Commentary: Solution to Myanmar's political crisis lies beyond Aung San Suu Kyi or the military
Myanmar’s ethnic minorities might hold the key to breaking the country’s political impasse, says Rahul Mishra.
KUALA LUMPUR: More than two months have passed since the Aung San Suu Kyi-led NLD (National League for Democracy) government in Myanmar was toppled by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) in a cleverly planned coup.
More than 700 people have died in protests against the coup.
Deprived of any proactive international intervention, the protest movement is only going to get stronger with each passing day, and the situation gloomier.
What makes the situation scarier is that in remote corners of the country, the Tatmadaw and rebel groups are getting into dangerous rounds of armed conflicts, pushing the country closer to the verge of complete chaos.
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Reports of conflict escalation between the Tatmadaw and rebel groups, for example, signal the likelihood of a protracted civil war. For instance, the Tatmadaw launched an airstrike on a Kachin Independence Organization hideout in mid-March 2021.
Other region under conflict have also been affected. More than 3,000 Karen people, living primarily in the Kayin state, were forced to flee their homes following military airstrikes in March on nearby guerillas.
The Karen National Union (KNU) retaliated by attacking the military base camp in the eastern Kayin state, when Tatmadaw was celebrating its Armed Forces Day on Mar 27.
While such resistance groups have been the targets, the biggest victim of such state-led attacks are civilians. The recent police raids at Karen Baptist Churches in Lashio and fleeing of thousands of citizens to neighbouring Thailand indicate their plight.
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ETHNIC MINORITIES AGAINST MYANMAR’S ENTIRE LEADESRHIP
There is a consensus among armed rebel groups that this is the best time to attack the Tatmadaw to advance their positions.
These rebels do not support Ang San Suu Kyi or the NLD, but are against Myanmar’s government machinery, which is busy suppressing civilian protestors while trying to salvage its global image.
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s 100-odd ethnic groups, united in their shared experience of military violence, are protesting the coup across the country and on social media. But they prefer to use their own flags (and black shirts for example) and many refrain from wearing red – the colour is affiliated with the NLD.
Myanmar’s uneasy patchwork of minority communities may band together in opposing Tatmadaw-led coup, but they have always been opposed to the majoritarian Bamar identity represented by Aung San Suu Kyi, radical Buddhist monks and the military.
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Contrary to popular social media-generated perceptions, in comparison to 2007, the role of Buddhist monks in opposing the current coup has been subdued. Sangha, the Buddhist monkhood, has been lukewarm with just a few hundred monks standing up to the military.
Nevertheless, with situation is still being fluid, General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief, and Tatmadaw are trying hard to secure the support of the Sangha – a powerful, influential stakeholder within Myanmar politics and society.
Perhaps for that reason, General Min Aung Hlaing was photographed paying respects to the Sangha head in a public ceremony in end-March, an action which isn’t uncommon but has gained greater symbolism in the aftermath of the coup.
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Between the NLD and the military, Myanmar’s politics has largely been dominated by the Buddhist Bamar community – often at the expense of the Kachin, Karen, Rohingya, Wa, Chin, Shan and Mon.
Even the Rohingya minority community members based in Rakhine, or settled as refugees in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh and other Southeast Asian states are protesting against the coup, speaking to international media outlets to seize support and shine a spotlight on Myanmar’s treatment of minority groups.
For the Rohingya, either of their options – continued marginalisation from the state, or life under the military – are unsavoury. They hope that when the tide of military coup recedes, Bamar majoritarianism would go down with it.
While the struggle for democracy has brought Myanmar’s minorities together against a common enemy, it has not helped bridge inter-ethnic differences, especially with the Bamar community. One may argue that this is where Aung San Suu Kyi turned out to be a major disappointment.
AUNG SAN SUU KYI IS NO GANDHI OR MANDELA
Over the past 30 years, Aung San Suu Kyi has often been compared with Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, who through their tireless effort to weave a harmonious society in their conflict-ridden respective countries, strove to make their countries better.
Unfortunately, she has not been the unifying figure. She has refused to use the term “Rohingya”, defended the military’s clearance operations in Rakhine at the International Court of Justice last year and more. Ethnic minorities generally perceive her as a staunch member of the majority Bamar community who has little regard for their interests and role in the national fabric.
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To be fair, she has been convening the 21st Century Panglong Conference, an inter-group peace forum, since 2016. But those efforts failed to yield substantial outcomes as prominent armed rebel groups such as Kachin Independence Organization, Arakan Army and United Wa State Army did not participate. Neither did her government include the Rohingya community in any national ethnic reconciliation process.
Suu Kyi also failed to amend the 2008 constitution as promised. The NLD had focused more on finding an equilibrium in NLD-Tatmadaw relations rather than in making substantial headway into constitutional reform.
In a managed democracy with Myanmarese features, this relying on NLD and Tatmadaw to come to a consensus was never sustainable, not when the military held all the chips with appointments in key ministries and a legislative veto.
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A MORE COMPREHNSIVE SOLUTION
While looking for a more comprehensive solution, the anxieties and concerns of all ethnic communities must be sufficiently understood.
With the NLD establishing the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (National Parliament) (CRPH), a political platform representing elected NLD MPs to discuss establishing a federal union, it’s clear the penny has dropped.
The NLD realised its mistake in ignoring the concerns of ethnic minorities for far too long, and fully grasped the golden opportunity they had let slip in ceding to be a strong representative for them. Now it is hoping the CRPH can be that unifying banner against the military coup.
Such efforts to improve inter-ethnic relations may be too little, too late.
Finding an arrangement beyond the binary of the Tatmadaw and NLD could offer a more amicable and long-lasting solution. The first such step must be to call all important stakeholders and negotiate a peace deal for a complete ceasefire.
The Myanmar crisis demands a multi-party solution. This NLD-Tatmadaw binary was neither a solution in the past, nor will it be in the future.
Rahul Mishra is Senior Lecturer at the Asia-Europe Institute, and Associate at the Centre for ASEAN Regionalism (CARUM), University of Malaya. He tweets @rahulmishr_.