Myanmar military reaches out to ethnic minorities with little success

Image showing the Mandalay Region Government Office blocked by the military. Photo: Kantabon, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Myanmar’s military has been reaching out to ethnic minorities to win support for its coup, with limited success. But the efforts are unlikely to cause lasting shifts in the country’s political dynamics as the military is unwilling to offer ethnic groups autonomy or a federalist union.

By Umair Jamal

In a rare show of unity, ethnic minorities in Myanmar have joined protesters in the streets to oppose the military’s coup, representing potential for possible solidarity and cooperation. However, amid the growing protests, the military has been reaching out to some minority ethnic groups and their leaders to gain support for the coup by offering them a place in the junta government.

Viewing this an opportunity to win the military’s support, some minority ethnic leaders and at least one party in Rakhine State have offered support to the Tatmadaw, as the military is known. But with protestors facing increasingly violent crackdowns, these groups are under pressure to walk back their support for the military.

The junta’s attempts to reach out to some ethnic groups will not change the country’s political dynamics in the long-term, as the military has shown no indication that it will offer ethnic groups the autonomy they have long demanded.

Myanmar military woos ethnic minorities after the coup

As resistance to the coup grows in Myanmar, the country’s military is hoping to bolster its legitimacy and support for its coup by appealing to ethnic minority leaders.

The military is trying to exploit ethnic minorities’ grievances with the ousted NLD government, which consistently faced criticism for not doing enough to address minorities’ concerns or advance country’s the peace process.

The military has offered government roles to prominent minority leaders in an effort to weaken the ongoing protests, and a few ethnic minority leaders have been quick to jump on the bandwagon and condemn the deposed civilian government.

Denouncing the now-ousted democratic government, Phado Man Nyein Maung, a former senior leader of the Karen National Union (KNU), one of the biggest ethnic armed groups in Myanmar, told Reuters that the country’s decade-long democratic experiment did not result in more rights for ethnic minorities.

“Our political demands are not fulfilled with the democratic elections—this is the main lesson that we learned,” Phado Man Nyein Maung said.

The military has also been trying to appease ethnic armed groups by declaring a ceasefire while it focuses on crushing protests. For instance, following the coup, the military announced a unilateral ceasefire until February 28, though the military’s offer was rejected by many militant groups. Condemning the military’s coup, Kharm Sarm, spokesperson of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), asked “How can we discuss with them when they staged a coup? This is not the norms of democracy.”

“Among the political parties and the ethnic armed groups, we have lost trust in them,” he said, referring to the generals.

Photo: Ninjastrikers, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ethnic leaders who work with military face criticism  

Though the military has been largely unsuccessful in getting ethnic minority support, its attempts have managed to divide some ethnic groups as a number of leaders are willing to take the opportunity to gain power they couldn’t under the NLD government.

The few ethnic minority leaders who have accepted the military’s offers of government roles are facing criticism from within their own political parties.

Kayin People’s Party (KPP) Chair Saw Tun Aung Myint has taken a post as union-level ethnic affairs minister and Phado Man Nyein Maung, who lost in the recent election as a KPP candidate, accepted a position on the junta’s new national State Administration Council. The KPP has since distanced itself from both leaders and condemned the coup.

The Arakan National Party (ANP), which won the largest number of seats in Rakhine State in last November’s election, is one of the most powerful ethnic parties to support the military’s coup. ANP leaders have defended the party’s decision by saying that NLD rule simply represented another form of Bamar-centric “dictatorship”.

The ANP’s decision may prove costly. So far, 47 civil society groups have criticized the ANP’s decision, younger members of the party have quit in protest and many members of the party have openly expressed their reservations over their leadership’s decision.

Another ethnic political party, the Mon Unity Party (MUP), has agreed to work with the military but the decision revealed a divided party with many elected members opposed to the decision.

Defending his party’s decision to support the military junta, MUP Joint-secretary Nai Leyi Tama said in a statement that Mon people had sacrificed a lot when they joined protests in 1988 and 2007 “but got nothing” for their contributions. “We are worried that our people might become victims of bloodshed again, so we have chosen this road,” he said, adding that collaborating with the junta “offers a way to get our rights”.

Myanmar’s civil disobedience movement in action in Hladen. Photo: သူထွန်း, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Military’s coup will complicate Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts

Myanmar’s ethnic minorities may have joined street protests but this doesn’t necessarily change the political dynamics of the country. There are many reasons for ethnic minorities to protest, including to oppose the ongoing bloodshed which has resulted in the death of more than 190 people so far.

An important factor moving forward will be how robust the solidarity is between ethnic minority groups and Burman anti-coup protesters. It’s too early to say that ethnic minorities have joined hands with Burman majority in their demands as there are still questions of whether the protest movement as a whole will support ethnic groups’ calls for autonomy or federalism.

Saw Kapi, director of the Salween Institute for Public Policy, a Myanmar think tank, recently said that currently, the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend ” applies, as both Burman anti-coup protestors and most ethnic minorities reject military rule.

Experts warn that Myanmar’s fragile peace process may break down due to the coup. “Due to the seizures of power, the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and the peace process, which are being implemented by the participation of the government, the parliament, the Tatmadaw, the political parties and the ethnic armed organizations, can cease to work,” said the RCSS said in a statement.

Some argue that Myanmar’s peace process was already ineffective. A UN report in 2018 revealed that the military committed massive human rights violations during operations in ethnic states in the past, including the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. “During their operations the Tatmadaw has systematically targeted civilians, including women and children, committed sexual violence, voiced and promoted exclusionary and discriminatory rhetoric against minorities and established a climate of impunity for its soldiers,” said Marzuki Darusman, the UN mission’s chairperson.

One of the reasons that the NLD government couldn’t negotiate independently with many ethnic groups was due to the military’s pressure on the government. Once the dust settles and political stability returns to the country, the issue of ethnic minority political rights and autonomy may become more complicated still.

Min Zin, a Myanmar analyst, recently told the New York Times, “Public pressure alone cannot lead to a real political transition. Without a well-thought-out strategy to achieve concrete goals, sooner or later we will always end up on the side of repression and under some form of military rule.”

Discussing the underlying complexity of peace negotiations, Michael Siegner wrote in a recent study on Myanmar’s peace process that “The details of a future federal state remain unclear and the discussion revolving around these details have produced deep-rooted contention that ultimately has led to a deadlock in current peace negotiations.”

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15