Since the Myanmar military overthrew the country’s elected government early this year, the forces of resistance have set two immediate objectives: Prevent the generals from gaining military and administrative control of the country, and unify their own diverse and fractious democracy movement. The movement has made progress toward the first goal. On the second, a shared vision of the future is yet to emerge, as divergent stakeholders struggle to overcome historical grievances. 

A protest in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 17, 2021. (The New York Times)
A protest in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 17, 2021. (The New York Times)

In its efforts to tie up the military, the nonviolent movement, which persists despite military atrocities against peaceful protesters, has deployed creative and powerful methods to mobilize the entire nation against the regime. More recently, a defensive military campaign that involves formal ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and new community militias called People’s Defense Forces has further weakened the armed forces. For months they have been taking ground from the army. The military’s losses accelerated after September 7 when the National Unity Government (NUG), which represents the deposed elected government, declared a “People’s Defensive War.” Since then, opposition forces claim to have killed more than 1,500 troops. Furthermore, the regime’s local administrators are resigning in droves while the military is suffering increased defections, including by senior officers.

The movement has made less headway on its second challenge. Despite forming a functional partnership and making progress in coordinating anti-military efforts, months of intense dialogue have failed to achieve opposition unity and a shared vision for the country’s future. To do so, this diverse alliance will need to develop greater trust and engage in inclusive and practical negotiations around the structure of a future federal democratic union.

The National Unity Consultative Council

The primary platform for this dialogue has been the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC). The NUCC includes a range of actors — some of them competitors before the coup — who have divergent interests and long-standing grievances.

A consultative body formed in April, the NUCC is one of the most inclusive political dialogue platforms in Myanmar’s history. It is made up of representatives from opposition groups that include, among others, the NUG, the deposed elected legislature (the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, or CPRH), human rights and civil society organizations, the Civil Disobedience Movement, activist networks, ethnic minority political parties and EAOs.

The NUCC was established under the Federal Democratic Charter (FDC), a document written as a precursor for a new constitution to replace the military-drafted 2008 constitution, which the deposed parliament abolished in March. Breaking from a past pattern in which one Burmese institution or charismatic leader makes unilateral decisions, the FDC identifies collective leadership as a foundational principle for a future federal democratic union. The NUCC is one mechanism to actualize this principle.

While the FDC was a watershed achievement for the democracy movement, it also generated distrust. Part 1 of the FDC, which outlines principles for a future federal democracy, was drafted mostly by a political party representing the Shan ethnic minority group. While Part 1 was a model for inclusive and collective decision-making, Part 2 was drafted by the National League for Democracy party (NLD) with minimal consultation, raising doubts about the party’s political commitment to meaningful inclusion.  

Details about the NUCC’s purpose, decision-making process, membership and authority remain unclear and a point of contention. Despite a grand mandate, deep divisions within its ranks have meant few corresponding achievements.

A Complex Negotiation

Dialogues within the NUCC face four major challenges:

1. Distrust Among the Allies

Throughout Myanmar’s history of conflict, the military has used political and economic incentives to foster division and distrust among its numerous adversaries. Almost all the organizations now arrayed against the armed forces have at some point brokered an agreement with them for benefits that included a cease-fire or economic concessions. Most recently, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD-led (and now deposed) government openly collaborated with the military, even defending its atrocities against the Rohingya and perpetuating its program of Burmanization and discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities.

The military is not the only source of distrust. A history of inter-ethnic discrimination, and exclusionary actions in the post-coup period have also fed suspicion. Since the coup, the NLD has undertaken important confidence-building measures by abolishing the discriminatory 2008 constitution and appointing a diverse NUG cabinet. But it has also continued exclusionary past practices by undertaking unilateral action such as its defensive war declaration and drafting of Part 2 of the FDC.

In the face of this trust deficit, the NUCC should consider setting achievable goals for its negotiations. Durable trust and concrete agreement on abstract concepts of democracy and federalism are unachievable in the near-term, particularly under the current conditions of online meetings and persistent insecurity. Instead, NUCC members should approach dialogues as an opportunity for collective problem-solving that aims to achieve a shared outcome that is preferable to the status quo. Members can slowly build trust by negotiating in good faith and abiding by their commitments.

2. Unaddressed Shifts in Political Power 

The coup has led to power shifts among the military’s opponents that complicate negotiations and negotiating positions. The NLD is politically weaker with Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, and it is heavily dependent upon EAOs for safe harbor and military support. That has enhanced the power of ethnic minority communities and EAOs in particular. The interests of all opposition actors are deeply inter-connected. No side can succeed without the others, so all members must consider the full costs and benefits of their negotiating positions in light of the new political landscape. Failure likely means that the military will manage to consolidate power.

3. Fragmentation and Representation

Another major challenge is institutional fragmentation and representation. Factions with different views on the conflict exist within virtually every key organization. On issues from resource sharing to subnational security structures, few organizations have achieved internal consensus of how to move forward. This fragmentation calls into question the legitimacy of each group’s “representatives” at the NUCC. Without Aung San Suu Kyi at the table, for example, NUCC members may question whether an agreement with the NLD will be honored if she is released. This fragmentation and question of legitimate representation further complicates negotiations.

In addition, the NUCC does not include some of the most powerful organizations in Myanmar. Most notably, the United Wa State Army and the Arakan Army, two of the strongest armed groups in Myanmar, do not participate. They seem to have calculated that they are better off expanding their territorial control and pursuing administrative autonomy than participating in a messy nation-building process with the fractious opposition movement. 

4. Competing Perspectives on the Mandate and Authority of the NUCC 

Recent reports indicate that NUCC dialogues have been hampered by disagreement over the NUCC’s authority vis-a-vis the NLD-dominated NUG and CRPH. Members of the NUG and CRPH revised the NUCC mandate, removing its authority to direct the NUG or CRPH. They argue that they are the elected and legitimate representatives of the people and should not be controlled by the NUCC, an unelected body without a clear constituency. In response to the NLD’s action, key NUCC members reportedly withdrew from the platform ahead of the alliance’s first scheduled press conference on October 5. The event was cancelled. Tensions have thawed since then, and the NLD has softened its stance in recent weeks, but the question of the NUCC’s authority remains unresolved.

NUCC members also differ in their interpretation of the current crisis and, consequently, the role of the NUCC in response.

Given that the February coup reversed the NLD’s landslide election victory, the NLD’s first priority has been to reverse the coup and restore civilian rule. Negotiations around the terms of a future democratic federal union would follow. This sequencing feeds the perception among other members that the NLD intends to return to the status quo ante.

For many non-NLD members of the NUCC, the coup and subsequent violence is a symptom of decades-long military dictatorship, Bamar domination and competition between the military and NLD. To resolve the current conflict, the movement must first address these underlying drivers, including discrimination and political exclusion of ethnic and religious minorities, by engaging in a broader nation-building process. Practical negotiations toward this objective could be a first step to demonstrate that the NLD bloc is trustworthy and committed to cementing minority rights on the basis of equitable power-sharing.

Too Important to Fail

If the NUCC is successful, it could radically shift the trajectory of the current stalemate and lay the groundwork for sustainable peace.

Key governments in the region maintain tacit support for the military regime under the assessment that its collapse would yield even greater chaos and violence. If the NUCC can unify the democracy movement and articulate a viable transition strategy to stabilize the country, it will allay these concerns and weaken international support for the military. It may also attract interest from key domestic actors such as the Arakan Army and United Wa State Army, who have prioritized autonomy and territorial expansion since the coup. Myanmar’s more autonomous actors may have an interest in the stability that a legitimate, rules-based government brings in comparison with the chaos, economic instability and violence associated with a disintegrating state.

The NUCC could also begin to redefine the exclusionary narratives of national identity in Myanmar which have driven conflict for decades. Political will for greater inclusion is growing. If the NUCC can build on this momentum, it could lay the groundwork for a national reconciliation process that is the first step toward sustainable peace in Myanmar.

For these and other reasons, the importance of NUCC dialogue cannot be overstated.

International Allies Should Engage Cautiously and Transparently

International supporters of the opposition movement should follow the lead of NUCC members and offer support based upon their guidance. Given the repeated failures of external involvement in Myanmar’s political dialogues, international actors need to engage with caution. To avoid exacerbating distrust within the NUCC, the principles of transparency and inclusion should guide international engagement.

Aye Chan is an expert on peace, development and politics in Myanmar and a senior consultant to USIP’s Myanmar Program. He serves in various consulting and advisory capacities, including to members of the National Unity Government and Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw.

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