By Paul Lim*
The situation on the ground has evolved into one where the protesters have realized that their non-violence has not dislodge the military junta while a lot of lives have been sacrificed in more than a 1,600-odd deaths and imprisonments. They realized that they cannot take on the military without killing weapons. There is an imbalance of power. Hence, some flee to the territories of the EAOs to get military training to return to fight the military. This should not be surprised as it has happened elsewhere if we look at the history of struggles of peoples all over the world. One does not take up arms unless forced into a corner. Hence, the prospect of a full-scale civil war or already a civil war but not full-scale.
The civil war has been reinforced by the perception that the international community at the UN level with the blockages of China and Russia in the UN Security Council and at the level of ASEAN without much hope while with that little positiveness of rejecting the presence of the military dictator at the ASEAN Summit, an ASEAN which has the support of the US, EU and others. This has led to the realization that to dislodge the military junta, the opponents to the junta have to rely on themselves while hoping against hope that ASEAN and the UN can do something. The actions taken by the PDFs, a few EAOs are also a pressure on outside actors to do something whether quietly or transparently especially ASEAN.
On their own
What are chances of the opponents to dislodge the military junta on their own? The NUG was set up and it needs to be set up to de-legitimise the junta but it is still far away from getting international recognition from states while what is seen as little victory is that the junta has not been largely recognized as the legitimate government of Myanmar while having to dialogue with it as it is in control. At the same time, the US and certain ASEAN States speak to the NUG without giving it recognition.
We see that there is a contrast of the attention given to the Belarussian opposition on the doorstep of the European Union by the European Union to the NUG and now greater with the Ukrainian war.
There was a realization that to dislodge the junta, there was a need to collaborate with EAOs and with it to form a federal army in the longer term. But is this possible? So far, the only active EAOs responding to the junta’s attacks on the protesters are the Chin, Karen and Kachin. The rest are silent or sit on the fence coming out with mainly verbal talk but not actively acting against the junta. Why?
One hypothesis is that they had peace for a while with the individual signing of agreements with the military previously on one hand. On the other, the NCA has been an important achievement bringing together several EAOs perhaps for the first time to the negotiating table with the military-NLD opposite interlocutor to sue for peace. Are they all going to give up these agreements now and return to the fight? They reaped and are reaping the gains from these agreements and were and are now enjoying the good life especially among the old soldiers. Hence, do they still have the will to fight? They will fight with their ethnic perspective, not the Myanmar-level perspective, to defend their own territories which they controlled and governed and nothing more and we are seeing fighting between themselves as with the Shans rather than combining forces to face the common enemy. They are now part of the status quo like the military and positioning themselves to play the role of a mediator and advocating this path of negotiations, but is this what their ethnic constituencies want especially the young? They are no more revolutionary as when they were young EAOs. In so doing, they end up in an evaluation that the military cannot be dislodged and hence better to negotiate and sue for peace. These EAOs have to evaluate whether they want to be part of the status quo or identify themselves with those actively involved in opposing the junta. They could end up in being part of past history without substantial contribution to end military rule. Another contributing factor would be the influence of China on those EAOs associated with in holding them back.
My other hypothesis is that any reluctance on the part of the non-active EAOs to be more active is perhaps the issue of trust in the NUG. The NUG has included ethnic representatives in government but largely representatives, members of the NLD. For one thing not all ethnic minorities are represented in the NUG. The Shans, for example, are not represented while the more active Karens and Kachins are. Could it be that when ethnic representatives in the NUG are those connected to the EAOs that there will be more trust and they will activate? OR is it in the heads of the EAOs that the Bamar-led NUG turns to them for tactical reasons but will abandon or suppress them when really in power? After all the existing military will still be around and could be incorporated into the new federal army or the other way around rather the EAOs incorporated into the existing larger army? I am speculating here. Could there be another war between the EAOs and the NUG with its future army if agreement cannot be reached if ever the NUG is in power. To be sure the EAOs see themselves as equal “partners” to the NUG and not under it in any negotiations for peace.
To be noted is also the absence of any Rohingya representative in the NUG despite all the apologies to the Rohingya people and even if there is the promise of the move to repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law that deprived them of Myanmarese citizenship. There is also ARSA, described as having a jihadist element to be feared but will be another force that needs to be considered. Could it work to divide the Rohingyas among themselves or between the Rohingyas and the other ethnic groups?
To build trust will necessitate closer working together, clearer agreements, clearer paths, visions of the future. Trust can only be built by working together and knowing one and another. This does not seem to be happening apart from the EAOs fighting alongside the NUG. Then it is one thing to agree on federal democracy, federal union but another when it comes more concretely in the detail on the sharing of power, the structure of federalism etc. including this insistence on self-determination.
In this regard of self-determination, Arakan state under the Arakan Army is an example of whether it will be part of a federal structure with its autonomy or pursue independence. So, how does it figure in a future multi-ethnic federation? Part of it or no. The future will tell.
There is the issue too of whether the lady will agree to this new arrangement whenever she is released with the other NLD prisoners? This is a big question. Could she be convinced to accept the new reality if she resists? What will the existing NUG leaders do in the event that the lady refuses to accept the new reality? Will the NLD leaders switch sides to be with the lady? Or a split then in the NLD? Here I am just speculating but may be in the heads of the EA0s. They will need to have a Plan B. Could there be a post-Daw San Aung Suu Kyi era? Speculation here too.
One factor that has to be taken into account are the grassroots protesters, particularly the young. At this point in time they seemed to support the NUG. A few leaders among them have been co-opted into the NUG. But in time? They have formed these armed resistance groups while others remain still non-violent. They all should be considered a major player and partner to any negotiations to a new Myanmar. They could play a big role on how the NUG could proceed.
An observation is that apparently, in this struggle on the streets, ethnicity has sort of faded into the background i.e. an identification of the Bamars with the other ethnic minorities having now the experience of the brutality of military junta which the ethnic minorities had suffered for ages. A confession of the ill-treatment of the Rohyingas is an example. Could these ethnic divisions be surpassed for good? The common enemy binds and dissipated ethnic divisions but what happens when military-rule is over?
There seems to be an apparent difference between the young protesters and the older generations. It is the revolutionary young who have gone beyond ethnic divisions to a more common identity as a Myanmarese people while the older generations have been educated to a Bamar majority dominance over the ethnic minorities who between them also put ethnicity first. I would say some kind of ethno-nationalism or ethno-patriotism.
It is now imperative on the young to maintain pressure on the NUG to surpass the ethnic divisions and stick to it and ensure this even after the release of the imprisoned NLD leaders. This is important as at some point there is going to be a separation in the framework of state and civil society. The NUG could go on a separate path from the protesters especially when the military junta is dislodged. Now is the time for the grassroot young protesters and revolutionaries to insist, to put pressure on the NUG that their future is no more based on ethnic identity.
The message to the ethnic EAOs is also to listen to the young, that their legitimacy today in this new situation is to let the young take the lead and no more them. The EAOs should be behind the young and they should not discourage the young. That they are at the service of the young. They should share their experiences, give advice and not sit on the fence and be part of the status quo. They have to reconsider the mediating role. It is never easy for the old soldiers to accept the new situation for otherwise they lose their raison d’être. The old soldiers have forgotten how they were when they were young.
The way forward
As it stands, the picture is on one hand of the PDFs with their allied EAOs and the NUG in a war with the overwhelming military junta with all the consequences of burning, slaughtering and fleeing local populations. On the other hand, EAOs attached to the agreements they signed with the military in a by-stander position and dream of playing a mediating and negotiating role. The young with their idealism are making sacrifices which is admirable.
The more the two sides each walk their own path there will also be no peace in Myanmar. We do not know what will happen in the context that the NUG and its PDFs and allied EAOs do succeed to throw out the junta. Collaboration or another war. Not to entertain this requires talk, talk, talk as early as possible. Are they talking to one and another now? Isn’t there a body where they meet together? Do they not all participate in the NUCC?
Some observers and analysts have stated that there is no way that these PDFs will ever be able to take on the junta’s military force while others speak of limited battle-hardened battalions and the state of low morale when guerrilla attacks take their toil on troops. Reason for the turn to air strikes. Much has also been said of defecting soldiers to join the PDFs. Perhaps the PDFs and their allied EAOs are inspired by the Vietcong taking on the American war machine. We cannot really tell what will happen and we cannot throw cold water on the PDFs and their allied EAOs.
Most observers and analysts bet on the fall of the junta only if there is a split or are splits in the military itself. There are no clear-cut signs of this at the moment although there was the case of a commanding general who it seemed wanted to defect but was found out. The reshuffling of posts of generals have also been pointed to as perhaps signs of splits. That defecting military officers can get asylum in Australia will be a way to split the junta has been said. In other words, an internal power struggle between fractions of the military. This is all guessing. However, what guarantee is there that there will not be one military junta succeeds another even with its own version of democracy?
Such speculations serve no purpose and what is more important is support to the street protesters, the NUG, PDFs, its allied EAOs and the ordinary people who are suffering from the attacks of the junta’s troops in their pursuit of democracy. At the same time, encouraging the coming together of the established EAOs and these newcomers on the scene to face the military junta.
*Paul Lim is a retired academic but who had been associated with the groups of solidarity with the peoples of Myanmar in the field of human rights in particular for many years in Europe.