Early on the morning of Myanmar’s February 2021 coup, Mya Aye, a prominent Muslim activist, was one of the first arrested by the new junta regime. Since then, thousands more have been imprisoned or killed by the regime, including dozens of Muslims, like prominent student leader Wai Moe Naing, and other marginalized minorities who have fought against the military junta alongside other ethnic and religious groups. Although the resistance shares a common enemy in the brutal junta, it has yet to fully embrace a vision for a more inclusive country that overcomes Myanmar’s legacy of ethnic and religious discrimination. To broaden its base of support domestically and internationally, resistance leaders should commit to address structural discrimination against minorities in Myanmar.
Despite their commitment to the resistance, unrecognized minorities (ethnic or religious groups ineligible for full citizenship because they are not included in the list of 135 recognized minorities), including Rohingya and most other Muslims, Tamils, Gurkhas, Chinese, Bengalis, Punjabis, and Telugus, continue to face discrimination and are excluded from most resistance organizations. Although many within this marginalized community believe that the “Spring Revolution” against the junta provides the best hope for creating a more inclusive Myanmar in which they are treated as equals — and not as a threat — major challenges remain.
Myanmar’s Caste System
Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law created three classes of citizen — full citizen, associate citizen and naturalized citizen — which are based on discriminatory ethnic classification and family lineage. Recognized ethnic groups (called Taingyinthar) include the majority Bamar ethnic group and 135 other ethnic minority groups who are eligible for full citizenship and all associated rights. Non-Bamar Taingyinthar groups still face discrimination and many have been at war with the Bamar-dominated government for decades, seeking greater autonomy and respite from Bamar hegemony.
Unrecognized ethnic minority groups, which constitute 5-10% of the population (an estimate based on 2014 census figures), face even more severe social marginalization and economic hardship in part because they are ineligible for full citizenship and most public goods and services. Even before the 2021 coup, unrecognized minorities faced numerous restrictions to their ability to work, travel or find housing. In many cases, either because of formal or informal rules, unrecognized minorities are unable to open a bank account, take a job in the formal labor sector, serve in government, attend university, travel outside of their village freely, access vaccines, buy or sell property, receive a loan, register a business, rent property or access social security.
These restrictions mean that unrecognized minorities are disproportionately poor and significantly under-represented in positions of power or influence such as law enforcement, government, medicine, and education — essentially locking in a vicious cycle that perpetuates an insidious ethnic and religious hierarchy and prevents upward mobility.
Discrimination toward Muslims and other non-Taingyinthar communities has only increased since the coup. In the first days after the February 1 takeover, before the junta resorted exclusively to violence, it tried to garner international goodwill by forming an interfaith dialogue group. Just a few weeks later, though, the junta’s governing State Administration Council (SAC) invaded a Muslim-majority town in central Myanmar, burning a mosque and 500 homes to the ground and killing more than 20 Muslim civilians. The SAC has since resorted to its typical propaganda about Muslim takeover, regularly linking Myanmar resistance forces to the Muslim world, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and even the Taliban. The SAC has also instituted draconian laws that disproportionately harm unrecognized minorities. For example, since it reduced overnight guest visits to help track down activists, it has become illegal in many communities for non-Taingyinthar individuals to stay with their family for more than one night at a time if they are not listed on the rental agreement.
One bright spot that has emerged since the coup is a shift in social norms of belonging. Although structural discrimination remains entrenched and many within the resistance still hold exclusionary views toward minorities, there are signs of progress. Celebrities, activists, student unions, and even some leaders from the deposed National League for Democracy have recognized Rohingya as part of Myanmar with some openly apologizing for having supported the Myanmar military’s genocide against Rohingya. The NUG, which is composed primarily of the deposed civilian government and is at the center of the resistance, appointed Muslim advisors to its Ministry of Human Rights, announced an inclusive policy on Rohingya that included a commitment to reparations and have openly recognized Rohingya as belonging to Myanmar.
Nonetheless, unrecognized minorities remain outside of most discussion within the resistance about the future of Myanmar and these dialogues are still too often based around arbitrary and discriminatory ethnic hierarchies. For example, the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), a platform for resistance actors to discuss visions for a future Myanmar, is deeply divided over the make-up of sub-national federal units (states). Some members support an eight-state model with each state named for one major ethnic group, whereas others want to maintain the 14-state model with Bamar-majority areas split into multiple states and others named for the majority ethnic group in that area. Both options, though, are designed based on the location of recognized ethnic groups, leaving unrecognized minorities unrepresented and marginalized.
Furthermore, the resistance’s Federal Democratic Charter represents the most inclusive document of its kind in Myanmar’s history, a major victory for the resistance. It calls for Myanmar to be a secular state, and outlines a general commitment to non-discrimination, although stratified citizenship and ethnic hierarchy remain unaddressed. The charter consistently uses the term Taingyinthar or ethnic nationalities (in the English version) when attributing rights, raising concerns that such rights will be contingent upon discriminatory ethnic classification. Articles 25, 43, 45 and 46, for example, ascribe individual, cultural and socioeconomic rights only to Taingyinthar.
Without a chance to participate in national dialogue processes more meaningfully, the historical grievances and experiences of unrecognized minorities will go unaddressed, perpetuating a system of ethnic and religious hierarchy. This hierarchy sustains violence, undermines development and betrays fundamental human rights. Muslims and other unrecognized minorities were systematically excluded from government and from the NLD-led “peace process” from 2015-2020. The resistance must abandon this norm of exclusivity, capitalize on shifting social norms and more fully integrate the voices of unrecognized minorities into on-going national dialogue processes.
Building Blocks for Equality
Although virtually all resistance actors share a hatred for the junta, the resistance has failed to fully unify in part because of a history of structural discrimination by Bamar Buddhists against minorities, especially unrecognized minorities. Some in the international community are reluctant to provide enhanced support to the resistance if its success means a return to the discriminatory pre-coup status quo in which genocide was tolerated and inter-ethnic and religious violence prevailed. If the resistance can demonstrate that its victory would mean a more inclusive future, it may broaden its support domestically and abroad.
One step would be to commit to a policy of non-discrimination. This could be based upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the United States’ Civil Rights Act of 1964. The policy should eliminate stratified citizenship and mandate equal protection under the law, regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender or other protected classes. Fundamentally, it should de-couple rights from ethnicity, which has been the primary determinant of whether an individual was permitted to participate in Myanmar’s political and social system. It could significantly expand the Myanmar’s political community of Myanmar and unlock the economic potential of unrecognized minority communities that have never been allowed to compete on an equal footing.
Most importantly to the current movement, it would represent a commitment from resistance leadership, including the NUG, to non-discrimination that could help build trust among a fractious resistance and set the stage for sustainable peace.
Aung Ko Ko is a Lincoln Scholar at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. He is the co-founder and executive director of Mosaic Myanmar, a peacebuilding and education organization.