EAOs have adopted varying positions.

On 13 2021 February, the NMSP issued a statement denouncing the coup and supporting CDM. The NMSP was the first EAO to issue a statement unequivocally standing with the people. The next day the KNU issued a strong and detailed statement. On 2 February, the day after the military coup, the Peace Process Steering Team (PPST – a coordinating group of 10 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signatory EAOs, including the participation of the NMSP) issued a strong statement. This was followed on 20 February by another PPST statement, reiterating the above points and stating that Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signatory groups could not engage with the SAC under current circumstances in the peace process. Although not canceling the NCA, this statement effectively suspended the agreement during the period of illegal military government rule. At least for now.

Since the military coup, therefore, the NMSP has continued its long-standing strategy of engaging the government, while maintaining its principles and credibility. The NMSP has strived to be on the right side politically, strongly criticizing the military regime in its various iterations, continuing the struggle for federalism, self-determination, and human rights. Meanwhile, the Mon Unity Party (MUP), which won 12 seats in the 2020 election, was one of the few ethnic political parties to join the junta.

Since the MUP Executive Committee’s controversial decision, a number of party members have resigned in protest at the MUP’s support for the SAC; others remain in the party but are very unhappy with the decision to align with the junta. Some MUP leaders are hoping to get a better deal for Mon self-determination compared to the marginalization of ethnic communities and failures of the peace process under the previous NLD-led government. However, many in the Mon (and wider activist) community are deeply disappointed at the party’s decision to support the junta with a decision which was taken on February 6, after the coup, before the killing started.

The MUP’s decision to join SAC was a terrible mistake, reflecting dissatisfaction and frustration with the previous NLD-led government experienced by many ethnic stakeholders. Joining the junta has seriously undermined the MUP’s political legitimacy. In the meantime, the NMSP continues the long struggle for self-determination.

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