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Myanmar’s ethnic armies prepare to fight for a federal structure

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A supporter of the Karen National Union holding a sign supporting the Committee for Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, Myanmar's shadow 'parliament,' during a demonstration in Dooplaya district in Myanmar's eastern Karen state on April 2, 2021. Photo: AFP

Myanmar’s ethnic armies have declared war on the country’s military government. The prospect of intensified conflict in Myanmar’s border regions and the likelihood of it prompting thousands of refugees to cross the borders to neighboring countries, has alarmed authorities in China, India and Thailand.

“The Tatmadaw [the official name for the Myanmar army] is waging war against its own people. It has shown its true colors: The army are the terrorists,” said Yawd Serk, chairman of the powerful Restoration Council for Shan State (RCSS) in a recent interview with South Asian Monitor.

“The armed ethnic groups and the protestors now have a common enemy. We need to join hands and hurt those that are hurting the people. Myanmar’s military must be held accountable for their crimes against humanity. The sooner the better. No one trusts the Myanmar army,” Serk added. 

“The junta is illegal and unconstitutional. All 14 members of the State Administrative Council (SAC) should be indicted for their complicity in the killing of some 600 innocent, unarmed civilians,” he further said.

In the extensive interview, the Shan leader pointed out that the ethnic communities living in the border areas have experienced this sort of brutality and barbarism for more than fifty years. 

After frequent multilateral meetings and bilateral discussions amongst the various ethnic groups since the February 1 coup, the ten members who signed the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in 2015during the government of President Thein Sein, have taken a clear decision. They will support civilians protesting against the coup. 

The ethnic armies which signed the NCA, also decided jointly last weekend, to strongly support the new unity government – the CRPH or Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (the national parliament) formed at the beginning of this month. 

“We now fully support and recognize the CRPH,” Lian Sakhong, a spokesman for the ten armed groups which signed the latest statement, said. “The Tatmadaw destroyed the NCA: there is no government, no peace process and no political dialogue,” he added. 

“When they seized power illegally and started killing unarmed civilians the NCA became unacceptable,” said Yawd Serk, the Shan leader who had also been an NCA signatory. 

The NCA remains an important document, a historic document. But the fact is that the process is now effectively dead. It was signed with the government and not with the army, one of them pointed out. It was approved by parliament, and was signed in front of many international witnesses, including China, Yawd Serk explained. “But the people we negotiated with are now in jail,” he said. 

“The army’s actions aren’t for the protection of democracy. They harm democracy. If they continue to shoot at protesters and bully the people, the ethnic groups cannot just stand by and do nothing,” he said. 

In the statement released after their meeting in the weekend the NCA signatory groups demanded: an end to the bloodshed; the immediate and unconditional release of all those detained; a commitment to the spring revolution and to the civil disobedience movement. They welcomed the CRPH’s abolition of the 2008 Constitution. They particularly welcomed the CRPH’s federal democracy charter. .  

Many ethnic groups have not been cooperating with the military since the coup. The Shan leader stressed that they had suspended all senior-level contacts with the military since the coup on February 1 and did not attend the Army Day parade in Naypyidaw on 27th March, though they had been invited. 

But the RCSS has not broken off relations with the junta entirely. The liaison office in Taunggyi continues to operate and there are the usual bilateral talks on technical issues, such as troop movements, skirmishes, and disputed boundary demarcation. But political discussions and talks have been suspended till further notice, he said. 

There have been no high-level telephone calls or exchanges. The Shan leader has even refused to take telephone calls from the junta’s top generals: General Min Aung Hlaing and General Soe Win. 

Many ethnic groups have adopted a similar position, ending senior level talks and calling for the release of detained politicians and activists, and for an end to the bloodshed. Apart from the RCSS, the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) have made several forthright statements. More recently the members the Brotherhood, the Arakan Army (AA), which has an informal ceasefire with the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), issued statements condemning the military’s violence against civilians and threatened to launch an offensive. 

In the meantime, there have been intermittent and irregular clashes between Myanmar troops and the forces of the ethnic groups. The worst so far was in the last weekend of March when the Myanmar military used attack helicopters to strafe and bomb Karen villages near the border with Thailand. Several villagers were killed and more than 10,000 fled. Over three thousand crossed into Thailand where they got a mixed reception. While some returned, many are still in Thailand. The Thai authorities have established more than a dozen reception centers in Ratchaburi, Mae Sot and Chiang Rai with a combined capacity for housing 40,000 refugees. 

Shelling and fighting has been continuing near the KIO headquarters in Laiza since the end of March, according to sources there. There have also been skirmishes between the RCSS and the Tatmadaw in the same period. The fighting has displaced thousands of villagers in Kachin and Shan state. But so far, the only reported large cross-border flow of refugees has been into Thailand. But there have also been an influx of refugees into India from Chin state. At least a dozen policemen had deserted their posts. 

While the Thai authorities – especially along the Myanmar border – are on high alert, the Chinese and Indian governments are concerned about the prospect of the crackdown on the civil disobedience protestors and the fighting in the ethnic areas leading to a major influx of refugees, according to Asian diplomats. 

In the middle of last week, ahead of a United Nations Security Council emergency meeting on Myanmar, the UN’s special envoy on Myanmar Christine Schraner-Burgener warned that that the situation in the country was dire and heading for an imminent “bloodbath and civil war.” 

At the same time, Myanmar’s junta announced a unilateral month-long ceasefire, directed at the ethnic armies. But it clearly made an exception for actions that disrupt the government’s security and administrative operations. It is a clear reference to the anti-coup protests. 

But now that the ten EAOs have thrown their support behind the new unity government of the CRPH, the coup leaders are in a quandary. Under the newly enacted laws, communicating with the CRPH is tantamount to treason. The ethnic groups, not just the ten, have been talking to the CRPH.

However, they are moving ahead with the formation of a new body to represent the ethnic armed groups, a suggestion put forward by the RCSS chairman. The plan is to set up a Federal Council, Yawd Serk hinted. This group will head future negotiations, he said. The Council will combine politics and military matters, including the formation and role of a Federal Army. 

The plan is to involve non-signatories and signatories, Yawd Serk said. Most of the ethnic groups are expected to join, including the AA, KIO and TNLA. But the significant armed forces of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) may sit it out at the behest of its powerful patron China. 

The root cause of Myanmar’s political and ethnic problems, according to Yawd Serk, is the constitution. The 2008 charter has to be ripped up and thrown away, and replaced by a federal democratic constitution, Serk said. Otherwise, there will be neither freedom nor lasting peace. 

The federal democratic charter is a good starting point for further discussions. But Serk warned not to expect the RCSS and the other ethnic parties to rush to physically support the protest movement, tough they now clearly have a common enemy. 

Many in the ethnic groups see their forces as largely self-defense oriented. They are meant to defend their territories and people, not to conduct offensive forays into the Myanmar heartland. Apart from the RCSS, the ethnic armies which signed the NCA have been weakened militarily, largely because of the lull in fighting in the past ten years since peace talks were opened in earnest during Thein Sein’s regime. The KNU militia, for example, is a pale reflection of its former powerful self, according to Thai military sources who keep trace of their capabilities.  

However, most of the ethnic groups are offering sanctuary to protestors who want to escape the violence. Most ethnic groups, particularly the KNU and RCSS, have publicly offered shelter to those who need it. While ethnic leaders, particularly Yawd Serk, are coy about the numbers they are already harboring, it is estimated to be in the hundreds at least, according to sources on the border.   

The next practical stage will be talks focused on federalism and the new constitution. At that point the formation of the Federal Army would be discussed; how to set it up, its organization and its structure. Only after that they would discuss the setting up of a federal government. It must include power sharing arrangements with local administrations and communities, Serk insisted. 

“We want real and lasting peace: not just a stop to the shooting. But if there isn’t federalism, then we will fight for independence – and we will surely win,” he warned.