Ethnic armies fight for a federal future
Myanmar's ethnic armies have effectively declared war on the country's military government, increasing the prospect of civil war. In the face of the army's continued violence against civilian protesters -- the death toll is now more than 600 in the last nine weeks -- many of the country's ethnic leaders felt impelled to take drastic action.
"The Tatmadaw [the official name for the Myanmar army] is waging war against its own people -- they have shown their true colours: they are the terrorists," Yawd Serk, chairman of the powerful Restoration Council for Shan State (RCSS) told the Bangkok Post a few days ago.
"The ethnic armed groups and the protesters now have a common enemy and we need to join hands and hurt those that are hurting the people."
After frequent multilateral meetings and bilateral discussions among the various ethnic groups since the coup, the 10 members who signed the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in 2015 -- during the government of President Thein Sein -- have taken their strongest step yet to support those civilians who have protested against the coup and lost their lives as a result.
In the strongest signal yet to the country's coup leaders, the ethnic armies who signed the NCA decided jointly last weekend to strongly support the new unity government -- the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH or national parliament) formed at the beginning of this month -- and to reform the existing consultative process.
"We now fully support and recognise the CRPH," Lian Sakhong, a spokesman for the 10 armed groups who signed the latest statement, told the Post. "The Tatmadaw destroyed the NCA: there is no government, no peace process and no political dialogue."
When they seized power illegally and started killing unarmed civilians it became unacceptable, Yawd Serk, the Shan ethnic leader who is also head of the group of 10 NCA signatories, told the Post. "They breached the NCA and we needed to respond -- they need to be punished."
The NCA remains an important document, an historic document, but the fact is that the process is now effectively dead, according to several ethnic leaders. It was signed with the government, not the army, stressed one of them. It was approved by the parliament, and was signed in front of many international witnesses, including China, explained Yawd Serk.
"The people we negotiated with are now in jail," he said emphatically.
"[The army's actions] aren't for the protection of democracy, it's how they harm democracy," he insisted. "If they continue to shoot at protesters and bully the people, the ethnic groups cannot just stand by and do nothing."
In their statement released after their meeting at the weekend, the NCA signatory groups demanded five things: an end to the military's massive bloodshed, including deaths; the immediate and unconditional release of all people detained; voiced commitment to the spring revolution and the civil disobedience movement; an acceptance of the CRPH's abolition of the 2008 Constitution; and in particular, a welcoming of the CRPH's federal democracy charter "as an effort in building a Federal Democratic Union".
Many ethnic groups, not only those who signed the NCA, have not been cooperating with the military since the coup. In the interview with the Post, the Shan leader also stressed that they had suspended all senior-level contact with the military since the coup on Feb 1 and did not be attend the Army Day parade in Nay Pyi Taw on March 27, even though they had been invited. "We told them we were unavailable," quipped Yawd Serk.
But the RCSS has not broken off relations entirely with the junta; the liaison office in Taunggyi continues to operate and there are the usual bilateral talks on technical issues: troop movements, skirmishes and disputed boundary demarcations. But political discussion and talks have been suspended until further notice, he explained. 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 the 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. And more recently the Brotherhood Alliance, 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), have issued statements condemning the military's violence against civilians and threatened to launch an offensive against the military.
In the meantime there have been intermittent and irregular clashes between Myanmar troops and ethnic soldiers in KNU, KIO and RCSS territories. The worst so far was on the last weekend in 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 for their lives -- more than 3,000 crossed into Thailand, where they received a mixed reception. While some returned, many are still sheltering in Thailand. The Thai authorities have established more than a dozen reception centres in Ratchaburi, Mae Sot and Chiang Rai, with a combined capacity for 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 during that 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 is into Thailand. There has, though, also been an influx of refugees into India from China state, including at least a dozen policemen who deserted their posts.
While the Thai authorities, especially along the Myanmar border, are on high alert, Asian diplomats say the Chinese and Indian governments are also quietly alarmed at the prospect of the crackdown on the civil disobedience protesters and the fighting in the ethnic areas, leading to a major influx of refugees.
In the middle of last week ahead of a United Nations Security Council emergency meeting on Myanmar, the UN's special envoy in Myanmar, Christine Schraner-Burgener, warned 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 clearly making an exception for actions that disrupted the government's security and administrative operations, a clear reference to the anti-coup protests. But now that the 10 EAOs have thrown their support behind the new unity government of the CRPH, the coup leaders have been left in a quandary: under newly enacted laws, communicating with the CRPH is tantamount to treason and clearly the ethnic groups, not just the 10, have by their own admission been talking to the CRPH.
Not only that, they are moving ahead with forming 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 to the Post. This group would head any future negotiations, he said. The council would combine politics and military matters, including the formation and role of a Federal Army, according to the Shan leader.
The plan is to involve non-signatories and signatories, said Yawd Serk. Most of the ethnic groups are expected to join, including the AA, KIO and TNLA, according to ethnic sources involved in the discussions. But the significant armed forces of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) may sit it out at the behest of the powerful patron, China.
The root cause of Myanmar's political and ethnic problems, according to Yawd Serk, has been the constitution -- the 2008 charter has to be ripped up and thrown away, he said, and replaced by a federal democratic constitution. Otherwise, there will be no freedom, nor lasting peace, even though the federal democratic charter was in the meantime a good starting point for further discussions on federal principles. However, he also warned not to expect the RCSS and the other ethnic parties to rush to the physical support of the protest movement, even though they now clearly had a common enemy.
"We want real and lasting peace: not just to stop the shooting," said Yawd Serk. A federal constitution was the crucial starting point, he said, and then it should be taken step by step.
"But if there isn't federalism, we will fight for independence ... and we will surely win," he warned.
A specialist on Myanmar
Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.