Will More Ethnic Minority Organizations Join Myanmar’s Revolution?

Min Aung Hlaing took the public opportunity to criticize the elected government he deposed. Groups representing Myanmar’s ethnic minorities have long demanded greater local political control. The general said the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, led by ousted state leader Aung San Suu Kyi, had named the bridge after her father, the revolutionary hero Aung San, against the “wish of the local people” in Mon state. In contrast, he said, the military government would safeguard “democracy and federalism.”

On June 1, Myanmar Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who leads the junta that took power in a February coup, presided over a ceremony to rename a bridge in Mon state, one of seven regions where most inhabitants are not Bamar, the country’s ethnic majority. A civil war has simmered in Myanmar’s borderlands, where ethnic armed groups have fought the central government for greater autonomy and political rights. Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, has oppressed ethnic minorities for decades.

On June 1, Myanmar Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who leads the junta that took power in a February coup, presided over a ceremony to rename a bridge in Mon state, one of seven regions where most inhabitants are not Bamar, the country’s ethnic majority. A civil war has simmered in Myanmar’s borderlands, where ethnic armed groups have fought the central government for greater autonomy and political rights. Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, has oppressed ethnic minorities for decades.

Min Aung Hlaing took the public opportunity to criticize the elected government he deposed. Groups representing Myanmar’s ethnic minorities have long demanded greater local political control. The general said the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, led by ousted state leader Aung San Suu Kyi, had named the bridge after her father, the revolutionary hero Aung San, against the “wish of the local people” in Mon state. In contrast, he said, the military government would safeguard “democracy and federalism.”

In reality, the military is the biggest impediment to democracy and federalism in Myanmar. But Min Aung Hlaing’s speech highlights how the NLD’s failure to maintain good relations with ethnic armed groups and political parties during its five years in power could now undermine the anti-coup movement.

For weeks after the coup, security forces cracked down on peaceful protests with mass violence, convincing many people in the pro-democracy movement to turn to armed revolution. Short on weapons and conflict experience, activists appealed to ethnic armed groups. They expected to find unity against a common enemy, but they have instead met some reluctance due to the NLD’s poor record on ethnic minority issues. As the anti-coup movement shifts from civil disobedience toward civil war, some of the armed groups that could turn the tide of the revolution are sitting it out instead.

Myanmar has dozens of ethnic armed groups, many of which enjoy close relations with local political parties. Four major groups could exert significant influence within the anti-coup movement: the Arakan Army, the Kachin Independence Army, the Karen National Union, and the Restoration Council of Shan State. The Arakan Army and the Restoration Council of Shan State are each close to popular political parties in their respective states. (The United Wa State Army is the strongest armed group of all, and since it carved out an autonomous territory on the border with China more than 30 years ago, it has shown little interest in national affairs.)

When the NLD won a landslide electoral victory in 2015, ending decades of military rule, outside observers hoped the civilian government would address Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts by advancing minority groups’ desire for self-determination. Among the communities themselves, there was trepidation. “I’m skeptical about their ability to handle this perennial issue without the active participation of ethnic parties,” the chairman of the Rakhine state-based Arakan National Party said at the time.

Outside observers hoped the civilian government would address ethnic conflicts by advancing minority groups’ desire for self-determination.

The NLD ultimately confirmed these fears, and the government’s relationships with ethnic political parties and armed groups deteriorated. Yet since the coup, the pro-democracy movement seems to have taken criticisms of the NLD’s failures to heart. The parallel National Unity Government (NUG) is far more inclusive than the previous NLD government, making room for ethnic minority representatives outside of the party in addition to deposed NLD lawmakers. But this gesture came too late for some groups, leaving the pro-democracy forces without some key allies.

The Kachin Independence Army and Karen National Union, both based in states the NLD won handily in 2020, quickly aligned themselves with the pro-democracy movement after the coup, launching attacks on the military and even training civilians from outside their territory to join the fight. Meanwhile, the NUG announced its intention to form a federal army, which has so far taken shape in decentralized militias known as the People’s Defence Force. These civilian armed groups have clashed with the military, sometimes fighting alongside groups such as the Kachin Independence Army. They have also claimed responsibility for guerrilla attacks in urban centers.

But the powerful Arakan Army and Restoration Council of Shan State have largely remained on the sidelines, despite condemning the coup. Both groups operate in states where the NLD is less popular, desire greater autonomy, and have lingering grievances with the NLD for working with the Tatmadaw during its five years in power.

The problems between the NLD and prominent ethnic armed groups and political parties began almost immediately after the 2015 election. The NLD declined to appoint an official from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, its longtime ally, to serve as vice president or chief minister of Shan state. Instead, the NLD offered up the state ethnic affairs minister position, which the Shan party rejected in protest. Although there were rumors that the military pressured the NLD over the issue, the civilian government continued to make decisions that undermined its relationships with ethnic groups.

In 2019, the civilian government sparked mass protests in ethnic states by installing statues of Aung San against local objections. Some ethnic minority groups blamed the party for what they saw as a neocolonial gesture. After the NLD renamed the bridge in Mon state, for example, it lost a by-election in the township where the bridge is located to the pro-military party. In 2020, the NLD vetoed an amendment that would have allowed the winning party in each state and region to select its own chief minister, a proposal that was then supported by the military.

The NLD’s lowest points on ethnic minority rights came in Rakhine state, where it supported the Tatmadaw campaign against the Rohingya minority in 2017, causing hundreds of thousands of people to flee to Bangladesh, and the campaign against the Arakan Army in 2019 and 2020. The Rohingya crisis tarnished the NLD’s international reputation, diminishing Western support. And the conflict with the Arakan Army destroyed its reputation among the ethnic Rakhine people, many of whom came to see the NLD and the military as one.

From the perspective of some ethnic political leaders, the NLD spent its five years in power furthering its own ambitions, often at the expense of minority interests. Amnesty International warned last year that the Tatmadaw was committing war crimes against Rakhine people, including killing children. But Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, defended an internet shutdown in the state, accused the Arakan Army of terrorism, and said it would “protect the people.” Many independent observers agreed the military was the greatest threat to the people.

As with the NLD’s defense of the military during the Rohingya crisis, the government statement appeared to go beyond bowing to military pressure, giving the impression in Rakhine state that the civilian government sided with the military. The NLD-appointed Union Election Commission canceled the November 2020 general elections in most of the state, purportedly due to conflict, but the party would not commit to holding makeup elections even after a truce. Shortly before the election, the Arakan Army kidnapped three NLD candidates and accused the party and Aung San Suu Kyi of backing the military while “reaping political benefits.”

In the wake of the coup, the Arakan Army has pursued its own agenda, maintaining a cease-fire with the military in exchange for the release of political prisoners and other concessions while consolidating its control over Rakhine state. “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 Arakan Army’s commander said recently, referring to the NLD and the military. The Restoration Council of Shan State has also pursued localized goals, clashing with rival Shan groups rather than the military.

While the NUG has made admirable progress compared with the NLD government, it has found some groups reluctant to engage. The NUG does not have any Shan or Rakhine representatives: The Arakan Army declined, and presumably so did the Restoration Council of Shan State. Some influential political parties have collaborated with the military government, including the Arakan National Party and Mon Unity Party.

Calls for unity that don’t explicitly recognize the ways the NLD failed ethnic minorities during its time in power aren’t calls for unity at all.

Meanwhile, there are glimmers of tension in the NUG’s alliance with the Kachin Independence Army and Karen National Union. After the NUG defense minister outlined a chain of command for its proposed federal army that included Kachin state, the Kachin Independence Army pushed back, saying any armed groups in its territory must be under its control—casting doubt on the concept of a unified force. The Karen National Union has also shown signs of a schism, with some powerful figures calling for political negotiations with the military government, which the NUG rejects.

Calls for unity that don’t explicitly recognize the ways the NLD failed ethnic minorities during its time in power aren’t calls for unity at all. They are just new demands for ethnic subjugation. Had the NLD built a better relationship with ethnic armed groups and their allied political parties, the post-coup conflict landscape might look very different. Strong alliances between the civilian government and ethnic armed groups may have deterred the military from staging a coup in the first place.

The NUG should build on the progress it has achieved and continue to make the concessions that the NLD wasn’t willing to with ethnic minority groups. Otherwise, it may find itself with no allies and no guns.