Protests Unite Myanmar’s Ethnic Groups Against Common Foe
The shared experience of military violence has shifted political objectives among the ethnic majority.
Before the military seized power from Myanmar’s civilian government in February, Wai Hnin Lae Phyu, a medical student in Yangon, didn’t give much thought to her country’s persecuted ethnic minorities. She had even dismissed their plight, including when the military launched a campaign of killing, rape, and arson against the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state in 2017. But during the protests against the coup, Wai Hnin Lae Phyu has apologized for her apathy. “Many youth were sleeping before the military coup. Since Feb. 1, we woke up,” she said.
Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, has killed at least 510 people and detained more than 2,500 others since it took power on Feb. 1. Now terrorized by the military themselves, many people from the Bamar ethnic majority are developing a sense of solidarity with the country’s numerous minority groups. Public apologies for years of indifference and denial of minority people’s experiences have proliferated. “We have learned day by day, and our point of view has changed. We feel really sorry,” said Yin Yin, a Bamar youth who worked as a hotelier in Yangon before the coup.
Many Bamar people also seem to be shifting their political objectives. Early in the protests, a split emerged between groups led by an older generation of protesters from the 1988 student uprisings who called for the release of democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi and elected officials and a return to the previous system of governance and a diverse group of protesters who united under the General Strike Committee of Nationalities (GSCN) with more ambitious demands. The GSCN advocates for the abolition of the military-drafted 2008 constitution and the establishment of a new one based on federalism. These calls have rapidly gained momentum, especially among a young generation eager to make amends for past injustices and build a more equitable society.
Before the coup, military violence and government oppression of ethnic minorities evoked only weak responses from the Bamar public. Mass denial followed the 2017 campaign against the Rohingya, and only a few activists spoke out. When the Tatmadaw launched airstrikes in Kachin state in 2018 and the government blocked displaced people from safe passage or access to humanitarian assistance, there was little outcry beyond activist circles. The same was true when the government shut down the internet in Rakhine state and parts of Chin state for more than a year.
But the shared experience of suffering under military violence has contributed to shifting views among Bamar demonstrators. “Since the coup started, we all faced the same thing, the same tragic incidents all over the country,” Yin Yin said. “It doesn’t matter if we are Burmese, Kachin, Chin, or any ethnic group. As long as we are living in Myanmar, we have the same rights and we need the same freedom, so federal democracy is a must.”
Under the 2008 constitution, the central government owns all land and natural resources across Myanmar and has the authority to pass laws regulating their use and extraction. The president appoints the chief ministers of all seven ethnic states, excluding minorities from political decisions affecting their states and making them vulnerable to land and resource grabs. A new constitution rooted in federalism would begin to remedy these inequities, putting power in the hands of local residents. “Apologizing alone is not enough; we need to establish justice. For that, federalism is the most essential,” Wai Hnin Lae Phyu said.
Ethnic minorities’ struggle for federal rights dates to 1947. Eleven months before Myanmar gained independence from the United Kingdom, Gen. Aung San—the father of Aung San Suu Kyi—convinced ethnic leaders to join the Union of Burma with the promise of a path to federal autonomy. Aung San was assassinated in July 1947, and that pledge was never realized. Instead, ethnic armed organizations began fighting for federal rights shortly after independence, and they haven’t stopped. The conflicts displaced hundreds of thousands of people as the military committed human rights violations against its civilians.
The government has long branded some ethnic armed organizations as unlawful associations or terrorist groups. Many in the Bamar majority bought into this narrative, bolstered by propaganda and disinformation. Under the military regime that ruled until 2011, independent media was heavily censored. Although press freedom improved relatively under Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), the government still restricted media access to conflict-affected areas, including Rakhine state, and harassed and arrested journalists reporting on human rights abuses. The Tatmadaw continued to propagate false information and hate speech.
“Before, federalism was seen as the disintegration of the Union. … People in Burma proper perceived that federalism was not related to them, and it was only the concern of non-Bamar ethnic people,” said Tayzar San, a protest leader in the city of Mandalay, which has a predominantly Bamar population. “Now, we have experienced arbitrary arrest, torture, killing, and beating under the military dictatorship. We came to understand and develop more compassion for ethnic people’s feelings.”
Despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s pledge to prioritize peace with ethnic armed organizations when she took office in 2016, her government’s peace negotiations faltered. For the past five years, Myanmar’s borderlands have seen clashes, displacement, and human rights violations. In 2017, the Tatmadaw indiscriminately targeted Rohingya civilians under the guise of counterterrorism operations, killing thousands and causing around 700,000 people to flee across the border to Bangladesh.
Following the Rohingya crisis, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government blocked human rights investigators and dismissed survivors’ allegations as fabricated. In September 2018, a United Nations fact-finding mission reported that the Tatmadaw had committed “massive violations” in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan states and called for the prosecution of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing—now leading the junta—and other top military generals for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The NLD government rejected the report, and in 2019, Aung San Suu Kyi defended Myanmar against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice.
Until recently, the Bamar public largely rejected or ignored the mounting documentation of the Tatmadaw’s abuses against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in Kachin, Shan, Karen, and Rakhine states. When Aung San Suu Kyi appeared at The Hague, her supporters held large rallies back home. But since the coup, calls are growing for the international justice system to hold the Tatmadaw accountable for its current and past actions. “We were all brainwashed since we were very young,” Yin Yin said. “The military did countless dirty acts and cruel things in the past 70 years. The [non-Bamar] ethnic groups have fought and faced it, and now we are all facing it.”
Bamar people are also increasingly joining minorities in supporting ethnic armed organizations, hoping these groups can help counter the military regime through the establishment of a federal army, including combined ethnic forces. Representatives from two of the country’s largest ethnic armed organizations, the Kachin Independence Organization and the Karen National Union, have backed the idea of a federal army. In recent weeks, Bamar people have demonstrated alongside Kachin people with signs reading “We support KIO/KIA.” On March 29, two days after the Tatmadaw launched airstrikes in Karen state, the GSCN called on ethnic armed organizations to collectively protect unarmed civilians.
Many members of ethnic minority groups have welcomed societal shifts toward ethnic unity and acknowledgment of minority people’s experiences. “Kachin people have been protesting for more than 60 years,” said a young entrepreneur in the Kachin state capital, who requested anonymity out of fear for his safety. “Most non-Kachin people didn’t understand our protests. Now, since the coup, they [have] experienced for themselves the brutality of the military dictatorship.”
Some young activists hope the protest movement shapes a more inclusive view of politics in Myanmar and believe the opportunity to build a federal democratic union is closer than before. Mi Vijaya, a civil society worker in the Mon state capital, initially did not participate in the protests against the coup because she doubted the majority would stand for ethnic minority rights. Since joining the GSCN, however, her hope has grown. “I believe the current demonstrations have brought unity among us,” she said. “I believe we can bring systematic change if we work together.”
As the Tatmadaw continues to commit mass violence with alarming inhumanity, this newfound ethnic unity remains a bright spot on an otherwise dark horizon. If the people of Myanmar succeed in restoring democracy, it will be with a greater sense that everyone deserves a share in it.
Emily Fishbein is a freelance journalist who writes about peace and social justice issues in Myanmar and Malaysia. Twitter: @EmilyFishbein11