Land of 135 ethnicities, Myanmar has no democratic framework to hold it together

Land of 135 ethnicities, Myanmar has no democratic framework to hold it together. —  IANS

Arul Louis

New York, Jan 7 (IANS) Myanmar is the land of myriad mutinies, ethnic and anti-authoritarian, with many different partisans and causes, spawning a chaotic brew of endless armed conflicts now heading to a civil war.

Behind these conflicts is Myanmar’s failure to develop an infrastructure of democracy that could embrace all its 135 officially recognised ethnic groups and others like the Rohingya to create a sense of nationhood.

At Myanmar’s independence in 1948, the British left the mishmash of a territory arbitrarily put together by colonial fiat and the nation’s shortlived experiment with democracy effectively ended a decade later throttling hopes for diversity or healthy dissent.

Rage against the military, the Tatmadaw, is the common cause coursing through all the estimated 40 armed groups, sometimes making for strategic cooperation among some.

The last half-hearted experiment with democracy effectively ended in 2021, when the Tatmadaw arrested President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, ending their strictly circumscribed rule under a democratic facade.

Even before their overthrow, the democratically elected leaders’ government had continued to face armed insurgencies and terrorism and had acquiesced to the military’s brutal reprisals, most notably against the Rohingya after an attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on security outposts in 2017. leading to an exodus of a million.

With even the mirage of civilian rule fading, the armed conflicts have intensified, with the National Unity Government (NUG) setting up the People’s Defence Force (PDF) and declaring war on the junta.

Some of the ethnic insurgencies have coalesced around the NUG strengthening its forces.

The NUG was set up by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, the lower house of the Myanmar legislature dissolved by the military, and it operates both within the country as the de facto authority in territories under its control and outside, as a government in exile.

It is recognised by the European Parliament as the country’s legitimate government.

In the chaos of Myanmar, the insurgencies that raged in the ethnic minority peripheries have now found strength in the hinterland as a fight against the military dictatorship.

The Special Advisory Council-Myanmar, reported in September 2022 that “the NUG and resistance organisations have effective control over 52 per cent of the territory of Myanmar”.

The independent advisory group said that according to its analysis, the Tatmadaw effectively controls only 17 per cent of Myanmar territory with the rest under contention.

“The trajectory of the conflict favours the resistance, and the junta is losing what control it does have at an increasing rate despite the continued use of mass atrocities by junta force”, it said.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a report to the General Assembly in August assessing the situation in Myanmar said: “All States and regions across the country continued to be affected by the armed clashes involving the Myanmar armed forces, ethnic armed organisations and resistance forces, including People’s Defence Forces.”

“Ethnic states in border areas, as well as central Myanmar regions, including Sagaing and Magway, remain among the most affected by armed conflict, reflecting sustained opposition to the Myanmar military.

“Resistance forces, including self-declared People’s Defence Forces in these areas, have increased their collaboration with established ethnic armed organisations, and some of these forces have grown increasingly sophisticated, utilising new technologies and accessing regional arms markets.”

The rebel forces appeared to be making headway as the Tatmadaw troops have been surrendering to them, according to several media reports which have reported entire battalions giving up.

“We have seen the mass deserting and surrender of the military council soldiers unprecedented in military history,” NUG’s Acting President Duwa Lashi La said in his New Year’s address, according to the US-government-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA).

A rebel group that associates with the PDF, the Three Brotherhood Alliance, has in particular made headway in recent months against the Tatmadaw forces after launching its Operation 1027 in October 1027.

The advances by the alliance made up of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Arakan Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army has led the Tatmadaw junta’s leader Min Aung Hlaing to reportedly concede in early November that “the three ethnic alliance attacks in northern Shan state near the China-Myanmar border will break the country into pieces”, according to RFA.

He admitted that government troops “abandoned some posts” in Shan state, RFA said.

Last month, China brokered a peace agreement between the Three Brotherhood and the military regime, which did not involve a retreat by the alliance, but it did not appear to be holding as one of its components the Ta’ang group claimed soon after to have taken territory from the government troops.

The current phase of the war on the military junta builds on the history of insurgencies from almost its birth.

The successive Myanmar regimes have made several attempts to forge ceasefires with the rebel groups, but almost none have held.

The last one of significance was the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signed in 2015 by the government and 11 insurgent groups.

Although the NCA’s launch was witnessed by representatives of the UN and several countries, it failed to hold and was finally doomed by the 2021 coup.

The first conflicts broke out soon after independence in the Karen minority area in the east in a confused clash between communist and anti-communist cadres that later became a Karen rebellion when the government of Burma, as the country was then known, purged the Karens from the armed forces, where they had had an important role.

Several Karen splinter groups have carried on their fight with the Myanmar authorities.

Over time scores of insurgent groups emerged around the country because of the unmet grievances of various ethnic groups primarily opposing the military’s attempts to impose Burman hegemony.

The military’s hegemony itself, though, has turned anti-authoritarian Burmans to join the uprisings against the Tatmadaw.

Other notable ethnic armed ethnic groups include the Chin National Army, founded in 1988, the Mon National Liberation Army started in 1971, the Shan State Army created in 1964 and the Lahu Democratic Union.

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