Who are Myanmar’s ethnic militias?

Protesters hope the rebel groups can make a difference in the fight against the army | The Economist explains

4/16/2021 12:21:00 PM

Most protests in Myanmar are peaceful, but a growing number of Burmese civilians are fending off attacks with home-made weapons. Some are receiving training from ethnic militias

Protesters hope the rebel groups can make a difference in the fight against the army | The Economist explains

. The World Bank predicts GDP will contract by 10% this year, making a mockery of the generals’ pledge to usher in an era of unprecedented prosperity. Despite all this, the top brass are in no mood to negotiate. They would prefer to shoot rather than give up power; their goons have murdered more than 700 people. Most protests are peaceful, but a growing number of Burmese civilians are fending off attacks with home-made weapons. Some are receiving training from the numerous ethnic militias scattered across the remote borderlands. A group of deposed politicians who have formed a provisional government have approached these insurgents about forming a “federal army”. Who are Myanmar’s ethnic rebels, and can they make a difference in the protesters’ fight against the army?

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Myanmar is hugely diverse. The government’s official tally of 135 ethnicities is based on dodgy British anthropology, and does not even include the Rohingyas, a Muslim minority in the western state of Rakhine, who are considered illegal immigrants. But it suggests something of the complexity of the country’s demography. When British conquerors arrived in the 19th century, their “divide and rule” tactics pitted ethnicities against each other, deepening old rivalries or creating new ones. When Myanmar gained independence in 1948, immigration officers set about determining which of those groups were indigenous to Myanmar before the British arrived and opened the door to vast numbers of migrants. Ethnicity determined citizenship, and became the prism through which politics and society are understood.

From the outset, the state favoured the Bamar, the ethnic majority concentrated in the country’s lush central lowlands. Just a year after liberation from the British, the Karen, from the east, began fighting for liberation from the Bamar, kicking off the longest-running civil war in modern history. When the army toppled the civilian government in 1962, inaugurating nearly half a century of military rule, it sought to crush the many insurgencies that rumbled in the far corners of the country and did not shy from committing atrocities against civilians. headtopics.com

Today there are some 20 ethnic militias fighting for autonomy. The biggest of these is also the most successful. The United Wa State Army, an ethnic-Wa group, rules over a de facto autonomous territory on the border with China; its 20,000-30,000 troops, revenue from the drugs trade and sophisticated Chinese weaponry have something to do with that. The Arakan Army hopes to carve out something similar for the Rakhine people in the far west. To that end it fought tooth and nail against the Tatmadaw, as the Burmese army is known, for two years until a ceasefire was called last November. Ten other militias signed up to the military government’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in 2015. But some of them complain that the army has repeatedly

broken the terms of the pact. The NCA is not nationwide, a ceasefire nor an agreement, so the joke goes.Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) were elected to power in 2015, in part on the hope that she would end the civil war. But the militias were unimpressed with her lacklustre approach to peace talks.

Some minorities came to thinkMs Suu Kyi as bad as the generals. This explains why they are wary of the shadow government that the NLD formed after being ousted, and its proposal to form a federal army.Still, the one thing the militias dislike more than the NLD is the Tatmadaw. The ten rebel groups that signed up to the NCA, including two of the biggest with about 14,000 troops between them, have declared their allegiance to the shadow government. More may follow. A rebel alliance would be vastly outmanned and outgunned by the Tatmadaw. But if several insurgent groups start attacking the army, forcing it to fight on many fronts, the Tatmadaw might falter. The economy is already taking a beating, owing to the strike and the flight of investors. If rank-and-file soldiers cannot put food on the table for their families, and are being punished on the battlefield, their loyalty may begin to waver. That, at least, is what the shadow government hopes for.

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