Amidst the recent turmoil, political decision-making in Burma/Myanmar is only coming to a real start at this time. It is the moment for both the local people and international community to decide who is entitled to act as the state authority for our country. A key credential meeting will soon take place at the UN General Assembly in New York. It is no longer time to stand aside or wait and see. There is a very real risk that the impact of civil war, poverty, displacement and Covid-19 will drive the country deep into the conditions of a failed state.
If we look back a few months ago, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won another landslide victory on 8 November in the 2020 general election. However the national armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, backed by their proxy party, disapproved of the result leading to a military coup on 1 February this year. As a basis for their action, the leaders of the military regime claimed to be using the 2008 constitution, calling themselves the State Administration Council (SAC) for their unilateral takeover of power.
This was not how the SAC actions were perceived by the people. In response, a mass protest movement spread nationwide across the country against military rule. From the outset, the movement was non-violent. Various groups took part, including street protesters, government staff – known as the Civil Disobedience Movement – who refused to go to work under the SAC, and young people referred to as “Generation Z”.
SAC officials, however, did not clarify the reasons for their overthrow of elected government. Instead, they kept Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of the winning NLD party in detention, accusing them of various crimes, and used force to suppress pro-democracy activists. Violence by the security services daily increased. Within two months of the coup, over 500 people taking part in non-violent demonstrations had been killed by the security services and over 2,000 arrested.
The consequence of such military tactics was to cause deep bitterness and fuel further division within the country. Opposition against the SAC was by no means ended. Reflecting the aspirations of the people, a National Unity Government (NUG) was formed on 16 April by members of the NLD along with other pro-federal democracy supporters, including representatives of ethnic armed groups, ethnic political parties and civil society organisations. These decisions were taken in line with the 2020 general election result and, in essence, there are now two parallel governments claiming jurisdiction within the country.
By any historical measure, our country stands on the edge of a social and political catastrophe. The political crisis, triggered by the February coup, is leading to civil war; resistance is widespread against SAC rule; many people have lost their jobs; public institutions – from schools to hospitals – are barely functioning; and the death toll from Covid-19 is rapidly rising, with the country ill-prepared to deal with the global pandemic.
Optimism remains that the socio-political breakdown can be resolved. But this can only happen through the actions of the people themselves. For this reason, it is vital that the international community has deep understanding of the problems of our country. The need is to support actions that promote democratic freedoms and justice for all peoples, bringing an end to the inequalities in national politics and society.
Events in Karenni State
Here the experience of the Karenni (Kayah) State* is a critical example of the political developments now underway. A historic land within the post-colonial Union, it in many ways represents the challenges facing the whole country.
The Karenni people share a vision to build a future federal democracy. For this reason they have come together with the NUG in the struggle against the military regime. In coming to these decisions, a Karenni State Consultative Council (KSCC) has been assembled since the coup. The KSCC is not established as a de facto power in name only, but challenges the SAC at the local levels of administration in the state. The council includes elected MPs, ethnic armed groups, political parties, civil society organisations and community leaders, representing all nationalities, faiths and sectors of our society.
This demonstration of united opposition against the SAC is happening in all seven ethnic states in the country. In Karenni State, the percentage of civil servants who have taken part in CDM activities is above 65 per cent, with 320 policemen joining the protests. Schools, banks, the regional hospital and much of the local administration were all closed as a sign of public disapproval against the coup. And there is also social condemnation in local communities against those who are linked to the SAC. In terms of public opinion, it is said that the KSCC and “people power” action outnumber the SAC by “ninety-nine to one”, with hopes for political change as soon as possible.
The SAC, however, have responded by ordering their troops to occupy government offices and patrol the streets. Since the coup, the Tatmadaw leadership appear determined to protect the economic privileges and political status that they enjoy, with troops based in the state following the orders of the regional commander. Presently, there are an estimated 3,000 troops operating in Karenni State, with the existing 21 battalions reinforced by Light Infantry Division units. But it is difficult to know exact numbers. Since the coup, the SAC has removed local police from their stations, replacing them with soldiers from other parts of the country dressed in police clothes. Unlike local police, they started shooting at passers-by and into crowds, killing 40 civilians within two months as the protest movement spread.
The outcome has been to deepen opposition against the SAC and strengthen support among all classes and nationalities for the establishment of peace, equality and development as the main answers to the political challenges facing Karenni State. In support of these aims, people across the state have been mobilizing resources in preparation for the struggle ahead. The KSCC is taking the leadership role and agreed to send four delegates to the NUG to participate in union-level activities against the SAC. In the meantime, the KSCC remains the key state-based body for consultations on social and political affairs in the region.
For community protection, the KSCC also heads the newly-formed Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF). The KNDF consists of active young people who have decided to join armed resistance against the SAC. More than 3,500 fighters have been mobilized into 18 local battalions deployed across the state, who have been training every day. Since fighting began on 20 May, they have won many battles. Now, the KSCC is seeking to strengthen political and human rights oversight of the KNDF with policies, guidelines and technical support that are in line with international laws. And the KNDF is not standing alone. Karenni leaders believe that it is time to stand strong in the country, making alliance with other pro-democracy actors nationwide against the imposition of military rule.
To back this up, the KSCC is preparing to launch a new policing department known as the Karenni State Police (KSP). The police who joined the CDM protests back in February are willing to contribute in the development of political processes that are based on the principles of good governance. Under the 2008 constitution, police are treated as a military force in the country; orders come from the Tatmadaw command; key responsibilities are allocated by the central authorities; and, following the coup, police were forced to kill innocent civilians.
Such practices, it is planned, will now come to an end. The KSCC is changing the ways policing is undertaken in Karenni State, working together with police officers in the CDM movement to reform the Tatmadaw-run police department which was corrupt. As part of this programme, the KSCC is organising training in human rights, democracy and security reform awareness with the KSP and CDM. Already the KSP has sufficient personnel, setting a model example of transformational change. In response, the SAC does not possess any better policing strategy: it is only using military powers to oppress government departments and citizens. In the meantime, the people of Karenni State are building a key institution together, along with union-level consultation, which will promote federal and democratic principles.
This is only one example. But it is representative of the visions of far-reaching change in the political struggles now facing the people. Everyone in the country is facing social and economic hardship, and these challenges are also hitting Karenni State. Covid-19 is spreading; many civil servants are without pay and must hide from the security services; schools and many medical facilities are closed; and the growing number of internally-displaced persons are in great need of food, shelter and health care.
For the moment, the KSCC and local CSOs are addressing the humanitarian emergency as best they can. In response, the SAC is doing nothing but pressurising and arresting citizens regardless of the socio-economic and political breakdown. Indeed the SAC has even restricted UN agencies that want to help displaced people to set up camps and provide for their emergency needs. The contrast between the military authorities and local endeavours is stark. Every day, different actors in the Karenni State have been uniting and coming together to try and resolve the needs of the public since the crisis brought about by the coup.
As the months pass by, the lessons are becoming clear. In Karenni State, the people are proactive and deciding by themselves what to do. In these actions, the different actors and organisations are pursuing a common vision: to build the nation as a federal democracy which will guarantee the Karenni State self-determination within a union of equality and justice.
In this respect, the SAC is offering neither political reform nor security for the people. In contrast, although not perfect, the NUG is offering political change through a charter declaration which pledges to reform the country into a federal union and sets out a political road-map. As a first step, the NUG has abolished the 2008 constitution, which was drawn up by a previous military government, and rejected privileges for the military. Equally important, the NUG is working closely with other movements within the country which support the same cause, including ethnic political parties, ethnic armed organisations and civil society groups. For this reason, leading actors across Karenni State firmly decided to work with the NUG.
The Moment for Decisions
Finally, some people ask: does it matter which side ethnic groups choose to work with? In fact, it is not a small question but it is critical for meaningful political transition in the country. Up until now, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon and Ta-ang movements are supporting the NUG, while the peoples of the Arakan and Shan States share our mutual vision. The evidence is mounting. After over 100 days of the NUG standing strongly against the military coup, domestic opinion within the country is clearly on the NUG side.
The international community now needs to take clear recognition of this. China, India. Thailand and other Asian countries, including the member states of ASEAN, should really look closely inside their neighbouring country and seek better ways to help. In Karenni State, we have chosen the NUG to take responsibility for addressing the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar at this moment. All the SAC wants is to continue the abuse of power. It is brutal to its citizens. And it lacks any plan for progressive social and political transformation.
Our vision is very different. We want to eliminate repression by military personnel in order to create the substantive rule of law. We want the country to develop and share its resources equitably within the country and on sustainable terms with our neighbours. The aim is to support mutual economic stability in the region. And we believe that our NUG is a good government that, with international support, will contribute positively to the region as well as globally.
For the moment, many in the international community are taking more time than is necessary to make up their minds, although there is a common vision to create a better world. But, very soon, the UN General Assembly will be faced with the question as to which government gains the credentials to be the leaders of the nation: the NUG which is supported by the people or the SAC of the military dictatorship. In the meantime, our Karenni people will continue to use all the energy and resources that we have to achieve political transition through the establishment of peace, justice and national unity, and we intend to support the National Unity Government until this success is achieved.
* A Note on the History of Karenni Involvement in Burma/Myanmar Politics
Before and during the era of British colonial rule, the present-day territory was known as Karenni State. When the state gained independence from Great Britain in 1948, Karenni leaders chose to join the Union of Burma on the basis of equality and unity. However, when these rights were denied, conflict broke out between the central government and Karenni people shortly after the British departure, and this struggle has continued until the present day. The socio-political and humanitarian situation greatly worsened during half a century under military rule.
Karenni civil society and political actors very much support democratic reform and, most recently, Karenni parties took part in general elections in 2010, 2015 and 2020. A new ceasefire process was initiated by the quasi-civilian government of the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party in 2011, and this was continued under the NLD-led administration which took office in 2016. However the experiences of the Karenni people were not very different between the two governments, and there were political protests in which many young people were put in jail while the NLD was in office.
The situation has now changed, and Karenni parties are working with the NLD in support of federal democracy and against the military coup which has been imposed on the country.
Khun Bedu is a member of the Kayan National Party and Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation in the National Unity Government.