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Myanmar: Can a disunited opposition challenge the army?

Michael Kemp
April 26, 2023

Since the military coup in February 2021, the civilian opposition has managed to create a broad coalition of resistance. But divisions among the opposition ranks are being laid bare as the conflict drags on.

Sniper Thu Rain stares down the scope of his rifle
The People's Defense Forces (PDF), an anti-junta militia, has been formed to wage an armed campaign against the Myanmar militaryImage: Víctor Fernández Molina

The question of unity has been at the center of Myanmar politics since it gained its independence in 1948: How can the Southeast Asian nation, which is home to people of multiple ethnicities, identities, and interests, be governed in an inclusive manner? 

The country is splintered along ethnic lines, with the largest ethnic group — the Bamar — dominating politics, although they have never managed to bring the entire national territory under their control. The military's ranks are also largely drawn from this ethnic group.

The Bamar mainly populate the central parts of the country, while various ethnic minorities have traditionally lived in the peripheral regions that surround the plains in a horseshoe shape.

Each of these ethnic minorities controls vast swathes of land.

A divided country

No government has managed to unify the country in the past 75 years.

Most recently, the coalition of the military and the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, also failed in this endeavor.

The attempt at power-sharing failed when the military seized power in a coup on February 1, 2021, and arrested Aung San Suu Kyi, along with a number of other civilian leaders.

The conflict and the resistance movement that ensued is a continuation of the nation's bloody history of failed unity.

Thousands are believed to have been killed since the coup, although reliable figures are not available. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), some 1.7 million people have been internally displaced, as of March 2023.

United resistance?

Since Myanmar's independence, the military has always been able to prevail. An important factor was that the armed forces managed to maintain their internal cohesion for decades and thus neutralized the fragmented opposition, even though they haven't been able to fully wipe them out.

After the coup in 2021, which was followed by nationwide protests, especially in the Bamar heartland, hopes were high that this time, the resistance would be united enough to defeat the military.

The goal was to forge an alliance between the Bamar, a large majority of whom reject military rule, and the various ethnic minorities.

But the challenge here is that the various opposition groups only really agree on one point: They reject the military regime and its concept of a "disciplined democracy."

Otherwise, they pursue their own interests and harbor a deep mistrust of one another.

Myanmar's civil war intensifies

To overcome the mistrust and forge unity, the buzzword now doing the rounds is: federalism.

The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) sees itself as the nation's real parliament based on the 2020 election results, which were annulled by the coup. It presented a roadmap for drafting a federal democratic charter just two months after the coup.

Unclear structures

Based on the roadmap, a shadow administration, the National Unity Government (NUG), was set up to head the resistance movement.

It also formed the People's Defense Forces (PDF), an anti-junta militia, to wage an armed campaign against the military, although many of these PDF units are not under the control of the NUG.

Furthermore, the National Consultative Council (NUCC) was convened to work out the details of the federal system in more concrete terms. The NUCC includes the CRPH and the NUG, as well as influential ethnic groups, civil society actors, and trade unionists. However, the exact composition of the body is not publicly known.

In general, during the drafting of a new constitution, many questions remain as to the representation and mandate of the constitution-drafting committee.

After the so-called First People's Assembly in January 2022, a press release was published stating: "The NUCC is formed with 33 member organizations from five categories," without elaborating on the details regarding the members or the categories mentioned.

According to the release, the members ratified the version of the charter that was available at the time.

No agreement on federalism

It was clear from the start that not all opposition groups agreed with the process.

In October 2021, some ethnic groups left the NUCC. A representative of one ethnic group told DW in March 2023 that he could not see a revolution: "Revolution, that would mean that you really want to create something new. But all I see is that they [the NUG/CRPH] want to go back to the time before the coup. That's not revolution, that's just resistance."

Myanmar: A family changed forever by the military coup

In this person's view, going back to the time before the coup meant reinstalling a Bamar-dominated political system that marginalized ethnic groups.

In any case, the forging of a federal political system is a "long-term project," and one with an uncertain outcome, as Su Mon Thazin Aung noted in an analysis for the Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. The process is currently on hold.

A lack of leadership

Having a charismatic leader — as Aung San Suu Kyi was, at least for a time — could be an alternative to a federal system to unify the country.

But such a personality is now nowhere in sight.

Over two dozen experts, journalists, and observers in Myanmar and abroad with whom DW spoke came to the same conclusion: there is no universally accepted leader who can hold the resistance together.

The lack of leadership means that various opposition outfits do not always pull together, and there are even divisions within their own ranks.

For instance, when the military government announced elections for August 2023, there were some NLD voices in Myanmar that wanted to participate, but others abroad opposed, saying it would be tantamount to legitimizing the military coup.

In the end, the faction calling for boycott prevailed.

The consequence of disunity among the opposition ranks is indecision on the way forward. This was the view shared by many of DW's interlocutors, especially within Myanmar.

Over the past two years, the military junta has tightened its control of the country's major cities and transport links. But unlike in the past, the resistance groups, supported by large sections of the population, have managed to put up a strong fight in many places, leading to a reduction in the territory controlled by the military, especially in the fiercely contested states of Sagaing and Magway.

Resisting the junta: Myanmar's young rebels

Humanitarian aid and new thinking

Against this backdrop, it's increasingly looking like the conflict will evolve into a protracted civil war.

Experts told DW that it was extremely important to maintain and increase humanitarian aid to the country, as well as come up with new concepts to bring peace.

The ongoing fighting and the distressing economic situation have led to a sharp rise in violence, displacement, and poverty. About 40% of the population live below the national poverty line, according to World Bank data from April 2023, making economic support for the people all the more important.

Another idea that DW encountered frequently was the suggestion that a union of Myanmar, which ultimately never existed, should not be pursued.

Some say that if the national territory, as left by the British colonialists, has not yet been unified, even after more than 70 years of independence, it may be better to think of Myanmar no longer as a single political unit, but as a diverse entity of different ethnic groups. Perhaps groups can live in peace when it is no longer a question of dominating the country as a whole.

For this article, DW spoke to a number of journalists, intellectuals, artists, entrepreneurs, NGO staff, students, analysts and representatives of embassies and institutions in Yangon. The names of those interviewed are withheld for security reasons.

This article was originally written in German.

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