Myanmar’s ethnic groups are united in the fight against the army, with a view to federal rights

If Myanmar’s military coup on February 1 has accomplished one thing, it has been to bridge some of the differences that have long kept the country’s ethnic minorities apart. Now I am protesting side by side against the junta, Myanmar’s ethnic groups hope to build a more just and federal Myanmar and take up arms together.

On March 8 this year, Catholic nun sister Ann Rose Nu Twang became a worldwide sensation after being photographed kneeling in front of Myanmar’s security forces in the northern city of Myitkyina, asking them to target her rather than hundreds of unarmed Kachin minority protesters taking to the streets to protest the coup that day. But despite her foundations, March 8 ended like most other days since February 1: in more bloodshed and more civilian deaths.

The nun’s courageous and selfless act quickly became a symbol of Myanmar’s growing resistance movement, emphasizing a phenomenon that had not been seen in the troubled country for decades – a united people against the junta. “Everyone has participated in these demonstrations, regardless of age, profession, religion or ethnicity,” Alexandra de Mersan, an anthopologist specializing in Myanmar, told Jowharin an interview.

Before the coup, the ethnic majority of Bamar – who represent 80 percent of the population and live on the central plains – had largely ignored the country’s other 134 ethnic groups’ struggle for federal rights since Myanmar’s independence in 1948.

“Until now, the fate of these minorities did not really interest the Bamars,” explained ethnologist Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière. “Some even think that these ethnic armies are an obstacle to national unity.”

But the coup and the violent crackdown on protesters that followed – according to at least 710 dead, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) – turned out to be a game changer. Bamars, Kachins, Chins, Shans and Karen suddenly put their differences aside to focus instead on a common enemy: the army, also known as Tatmadaw.

‘All Burmese have the same enemy: the army’

Thirty-seven-year-old Thi Zinh * is of Bamar and Kachin descent. She now lives in Finland but grew up in Kuktai, in Myanmar’s northern Shan state, which is often the site of armed conflicts between ethnic groups and the military. When she was five, her family moved to central Myanmar, near Mandalay. “I always belonged to two ethnic groups at school. The Bamars would not let me be in their group, and the Kachins would not let me be in theirs, she said. “The fear, the lack of trust and the differences between ethnic groups are very real and stem from a very early age.”

However, after the army’s crackdown on protesters also affected the Bamar majority, many Bamars have now chosen to show solidarity with the country’s ethnic minorities, and some have even publicly apologized for not previously speaking out against the army’s repression of these groups. . “We regret it … How could we not know what [some] ethnic groups went through during all these years? Today we realize that all Burmese have the same enemy: the military, said a young Burmese who asked to remain anonymous.

Thi Zinh said she welcomes this “awakening.

“It is not as if Bamars hate other ethnic minorities. They just did not know what was happening in some regions, she says. “Today, everyone is living with Tatmadaw’s brutality. Bamars realize what other ethnic groups experienced daily during all these years. ”

From threats against allies

This shift became even more significant at the end of March, when a number of ethnic rebel groups announced that they were joining the protesters’ fight against the junta and urged the country’s youth to join them. In total, ten of the country’s largest rebel groups have now announced that they will “reconsider” a ceasefire agreement they entered into with the army in 2015. Previously, the army effectively sowed divisions between them.

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The moves of the rebel groups have raised hopes of a “federal army”, which would consist of rebels, civilians and potentially also army defects, in an attempt to defeat Tatmadaw.

More and more young people are now leaving their families to take up arms.

Juliette Verlin, a French citizen living in Yangon, told on Twitter how a friend of hers, a taxi driver, left the city to join the Karen army. “He struggled with too much anger and frustration after seeing, reading and hearing about friends and family who had been victims of this sadistic violence by the army on the other side of the country,” she explained.

Myint Pyay *, a Yangon-based researcher, said several of his relatives had done the same in recent weeks. “Everyone said they felt more at risk by staying in the city than by leaving and being trained by armed groups,” he told FRANCE 24. “Some of them are still hesitant because they do not want to leave their families. , but they feel they have no choice: either they take up arms or they give up the fight. ”

Unlike the pacifist protests held in the first weeks after the coup, “we see a radicalization of the protesters in general,” said Brac de la Perrière. “In the cities, we are now witnessing scenes from the urban guerrilla war. The only ones left [on the streets] are vengeful activists armed with make-shift weapons. And on the other hand, the security forces respond with live fire. ”

Unity remains relative

It is unknown at this time what he will do after leaving the post. joined the group in recent weeks. According to him, most new recruits are in their 20s, and between 20 percent and 30 percent of them are women.

“In most cases, these young people join training camps where they will be trained by ethnic groups,” explained Brac de la Perrière. “We know that they are often recruited in towns or villages and leave when they are called up. Their training lasts an average of three weeks during which time they learn to handle arms, in particular. ”

But the Brac de la Perrière says the creation of a Burmese “federal army” – for which the shadow government formed by former members of the army-rejected civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (LND) party has called for – is more of a “utopian” dream than a reality. “And even if it were created, it would be much weaker – both in terms of numbers and resources – than Tatmadaw.”

Myanmar’s rebel ethnic groups are currently estimated at 80,000 warriors, compared to the army’s 400,000.

“And not all groups oppose the army to the same extent,” she added. “Karen and Kachins obviously play an important role, but some, like Was, are less happy [in their opposition]. ”

A new constitution?

Although Myanmar’s resistance movement may have begun with the overthrow of Aung San Suu Kyi, most ethnic minorities are also calling for a new constitution that would finally give them the rights they have demanded for the past 70 years.

“In 2016, when Aung San Suu Kyi came to power, her government said national reconciliation was its top priority,” de Mersan said. In 2016, for example, she organized the large Panglong peace conference, which invited both ethnic minorities and the army to the negotiating table. It did not lead to anything concrete, but at least it was a conference. ”

“Ethnic groups were frustrated by Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and criticized it for keeping quiet about military abuse in some regions. On several occasions, they also regretted not being able to elect their members to regional parliaments. ”

One of the biggest obstacles to establishing a federal Myanmar is the 2008 constitution, drafted by the military, which stipulates that at least a quarter of the seats in parliament are reserved for the junta. It also centralizes all power to the capital Naypyidaw.

“Aung San Suu Kyi always wanted to reform this constitution, but she was always blocked by the army. She recently started raising her voice against it [and] there is no doubt that this acted as an accelerator for the coup, she said.

On March 31, the government-in-exile, the CRPH, announced that it considered that the constitution had been dissolved by the coup on February 1 and that it would draft a new charter guaranteeing the creation of a federal state and handing over more power to minorities. “The symbolism for this is very strong. Now the real question is what kind of federal state can actually be established. ”

“What is certain is that if that government in exile really wants the support of the people as a whole and thus potentially wins this war against the junta, it must negotiate more with each minority than it has done so far.”

* The name has been changed to protect the person’s identity

This article has been adapted from the original in French