Report

Myanmar’s Opposition Is Forming Fragile Alliances With Armed Ethnic Groups

The National League for Democracy struggles with its history of oppressing its would-be allies.

By , a journalist and documentary filmmaker, and , an investigative reporter and security specialist.
Two men check their weapons at a training camp in Myanmar.
Members of the Karenni People’s Defense Force prepare weapons as they take part in military training at their camp near Demoso in Kayah state, Myanmar, on July 6. STR/AFP/Getty Images

Sipping a beer in a Cambodian bar in his denim hotpants and painted nails, Michael Prestidge (he’s long adopted the Western name) is a striking example of the gulf between Myanmar’s youthful, progressive activists and its conservative elders who fill the ranks of both the country’s military and political establishment. Prestidge’s own father is a general in the Tatmadaw, the repressive military junta that seized control of the country on Feb. 1—but Prestidge’s outspoken criticism of the coup means he cannot return home for fear of arrest. He can’t go anywhere else, either: As the son of a Tatmadaw general, he’s been blacklisted from international travel and thus lost his scholarship to study abroad.

Prestidge has joined thousands of students and other young people in Myanmar by putting his faith—and his money—in the creation of an ethnically diverse, federal army that he hopes will defeat the Tatmadaw and usher in a more united, forward-thinking Myanmar. Ironically, this will mean strengthening the hand of many figures from the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) party—the political old guard that has, for decades, fanned the flames of inter-ethnic hatred, even refusing until now to condemn the military’s campaign of rape and murder against the country’s Rohingya minority. NLD members are heavily represented in Myanmar’s government-in-exile, the National Unity Government (NUG)—which is now apologizing for failing to side with the Rohingya and calling for militants from the country’s disparate ethnic groups, including secessionist militias, to join forces in a federal army to defeat their common enemy: the Tatmadaw.

It’s a risky move. Myanmar has a long history of precarious allegiances between Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs), formed out of necessity in times of conflict. Most recently, the Federal Union Army, a coalition of 11 EAOs that made up the United Nationalities Federal Council, was created to counter the military in 2011. But it fell apart as most of its constituent groups resigned or were suspended for negotiating independent ceasefires with the government after the NLD won a landslide electoral victory in 2015. Historically, these arrangements have ended up in much the same way: Members of the Bamar ethnic majority, be they Tatmadaw or democratically elected officials, continued to wield most of the power, while ethnic minority groups failed to gain autonomy. Unless old tensions and resentments are put aside, the country’s civil war could once again splinter along bitter ethnic lines.

Sipping a beer in a Cambodian bar in his denim hotpants and painted nails, Michael Prestidge (he’s long adopted the Western name) is a striking example of the gulf between Myanmar’s youthful, progressive activists and its conservative elders who fill the ranks of both the country’s military and political establishment. Prestidge’s own father is a general in the Tatmadaw, the repressive military junta that seized control of the country on Feb. 1—but Prestidge’s outspoken criticism of the coup means he cannot return home for fear of arrest. He can’t go anywhere else, either: As the son of a Tatmadaw general, he’s been blacklisted from international travel and thus lost his scholarship to study abroad.

Prestidge has joined thousands of students and other young people in Myanmar by putting his faith—and his money—in the creation of an ethnically diverse, federal army that he hopes will defeat the Tatmadaw and usher in a more united, forward-thinking Myanmar. Ironically, this will mean strengthening the hand of many figures from the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) party—the political old guard that has, for decades, fanned the flames of inter-ethnic hatred, even refusing until now to condemn the military’s campaign of rape and murder against the country’s Rohingya minority. NLD members are heavily represented in Myanmar’s government-in-exile, the National Unity Government (NUG)—which is now apologizing for failing to side with the Rohingya and calling for militants from the country’s disparate ethnic groups, including secessionist militias, to join forces in a federal army to defeat their common enemy: the Tatmadaw.

It’s a risky move. Myanmar has a long history of precarious allegiances between Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs), formed out of necessity in times of conflict. Most recently, the Federal Union Army, a coalition of 11 EAOs that made up the United Nationalities Federal Council, was created to counter the military in 2011. But it fell apart as most of its constituent groups resigned or were suspended for negotiating independent ceasefires with the government after the NLD won a landslide electoral victory in 2015. Historically, these arrangements have ended up in much the same way: Members of the Bamar ethnic majority, be they Tatmadaw or democratically elected officials, continued to wield most of the power, while ethnic minority groups failed to gain autonomy. Unless old tensions and resentments are put aside, the country’s civil war could once again splinter along bitter ethnic lines.

There is one clear difference this time around, however: Young Bamar are joining the fight.

Although Prestidge (who is Bamar) has no plans to take up arms himself, other young activists, students, and medics have left their jobs and studies to train as guerrilla fighters in Myanmar’s borderlands under the tutelage of EAOs that have been at war with the Tatmadaw for decades. One teenage protester told CNN in May that he and his comrades split into two groups: One staying behind in the city of Bago to protect the neighborhood, the other learning guerilla warfare skills and then returning and training the first group. Another young Bamar—one of thousands seeking refuge with separatist Karen forces—receiving weapons training in June told the UK’s Channel 4 News that “the whole point was to take the fighting to the junta.” This network of young, EAO-aligned fighters calls itself the People’s Defense Forces. The NUG is already hailing them as a precursor to a federal army.

“When this is over, we’re all going to be together and helping each other. This is what we’re planning,” Prestidge said, referring to the ethnic groups that would comprise the federal army.

Indeed, political figures from various ethnic backgrounds have floated the idea of a federal army since late March. Dr. Sasa, the NUG minister for international cooperation who goes by his title and one name, is open about his ambitions to create such a force—but the NUG hasn’t made clear how it would fund it.

According to Prestidge, students in his network who have donated to a GoFundMe campaign for the civil disobedience movement are convinced their money is actually being used to pay for this federal army. The campaign has raised nearly $9.2 million so far.

It’s a worrying, if inevitable, escalation from the nonviolent, frequently ingenious methods used by protesters to date. Myanmar’s young activists have excelled at exploiting the old-fashioned methods and sensibilities of the Tatmadaw. This includes shielding fugitives behind washing lines of women’s clothing—knowing soldiers would consider it bad luck and emasculating to walk under them—and rendering useless a Viber tip line, set up by the Tatmadaw to get citizens to inform on one another, by overloading it with false or useless information. But the military responded with extreme brutality: airstrikes along the borderlands, kidnappings, firing assault rifles and mortars into crowded urban areas, even opening fire on mourners paying their respects to a 20-year-old student shot dead during a peaceful protest. As civilian deaths continue to rise, Myanmar’s younger generation increasingly sees no viable alternative to warfare.

Hkanhpa Tu Sadan, the foreign secretary of the Kachin National Organization in Kachin State, said he couldn’t see any path ahead besides escalating conflict, but that the changing attitudes among the younger generation made him hopeful that Myanmar’s ethnic groups could finally join forces to oust the military dictatorship. “The new generation will [fight] because they are seeing the brutality of the army, so they will start defending their towns,” he said.

In any case, they have little choice but to try. “We all have to work together, otherwise we will be crushed,” he said.

But others who have lived through years of persecution at the hands of the Bamar majority doubt the sincerity of public regrets expressed by ousted political figures over their treatment—and lack faith that these new allegiances will last. Sujauddin Karimuddin, a Rohingya activist from Rakhine state, said the NUG ultimately consists of the same “racist, supremacist, nationalist ideologues.” “I think that the whole apology move was very politically orchestrated,” he said. Karimuddin suspects that, without systemic change, the old guard will revert to the same rhetoric if or when they regain control, he said.

The NUG has already side-stepped its own assurances that, going forward, political decision-makers will consult and collaborate closely with ethnic minority leaders. At first, the NUG promised it would put together a National Unity Consultative Council, comprising civil disobedience movement leaders and EAOs, to help draft a new constitution. But the council hasn’t yet been formed, and on May 21 the NUG announced it had already begun writing Myanmar’s new constitution.

So far, this draft constitution has committed to recognizing the citizenship of all people born in Myanmar—including the Rohingya, who were stripped of their citizenship in 1982. But it attributes all blame for atrocities committed against the Rohingya to the Tatmadaw, glossing over the role played by Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD Party. Critics point out that it also falls short of acknowledging that a genocide of the Rohingya is taking place at all.

The NLD’s behavior during the five years it shared power with the Tatmadaw offers ample cause for cynicism. Then-president Aung San Suu Kyi alienated multiple ethnic minorities by appointing NLD governors in areas that voted overwhelming for local parties; spending public funds on highly unpopular bridges and statues in honor of her father, General Aung San, in ethnic minority areas (the general notoriously colluded with Japanese invaders to commit atrocities against the Karen people during World War II); as well as flat-out denying the well-documented ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Rakhine state.

Activists say the NUG simply hasn’t done enough to reassure ethnic minorities that they won’t be exploited to fight on behalf of democracy and then pushed out of the political sphere. The NLD had five years to condemn the Tatmadaw’s atrocities against ethnic groups and it missed the opportunity, said Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a prominent Bamar youth activist. “[The NLD wants] ethnic armies’ support in fighting back against the military, but if they don’t want political reconciliation, then they just want these ethnic armies to die for them,” she said.

Even with a well-funded, trained, and united federal army, defeating the Tatmadaw won’t be an easy task. Despite its political ostracization on the world stage, the junta has never struggled to access the resources it needs, generating immense power and wealth from illicit flows of drugs, wildlife, and timber, as well as commercial interests in mining, tobacco, banking, and tourism.

“These trades have continued from the journey of the previous junta control through to the democratic transition and now through the coup,” said Jason Eligh, a senior expert at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. “The camouflage of democracy maybe led us not to pay as much attention to these things, but they have always been there.”

What’s more, the “number one priority” for Myanmar’s powerful neighbor, China, is stability along the countries’ shared border. Officers from China’s People’s Liberation Army have many ties with the EAOs—partially to try and prevent conflict spilling over into China, partially for private profit in the drugs and arms trade. A full-blown civil war is something Beijing will be very keen to prevent, especially one as chaotic as this, with its multifarious separatist movements, complicated power structures, and contradictory demands.

But members of EAOs argue that it’s too late to turn back now.

“We’re already in civil war,” Hkanhpa Tu Sadan said. “People will start shooting, getting hold of arms. Nobody will ever stop that happening. What the international community needs to do is decide which side they are on.”

Lindsey Kennedy is a journalist and documentary filmmaker covering stories related to development, global security, and abuses of civil and human rights. She is the director of TePonui Media. Twitter: @LindsAKennedy

Nathan Paul Southern is an investigative reporter and security specialist. He covers non-traditional security threats, Chinese expansionism, organized crime, and terrorism. Twitter: @NathanPSouthern

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.