Despite the differences in goals, interests and strengths, Myanmar’s disparate armed organizations ultimately share the unequivocal rejection of both the military and its coup regime.
Eleven days into the Operation 1027, the senior most leadership of the regime – Min Aung Hlaing and his senior ex-General Myint Swe, the former vice president under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government of Aung San Suu Kyi, held an emergency National Defence and Security Council meeting in Naypyidaw on Nov. 9 and reportedly discussed the prospects for “national disintegration.”
The regime media Global New Light of Myanmar quoted Myint Swe telling the meeting attendees, “if the government does not effectively manage the incidents happening in the border region, the country will be split into various parts.”
After the military unprecedented defeats in northern Shan State, the Straits Times ran an opinion editorial flagging this “balkanization” warning. The Japan Times editorial on Dec. 1 was even more shrill about what it projects as “chaos” and the process of Myanmar state failures, now that more than half-the-country has fallen into the hands of “ethnic insurgent” organizations, fighting for the rights of their own populations (as opposed to all of Myanmar as a country).
Japan’s primary concern is in the event of such a state collapse, its adversary, China, would openly intervene in a country which has been run – and ruined – by the World War II Japan-fathered national military. Successive military regimes since the coup of 1962 have used the discourse of “national disintegration” as an ideological magic wand to rally the historically ethno-nationalist majoritarian Burmese public behind their acts of usurpation.
In his Dec. 2 interview with The Irrawaddy, the Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) spokesperson Li Kyar Win pointed out that the embattled Min Aung Hlaing reportedly used the word “foreign invasion” to describe the Brotherhood Alliance’s successful military operations against regime troops.
This had a clear intent to mobilize the country’s xenophobic Burman nationalist majority. Alas, this time neither the military’s scaremongering propaganda mantra of “national disintegration” nor “foreign invasion” secured any buy-in from the country’s Burman ethnic nationality.
Debunking the view that non-Bamar ethnic resistance movements have only narrowly defined self-interests, for instance, minority rights, the same MNDAA spokesperson stated that the Brotherhood’s politico-military objective is ultimately “to eradicate the military dictatorship.”
In January, the leaders of another cluster of Ethnic Resistance Organizations (EROs), including the Karen National Union (KNU), the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), and the Chin National Front (CNF/CNA), who have territorial control over vast swathes of Myanmar spelled out their Big Tent (inclusive) federalist vision with democratic and basic human rights for all groups and individuals.
“The military leadership knows that our ethnic resistance organizations are fighting for a federal system of power-sharing with the majority Burmans — not for secession or independence. It has deliberately mis-framed us as ethno-nationalist secessionists bent on disintegrating the Union of Myanmar in an attempt to pit us against the Burman majority, but its misinformation campaign is no longer working,” the EROs published in Nikkei Asia.
However, even in a few places where there exist ethno-nationalist contests within intra-minority populations, the contests are more about elite territorial ambitions and economic interests than the kind one observes in the Balkans where Serbian Orthodox Christians, Croatian Catholics, and Muslims of Bosnia have perpetrated atrocity crimes against one another over a long and sustained period. Precisely because of this crucial difference, I for one do not buy into the alarmist warnings of “Myanmar’s balkanization.”
Besides, the “balkanization” as such involved the birth or rebirth of new states out of a federated political system such as Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia, with mass atrocities as byproducts. There were external actors such as the military alliance NATO, or post-USSR Russia, whose meddlesome geopolitics in the Balkans made the already poisoned regional politics of race and faith worse.
Sandwiched among stable and populous neighbours including such global powers as China and India, redrawing Myanmar’s external boundaries is simply inconceivable. For none of the immediate neighbours would stomach the idea, let alone, the potentially violent realities with spill-over cross-border impact, of the disintegration of Myanmar as a political state.
With the exception of the ethnic Burman-controlled National Unity Government (NUG), run by the Burmese exiles in Washington and other Western capitals, who have been egged on by Western actors as “future leaders”, none of Myanmar’s EROs on-the-ground will undertake any act, military or political, that will breach the security concerns of Bangladesh, or Thailand, not to mention China and India.
However, what is unprecedented, ideologically and historically, is the generally anti-Chinese, and to a lesser extent, anti-Rakhine, majoritarian Burmese public are now rooting for the Brotherhood Alliance – and any other non-Burman EROs as they attempt to “eradicate the military dictatorship.”
The significance of Shan State and Operation 1027
Of all the ethnic regions, Shan State is the largest in the country’s physical geography, bordering on both China and Thailand, which form informal trade corridors. The state’s rich ethnic tapestry of Shan, Kachin, Wa, Pao, Ta’ ang (or Palaung), Intha, is also a source of intra-group conflicts, and historical grievances, The territorial aspirations, and commercial interests in the state are thoroughly embedded in the web of interlocking resource-based and cross-border informal economies.
A high 64 percent of the state’s population is in the 15-64 age group, labeled “economically productive”, in the 2014 Myanmar census. In other words, Shan State has a high proportion of “fighting age” people, both men and women.
Because the Shan of Myanmar, the co-founders of the post-colonial Union of Burma alongside the Burman majoritarian leadership of the martyred Aung San, were granted the constitutional right of secession in 1947. Myanmar’s ruling elite, both political and military leaderships of the late Prime Minister U Nu and General Ne Win, built military bases in this vast mountainous state as early as 1953.
The Defence Services Academy was originally built in the purpose-built military town of Bahtoo, before it was subsequently relocated to Pyin Oo Lwin where it has remained since. To date, Shan State houses more than 200 battalions, the largest number established in an ethnically defined state in the country, according to a Shan researcher colleague of mine. The reported low morale and the understaffing of these units are related and significant matters.
That is why, the news of the stunning military victories by the Brotherhood Alliance’s Operation 1027 on Oct. 27 in northern Shan State precipitated a media and policy buzz around the military’s pending collapse and the need to prepare the NUG as the future government of Myanmar.
The Brotherhood Alliance
A word about the background of these groups is in order. The Brotherhood Alliance is made up of the three ethnic armed organizations.
The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (or MNDAA) leadership and rank and file are drawn from the Han Chinese minority known as the Kokang. The Myanmar military had, in the 1960-70’s, used the earlier incarnation of Kokang armed group as a counterforce or local militia against the armed resistance movements by the pro-independence Shan nationalists in exchange for lucrative commercial opportunities for the typically illicit trade, including narcotics.
Along with half-dozen other ethnic territories, the Kokang region has been established as a “Self-Administered Zone” by the reformist quasi-democratic government of President Thein Sein.
One of the relatively new armed organizations, the Arakan Army (AA) is led by Buddhist Rakhine political elite with their unconcealed aspirations for the reclamation of their ancient kingdom’s sovereignty lost to the rival Burmese based in the upcountry plains around Mandalay, several years after the French Revolution of 1789.
Out of geopolitical pragmatism, the AA leaders have indicated that they would be content with “internal sovereignty”. That is, Rakhine will remain a part of a post-military Myanmar which the AA leaders envisage as a loose confederation of politically autonomous regions.
Rakhine nationalists were the very first in Myanmar who revolted, without success, against the central government in Rangoon even before the actual ceremony for the transfer of sovereignty from Britain to the first independence government of Burma on Jan. 4, 1948.
Subsequently, Rakhine leaders led by the likes of Indian Civil Service (ICS) member and MP Kyaw Min waged their liberation struggle in the emerging parliamentary space, openly pushing for “internal sovereignty” in the 1950’s.
The central Burman-controlled government resorted to divide and rule, exploiting the emerging ethnic and religious divisions between predominantly Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhine, alternating favours between the two rival claimants to indigeneity of the coastal state with a short 270-mile borders with Bangladesh.
The Ta’ang National Liberation Army (or TNLA, ethnic Palaung or Ta’ ang people) has evolved over the last 30 years since its inception as an armed organization fighting for the self-determination of the Ta’ ang people. The reformist-military government in 2010 created the Palaung Self-Administered Zone with its own territorial capital in northern Shan State. It is one of Myanmar’s least developed sub-regions.
The conventional wisdom – evidenced by foreign experts, for instance, the International Crisis Group (ICG) – is that these three groups have stayed “aloof” in the broader armed resistance made up of hundreds of pro-democracy People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) which are generally pro-democracy and supported Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD government.
But this “expert” opinion is based evidently on shoddy research. As early as March this year, The Irrawaddy was reporting on the Kokang group’s training and provisions of arms to the anti-military resistance groups in the Dry Zone Burman heartlands.
Everyone knows that the country’s most important ethnic resistance organizations such as the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO/KIA) in the north, the KNPP in the east, the KNU in the southeast and south, and the CNF/CNA in the West have provided these new generation armed resisters, most significantly from the Burmese majority heartlands, sanctuary, military training and arms. Resisters come from all walks of life from across Myanmar.
As a sign of a radical departure from the past discriminatory attitude – racist and internally colonial really – which the dominant Burman had displayed towards their fellow co-habitants, there is a widespread revolution in popular spirit: the Burman majoritarian public are profoundly appreciative of this invaluable collaboration and material assistance offered by the non-Burman ethnic resistance communities.
This bodes well for a country where the majoritarian Burman “Big Brother” racism had historically been mobilized and manipulated by the repressive central military for its own sinister ends. This is often overlooked by Myanmar watchers who focus on military statistics (for instance, troop strengths, cities captured or controlled, etc.)
What is less noted is the China-linked Brotherhood Alliance has also made its share of contributions to the growth of anti-military armed resistance organizations in terms of arms, training and even funding.
Even the United Wa State Army (UWSA) which is wholly dependent on China and hence seen as Beijing’s proxy is known a source of arms and ammunition to all anti-military forces throughout the country, despite the organization’s official “adherence” to the ceasefire with the Naypyidaw.
The AA is known to be the main trainer of the anti-military Bamar People’s Liberation Army (BPLA) while the KNU has offered them sanctuary. The BPLA has been an integral resistance force that has joined the Brotherhood Alliance in its historic Operation 1027 in northern Shan state.
According to Asian diplomats who participated in the so-called 1.5 Track meeting on the post-coup Myanmar held in India last April, Dr. Yin Yin Nwe, a key Shan-Myanmar adviser to Myanmar’s regime and ex-daughter-in-law of the late dictator Ne Win, accused Thailand of allowing Myanmar exiles to smuggle arms and ammunition to Myanmar’s growing armed resistance.
This was without any evidence. The meeting attendees included representatives of India, China, Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Indonesia, as well as state-linked think tanks from Myanmar’s neighbours.
The fact of the matter is various armed organizations along the 1,500-long China-Myanmar border, from the UWSA to the KIA to the Brotherhood Alliance have played a vital role as “enablers” – of Myanmar’s nationwide armed resistance – not Thailand and its military with economic ties to Myanmar’s regime.
To be sure, the respective ultimate aims of different armed organizations are not necessarily identical: some are for “internal sovereignty”, some for the administrative control of expanded territories and populations, some for majoritarian democracy, and still some for an ethnically-defined federalist state.
But what is clear is that these disparate organizations, all armed and gaining significant battlefield experiences, share the common rejection of the regime, and the military.
Most importantly, all these groups envisage a future Myanmar, without this repressive national institution.
In short, the Myanmar military as the most repressive and murderous organization has no political role in a future Myanmar. Certainly, not without significant and fundamental institutional reforms.
To put it bluntly, the regime and its military are no longer seen as “a stakeholder” in any dialogue about the political future of Myanmar as a multi-ethnic political state, a fundamental departure from the ASEAN failed policy discourse of an “All-Inclusive Dialogue.”
Maung Zarni is a UK-exiled scholar and revolutionary from Burma with 35 years of direct political involvement in Burmese affairs.
DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]