Saw Tah Doh Moo, General-Secretary, Karen National Union (KNU)
Khu Plu Reh, General-Secretary, Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP)
Salai Thla Hei, General-Secretary, Chin National Front (CNF)
Under Indonesia’s rotating leadership for 2023, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will reportedly hold their first meeting in Jakarta at the beginning of February. The military’s continuing violence against the people of Burma will undoubtedly be an outstanding issue on the agenda.
As leaders of ethnic armed organizations that provide security, sanctuary, training and operational support for the nationwide armed resistance movement in Burma, we believe our on-the-ground perspectives from the frontlines may help ASEAN to better comprehend the situation. Indeed, grounded perspectives are essential building blocks for a potentially fruitful ASEAN approach to Burma’s protracted conflicts.
Here we offer our first-hand observations with specific respect to three crucial issues, both immediate and long-term, confronting Burma as a problem member of the regional bloc – first, the military junta’s widely rejected plan for elections this year, and their likely negative impact on the already deepening violent conflicts which have enveloped the entire country of 55 million people; second, the immediate need to prevent Burma from sliding further into state disintegration and ethnic Balkanization in slow motion; and third, the post-conflict rebuilding of Burma not simply as a majoritarian democracy, but also, as a federal political system.
To start with, the Jakarta meeting could not come at a more opportune time. Recently, the UN Security Council passed its first-ever resolution on Burma (12 voted ‘yes’, and three abstained: China, Russia and India) emphatically calling for an end to the violence that has engulfed it since the universally rejected coup of Feb. 1, 2021. Despite the non-binding nature of the resolution, it acknowledges ASEAN’s role as the most crucial mechanism for ending violence in Burma.
Importantly, the Security Council resolution came on the heels of the U.S. government passing the BURMA Act, as a part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in December. The BURMA Act allocates substantial humanitarian aid and non-lethal (non-military) support for the democratic resistance movement of which our ethnic resistance organizations serve as the backbone.
Over the last three decades, Russia and China had previously double-vetoed similar resolutions at the Council not once, but twice (January 2007 and April 2022). Their abstentions on the historic Burma resolution afford ASEAN leadership an unprecedented opportunity to seek further constructive involvement of and backing by Moscow and Beijing with regards to ASEAN’s efforts to kick start the bloc-led diplomacy towards the cessation of violence and formulate a transitional plan on Burma.
In this regard, Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s growing stature as a G20 leader, who is able to maintain his “brotherly” ties with President Putin and President Xi, is in a position to help sway the two fellow G-20 leaders for a firm and principled ASEAN-led approach in resolving Burma’s perennial crisis with the spill-over regional consequences such as Rohingya “boat people”.
Burma’s internal conflicts have triggered chronic waves of war, atrocity and repression-fleeing refugees, for instance, Karen, Kachin, Karenni, Shan, Chin, Rohingya, and now the majority Bamar. This poses non-traditional security threats not only to Burma’s immediate neighbours such as Bangladesh, Thailand, China and India, but also Malaysia, Singapore, Aceh province in Indonesia, and Sri Lanka.
Now, onto the 3-crucial issues that we believe ought to be better understood: In his Independence Day announcement on 4 January 2023, Burma coup leader Min Aung Hlaing coupled the news of the amnesty for 7,000 prisoners with his plan to hold a new general election in 2023.
Elections held by authoritarian regimes, without addressing fundamental political conflicts, only fuel ongoing conflicts and seed new ones. Burma, where the military has written itself into the 2008 Constitution as the only truly altruistic and trustworthy organization to decide the nation’s future, is one glaring case in point.
In the last 30-years, in every military-sponsored election – in 1990, 2015, and 2020 – the military’s proxy parties were crushed at the ballot box. This, in spite of the generally rigged election laws. Every electoral defeat has been followed by either the wholesale annulment of the election results (1990) and widespread imprisonment of MP-elects and national opposition leaders, or the military coup (for instance, the coup of February 2021), on fabricated narratives of “national security”.
Holding new elections in 2023 will not resolve the crisis. No one believes it will be a democratic exercise. If the military wins, the democratic resistance popularly backed by the country’s multiethnic public, will reject the results. The public will continue with their armed resistance. And the country will slide further into state disintegration and Balkanization. If the military loses, the generals will either annul the election results, launch another coup, or find another excuse to stay on in power. Either scenario will only trigger even stiffer popular resistance, further destabilizing the already unstable country.
The Burma Army is holding elections to re-install the 2008 Constitution which they tore up when they launched the coup in February 2021. They need the 2008 Constitution because it gives the military veto power in Burma politics in perpetuity. This constitution of, for, and by the military has not a sunset clause designed to peacefully phase out the monopoly role of the dominant military, from the country’s political life. All successful transitions from military dictatorship to democracy such as Indonesia, Chile and Brazil, have such sunset clauses.
In the last two years since the coup, Burma’s diverse peoples have witnessed first-hand, and on social media platforms, the extreme violence with which the security forces have brutally killed the people of Burma. Today the people of Burma no longer believe in the decades-old myth that the national military is protecting the people and the nation. They no longer want the military interfering in the politics of the country. They categorically reject the 2008 Constitution of, for, and by the military.
ASEAN and the international community need to stress to the Burma Army Chief, and coup leader, Min Aung Hlaing that elections are not the solution, but a formula for further instability and state collapse. Instead, he needs to stop the killing and talk to all stakeholders who now lead the democratic resistance.
Burma today is a country in the slow-motion process of state disintegration. The chronic waves of refugees such as Rohingyas who drift and die at high sea across South and Southeast Asian waters, the growing number of IDPs from all ethnic communities from all regions of Burma, and the increasing volume of violence which permeates society today are only the symptoms of the deeper malaise.
The Burma Army under Min Aung Hlaing is losing territorial control to the stiff popular armed resistance that has now spread across even the Burmese Buddhist heartlands from where it typically drew its recruits. In places where some of the fiercest and best organized resistance is waged, military commanders dare not venture out of their regiment compound. The military’s control does not extend far beyond city limits even in places like the former capital Yangon and Mandalay, the second largest city. In the non-Bama ethnic regions such as Chin State bordering India on the West, more than two-thirds of the territories are no longer under the administrative control of the military junta.
The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) made up of civil servants from all state bureaucracies including technocrats, doctors, engineers, train conductors, teachers, academics, accountants, administrators, law enforcement officers (for instance, police) has more or less emptied the state of its essential administrators, managers and staff, thus crippling the military junta. Even in major towns and cities with strong military bases the junta’s administrators and their families are routinely killed by the resistance fighters.
These internal conflicts, coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic, have practically brought Burma’s national economy to its knees. Crucially, the agricultural sector, garment production sector and other local informal economies, which employed the greatest number of people are reeling severely from the continuing and widespread violence. This process of gradual state disintegration needs to be seriously addressed as part of the emerging challenge to ASEAN.
In sharp contrast, our territorial control is expanding. Our organizations have decades of experience, in operating effectively as semi-state organizations in the territories which we control through our self-defense armed organizations. Our political organizations have armed or military wings established for self-defense purposes for our respective ethnic communities. We have founded and run forestry and conservation departments, health and pre-collegiate education systems, taxation and revenue systems, civil administration and local democracies. Out of necessity, we have also built humanitarian aid delivery and distribution systems, and protection for Internally Displaced Persons – numbering a total of 1.8 million IDPs now since the coup of 2020.
Importantly, we have conducted rescue missions, offered effective protection and/or provided safe spaces for members of the National Unity Government (NUG), including the NUG’s cabinet ministers. The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in the north, the Karen National Union (KNU) in the east and southeast, the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) in the east, and the Chin National Front (CNF) in the West, have trained thousands of democratic resistors in a defensive grassroots war against the Burma Army. As the usurper, the military headed by Min Aung Hlaing has made its own people “enemies of the state”. These young Burmese majority resistant fighters live on our land, and fight the repressive military. We fully support them logistically, operationally and politically.
In the past, when the majority Burmese Buddhist public revolt, peaceful or armed as was the case in 1988 anti-dictatorship uprising, the Myanmar military would seek an uneasy peace with us, the non-Bama resistance communities, in order to avoid fighting the war on two fronts. The military leadership know that our ethnic armed organizations are fighting for a federal system of power sharing with the majority Bama – not secession or independence. And yet it has deliberately mis-framed us as “ethno-nationalist secessionists hellbent on disintegrating the Union of Myanmar” – to pit us against the nationalistic Bama majority.
The military’s misinformation campaign is no longer working today.
What is unprecedented about the present anti-coup movement of multiple ethnic communities including the Bama majority is the following: the military’s divide-and-rule strategy of pitting our ethnic nationalities or national minorities against the Bama majority no longer has any traction with the majoritarian public.
The opposite is happening since the bloody crackdown of the originally peaceful anti-coup protests throughout the country. Today, our ethnic armed organizations that have long been in control of large swaths of our ancestral regions along Indo-Burmese, Sino-Chinese and Thai-Burma borders since the coup two years ago have become sanctuaries for nearly 100,000 activists. The new generation of Burma, known as Generation Z, or “Gen. Z”, fled urban centers and volunteered to swap their video games and comfortable middle-class lifestyle to serve as new democratic resisters.
As leaders of ethnic armed organizations, we are acutely aware of the devastating intergenerational and international consequences when a UN member states collapses, as the result of civil wars, foreign invasions, or atrocities such as genocide. The last thing Burma’s suffering peoples of all faiths and ethnicities need and want is the Balkanization in the middle of the ASEAN region. The situation on the ground is ripe for ASEAN to work with the democratic resistance in order that state collapse in Burma may be reversed.
ASEAN needs to emphatically tell the coup leader Min Aung Hlaing and his military to stop killing the people of Burma, using scorched earth tactics wiping out whole villages and neighbourhoods, burning resisters alive and executing non-violence activists with an alarming frequency. The military must acknowledge and accept that they have failed to protect the people. They have failed to contribute to building a stable and peaceful state out of multiple nations. It is time that ASEAN work with the democratic resistance to end the violence in Burma and to help all stakeholders towards rebuilding Burma as a federal and democratic state.
Our ethnic armed organizations had entered into an agreement to build such a state with both governments of President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, something Min Aung Hlaing in his capacity as the Commander-in-Chief of the military officially endorsed. Just as he has reneged on the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus reached in Jakarta in April 2021, he has breached our national agreement, annulled everything and seized power.
As leaders of ethnic armed resistance organizations, we view ourselves not only representatives of our respective communities but as national actors. We are forging ahead with an institutional platform for a federal democracy. We offer our utmost assistance to ASEAN and call on the UN and friends of ASEAN to support its efforts in implementing the Five-Point Consensus. Expectations are high among the people of Burma that under Indonesia’s firm and principled leadership, ASEAN will finally use its collective leadership to help stem the tide of the violence in Burma and help kickstart a process for peaceful conflict resolution in our beleaguered nation.