'Now we are united': Myanmar's ethnic divisions soften after coup

Demonstrators carry a banner of Aung San Suu Kyi during protests against the military coup in Yangon on Feb 13, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

YANGON (NYTIMES) - The Myanmar military's disinformation was crude but effective.

Army propagandists claimed an ethnic group called the Rohingya was burning down its own villages and wanted to swamp Buddhist-majority Myanmar with Islamic hordes. The Rohingya were spinning tall tales, the military said in 2017, about soldiers committing mass rape and murder.

The truth - that troops were waging genocidal operations against Myanmar's ethnic minorities - was perhaps too shocking for some members of the country's Bamar ethnic majority to contemplate.

But as Myanmar's military seized power this year and killed more than 750 civilians, Ms Sandar Myo, an elementary school teacher, realised that the decades of persecution suffered by the Rohingya and other minorities was real after all.

"After the coup, I saw soldiers and police killing and torturing people in the cities," she said. "Then I started to feel empathy for Rohingya and ethnic people who have been suffering worse than us for many years."

The Bamar majority's most visible resistance to the Feb 1 putsch has come in the form of mass protests, civil disobedience, worker strikes and even the tentative beginnings of an armed struggle.

But another transformation is quietly underway: a growing acceptance of the nation's ethnic diversity, something that was notably absent during an earlier political transition. With the military's violence unleashed once again, some are acknowledging that democracy cannot flourish without respecting the ethnic minorities who have endured decades of persecution.

More than one-third of Myanmar's population is composed of ethnic minorities, who inhabit a vast frontier where the country's natural resources are concentrated. Their insurgencies against the Myanmar military, which has ruled the country for most of the past six decades, rank among the world's most enduring civil conflicts.

These ethnic minorities offer important insights on how to fight the Tatmadaw, as the military is known. And they say they know better than the Bamar just how unstable Myanmar can be when its armed forces act as an occupying force rather than the people's protector.

"Myanmar never had real democracy because there was no hope for ethnic people," said Lieutenant Colonel Mai Aik Kyaw, a spokesperson for the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, one of the ethnic insurgencies struggling for autonomy in Myanmar. "If you compare it to what ethnic people have suffered for 70 years, what Bamar people are suffering right now is nothing."

With the military's power grab, Myanmar is careening toward full-fledged civil war, the United Nations has warned. The country could even disintegrate, it said.

"Myanmar stands at the brink of state failure, of state collapse," Mr Richard Horsey, a senior adviser on Myanmar for the International Crisis Group, told the UN Security Council in a briefing this month.

But, Mr Horsey added, Myanmar's existential crisis in the wake of the coup has catalysed a national reckoning on ethnicity that could lead to a more inclusive, cohesive country.

"In the midst of all this horror, the transformative nature of the resistance against the military has to be acknowledged and applauded," he said. "A new generation of political action has emerged that has transcended old divisions and old prejudices and gives great hope for a future Myanmar that embraces and is at peace with its diversity."

Earlier this month, a shadow civilian government was established to oppose the military junta, which has imprisoned most of the country's elected leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi.

Protesters armed with homemade and improvised weapons resist security forces in Yangon on March 28, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

For the first time in the country's history, the National Unity Government, as the shadow authority is called, has openly endorsed federalism rather than a centralised authority. A constitution that enshrines federalism could help free ethnic minorities from the Bamar supremacy that has dominated politics in Myanmar since the country was founded in 1948.

The shadow government's Cabinet also boasts more ethnic minorities than the Cabinet formed by the National League for Democracy (NLD), Suu Kyi's party.

The NLD is the only nationally popular political force in Myanmar, but it has a recent history of abetting the persecution of ethnic minorities. Although the party won a landslide reelection in November, more than 1 million members of ethnic minorities were disenfranchised during the vote.

During their five years of power-sharing with the Tatmadaw, the NLD's civilian leaders defended the military's continuing atrocities against ethnic minorities.

In a photo from Sept 4, 2017, Rohingya refugees fleeing attacks from Myanmar's military cross into Bangladesh near Palong Khali. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Decades ago, Suu Kyi was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent struggle for democracy. Yet she called the 2017 forced exodus of 750,000 Rohingya the byproduct of "clearance operations" against a terrorist insurgency. The Rohingya were, in fact, victims of a well-documented ethnic violence campaign.

But the military's seizure of power has led to soul-searching.

So far, the new unity government is little more than a compendium of policy statements sent by encrypted apps. It has no army or international recognition.

If it is to succeed, it will need support from the very ethnic minorities who have been persecuted for so long.

Already, members of the shadow government have sought sanctuary in Myanmar's borderlands, where ethnic insurgencies control territory. Young activists are undergoing weapons training in these frontier regions to form an armed resistance to the Tatmadaw. Recent explosions at urban government offices and military-linked businesses signal their intent.

A Myanmar military border outpost in territory contested by the Karen National Liberation Army, near Mae Hong Son, Thailand, on March 25, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Joining forces with ethnic minorities involves other tactical considerations. Around the time of the coup, many of Myanmar's most fearsome infantry divisions were transferred from remote bases to cities. Since then, security forces have killed dozens of children with single gunshots. Pro-democracy figures have turned up dead, some with signs of torture.

With the Tatmadaw preoccupied in the cities, ethnic armed groups have launched their own coordinated offensives in the borderlands. Scores of Tatmadaw soldiers were killed in recent fighting when insurgents overran their outposts, according to the ethnic armed organisations and local residents.

The hope is that with ethnic militias pushing in the borderlands and an armed resistance rising in the cities, the Tatmadaw will be forced to battle on multiple fronts.

"If the ethnic armed organisations fight together against the Myanmar military, then it will have better results for the country," said Mr Mai Aik Kyaw.

But unity is fleeting among the ethnic armed groups, some of which have reserved as much firepower for each other as they have for the Tatmadaw. Many of the major ethnic groups, such as the Shan and Karen, have more than one armed organisation purporting to represent them. Control of these borderlands means access to lucrative mines, forests and illicit drugmaking facilities.

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