Myanmar has been under military rule for decades. In between, the people of Myanmar got the taste of Democracy for some time. But the party in power, National League for Democracy (NLD) could not exercise all their potentials and democratic practices due to the constitutional obligations. Democracy in Myanmar was just flourishing as NLD got a landslide victory in 2020 general election. But abruptly the trend came to a halt by the Myanmar military take over of power from the elected government through a coup in February 2021.
Myanmar has long history of military rule. Following the overthrow of the Burmese dynasty and the establishment of British colonial administration, British India gained control over Myanmar. Burma Army was organized by 30 comrades from among the students to liberate their country from British colonial rulers. They gained their independence from Britain through struggle and negotiation. In order to govern Myanmar during the colonial period, the British used a divide and rule policy. Mistrust among the ethnic groups was widespread. Through the Panglong Conference, General Aung Sang took the lead in bringing the vision of a federal Myanmar to fruition prior to the country’s independence. He had great success persuading Myanmar’s ethnic minority to support his proposal. But he was murdered shortly before Myanmar gained its independence. The dream for Federal Myanmar could not be materialized after that.
Following Myanmar’s liberation from British colonial authority, a democratic government was set up. However, the mistrust that still exists and gets worse between ethnic minorities and the dominant Barman. Since they were unable to secure their rights in an independent Myanmar, ethnic minorities have created armed organizations and have persisted in their fight for recognition. Conflicts between the Myanmar army and ethnic minority armed groups (EAOs) have persisted for decades in the border regions. Decades of brutal war occurred in Myanmar when Ne Win and the Barman-dominated Myanmar army proceeded to persecute the nation’s ethnic minorities following the military coup in 1962.
In 2011, the political, economic reform and development process started in Myanmar. NLD established a democratic government. This came to a halt after military takeover of power in 2021. From then on nationwide protests by the people started against military rule and that is continuing and getting momentum.
The army, as before, tried to bring the turbulent situation under control through repression. This time the old method of oppressing the people did not work and the mob erupted in protest against the army. As a result civil war started in Myanmar. Along with freedom-seeking students and youths, the Barman youths also spoke out against the military rule. Armed resistance is currently being waged by a segment of the youth population, activists, EAOs, civilian leaders, and regular residents who are incensed over military rule. Now, the democratic-minded people of Myanmar are uniting and fighting hard to remove military rule from their country.
NUG was formed in 2021 just after the coup. Currently NUG and their military wing the People’s Defense Force (PDF) and the EAO’s are conducting an offensive against the junta. The three armed groups—the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) , the Taang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Arakan Army (AA) merged their differences in October 2023 to form the Three Brotherhood Alliance, launching a joint offensive against the junta under the name ‘Operation 1027’.
The army is facing stiff resistance against the simultaneous attack by the Brotherhood Alliance on all fronts, forcing them to abandon their strongholds, mounting casualties and demoralizing them. The Myanmar Army has periodically gone for ceasefire agreements with some armed groups, and has been active in suppressing the rest. Due to differences in interests and other issues, EAO’s could never organize a concerted attack against the army.
Myanmar’s military has been supported for decades by the majority Barman and Buddhist monastic communities. In this struggle, Myanmar’s pro-democracy population, particularly the support of the majority Barman people, has strengthened the Brotherhood Alliance. Declining support of the country’s core Barman community for the army and reluctance of Barman youth to join the Barman dominated army has adversely affected the situation. Many of them became rebels and joined the armed struggle with PDF and other EAOs.
The support of Buddhist monks to the military has been instrumental in boosting the morale and capabilities of the Myanmar military for decades. Due to the division among Buddhist monks and the loss of unilateral support for the military, many ordinary people also withdrew their support for the military. Many leading monks believe that if the Ma Ba Tha monks had been active in the development of Rakhine without spreading extreme nationalism and hatred, the quality of life of the people would have improved and peace would have reigned in the country. In the ongoing context, monks have been protesting, building their own non-violent resistance and taking part in resistance organized with students in the forests bordering Burma under the name All Burma Young Monks Union.
The scale of the ongoing armed resistance has seriously shattered the military regime. The army is suffering from low morale and recruitment problems. EAO’s are now in control of most of the country. Military leaders have resorted to arbitrary arrests and violence to quell dissent. Realizing defeat, the army could now resort to massive violence. 19,675 political leaders and activists have been in prison since the junta took power, and the number is rising. The army is carrying out airstrikes on settlements and installations to control the armed struggle. In the ongoing violence, more than 700,000 people have been displaced besides death and destruction.
It would never be fair to think that the Myanmar military junta would give up so quickly. NUG has a plan for a post-military junta Myanmar. Their advisory body, the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), has stated that the ultimate goal of their fight against the junta is to establish a Federal Union. Myanmar’s armed groups also want a federal state system; they want to ensure the rights of the minorities. If the ongoing struggle against Myanmar’s military regime is to be successful, the anti-junta forces and all the small ethnic groups must be united, because through unity and coordination, their objective can be achieved.
If the opposition fails to restore peace after a victory in the ongoing situation, it will lead to renewed ethnic conflicts and increase drug trafficking and criminal activities in the country. Myanmar’s transition from junta to democracy requires meaningful support from regional powers and the wider international community. Neighboring countries, ASEAN and Western powers must include all groups in Myanmar to decide on the future of post-junta Myanmar. The US is providing ‘non-lethal aid’ or ‘non-lethal weapons’ to the PDF, EAO,s and pro-democracy groups under the Burma Act. Currently the EAOs are growing their powers in their areas. NUG has to unite these ethnic groups. They have to show that they have the strength and ability to lead and protect the nation.
Myanmar must build relationships with other nations and foreign investors in order to stabilize the rapidly declining economy of the country. Effective measures should be taken to get the support and assistance of various countries. Measures should be taken to protect the interests of China, ASEAN and regional countries. The United Nations and other aid agencies should be allowed to provide assistance to the humanitarian situation in Myanmar. Myanmar’s new government will face numerous challenges in the days ahead. However, as long as they proceed along the democratic path with an open-minded and liberal mindset, it will be able to ensure peace and establish democracy in Myanmar.