The military’s coup in Myanmar has been a tragedy in every respect but one: It is increasingly clear that the generals’ power grab and bloody repression have united Myanmar’s diverse — and often adverse — ethnic and political groups to resist a common enemy and seek a better future. Ironically, the army, which has argued since independence that it alone can hold the country together, has inadvertently spurred a revolutionary and irreversible nation-building dialogue aimed at creating a federal democratic system and more inclusive national identity. The National Unity Consultative Council, the platform for this dialogue, may be slow, complex and contentious, but its participants stay at the table for one reason: It offers the best opportunity to escape Myanmar’s vicious cycle of violence and authoritarian rule.

A demonstrator forms a three-finger protest symbol during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar, on Feb. 17, 2021. (The New York Times)
A demonstrator forms a three-finger protest symbol during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar, on Feb. 17, 2021. (The New York Times)

Since the February 1, 2021, coup, opposition to military rule has grown to include political, civil society and armed elements from every corner of the country. The resistance network that developed over the past year includes the deposed parliament and executive; state, regional and township administrators; armed organizations ranging from battled-hardened ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) to newly formed People’s Defense Forces (PDFs); and civil society groups providing essential services and local leadership.

Bringing them all together is the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), tasked with unifying the resistance movement and, as a dialogue platform, drafting a political roadmap to move the country toward a federal democratic union. It is a low-budget force multiplier starved for resources and more than worthy of support from pro-democracy elements of the international community.

Not surprisingly, the chaos of war has challenged these groups’ ability to communicate, collaborate and coordinate. That has led some observers to view the resistance as disunited and directionless. Such a critique, however, misses the fact that these groups are complementary even if they don’t speak with a single voice, and that in combination they have performed effectively against the overwhelming structural advantages that the junta enjoys.

Perhaps of equal importance, these actors represent the bones of a new federal system that could rise from the ashes of the military’s atrocities. Where past democratic movements in Myanmar have struggled — namely, in their ability to craft and unify around an alternative political vision — this one has shown staying power. By establishing the NUCC less than two months after the coup, the resistance demonstrated its intention to avoid past mistakes that have led to disintegration. If it continues to make visible progress and demonstrate a commitment to decentralization and a new federal structure, the NUCC can help sustain and strengthen the movement.

The Misguided Search for Elite Dialogue

The historic and transformative potential of the NUCC has not been entirely obvious to the international community. From the outset of the coup, various envoys have ignored the NUCC process and instead pursued a solution to the conflict through elite dialogue between the military and fringe opposition elements willing to return to pre-coup conditions. As the ensuing armed conflict has broadened and intensified, with gruesome videos of military atrocities emerging daily, these calls for dialogue have grown louder. Those pushing such dialogue believe that peace is brokered through elites and the benefits will trickle down. This is deeply misguided. It is a view that has informed all five previous attempts to bring peace to Myanmar — attempts that have failed.

Though perhaps well-intentioned, this strategy fails to grasp that the people of Myanmar are unwilling to go back to the system of government that existed under the 2008 military constitution. They have made clear their urgent need to embrace this historic turning point, lest the country simply settles into another unstable equilibrium characterized by continuing violence.

No Going Back

Unlike some outsiders, none of the parties to the conflict sees a return to the status quo ante as possible.

In late March, coup leader and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing vowed to annihilate all opposition in flagrant disregard of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) “Five-Point Consensus.” Whatever its original motives for the coup, the junta’s sole objective now is survival. The generals have calculated that international accountability for their brutality is unlikely and that their backers, especially China, Russia, India, Japan and some within ASEAN, will prove durable.

The resistance, too, recognizes that there is no going back — but where to head next is a point of contention. The vast majority of those within the NUG and NUCC, particularly among ethnic revolutionary organizations, protest groups and the more progressive members of civil society, have made clear that they seek nothing less than the full removal of the military from the country’s political and economic life. They view the previous system as having been unstable and exclusionary, held together through tenuous concessions to elites, and ultimately enabling the coup.

A Way Forward

Before evaluating the prospects for the NUCC, it should be stipulated that at this stage its potential remains aspirational. Its dialogues are unglamorous, fraught, complex and slow, held over bi-weekly Zoom calls at all hours.

That said, the NUCC’s inclusive dialogue processes reflect the will of the people, and there are reasons for optimism that this unique platform can help lay the groundwork for a new Myanmar.

In virtually every other political dialogue in Myanmar’s history — all of which have been controlled or sabotaged by the Burma army — participants would routinely abandon negotiations when they became contentious or seemed to be going nowhere. These dialogues were haunted by two major demons: the lack of a shared objective and the fact that the Burma army has never wanted peace (which remains the case today). 

With the poisonous military excluded from the NUCC, it is at last possible to have a good-faith dialogue among parties with a shared goal of ending authoritarian military rule and establishing a peaceful federal democracy. Therefore, even when disputes become heated, as they often do, the conversations continue. Although key actors, including important political parties such as the Shan National League for Democracy and EAOs including the United Wa State Army, Arakan Army and Kachin Independence Army, have not joined the process, the NUCC has kept open the door to their future involvement and quietly consults with these groups to take into account their political ambitions.

Another positive development is the emergence of state-level Consultative Councils which were spawned by the NUCC. Some have made considerable strides toward unifying the resistance in states — often producing better outcomes than the NUCC itself. The Kayah State Consultative Council, for example, includes a diverse array of civilian, armed and civil society actors, and is nearing completion of a state constitution. It helps coordinate the armed resistance across the war-torn state and provides core governance functions, including oversight of a local police service and delivery of humanitarian aid. These state-level processes are not only a foundational exercise in federalism but could offer lessons on how to improve the NUCC.

If the NUCC can reach consensus on a plan for a federal government that makes space for Myanmar’s cultural diversity, it would put the resistance in a strong position to begin laying the foundation for negotiations with the military. It would also make the NUCC the setting for a long-term national dialogue aimed at developing an inclusive national identity as the basis for a more equitable and stable Myanmar.

Key Challenges Remain

Neither success nor failure is pre-ordained for the fractious resistance movement. Three factors will be especially critical to a successful outcome of the NUCC:

  1. Pace and Priorities. NUCC dialogues are built upon the principle of collective leadership — a welcome departure from Myanmar’s history of rigid hierarchy centered around a Bamar Buddhist gerontocracy. But under its consensus model, the NUCC often shows little progress over long periods. The glacial pace weakens its perceived relevance among some key actors. The challenge, in part, is that the NUCC plays two roles — a policymaking body of a revolutionary administration (the National Unity Government, or NUG) and a nation-building dialogue platform. If the NUCC fails in the first role to keep pace with the revolution, it may lose the opportunity to lead in the second. Its success will depend on maintaining cohesion and adhering to leadership principles, while building momentum on core policy questions.
  2. Action. Follow-up action is often inadequate because the NUCC, like the NUG, lacks enough working-level staff. The NUG and the Joint Coordination Committees are the primary implementing bodies of NUCC policy. While their personnel are committed, motivated and experienced, many have gone months without pay. If the international community provides stronger support for civil society actors, they can be force multipliers for the NUG and NUCC. When the NUCC establishes its Technical Secretariat team and Technical Support team in the coming months, the United States and other donors should be ready to assist.
  3. Trust. For decades, the military has nurtured distrust among its myriad opponents. The National League for Democracy (NLD) party exacerbated these divisions while in power by implementing policies that antagonized civil society and the ethnic minorities that now make up the NUCC. Though the NLD-dominated NUG promises to build more equitable governance structures, ethnic minorities and others are wary. The NUCC needs to continue to push the NUG to demonstrate its commitment to federalism by designing and deploying governance structures that shift power from Union-level institutions like the NUCC and NUG toward sub-national institutions, including state and region-level Consultative Councils and township governance institutions (Pyithu Aochoteye a’pwe).

In a previous publication we said, the NUCC was too important to fail. This is as true now as it has ever been.

The NUCC alone will not win or lose this revolution, of course, but its success is a precondition to escaping the vicious cycle of violence and military authoritarianism. If the NUCC collapses or loses relevance, power will shift to those who seek elite and unaccountable negotiations. That will inevitably produce a myopic and unstable political outcome characterized by violence, authoritarianism and regional instability.

The best option for allies of a democratic Myanmar is to support the NUCC dialogues, which better reflect the will of the people and create the possibility for the elusive federal democratic union that Myanmar has always deserved. The search for dialogue to end this tragic conflict must first take place within the resistance before any negotiated settlement can be considered.

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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