These days news from Myanmar often comes with the buzz words of “the collapse” of the embattled junta, widely reviled in all ethnic communities and across all classes.

The junta’s progressive loss of its territorial control, largely in the non-Bama or Burmese regions that encircle the dominant Bama heartlands in the Dry Zone has been in the headlines. And triumphant excitement pervades many circles of Myanmar watchers and resistance groups as they talk of the junta’s downfall. Former US Congressman from Maine and UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Situation in Myanmar Tom Andrew spoke about “the junta’s days being numbered” while the (American) Council on Foreign Relations has been running blogs which typically talk up the imminent “collapse” of the junta.

To be sure, the State Administrative Council headed by Min Aung Hlaing, the head of Myanmar’s “largest military organization” – as the ASEAN officially dubbed the country’s once proud national armed forces – has been losing its military bases and garrison posts in largely non-Burmese ethnic regions along its borders with China, Thailand, Bangladesh and India.

As FORSEA’s Dr Maung Zarni observed in his recent interview with Duetsch Welle TV News (Germany), the junta troops have abandoned their positions or surrendered to various ethnic resistance organizations (EROs) have done so out of extremely low morale typical of any “occupiers”.

In the Dry Zone heartlands and major cities, it’s a different story.

However unpopular, the troops whose rank and file are made up of ethnic Bama majority are digging in their heels. Just last week, the junta troops have re-captured Kawlin, Saggaing Division next to the country’s second largest city of Mandalay, which had fallen into the hands of local People’s Defence Force in November last year.

There are estimated 500 such PDFs throughout the country which have mushroomed after the peaceful nationwide anti-coup protests met the junta’s bloody crackdown. This particularly PDF has reportedly trained by the Kachin Independence Army, support from the Arakan Army (of Buddhist Rakhine nationalists) and allied with the main political opposition National Unity Government (NUG).

The EROs from non-Bama ethnic regions which have trained – and in many cases – led military operations – have their own strategic agendas, other than re-federalization of Myanmar as a union of equal ethnic nations. Among their agendas are keeping the junta troops busy in these Dry Zone Bama regions as the local Bama youth have taken up arms to fight the “common enemy” of the people and using the PDFs to cut off army supply routes to the junta’s military bases and positions in the “peripheral” ethnic regions. The cliché of “my enemy’s enemy is a friend” is at work.

Against this domestic backdrop, Myanmar as a country has been undergoing the post-coup turmoil. The number of internal war refugees has risen to nearly 3 million people. In some non-Bama ethnic regions such as Karenni along the Thai Myanmar border, more than half of the region’s small population have been internally displaced. The junta’s attempts – announced in February – to implement its Mass Conscription Law has further triggered an exodus of panic-stricken generation (18-35), via legal and illegal means to neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Malaysia, as well as the Gulf States with demand for foreign labour.

Amidst uncertainties and absence of human security in any region, whichever armed organization is in charge, peacebuilding is not something that is popular with any group, be they the pro-democracy NUG dominated by the NLD loyalists or autonomy-seeking EROs, or the embattled junta.

This week in Chiang Mai, the Northern Thai city, popular with both international tourists and Myanmar exile groups, the leaders of the 7 ethnic armed organizations – they are referred to as EAOs as opposed to EROs who are actively fighting the junta – that signed the nationwide ceased-fire accord (NCA) are convening their meeting.

Facebook Banner from SCA-S EAO page:

Executive Director of the Euro-Burma Office Sao Harn Yawnghwe has pointedly stated in his recent interview with Myanmar language Shan media outlet that the junta itself has killed the NCA. The only surviving son of the late Sao Shwe Thaike, a co-founder of the independent Union of Burma in 1948, the Canada-exiled advocate for federalist democracy in Myanmar played a key adviser in the nationwide ceasefire negotiation process during the quasi-civilian regime of President Thein Sein.

The NCA signers’ meeting therefore raises questions as to why these groups – largely politically and militarily irrelevant, save the well-armed and commercially solid Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS). RCSS Chair Yawd Serk chairs the Chiang Mai meeting, and is believed to be one of the closest allies of the Burmese junta leadership.

The meeting agenda is said to include discussion of some limited ethnic autonomy and the need to draft a new constitution for Myanmar, which will usher in a new type of political association amongst different ethnic groups.

Curiously, the majority of the 7 signatory organizations have neither the appreciable military strength nor political clout even in their respective ethnic societies.

In his opening speech on 17 March, the Convenor of the meeting Yawd Serk urged the NCA groups to administer their own territories, despite the fact that the groups in question hardly control any appreciable territories.

The Chiang Mai gathering is best understood as the preparation to work out some general position among the 7 NCA groups ahead of their meeting with the Burmese military junta.

Despite the universal opposition from both the majoritarian Bama society and the non-Bama ethnic communities, the junta is hellbent on reviving the tried and failed mechanisms of its “dialogue”, based on its selective reading of the NCA – already considered null and void by politically and militarily important signatories such as the Karen National Union and the Chin National Front.

The Union Level Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC), formerly the sole peace negotiating body in the era of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy. UPDJC was originally the national mechanism for peace negotiation, made up of registered political parties, the elected government, the Tatmadaw or central state’s military, ethnic armed organizations, and the (NLD-controlled) parliament. The committee however excluded the non-NCA groups such as the Arakan Army, which has since become a powerful fighting force with unconcealed secessionist aspirations.

Now the committee is stacked with the ex-generals’ Union Solidarity and Development Party (or USDP) and the junta-allied political parties, with hardly any grassroots bases. They will likely go along with the junta’s plan to roll out a new political framework of limited autonomy for the non-Bama ethnic regions. The junta’s other agendas will definitely include its main plan to doggedly re-establish itself as the legitimate national actor, something which has received new tail winds from the ASEAN under Lao’s rotating chair since January.

As a matter of fact, there are no groups currently attending Chaing Mai meetings that are actively involved in post-coup anti-junta resistance movements.

After three years since the 2021 February coup, the country in turmoil is confronted with the emerging power vacuum. Myanmar news outlet Frontier, based in Chiang Mai just ran a news report on the collapse of the rule of law in Myanmar.

The legitimation crisis has also been a cardinal problem for the coup junta as it has been denied Myanmar’s seat at both the United Nations General Assembly in New York and ASEAN Summits, prime ministerial and ministerial. However, in spite of abundance of media coverage on Myanmar as the bloc’s black sheep, addressing Myanmar’s troubles is not really a priority for the ASEAN leaders, focused on securing foreign investment, technology, economic growth, and the need to steer clear of the China-USA rivalry.

Many observers consider the military coup of 2021 amounted to the breach of the military’s own Constitution of 2008. The junta failed to secure the endorsement by the NLD’s sitting President Win Myint, even literally at gunpoint. Deputy President and ex-Lt.-General Myint Swe had no constitutional power to authorise the coup although the coup junta took the extra-Constitutional step of anointing him Acting President instantly.

Following the coup, Myanmar’s anti-coup opposition, had long opposed the Constitution, which included no sunset clause for phasing out the political role of the central military, unlike other democratic transitional cases such as Indonesia and Chile. The Constitution of 2008 also put the military above the Law and any other national organizations including political parties. But the NUG-led efforts to declare the military’s constitutional framework null and void evidently are not binding in nature. In the context where different political and armed organizations pursue their disparate ethnic and political interests, the talks of the old Constitution linger on.

This is the case with China’s approach to re-stabilizing the domestic affairs of its troubled Southern neighbour of Myanmar.

Out of its commercial and geopolitical calculations, China is expected not to shun the junta, despite its widespread domestic unpopularity. In Beijing’s eyes, the junta is the only solid central organization with well-established bureaucracy and professionally organized fighting force.

It appears that China has honed its strategic thinking about the role of the junta. Based on China’s widely reported tacit approval for the ethnic armed organizations based along Sino-Burmese borders to wrestle administrative control of their respective border regions, it is assumed that China now sees the junta in Myanmar as the main actor who should continue to control the heartlands of Myanmar.

As a matter of fact, Beijing has not showed any signs of warming up to the National Unity Government, with its office in Washington. In the Chinese perspective, NUG is a political proxy of the United States, whose official aim is regime change in Naypyidaw. This is despite the NUG’s most recent attempt to court China’s acceptance by issuing its “One China” statement, something that pleased neither Washington nor Beijing.

Given this most favourable and directly relevant geopolitical situation, the junta in Myanmar is poised to pursue its own domestic strategy of linking its own road map for re-legitimation via the Nation-wide Ceasefire Agreement process (dead?) and future electoral plans.

Despite their battlefield successes, the anti-junta resistance movements have been unable to work out a comprehensive political strategy and build a genuinely federalist platform, with localized democracies in different ethnic regions.

Three years since Aung San Suu Kyi’s ouster, no federalist national leaders, with or without the charisma of the NLD leader are emerging. Non-Bama ethnic resistance leaders are fundamentally concerned about their ancestral regions and mono-ethnic interests. Leaders of armed organizations generally speak of neither democratic language nor the language of the nation as a big tent for all ethnic and religious communities. Troublingly, on the rise are intra-minority armed conflicts and contestations over territories, rich in resources and strategic for overland trade and mega-development projects.

On its part, the junta appears to have re-focused its energy to re-assert its firm grip over the majoritarian Bama heartlands, with commercially and strategically important Dry Zone cities including Saggaing and Mandalay, as well as its fortified capital Naypyidaw and the commercial port capital of Yangon.

There are also no signs that the junta will enter into any dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, in their captivity since the coup of 1 February 2021. The attempts by both China and Thailand to wheel out the jailed leader as a “pacifier” have failed spectacularly.

What can the Chiang Mai meeting deliver, beyond the participants rebranding their groups as “7 EAO Alliance Group”?

It is unlikely that the meeting attendees will be able to persuade or compel the junta (and the central military) to significantly reduce its political role in the country’s politics. Needless to say, the junta is trying to play catch up with the bitter reality of significant losses in their control of non-Bama ethnic territories, which are really internal colonies. Consequently, the junta seems forced into accepting some degree of administrative devolution or “federalism”.

On their part, the 7-groups meeting in Chiang Mai are, in the final analysis, trying to political relevant in their deeply marginal spaces. But their deeds will likely amount to nothing more than an act of collaboration with the embattled junta, thereby throwing a small but significant domestic lifeline of quasi-legitimacy to the junta, needing semblance of domestic acceptance.

Ai Sai (Mao Land)

Banner image: General Yawd Serk delivers a speech during the meeting in Chiang Mai. Credit: NCA-S EAO Facebook

Posted by Ai Sai (Mao Land)