Why the coup is bad news for Myanmar’s ethnic minorities
For Myanmar citizens, the military coup on 1 February was frighteningly familiar.
From 1962 to 2011, military regimes ruled Myanmar with an iron fist. But in 2015 optimism for change was ignited when Aung San Suu Kyi formed a civilian government after her National League for Democracy (NLD) won an election landslide.
Suu Kyi’s position didn’t last long; she and other government leaders were arrested by the military earlier this month, justifying their takeover with claims of fraud in the November 2020 elections that saw the NLD increase its parliamentary majority. Anti-coup protestors who have taken to the streets across the country fear that a decade of reforms will now come to nothing. Myanmar’s ethnic minorities – already facing persecution, have even more reason to fear the military’s return than the Bamar majority. During its half century in power Myanmar’s army waged war with armed ethnic groups, displacing hundreds of thousands and inflicting atrocities such as rape, arson and torture.
Violence against minorities continued despite the transition to civilian rule. In 2017, the military renewed its violent campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State, forcing an estimated 720,000 to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh, in an offensive the UN said showed ‘genocidal intent’. General Min Aung Hlaing, who seized power from Aung San Suu Kyi, is the alleged architect of these atrocities, raising anxiety for the 600,000 Rohingya remaining in Rakhine, many already interned in squalid detention camps. The coup also kills any hope that Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh could return home.
Suu Kyi’s failure to condemn atrocities against the Rohingya tarnished her international reputation. This is likely the intention of the military who orchestrated the offensive in part to weaken her power.
In 2019, Suu Kyi’s defended her country against charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing at the International Court of Justice, which only increased her domestic support, contributing to her election success in 2020. Emboldened by victory, Suu Kyi pushed ahead with plans for constitutional reforms to curb military power and with peace talks to establish a new democratic federal union with representatives of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs).
The military have much to lose from an end to Myanmar’s myriad of civil wars. Armed conflicts allow the army to exploit rich natural resources – gold, rubies, amber and jade – found in ethnic minority territories. Internally displaced people provide Myanmar’s wealthy military with forced labour for its vast business empire that includes mining, tobacco and transport, to name but a few.
After she took office in 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi pushed ahead with the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), initially negotiated by Myanmar’s military-backed civilian government in 2015, adding new signatories to the deal that sets out principles for political dialogue between the government and ethnic armed organizations. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Myanmar’s largest active EAO has yet to sign the agreement. But in December 2020, representatives from Kachin’s political parties met with NLD delegates to discuss federalization. Hidden in Myanmar’s northern mountains, Kachin is particularly important to the military’s economic interests for its proximity to trading routes with neighbouring China and for its deposits of precious metals and gemstones.
The NLD performed surprisingly well in Kachin and other ethnic minority areas in the 2020 election, given the backdrop of Aung San Suu Kyi’s complicity in the Rohingya crisis. Herein perhaps lies the reason for the coup. The poor electoral showing for ethnic minority parties and for the military-sponsored Union Solidarity and Development Party – that won only 33 of 476 parliamentary seats – convinced Myanmar’s generals they could not return to power through the ballot box. The NLD, eschewing ethno-nationalism and campaigning on building a devolved federalized union, proved too broadly popular, winning 83 per cent of the vote. The one-year state of emergency the coup has imposed is intended to give the military time to stymie the popularity of the NLD, that many ethnic minority voters see as their best chance for building improved rights and lasting peace.
The Kachin justifiably fear an escalation in violence by the new military-controlled government. A 17-year ceasefire between the KIA and previous junta was broken in 2011 when the military attempted to seize Kachin territory located near lucrative energy projects backed by China. As a resulted of hostilities, today there are over 100,000 internally displaced people in Kachin and adjacent Shan State. In 2009, the former junta signed a deal with Beijing to construct the Myitsone dam in Kachin. But the $3.6 billion project was later mothballed as protests erupted, unleashed by democratic reforms. Back in power, the military government may now reinstate the project, that would flood an area the size of Singapore, displacing even more Kachin and other minorities.
There is also anxiety among the Chin minority, dwelling in Myanmar’s northwest along the India border, across which many fled to seek sanctuary following the junta’s brutal suppress of a popular uprising in 1989. More Chin are now contemplating escape to India before the military, which currently has its hands full with urban protests, prevents freedom of movement in periphery areas. Chin refugees already in India face significant hardships including racism and exploitation in the garment factories where they work unregistered.
Myanmar’s 2019 Peace Survey found that the majority of Chin saw the NLD government as the most active and trustworthy party in the country’s peace process. Respondents noted that the NCA had increased freedom to travel and to discuss politics for Myanmar’s minorities, as well as decreasing forced labour. The NLD-led peace process has also focused on ending the recruitment of child soldiers by the Myanmar military and EAOs. Despite many ongoing problems, life has changed appreciably for Myanmar’s ethnic minorities since the military last ruled. Billions of dollars in humanitarian aid has flowed into the country, and although the bulk of funding has gone to improving urban infrastructure, some money has reached minority communities in far-flung regions. Exploiting cheap telecommunications, minority populations have used social media to organize and advocate for their interests.
These gains now hang in the balance. Although in a televised speech on 8 February, coup leader General Min Aung Hlaing committed to building peace through the NCA, in the past the military has stirred up inter-ethnic tensions to consolidate its power. For better or worse, the fate of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities again rest with the military.
Tina Burrett is Associate Professor of Political Science at Sophia University and co-editor of Press Freedom in Contemporary Asia, published by Routledge.