New Coup, Same Revolution:
EAOs React to Myanmar's 2021 Crisis
After its attempted 1 February coup d’état, the Myanmar Military (Tatmadaw)’s State Administration Council (SAC), and its rival the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), are vying for international recognition as the legitimate government of Myanmar. Crucially, the efforts of both hinge on their relationships to ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) based in Myanmar’s remote jungles.
For the SAC to successfully suppress peaceful anti-coup demonstrations without losing control in ethnic conflict areas, it must ensure its ceasefire agreements with EAOs hold. For its part, the CRPH is seeking to stake its legitimacy as a governing body both as a matter of law (de jure) and of established practice (de facto). A de jure claim may be based on the CRPH’s abolishment of the 2008 Constitution and its declaration of the Federal Democracy Charter, but such a claim may be tenuous. Meanwhile, international recognition of de facto authority hinges on holding territory, and neither the CRPH nor its National Unity Government could make this claim without the support of EAOs.
Despite being actively courted by both sides, no EAO has taken a formal position. For now, most EAOs appear to be positioning themselves close to the CRPH and its objectives. Most have condemned the coup, the SAC, and its mass violence against civilians, and few EAOs attended the Tatmadaw’s annual 27 March Armed Forces Day celebration in Naypyidaw. However, EAOs seem unwilling to participate in the National Unity Government until the immediate benefits of doing so are made clear.
There are compelling reasons why the EAOs have yet to cast their lot with the CRPH. Some of these are unique to certain EAOs or alliance blocs, but three interlinked, cross-cutting objectives guide most EAOs as they navigate Myanmar’s evolving battlefield:
- to preserve and extend their financial, territorial, and political gains attained through bilateral or multilateral agreements signed with the Tatmadaw and previous Myanmar governments;
- to ensure and increase the protection of ethnic-minority communities living within their areas of operation and control;
- to maintain and strengthen tacit and/or express support from authorities in neighboring states.
Any move towards joining the CRPH in forming the National Unity Government could threaten these objectives. Although EAOs have welcomed CRPH statements to date, they have been fighting too long to value statements above action. Disastrous experiences while protecting and supporting the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s establishment of a parallel government in exile in 1990, and disillusionment during the recent Aung San Suu Kyi-led NLD government, have also informed EAO’s cautious responses.
Due to their long and complex histories, EAOs do not make decisions solely on the basis of recent developments. Their strategies and conduct are informed by lessons learned over decades of armed struggle. As the crisis in Myanmar evolves, response actors should expect EAOs to move closer to the CRPH and its National Unity Government. For the time being, however, most will likely strive to maintain a strategic public distance from both the CRPH and SAC, while quietly working directly with the former towards a federal democracy, and pursuing channels to work with the Tatmadaw towards ceasefire preservation to prevent violence against civilians in ethnic-minority areas – at least until the tangible benefits of formally joining either side outweigh the risks.
Myanmar’s Armed Conflicts
Shortly after Myanmar gained independence in 1948, armed conflicts broke out between its military (the Tatmadaw) and armed non-State actors – known in Myanmar as ethnic armed organisations (EAOs). Central to the emergence of these conflicts was the non-implementation of the 1947 Panglong Agreement, the intended framework for a federal democratic union providing representation to ethnic-minority populations. Fought principally in what are now Myanmar’s seven ‘ethnic states’ – territory along Myanmar’s borders where ethnic-minority groups tend to comprise the majority – many of these conflicts have continued to the present, while new ones have developed since.
EAO Parties to Conflicts
The newest of Myanmar’s active EAOs were founded in 2009 while the oldest predate Myanmar’s independence. Even the most recently formed view themselves as the latest iteration of their ethnic group’s longstanding struggle against ethnic-Burman oppression. Most EAOs have seen Tatmadaw ceasefires come and go, and have had splinter groups break away to focus on commercial activities and/or join the Tatmadaw chain of command as border guard forces or militias. Due to their long and complex histories, EAOs do not make decisions solely on the basis of recent developments. Rather, their strategies and conduct are informed by lessons learned over decades of armed struggle.
Over the years, EAOs have made numerous efforts at cooperation and coordination in defiance of the Tatmadaw’s ‘divide and rule’ tactics. While several multilateral alliances are currently in effect, widespread military cooperation has proven challenging, due in large part to competing interests and clashes between certain EAOs. The concept of a Federal Army, now very popular across Myanmar social media, has been discussed for decades. Many EAOs have previously agreed in principle to its creation and collaborated under a previous EAO umbrella organisation on the drafting of a Code of Conduct for such an entity.1 Although a document widely-circulated on social media identifies its ‘proposed seal’ and ‘basic principles,2 no EAOs have committed to joining a Federal Army yet and inter-EAO tensions could complicate or preclude the participation of several organisations.
At the time of the Myanmar coup d’état on 1 February 2021, more than twenty EAOs were engaged in various stages of armed conflict with the Government of Myanmar (GoM) and the Tatmadaw. Ten were signatories to the multilateral 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and were actively participating in the Myanmar peace process, despite growing deadlock and disillusion since the launch of the process in 2012. Other politically and militarily powerful EAOs that had not signed the NCA had in place bilateral ceasefire agreements with the Tatmadaw that predated the NCA3 and afforded them some lawful presence within Myanmar and direct negotiating power with respect to the GoM and Tatmadaw.4 Only four EAOs locked in active conflict with the Tatmadaw with no ceasefire agreement in place were prohibited from establishing offices in government areas for the purposes of facilitating ceasefire and peace negotiations with the GoM and Tatmadaw and were branded by the Tatmadaw as ‘terrorist’ organisations. These were the United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA); the Kachin Independence Organisation/Kachin Independence Army (KIO/A); the Myanmar National Truth and Justice Party/Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNTJP/MNDAA); and the Palaung State Liberation Front/Ta’ang National Liberation Army (PSLF/TNLA). Taken together, these four EAOs comprise the Northern Alliance. Although the Tatmadaw engineered for all four to be designated as ‘terrorists’ by the Shan State Parliament in 2016 – a legally weightless intimidation tactic – the AA was added to Myanmar’s official registry of terrorist organisations by the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) government in March 2020.5
Under their ‘unlawful association’ designation, rather than ‘terrorist’ status, the four Northern Alliance EAOs were prohibited from establishing formal offices to support their engagement in formal negotiations with the Tatmadaw or GoM.6 Whenever politically expedient, however, the Tatmadaw has granted exceptions to this prohibition, even if it never formally suspends the Unlawful Associations Act with respect to office staff or visitors. This allows the Tatmadaw to maintain the looming threat of potential arrest over anyone who has contact with the offices or their staff members. As a result, authorizing an official EAO presence in government areas has only advanced the Tatmadaw’s intimidation agenda with respect to EAOs and members of ethnic-minority communities.7
To sustain operations over time, EAOs have engaged in a wide range of income-generating enterprises, including taxation; agricultural production; narcotics production and trafficking; forestry, most notably teak and timber logging and smuggling; automobile sales, rentals, and other transportation services; and extraction of gold, jade, and other precious minerals, among other activities. Over the years, the Tatmadaw and GoM have oscillated from outright opposition to some of these endeavors to tacit acceptance and active participation – depending on the EAO, the activity, and the political and conflict situation. For example, although the KIO is listed under the Unlawful Associations Act, it famously produces and sells electricity to the GoM to power the city of Myitkyina, the capital of government-controlled Kachin State.8
Historical EAO Support for Parallel Governments
When the Tatmadaw refused to respect the outcome of Myanmar’s 1990 election, and with Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, EAOs smuggled barred elected NLD officials out of government-controlled Myanmar and into Manerplaw, a village along the Moei River border of Thailand and Karen State. Manerplaw served as the headquarters of the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA), the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), and several other EAOs that have since disbanded. Other EAOs established ‘embassies’ in the area, and the KNU provided refuge, security, and support for NLD members as they worked with democracy supporters among the Burmese diaspora to set up a shadow NLD government. For example, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) was led by a cousin of Aung San Suu Kyi, Sein Win, with the aim of enabling NLD would-be parliamentarians to work from exile and prepare them to govern upon Aung San Suu Kyi’s release.9
Some of the individuals most instrumental to NCGUB’s set-up and success in securing western funding and support acted in the belief that Aung San Suu Kyi had delegated NLD authority to Sein Win and that the NCGUB was part of her vision for democratic progress during her imprisonment. Only in 2012 did Aung San Suu Kyi inform them that she had never delegated any authority to Sein Win and that the NCGUB purported to represent the NLD entirely without her blessing.10 This revelation, along with the NLD’s subsequent failure to advance key EAO objectives – including the repeal of the 2008 Constitution and the shift to a federal democratic system of governance – during its time in power from 2016 to 2020, raised concerns among EAOs about the ability of Aung San Suu Kyi and her Burman-led party to deliver on the issues of greatest concern to them.
As the CRPH’s new National Unity Government seeks the support of EAOs, its odds for success will increase as it broadens its inclusivity.11 This includes bringing CDM and ethnic civil society leaders to the same table and stepping away from the tarnished image of Aung San Suu Kyi and the narrow path of the NLD.
Finally, EAOs have not forgotten the catastrophic end to their last attempt to support a government in exile. In 1994 the Tatmadaw engineered a schism within the largest brigade of the KNLA, joined forces with a breakaway faction calling itself the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA-Buddhist),12 and launched a brutal months-long assault that toppled KNU headquarters and drove thousands of refugees across to Thailand.13 The KNU and other EAOs will take care to avoid any similar outcome in 2021.
As both the State Administration Council (SAC) led by Tatmadaw Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) vie for international recognition as the legitimate government of Myanmar,14 the efforts of both hinge on their relationships to EAOs based in Myanmar’s remote jungles.
For the SAC to proceed on its current course of forcibly suppressing the peaceful mass demonstrations of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) without losing control in ethnic conflict areas, it must ensure that the Tatmadaw’s ceasefire agreements with EAOs hold. To transform Myanmar’s urban areas into conflict theaters, the Tatmadaw has also recalled troops from ethnic conflict areas and deployed them across cities in government-controlled areas. This draw-down of frontline positions could jeopardise the Tatmadaw’s ability to maintain its presence and control in contested ethnic areas, particularly if EAO ceasefires break down and hostilities escalate. To ensure ceasefires remain intact – or as intact as they were prior to the coup – the SAC needs EAO collaboration.
Likewise, the CRPH needs direct EAO support if it is to put forward a compelling claim as the legitimate government of Myanmar. Following a confidential high-level March briefing outlining the requirements a government must meet to establish its legitimacy as a matter of law (de jure), or as a matter of established practice (de facto), the CRPH began preparations to make a claim on each basis.15 To pursue a de jure claim, the CRPH abolished the 2008 Constitution on what would have been its members’ final day as elected parliamentarians and published a new Federal Democracy Charter that – if recognized – would grant the CRPH and its National Unity Government16 a legal basis to exercise sovereignty. Admitting that such a claim may be tenuous,17 the CRPH is also preparing a second path to claim de facto legitimacy. As international recognition of de facto governing authorities hinges on control of territory, and as the CRPH controls no territory, neither the CRPH nor its National Unity Government can lay any claim to de facto authority without the support of EAOs that assert authority over much of Myanmar’s ethnic minority-dominated territory.
Both the SAC and CRPH need EAO support to reach their objectives, and their actions to date reflect the high priority each is affording EAO rapprochement. Early SAC efforts have focused on Rakhine State, where it released a prominent ethno-nationalist politician and reportedly entered into quiet ceasefire and cooperation negotiations with the AA.
While the SAC expanded its scope and approached the AA and ceasefire EAOs with invitations to Naypyidaw and offers to join the new regime,18 the CRPH countered by declaring the SAC a terrorist organisation,19 which likely struck a chord with EAOs that the Tatmadaw has frequently decried as ‘terrorists.’ The SAC responded by publicly striking from Myanmar’s official ‘terrorist’ registry the only listed EAO, the AA.20 Days later, the CRPH endorsed the people’s right to self-defense against the SAC’s brutal crackdown21 and outdid the SAC’s ‘terrorist’ delisting of the AA by unilaterally declaring all EAOs ‘abolished’ from ‘terrorist’ and ‘unlawful associations’ lists alike.22 As this move was widely construed as legalisation of all EAOs and an invitation for people to join their ranks,23 the SAC moved swiftly to indicate that it would not block EAO recruitment, but it would not allow anyone to join the CRPH. The SAC then charged CRPH leaders with high treason24 and added the CRPH itself to the list of banned entities under Myanmar’s Unlawful Associations Act.25 On 31 March, which would have been the last day of their elected parliamentary terms, the CRPH moved to deliver one of the EAOs’ chief priorities: the abolishment of the military-drafted 2008 Constitution26 (which ensured the Tatmadaw’s grip on power in perpetuity) and the proclamation of a Federal Democracy Charter27 to lay the foundation for a National Unity Government28 and a federal democratic system. In response, the SAC declared an extension of its unilateral ceasefire across all ethnic conflict areas, but indicated that security forces would continue to use force against protestors and CDM participants, despite EAO demands for an end to the violence, and warnings of retaliation.29
Most EAOs have made some demonstration of condemnation of the coup, the SAC, and the mass violence it has deployed against civilians. Some have been more vocal in their support for the anti-coup CDM than others. Their support has included issuing public statements, sending armed troops to protect peaceful protesters, and allowing safe passage or refuge to those fleeing the escalating violence of SAC crackdowns in government-controlled areas. In a stark contrast to recent years, all but few EAOs stayed well away from the Tatmadaw’s de facto rollcall of allies at its 27 March celebration of Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw.
Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement Signatories
Ten EAOs are signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA):
- All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF)
- Arakan Liberation Party/Arakan Liberation Army (ALP/ALA)
- Chin National Front/Chin National Army (CNF/CNA)
- Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA)30
- Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA)
- Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army – Peace Council (KNU/KNLA-PC)31
- Lahu Democratic Union (LDU)
- New Mon State Party/Mon National Liberation Army (NMSP/MNLA)
- Pa-O National Liberation Organisation/Pa-O National Liberation Army (PNLO/PNLA)
- Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA).
With respect to NCA signatory EAOs, this paper will start by recapping recent activities of the bloc as a whole before identifying which trends are likely to inform future developments. It will then briefly highlight the role and potential impact of smaller signatory groups whose past and potential political influence considerably outweighs their military capacity. Finally, it will focus on signatory EAOs with sufficient military strength to influence national dynamics vis-à-vis the coup.
NCA Signatory EAOs (NCA-S EAOs) – Key Developments & Trends
To facilitate dialogue and coordination, the NCA-S EAO bloc has conducted frequent virtual meetings since the coup through its Peace Process Steering Team (PPST) mechanism. Behind closed doors, these meetings have highlighted just how divided its members are with regards to whether they should support the CRPH or SAC, or remain neutral. To conceal this discord, the NCA-S EAO bloc has released a series of public statements since 2 February, indicating its unified position on a number of points. These include:
- Its refusal to recognize the SAC as the legitimate government;
- Its suspension of all political negotiation with the SAC;
- Its condemnation of the coup and violence against protesters;
- Its demand that the SAC end its ‘massive violations’ and release all detainees;
- The demand for peaceful solutions incorporating public consultations;
- Insistence that the NCA remain intact and that a national ceasefire be implemented immediately;
- An appeal for international support in the resolution of the crisis;
- Its pledge of continued support for the ‘Spring Revolution’ and Civil Disobedience Movement;
- Its welcome of the CRPH’s abolishment of the 2008 Constitution and the announcement of the Federal Democracy Charter as an effort towards ‘building a Federal Democratic Union.32
Despite public agreement on many fronts, cracks in the bloc’s unity were on display when representatives of the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army – Peace Council (KNU/KNLA-PC), and the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP) attended the SAC’s celebration of Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw on 27 March; the seven other NCA-S EAO members boycotted the event.33 An internal vote among nine of the bloc’s 10 members also revealed that, as of April, there was an even split of three EAOs in favor of collaboration with the CRPH, three in favor of mediation with SAC and CRPH, and three in favor of taking no public stand. Given this split, it is unlikely that any NCA-S EAO would take a strong public stance in support of either the SAC or the CRPH, as it would garner unwanted attention and place a target on its back.
In most areas, the NCA remains as intact or ignored on the ground as it was prior to the coup. Most NCA areas are quiet. However, Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/Shan State Army) clashes in Shan State continue as regularly as before the coup. A crucial exception has been KNU areas, where longtime sporadic fighting in isolated brigade areas prior to the coup has given way to over 200 clashes across all seven KNU brigade areas,34 punctuated by a series of Tatmadaw airstrikes and marked by continued fighting and aerial intimidation despite the Tatmadaw’s unilateral ceasefire.
For now, the peace process is at a standstill. The NCA is a tripartite agreement with a three-pillar peace negotiation structure that requires the participation of the GoM, the Tatmadaw, and the NCA-S EAO bloc. The NCA-S EAO bloc refuses to recognise the SAC as legitimate, however, and is unwilling to meet with them as the GoM representative within the NCA process. Without GoM participation, the NCA process cannot move forward.
However, if the Tatmadaw and NCA-S EAO bloc can establish a channel for communication outside the formal three-pillar structure, then NCA-S EAO members can uphold their promise not to recognize the SAC as the GoM while maintaining direct dialogue with the Tatmadaw to ensure that ceasefires remain intact on the ground.35 This would be possible if the Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief, Min Aung Hlaing, would accept a bilateral meeting with a senior NCA-S EAO representative. Past negotiations suggest that KNU Chairman Mutu Sae Poe is the EAO leader Min Aung Hlaing would be most willing to meet. Well aware of this, the KNU issued an open letter from Chairman Mutu Sae Poe to Min Aung Hlaing on 22 March, enumerating a set of conditions the Tatmadaw must meet before the KNU would take part in such a meeting.36 There has been no public response from the Tatmadaw, and its conditions have not been met, so a KNU-Tatmadaw meeting is unlikely in the short term. Still, the letter enabled the KNU to reinforce its pro-protestor stance while sending a clear signal to the Tatmadaw that it intends to uphold the NCA and remains open to negotiations under the right conditions.
Key Political Actors
Within the NCA-S EAO bloc, there are several EAOs with limited military capacities that could still wield considerable political influence within the bloc: the Chin National Front (CNF), the ABSDF, and the Pa-O National Liberation Organisation/Pa-O National Liberation Army (PNLO/PNLA). Despite their limited military capacity, these groups are crucial for two reasons. First, they have highly educated, very experienced, and charismatic leaders who command the respect of other EAO leaders, community elders, youth activists, and politicians – not only within their own ethnic groups, but across Myanmar. They speak excellent English, are staunchly pro-democracy, have strong ties with western states, and are valuable political assets to EAOs seeking legitimacy and support from the international community. Second, they represent some of Myanmar’s largest ethnic constituencies and could potentially raise large armies in a short period of time.37 This may apply less to the ABSDF, whose reputation remains badly marred by an infamous internal purge thirty years ago, but that group is included here to explore the options available to the many ethnic-Burmese youth now seeking to join the armed resistance.
The ABSDF was founded in 1988 by ethnic-Burmese students who took up arms along the Myanmar-Thai border after fleeing the Tatmadaw crackdown against peaceful pro-democracy student protests opposing the military. The ABSDF is the only EAO that does not represent an ethnic-minority group38 or control any territory.39 Its small military presence of 500+ soldiers40 is split among its headquarters, three camps in areas under the control of the KIO/A, three camps along the Indian border, and in all seven brigade areas of the KNU/KNLA.41 The group’s image was badly tarnished in the early 1990s when it conducted a brutal purge of alleged student spies at its Kachin State headquarters, killing 36 people and torturing over 100.42 Although Than Khae, its current leader, was not in charge at the time of the massacre, questions about the extent of his, and other current leaders’, involvement make many in Myanmar fearful of the group.43
Crucially, ethnic-Burmese constitute the majority of both the national population and the highly mobilized youth taking part in the nationwide CDM, and potentially a large portion of the CDM activists fleeing government-controlled areas and seeking to enlist in EAOs in numbers far greater than the latter can accommodate them.
Distrustful of ethnic-Burmese enlistees, EAOs would prefer to send them to the ABSDF than accept them into their own ranks.44 If Burmese youth receive basic training from the KIA or KNLA – as ABSDF recruits have done since its founding – it is likely that trained Burmese enlistees would seek to join the closest ABSDF battalion. This boom in Burmese youth seeking to join the armed revolution could thus revitalize the military capacity of the ABSDF and significantly increase its size. To function, however, armed entities require weapons and resources – not just personnel – and in its current state it is unlikely the ABSDF would be able to equip and maintain waves of new recruits without substantial technical and financial support. If the ABSDF lacks the resources to accommodate them, enlistees are likely to be sent back to government-controlled areas where they could: (1) forego armed resistance; (2) engage in urban guerilla resistance – if sufficient training and explosive material are procured; or, (3) seek to establish a new armed entity to combat the SAC, perhaps branding it as part of the much-talked-about Federal Army. This last option may be particularly appealing to young ethnic-Burmese enlistees wary of the ABSDF’s reputation, unless the ABSDF can make a compelling case that its past is behind it and that its current membership was not involved in the atrocities of 1991-1992.
The CNF/CNA was founded in 1988 by ethnic-Chin students taking up arms along the Myanmar-India border after fleeing the Tatmadaw crackdown on student pro-democracy protests. Although it has not fought with the Tatmadaw since 2003 and maintains only a small military presence of an estimated 250+ soldiers45 in Chin State, its political influence has long overshadowed its military capacity. The CNF has consistently held key leadership positions within EAO umbrella organizations and the NCA architecture.
In recent years, the CNF has come under increasing pressure to violate the terms of the NCA and extend its military presence in Paletwa Township, southern Chin State, to protect ethnic Chin civilians affected by increased AA activity. Viewing Paletwa as both strategically important and historically ethnic-Rakhine territory – part of the ancient Kingdom of Arakan – the AA has sought to exert territorial control over the area. The AA has engaged in numerous clashes with the Tatmadaw and has laid landmines to protect its interests there. Frustrated over these operations and their impact on ethnic-Chin communities, ethnic-Chin youth have volunteered for military service in the CNF’s armed wing, the Chin National Army (CNA), in increasingly high numbers since 2018. For its part, the CNA has avoided military engagement with the AA and provided volunteers with only basic training, often in cooperation with other EAOs, before sending them home.
Among its lesser-known assets, the CNF holds a pivotal piece of real estate along the Chin-India border, and a long history of mutual support and solidarity with authorities across the border. A small suspension bridge links CNF headquarters directly to Mizoram, India, where the sitting Chief Minister is a former prominent member of the Mizo National Front (MNF), an ethnic-Mizo armed organization that was in conflict with the Indian government before participating in a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process to become a lawful police and political entity. While with the MNF, the Chief Minister lived for years in exile in Chin State under CNF protection.46 Referring to refugees from Myanmar as his “brothers,” the Chief Minister recently defied New Delhi’s orders and refused to push any back to Chin State.47
The open door between the CNF and its powerful allies in India, combined with the daily arrivals of more enlistees than it can accommodate, could present the CNF with the option of quickly scaling up its military capacity. Due to resource limitations, however, it is currently only providing new volunteers with basic training before sending them home.48 Unless the CNF scales up its military capacity considerably – which is unlikely unless it faces a Tatmadaw offensive or the leadership changes course under public pressure from the ethnic-Chin community49 – volunteers turned away by the CNF will face the same three options as those sent back by ABSDF: (1) forego armed resistance; (2) engage in urban guerilla resistance; or, (3) seek to establish a new armed entity to combat the SAC.
The PNLO/PNLA was formed in its current state along the Thai border in 2009. It is the amalgamation of several ethnic-Pa-O EAOs active since 1991, when Pa-O National Organisation (PNO) commanders – unwilling to accept the terms of the 1991 bilateral ceasefire agreement with the military government – broke away from the PNO to continue armed resistance. At the time of signing the NCA, PNLO was the only remaining non-ceasefire Pa-O EAO. Its leader, Colonel Khun Okker, is highly respected among EAO leaders and ethnic-minority communities in Myanmar. Like the CNF leadership, Colonel Khun Okker consistently holds influential positions within EAO umbrella groups and the NCA system. He is admired by Pa-O youth, and the Pa-O ethnic group is among the largest of Myanmar’s ethnic-minority groups.50 Although outdated estimates approximate PNLO forces at 400+ soldiers, this figure could multiply quickly considering the size of the Pa-O community and the extent of Pa-O youth involvement in the CDM protests. However, as with the CNF and ABSDF, equipping and sustaining a large army would pose a serious challenge for the PNLO.
PNLO’s territory in southern Shan State is precariously situated among several powerful EAOs and large Tatmadaw bases, and is not adjacent to an international border. To access the Thai border and develop a line to increase their resources, arms, and ammunition, the PNLO would need to cooperate with the RCSS/SSA and other EAOs. PNLO relations with the RCSS are strained due to disputes over recruitment, territorial boundaries, and landmine use across their overlapping areas of operation. To greatly increase its ranks, the PNLO would have to pursue an approach similar to that of the ABSDF and strike agreements to send recruits, conduct training, and undertake joint operations with large EAOs controlling territory along international borders. Absent such an agreement, there are few viable options for ethnic-Pa-O activists looking to take up armed resistance. Most would likely not be able to undergo any form of basic training and, like the others, would face a decision of whether to: (1) forego armed resistance; (2) engage in urban guerilla resistance in government-controlled areas; or, (3) seek to establish a new armed entity to combat the SAC.
Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA)
The founding of the KNU predates Myanmar’s independence and its armed struggle dates to January 1949. It controls an active army of over 5,000 soldiers between its two armed wings: the KNLA commands 4,000+ personnel, and the smaller Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO) comprises approximately 1,000. Both armed entities are currently facing a flood of more volunteers than they can accommodate.51
In a conflict spanning more than seventy years, decisions are not made on the basis of recent events alone. For the KNU in particular, very little in this 2021 crisis is unfamiliar. Although it is likely to remain active and vocal in its support of protestors and developments towards a federal democracy, it is unlikely the KNU will seek to officially side with CRPH or take part in the National Unity Government until it sees concrete benefits that greatly exceed the empty promises of past shadow governments. Meanwhile, the KNU is also facing considerable pressure to distance itself from the SAC and public calls from the ethnic-Karen community to resume full-scale armed conflict against the Tatmadaw.52
Thirty years ago, the KNU welcomed banned NLD officials, persecuted journalists, and student activists of all ethnicities seeking to join the resistance to the military government to its headquarters in Manerplaw. Although it is doing the same now – providing refuge to the CRPH, Tatmadaw defectors, student activists, and CDM participants of all backgrounds – the KNU is also acting with the acute awareness that the last experience ended catastrophically. Then, the Tatmadaw infiltrated the KNU-hosted stronghold by sending a venerated Buddhist monk to create a rift in the KNLA’s largest brigade, triggering the split that launched the original DKBA-Buddhist armed group. Within days, the newly-formed DKBA-Buddhist overran the KNU stronghold, opening the door to a notoriously brutal DKBA-Buddhist/Tatmadaw assault that lasted months, crippling the KNU and driving the entire resistance and thousands of refugees across the river to Thailand. Although the KNU controls less territory than it did in the early 1990s, it is still among the most active EAOs, with enough territory and manpower to implement additional precautions in the current crisis. For example, arrivals centers in all seven KNU brigade areas have been set up for those fleeing the SAC in order to avoid large concentrations of people in areas of strategic military importance.53
The KNU has been consistent and vocal in its support of protestors, its condemnation of SAC violence, its demands for a peaceful resolution of the current crisis, and its welcome of the CRPH’s abolition of the 2008 Constitution and publication of a Federal Democracy Charter.54 Deploying soldiers to protect protesters across its areas of operation, the KNU stands out among EAOs for pairing statements with action.55 On Armed Forces Day, the KNU not only boycotted the Tatmadaw’s Naypyidaw celebration, but the KNLA responded to a series of Tatmadaw assaults in its Brigade 5 area by capturing Tatmadaw bases in Hpapun District56 and allowing photos to circulate on social media of its first graduating batch of ‘urban recruits’ wearing ‘Federal Army’ insignia.57 The Tatmadaw responded immediately with day-long airstrikes targeting ethnic-Karen villages in Hpapun District, and has continued to conduct low flyovers of Karen areas to conduct aerial surveillance and intimidate Karen villagers and the KNU.58 This triggered the fresh displacement of thousands of Karen villagers and augmented the crisis of internally displaced persons that the KNU had been facing even before the coup in both Hpapun district and other areas where clashes were escalating between the KNLA and the Tatmadaw.59
Thailand’s refusal to accept thousands of displaced villagers crossing the Moei river,60 combined with the Tatmadaw’s showcase of increased aerial combat capacity during an assault on the KNU’s most remote stronghold and hardline brigade,61 delivered a blunt message that the current crisis is very different from that of the 1990s. The actions indicate two things. First, that the Tatmadaw has the capacity and will to attack the KNU wherever it deems necessary, and second that Karen civilians have no safe haven to escape future violence if and when the ceasefire collapses. While this puts further pressure on the KNU leadership to reinitiate direct dialogue with the Tatmadaw to keep the NCA intact in its areas, the leadership’s trust in the NCA and Tatmadaw is reportedly vitiated, particularly as offensives have increased across multiple KNU brigade areas in April, despite the Tatmadaw’s announcement of a unilateral ceasefire. Increased military pressure on the KNU also ratchets up internal pressure on the KNU’s central leadership by further angering the KNLA’s most hardline brigade commander,62 which in turn exacerbates the gap between his motivation to fight and KNU Central’s need to uphold its ceasefire agreement. The situation also evokes the 1994 crisis by suggesting the Tatmadaw could once again seek to isolate and trigger the possible split of one of the KNLA’s most powerful brigades – an eventuality the KNU will seek to prevent at all costs.
It bears mentioning that the original DKBA-Buddhist now operating as a Border Guard Force (BGF) broke ranks with the Tatmadaw in January 2021, just weeks before the coup. When the Tatmadaw forced the retirement of General Saw Chit Htoo, a very popular leader among BGF troops, BGF commanders demonstrated that their real loyalty lies with Chit Htoo, not the Tatmadaw. Nearly 100 top officers resigned en masse from the 8,000 strong Karen BGF before rescinding their resignations and resuming their posts, at least temporarily. Chit Htoo, for his part, has yet to take a stand on the coup. BGF forces have been largely absent from protests and have not participated in the Tatmadaw’s crackdown.63
Given these ambiguities, it is clear that a rogue armed entity larger than the KNU could prove an influential wildcard in Karen area developments. For months, rumors have suggested that Chit Htoo has been in talks with General Johnny, the KNLA Commander-in-Chief who was once Chit Htoo’s commanding officer in the KNLA, and who had a close relationship with him prior to the DKBA-Buddhist split. It is likely that most BGF forces will try to avoid involvement in the current crisis unless widespread fighting breaks out within KNU Brigades 6 and 7, where most BGF troops are based.64 These areas are also home to the KNU/KNLA-PC, which comprises fewer than 200 troops but is well armed and funded due to its various lucrative business operations throughout southeastern Myanmar. The KNU/KNLA-PC has posted a video to social media of one of its leaders testing anti-aircraft artillery with his brother, General Nerdah Bo Mya, who commands the KNDO, a strong hint that KNU/KNLA-PC will fight alongside the KNLA if large-scale conflict breaks. If Chit Htoo rejoins the KNU and brings with him a significant faction of the BGF’s 8,000 troops and tribute money – and if the KNU/KNLA-PC provides its small set of experienced commanders along with financial and material support – the military capacity of the KNLA could expand considerably overnight.65 As the KNU is short on financial resources, arms, and ammunition, but is overwhelmed with volunteers, an influx of weapons and income could prove a game-changer in terms of KNU capacity to equip new enlistees.
New Mon State Party/Mon National Liberation Army (NMSP/MNLA)
Active since 1958 and armed with a reported 800+ active soldiers and 2,000 more in reserves,66 the New Mon State Party/Mon National Liberation Army (NMSP/MNLA) identifies itself as part of a struggle for ethnic-Mon autonomy that dates to ancient Mon kingdoms67 and first took up arms in the modern era as the Mon People’s Front in 1949. It entered a bilateral ceasefire with the Tatmadaw’s military government in 199568 and later signed onto the NCA in 2018.69 The NMSP’s areas are located in Mon State and Tanintharyi Division of southeastern Myanmar, adjacent to the Thai border, as well as territory controlled by the KNU, the DKBA, the KNU/KNLA-PC, and the Tatmadaw. Several areas are claimed by more than one of these entities, and competing efforts to use disputed territory for commercial activities after the three Karen EAOs signed the NCA have resulted in occasional clashes between them and NMSP in recent years.70 These contributed to the three-year delay in the NMSP signing the 2015 NCA, since its leadership questioned what benefit the NCA would bring the NMSP beyond the terms of its 1995 agreement.71 Intermittent clashes have continued since it did so.72
Although the NMSP did issue a public statement condemning the coup, supporting protestors’ right to peaceful demonstrations, calling for the peaceful resolution of the crisis, and urging the Mon Unity Party – a large ethnic-Mon political party – to reconsider its decision to join the SAC,73 the majority of the NMSP’s recent public communications have come only through NCA-S EAO bloc statements. The MNLA has also thus far avoided involvement in protests or clashes with the Tatmadaw.74 Within the NCA-S EAO bloc, the NMSP has also voted against taking any public stand with respect to the CRPH and SAC, suggesting its leadership remains undecided.75
Due to its limited military capacity and precarious place between larger armed entities, the NMSP has more to lose by going out on a limb to stake a public position vis-à-vis the SAC and CRPH and its National Unity Government. Unless the NCA-S EAO bloc moves collectively towards a pro-CRPH position, the NMSP will likely prioritize preservation of the status quo, protection of its existing ceasefire, and quiet participation in the NCA-S EAO bloc.
Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA)
The RCSS controls the largest and best-equipped military of the NCA-S EAOs with an active force estimated to comprise at least 10,000-15,000 fighters.76 The RCSS emerged under the name ‘Shan State Army-South’ in 1996 under its Chairman General Yawd Serk as a rebranded iteration of the Mong Tai Army following the surrender of famed narcotics trafficker Khun Sa. Creating the Restoration Council of Shan State in 1999 to serve as its political wing, factions of other ethnic-Shan EAOs have merged with RCSS over time, brought by commanders who refused to enter ceasefire agreements with the Tatmadaw. Despite its recent official founding, RCSS identifies as part of a much older struggle for ethnic-Shan autonomy that began on 7 February 1947.77 The RCSS has extended its presence in northern Shan State since signing the 2015 NCA and has officially dropped ‘South’ from its name. As such, the armed wings of both the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) and the RCSS are now both known as the Shan State Army (SSA).78
While the official objective of the RCSS is to achieve greater autonomy for ethnic-Shan people within a federal democratic union, critics contend that its more concrete objective is to achieve complete RCSS control over a unified Shan State.79 The RCSS has frequently clashed with the TNLA and SSPP since expanding its presence in northern Shan State. While the RCSS asserts that its aim is to secure and protect vulnerable Shan communities, its expansion also has a pragmatic function. RCSS headquarters and main areas of control are pinned against the Thai border and only accessible from Thailand. In order to ease its dependency on Thai authorities and the Royal Thai Army – with whom it enjoys a very close relationship – the RCSS must establish control over territory where the Thai military does not control the only road in and out.80
As for the recent crisis, the RCSS has been increasingly vocal in its public statements condemning the coup, expressing support for protestors, demanding an end to the Tatmadaw crackdown, calling for a peaceful resolution of the current crisis, pledging protection to CDM participants seeking refuge in its areas, and welcoming the CRPH’s abolition of the 2008 Constitution and launch of a Federal Democracy Charter.81 On Armed Forces Day, for example, Chairman General Yawd Serk elevated the group’s public rhetoric by bluntly telling Reuters: “The Myanmar Armed Forces Day isn’t an armed forces day, it’s more like the day they killed people,” and declared the RCSS would take action if Tatmadaw violence against civilians continued.82 Although the RCSS has provided protection to civilians fleeing to its areas,83 it has not otherwise taken action to back its statements.84
Although the RCSS is a signatory to the NCA and used its 7 February annual Shan National Day declaration to announce a unilateral ceasefire with the TNLA and publicly pledge to ‘join hands’ with Shan EAOs,85 it has also clashed with the Tatmadaw, TNLA, and SSPP in recent months.86 The 2021 incidents before and after the coup have continued the pattern of frequent RCSS involvement in Shan State clashes – a trend evident since the RCSS signed the 2015 NCA and began expanding its presence and operations in northern Shan State.87 The RCSS contends that villagers in these areas welcome and need its protection, and that the RCSS cannot withdraw from northern Shan State due to its responsibility to protect and unite its constituents.88
The RCSS has little trust in the Tatmadaw. This is based on both its continued fighting against Tatmadaw forces during the NCA period and an all-too-recent experience in 2005, when the Tatmadaw compelled a faction of the United Wa State Party/United Wa State Army (UWSP/UWSA) to join 1,000 Tatmadaw troops to overrun RCSS headquarters before permanently occupying RCSS territory in southern Shan State.89 The RCSS is almost equally distrustful of the NLD due to its failure to fulfill promises made to ethnic constituencies prior to taking power in 2016.90 Although it will continue to welcome steps toward federal democracy, the RCSS is unlikely to join a National Unity Government unless and until it has an offer of full or substantial RCSS control over an autonomous Shan State. Considering the number of active armed entities in Shan State,91 it is implausible that the CRPH could deliver on any such promise. Although unlikely to trust an offer of such control if presented by the SAC, with enough incentives and an immediate follow-through, the RCSS could plausibly join the SAC if it was presented with a fast and reliable path to deliver on the group’s main objectives.
Federal Political Negotiation Consultative Committee
The Federal Political Negotiation Consultative Committee (FPNCC) comprises seven members:
- United Wa State Party/United Wa State Army (UWSP/UWSA)
- Peace and Solidarity Committee/National Democratic Alliance Army (PSC/NDAA92)
- Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA)
- Kachin Independence Organisation/Kachin Independence Army (KIO/KIA)
- Palaung State Liberation Front/Ta’ang National Liberation Army (PSLF/TNLA)
- Myanmar National Truth and Justice Party/Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNTJP/MNDAA)
- United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA)
The FPNCC was formed as a political alliance in 2017, reportedly in response to Chinese pressure to streamline northern EAOs’ participation in Myanmar’s peace process by allowing them to conduct bloc negotiations with the GoM and Tatmadaw to facilitate their signing of the NCA.93 However, the GoM and Tatmadaw have long refused to negotiate with the FPNCC as a bloc due to the wide differences in positions of its members. Instead, the GoM insisted that FPNCC members not join political discussions or multilateral ceasefire talks before entering bilateral ceasefire agreements with the Tatmadaw.94
|Intact Bilateral Ceasefire||Broken Bilateral Ceasefire||No Ceasefire|
|SSPP (1989; 2012)95||KIA (1994-2011)96||AA|
|UWSA (1989; 2011)97||MNDAA (1989-2009)98||TNLA|
|NDAA (1989; 2011)99|
The FPNCC comprises two sub-alliances that provide for military support and coordination among their members:
|Northern Alliance – Burma||AA, KIA, MNDAA, TNLA|
|Brotherhood Alliance100||AA, MNDAA, TNLA,|
The Northern Alliance members were labeled ‘terrorists’ in 2016 by the Shan State Parliament. Although this designation carried no perceivable legal impact and was widely dismissed as a Tatmadaw-engineered intimidation tactic,101 it did provide the Tatmadaw with a pretext for refusing to negotiate with the FPNCC as a bloc, claiming that it could not meet jointly with both ceasefire partners and ‘terrorists.’ In addition, the Tatmadaw’s consistent use of the word ‘terrorist’ to describe the Northern Alliance fits its pattern of seeking to denigrate its enemies and their ethnic constituencies in order to justify the brutality with which it treats them. Typically, the Tatmadaw issues concurrent English-language and Burmese-language statements, describing enemies in English as “terrorists” and in Burmese as subhuman beings, usually monkeys or dogs.102 The Northern Alliance ‘terrorist’ designation also coincided with the Tatmadaw’s increasingly frequent invocation of the term ‘Bengali terrorists’ to describe perpetrators of the alleged Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) attacks on Rakhine State police stations in 2016. Those attacks, the Tatmadaw’s insistence on ARSA’s status as a looming terrorist threat, and Myanmar authorities’ public campaign to dehumanize ARSA and all ‘Bengalis’ served as a pretext for the Tatmadaw’s devastating 2016 and 2017 offensives against ethnic-Rohingya civilians. The NLD government officially designated ARSA as a ‘terrorist’ organisation on 25 August 2017,103 preceding Tatmadaw assaults which killed thousands of ethnic Rohingya,104 drove over 700,000 into Bangladesh as refugees, and prompted the Independent International Fact Finding Mission for Myanmar to declare that the “Myanmar military should be investigated and prosecuted in an international criminal tribunal for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.”105
For those in northern Myanmar that did not believe the Tatmadaw’s propaganda campaign claiming reports of security forces’ egregious rights violations in the Rohingya offensive to be ‘fake news,’ the Tatmadaw’s use of the same terminology to refer to ARSA and the Northern Alliance stoked fears that the Tatmadaw would next aim to destroy their ethnic-minority constituents.
Although the FPNCC has remained silent since the coup, the KIA has issued a series of strong independent statements condemning the power grab, demanding an end to the crackdown on civilians, and warning the Tatmadaw of KIA retaliation if Tatmadaw violence against civilians continues.106 Similarly, the AA independently condemned the coup,107 and the Brotherhood Alliance jointly issued a statement condemning it and warning the Tatmadaw that it would abandon its current unilateral ceasefire if the Tatmadaw does not end its violence against civilians.108 True to their word, KIA and the Brotherhood Alliance resumed offensive operations against the Tatmadaw on 11 March and 9 April, respectively, after the Tatmadaw failed to curb its campaign of mass civilian killings. The KIA destroyed a Tatmadaw camp in Mohnyin Township, Kachin State, while the Brotherhood launched a joint assault on a police station in Lashio, northern Shan State.109
The resumption of hostilities by the KIA and Brotherhood Alliance coincides with Tatmadaw efforts to solidify its ties with the UWSA and SSPP.110 Although the Tatmadaw managed to meet with both groups and deliver its message, its attempt to do so highlighted its poor communications and strained relationship with the SSPP. When the Tatmadaw’s helicopter approached SSPP headquarters at low altitude, SSPP soldiers fired upon it and wounded the Personal Service Officer of Tatmadaw commander Yar Pyae, sending the delegation back to Lashio before it could return with more forewarning the following day.111 While the Tatmadaw drop-in may have been sufficient to dissuade the SSPP from taking a public stance on the coup or establishing close ties with the CRPH, it is unlikely it could persuade the SSPP to join the SAC in the short term.112 For its part, when asked if it recognizes the SAC, the UWSA simply reiterated that they maintain “long-standing good relations” with the Tatmadaw.113
Considering the silence of the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) and the SSPP, the minimalist vague comment from the UWSA, and the highly critical statements and return to hostilities by the Northern Alliance, it is unlikely the FPNCC will take any position as a bloc on the current crisis anytime soon.
Kachin Independence Organisation/Kachin Independence Army (KIO/A)
Founded in 1961 and equipped with a military force of roughly 10,000 fighters active in Kachin and northern Shan states, the KIO/A is fighting for greater autonomy for ethnic-Kachin people within a federal democratic union. The KIA has been actively engaged in hostilities with the Tatmadaw since June 2011, when the Tatmadaw triggered the breakdown of a 17-year bilateral ceasefire. During this time, several brutal Tatmadaw offensives have forced tens of thousands of civilians into situations of protracted or pendular displacement. Headquartered in Laiza, Kachin State, along the border with China’s Yunnan province, the KIO depends upon at least tacit support of the Yunnan authorities in order to conduct its armed resistance.
In recent years, the Tatmadaw and NLD government placed considerable pressure on the KIO with the aim of accelerating the closure of internally displaced persons (IDP) camps across government- and KIO-controlled areas of Kachin State. Pressure for less-than-voluntary IDP returns was not well received by the KIO or ethnic-Kachin community. Neither the Tatmadaw nor the NLD is trusted by many actors across Kachin State, including within the KIO. Against this background, it was always unlikely that the KIO would enter serious negotiations to join either the SAC or the CRPH’s National Unity Government.
Protests in Kachin State began on 8 February, the same day that Min Aung Hlaing issued a national address via state-owned MRTV insisting that all IDP camps within Myanmar would be closed. The next day, the KIO channeled an early message through the Kachin Peace-Talk Creation Group, indicating that it would not seek involvement in the coup, and issuing a clear warning to the Tatmadaw that it would intervene if security forces engaged in violence against protestors.114 Despite this, the Tatmadaw crackdown on protestors in Kachin State began 14 February.115 The Tatmadaw warned the KIO against involvement on 15 February;116 and the KIO Central Committee responded on 17 February by officially condemning the coup, voicing its support for protestors, and indicating that it would refuse involvement with the SAC.117 Since then, the violence has only escalated.
Following intermittent clashes in February between the KIA and Tatmadaw in northern Shan State118, the KIA captured several Kachin State Tatmadaw positions in March, to which the Tatmadaw swiftly responded with airstrikes,119 and clashes continued throughout the rest of the month. As of mid-April, the Tatmadaw is engaging in airstrikes to retake these positions,120 with devastating implications for civilians and thousands of people newly displaced.
As clashes between the KIA and Tatmadaw continue to escalate alongside the Tatmadaw’s continued campaign of violence against civilians, it is increasingly unlikely that the KIO will enter serious negotiations to join the SAC. Unless the Tatmadaw offers unconditional control of Kachin State areas to the KIO, which is highly unlikely, the KIO is unlikely to negotiate with the SAC. Nor does it have much to gain by joining the CRPH, meaning the KIO is unlikely to join a National Unity Government any time soon.
United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA)
Founded in 2009 with the support of the KIA, the AA was first operational in Kachin State. It has now largely returned to Rakhine and Chin states in western Myanmar, where its well-equipped army of an estimated 8,000 fighters121 is engaged in conflict with the Tatmadaw in pursuit of greater autonomy ‘Arakanese’ people. The AA views its fight as the current iteration of the centuries-long struggle of the Arakanese people against Burmese oppression. Along with its fierce armed opposition to the Tatmadaw, it has no affection for the elected NLD officials who added it to the country’s register of Terrorist Organisations during their time in power. As such, it appears unlikely the AA would seek to join either the SAC or a National Unity Government set up by the CRPH.
Initially, the AA assumed a position of quiet acquiescence to the coup. Despite, or perhaps because of, the two full years of intense fighting between the AA and the Tatmadaw in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State and southern Chin State since late 2018, the lull in clashes in western Myanmar between the two sides since the 8 November 2020 election has been maintained since the coup. With no allegiance or sympathies towards any Naypyidaw civilian or military administrations, it is clear that the AA senses an opportunity in the coup to consolidate its military and administrative presence in its areas of activity.
The AA has also benefited from the Arakan National Party (ANP)’s cooperation with the SAC. A statement released by the ANP – Rakhine State’s leading political party – in the days after the coup noted several conditions they put forward in return for working with the administration, including the release of detained ANP party member and speaker of the Rakhine State Parliament, the revocation of the AA’s designation as a ‘terrorist’ organisation (in place since March 2020), and the release of Rakhine people arrested for alleged affiliation with the AA. Illustrating the value that the Tatmadaw places on ties with ethnic organisations, the speaker was released on 12 February, and on 10 March the SAC revoked their terrorist designation. The designation of the group as an ‘unlawful organisation’ remains in place, historically only being removed when EAOs sign onto the NCA.
Sources also report that the AA expected other returns for their compliance. In addition to the revocation of the terrorist designation, the AA expected permission to open an official liaison office in the state capital of Sittwe – formalising its presence in the state and facilitating relations with the Tatmadaw and GoM. Not only has the AA made efforts to prevent the emergence of protests or CDM action in western Myanmar, they have also pressured civil society groups who object to the ANP’s cooperation with the SAC from organising street protests, indicating that under current conditions they are unresponsive to civil society expectations.
That being said, the AA’s position is not completely steadfast. In February, its spokesperson stated that AA remains committed to the Northern Alliance,122 indicating that the group is hedging its bets and remaining close to the KIO, now involved in heavy clashes with the Tatmadaw, as detailed above. The AA also spoke out unilaterally against the coup on 23 March,123 and released a joint statement with the TNLA and MNDAA under the Brotherhood Alliance name condemning the coup and warning the Tatmadaw that it would abandon its current unilateral ceasefire if it does not end its violence against civilians.124 When the Tatmadaw failed to comply, the Brotherhood Alliance reinitiated armed offensives against the Tatmadaw, as noted above. However, the AA has not re-started offensives against the Tatmadaw in western Myanmar.
The fact that the AA is operating in close coordination with the three-member Brotherhood Alliance – both in its earlier statements and in its current military offensives – indicates its reluctance to take as hardline an anti-coup position as the KIO. Instead, it prefers to be associated with the quieter TNLA and MNDAA. In the most recent indication of the group’s more nuanced position, AA Commander-in-Chief Tun Mrat Naing delivered an 11 April statement declaring that the CDM as ‘not necessary’ in Rakhine State and, in fact, only complicates other objectives the AA wishes to achieve.125
More than anything during this period, the AA has shown it is a force guided first and foremost by pragmatism. Crucially, this suggests that a change in its position vis-à-vis the coup is very much a possibility. Should the group sense that the Tatmadaw is on the back foot, and there is an opportunity to advance their political or military interests, they may express a stronger anti-coup position. Under this scenario, another escalation in armed clashes in western Myanmar is very possible.
Finally, with the release of popular ethno-nationalist Rakhine politician Dr Aye Maung from prison on 12 February, and his subsequent attempts to reinvigorate the Arakan Front Party, response actors should monitor for new alliances between politicians, armed actors, and the Tatmadaw for increased anti-Rohingya sentiment or policies in western Myanmar.
Palaung State Liberation Front/Ta’ang National Liberation Army (PSLF/TNLA)
Although the TNLA was founded in 2009 with the support of the KIA, its political wing dates to 1992 and previously controlled an earlier armed faction that disbanded during bilateral ceasefire negotiations with the Tatmadaw.126 Originally operating jointly with the KIA, the TNLA now commands a force of roughly 10,000 and operates both independently and in collaboration with its allies.
When the TNLA first became active, the Tatmadaw refused to accept it as a legitimate EAO seeking increased autonomy for the ethnic-Ta’ang/Palaung people of northern Shan State. Instead, it insisted that both the TNLA and AA were terrorist groups invented by the KIA simply to cause mayhem across KIA areas of strategic interest. Although the Tatmadaw was engaged in bilateral negotiations with each member of the Brotherhood Alliance in the months leading up to the 1 February coup, this only came after years of official public Tatmadaw statements using derogatory ethnic slurs to refer to the groups, not to mention efforts to stir public sentiment against the TNLA through propaganda campaigns describing the TNLA and its Brotherhood allies as sub-human, often equating them to monkeys or dogs. Due to this history, not to mention the violent and gruesome nature of many Tatmadaw assaults on ethnic-Ta’ang communities, there is little affection or respect between the TNLA and the Tatmadaw.127
When the RCSS emerged in northern Shan State after signing the 2015 NCA, the TNLA and ethnic-Ta’ang community perceived its expansion as collaboration with the Tatmadaw, insisting that the RCSS must have had at least tacit Tatmadaw support to move troops across the areas that it did. The RCSS denies these allegations. Since the arrival of the RCSS in northern Shan, the TNLA has clashed frequently with RCSS forces. Although the groups have made public and private efforts to discuss their differences, there has been no resolution to date. The key demand of the TNLA is that the RCSS remove its forces from what the TNLA perceives as ethnic-Ta’ang territory. The RCSS, for its part, does not recognize the territory in question as belonging to the TNLA and insists it cannot withdraw and leave communities in northern Shan State vulnerable to attack by the Tatmadaw and myriad other armed actors that operate across the area. This unresolved dispute will likely complicate RCSS and TNLA participation in any future Federal Army.128
Ethnic-Ta’ang civil society is extremely active and is often quick to put public pressure on the TNLA, and this was the case following the coup. Ethnic-Ta’ang activists led protests across northern Shan State and demanded that the TNLA voice its support. Although it waited to release a statement in conjunction with the AA and MNDAA under the banner of the Brotherhood Alliance,129 the TNLA did respond to protestors’ demands and used them as a pretext for troop movements to the outskirts of Lashio and into the urban center of Kutkai.130 The presence of TNLA forces so close to the economic hub of northern Shan State posed a direct threat to the Tatmadaw.
The TNLA is likely to continue to remain quiet on an individual basis in order not to disrupt its relationship with Chinese authorities adjacent to its Yunnan-border headquarters, and to avoid playing into a Tatmadaw divide-and-rule strategy by taking a public position that could set it apart from its allies. However, it is clear that the establishment alignment of EAOs in the country is shifting – and the TNLA may be determined to forge its own path and reduce its reliance on alliance groups, or China.131
Finally, it is worth noting that prior to the coup, the most common complaint against the TNLA was its alleged forced recruitment across northern Shan State. Following the coup, however, the number of volunteers seeking to join the TNLA are reportedly providing far more manpower than it would normally seek to recruit. Unlike EAOs along the Thai border, the TNLA has relatively easy access to arms and ammunition and is better positioned to equip enlistees. With recruitment now a non-issue, and its force strength growing, the TNLA is poised to enjoy greater public support and military capacity. So long as the TNLA does not disrupt its delicate alliance or anger its powerful neighbors, it stands to benefit in key ways from the current crisis.
Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA)
Founded as the Shan State Army in 1964, the SSPP emerged from the Shan struggle for ethnic autonomy, which it dates to 1958. With an estimated 8,000 active fighters and its leadership coordinating with the UWSA, the SSPP is among the more powerful EAOs in Myanmar. Its main weakness stems from the location of its headquarters’ in Wan Hai, central Shan State, which provides no access to international resources or support. In lieu of direct access, the SSPP is dependent upon the Wa for access to arms, ammunition, and other support.
In the long history of Shan State, there is a bloody backstory of Wa invasions of Shan Kingdoms and Shan forces driving out the Wa. These centuries of brutality have not been forgotten by the ethnic Shan. More recently, Shan civilians witnessed the UWSA overrun RCSS headquarters in 2005 and drive thousands of Shan internally displaced persons to the Thai border, where they remain in remote and inaccessible camps to this day. As such, cooperation between the SSPP and UWSA – a military necessity for the former – has not been viewed positively by Shan civilians. Many Shan communities also object to the frequent clashes between the SSPP and RCSS, resent the fact that there are two ‘Shan State Armies,’ and do not appreciate that the TNLA and SSPP often fight together against the RCSS. Perceived by many to be allied with other EAOs in a fight against their own ethnic-Shan people, the SSPP’s popularity has waned in recent years.
The SSPP is likely to maintain neutral in the country’s broader conflict. Although SSPP representatives quietly contacted a group of protest leaders in Kyaukme Township with a vague offer of protection in February,132 the SSPP has taken no public position on the coup, the violence against protestors, the formation of the CRPH, or any related element of the current crisis. Its main concern is the protection of its own territory, much of which has been taken over by the RCSS and Tatmadaw since 2016. Since the RCSS and UWSA control territory the SSPP covets, it is unlikely the Tatmadaw can induce the SSPP to join the SAC at this stage. Even if the Tatmadaw were to offer the SSPP considerable territory and increased autonomy, to accept such an offer would be wildly unpopular with Shan civilians and would likely provide an easy pretext for the RCSS to immediately attack and seize new SSPP territory. As noted above, there is no sign that the SSPP and Tatmadaw have clear lines of communication, as illustrated by the erroneous SSPP fire on a visiting Tatmadaw dignitary.
Meanwhile, no matter what the CRPH promises the SSPP, the latter remains wedged between the UWSA and the Tatmadaw. It will take more than promises of democracy to tempt the SSPP into taking a public stance that could weaken its ceasefire agreement or destroy its most important alliance.
United Wa State Party/United Wa State Army (UWSP/UWSA)
With an estimated 30,000 active troops and 30,000 in reserve, the UWSA is the second-most powerful armed entity in Myanmar after the Tatmadaw. Officially in control of the Shan State (North) Special Region-2 (known colloquially as “Wa State”), the UWSA operates a fully autonomous state within Shan State on the border of China’s southern Yunnan Province.133 Within Wa State, Mandarin is the lingua franca for communicating across different sub-ethnic groups; the Chinese Yuan is the most widely used currency and an economy based largely on gambling, narcotics, and various other economic enterprises thrives.134 The financial resources and political backing that the UWSA enjoys from across the Yunnan border eclipses that of any other EAO. For years, debates have raged about whether the UWSA should even be considered an EAO – considering its close ties and strong support from China. As UWSA support appears to come mostly from Yunnan province and is not always aligned with official Beijing policy, it cannot be considered a direct offshoot of the China’s People’s Liberation Army.135 In its early years, the UWSA did receive arms and training directly from China; at present, it has the capacity to conduct its own training, and is known to produce some weapons and procure others from abroad. Among its most prized assets, in 2020 the UWSA confirmed it has its own helicopter, which it insists is not for military use.136
It has been decades since the UWSA engaged the Tatmadaw in hostilities, a trend it is unlikely to break unless: (1) the Tatmadaw attempts to invade UWSA territory – a nonsensical challenge, considering how overstretched the Tatmadaw is across other ethnic and urban areas as of April 2021; or, (2) the UWSA receives orders to engage from its Chinese backers. This is unlikely, but as China amasses troops along its Yunnan border on a purportedly precautionary basis,137 it is plausible that if they cross to Myanmar, the UWSA would be asked to provide support. Although there are UWSA battalions embedded within certain SSPP field positions – and these soldiers have engaged when attacked in the past – their participation in hostilities has not triggered a broader response from the UWSA to date.138
As a rule, the UWSA avoids involvement in Myanmar politics as much as possible and is unlikely to take a stance on the current crisis. This was illustrated when a group of ethnic-Wa civil society organizations sent an open letter imploring the UWSA to condemn the ongoing campaign of violence against civilians. The UWSA did not respond.139 What is far more likely is that the UWSA could quietly play a pivotal role in training and arming new recruits of other EAOs. This is a role it has often played and would likely be willing to play again.
After more than seven decades of Myanmar internal armed conflict in which coups, governments, governments-in-exile, alliances and international support have all come and gone repeatedly, EAOs have little incentive to rush into any new governance structure.
With respect to the CRPH’s National Unity Government, it is unlikely the CRPH can provide substantial short-term incentives to draw EAOs to join its planned government. EAOs have yet to see Myanmar’s political parties deliver on promises made to ethnic constituencies – and the CRPH has little more than promises to offer at this juncture.
In the face of the SAC’s ongoing campaign of violence against civilians of all ethnicities, EAOs stand to lose considerable public support if they opt to align themselves with the ‘terrorist’ Tatmadaw forces. Only if the Tatmadaw delivers on offers of considerable autonomy and territorial control would any EAO be likely to join or endorse its SAC. Such an offer would be most plausible with respect to the AA. It would be a challenge to fight the EAOs on all fronts, and finding a bargaining chip to neutralize the most active and best equipped of its enemies could free the Tatmadaw to focus on its campaign of urban violence and escalating hostilities in Kachin, Karen, and possibly Shan states.
As the crisis in Myanmar evolves, response actors should expect EAOs to move closer to the CRPH and its National Unity Government. However, in the short term at least, most EAOs will likely strive to maintain a strategic public distance from both the CRPH and SAC. In private, they are likely to work quietly with the CRPH towards a federal democracy while pursuing channels to work with the Tatmadaw towards ceasefire preservation in order to prevent any avoidable campaigns of violence against civilians in ethnic-minority areas – at least until the tangible benefits of formally joining either side outweigh the strategic risks.