As the national uprising against Myanmar’s coup regime has gained strength, a singular question has hovered over the widening campaign: If this patchwork of ethnic armed groups, deposed elected leaders, activists and armed defense forces manages to topple the junta, would they be able to govern, or would the country descend into greater chaos?

Protestors look on from barriers they built to block security forces from passing through a major traffic hub in Yangon, Myanmar. March 17, 2021. (The New York Times)
Protestors look on from barriers they built to block security forces from passing through a major traffic hub in Yangon, Myanmar. March 17, 2021. (The New York Times)

That question has gained urgency as recent developments put the military’s staying power in growing doubt. Since October 27, armed resistance groups have seized numerous strategic border crossings along Myanmar’s frontier with China, India and Thailand and routed the army from more than 150 bases or posts. Driving this remarkable development is unprecedented interethnic coordination among three ethnic armies and Bamar-majority People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) that sprung up after the coup in 2021. In an additional blow to the junta, Beijing almost certainly approved the offensive after the junta generals ignored its appeals to crack down on lucrative crime centers along the border that prey on Chinese nationals.

Prospects for Stability?

To assess the possible future for governance in Myanmar should the regime fall, USIP supported six research projects over the past two years. The work explored key factors such as the relationship between resistance leaders and communities, the impact of the post-coup movement on national identity and the state of intercommunal relations.

Our research concluded that the movement in Myanmar has characteristics that would contribute to stability in a post-junta period.

Expectations in the international community that instability and chaos would follow the military’s ouster are not without foundation — major challenges include political divisions, longstanding grievances and criminality. Yet many of the worst-case scenarios are based on historical precedents or cross-country comparisons that may not apply to this unique movement and moment in Myanmar’s history.

Critically, the sociopolitical advances in the new generation of leaders to emerge within the resistance structures have been underestimated and even discounted, along with plans they have made for a post-coup interim administration.

Four principal findings from USIP research support this conclusion:

1. Fragmentation and warlordism are unlikely because the resistance is connected to communities and motivated by a desire for a new political paradigm.

Two unpublished USIP-supported projects that involved wide-ranging interviews with resistance actors found that most are motivated primarily by a desire to protect communities from the rampaging army and to achieve a new political and social paradigm. Many resistance fighters, including PDFs, have roots in communities they serve. Likewise, the core ethnic resistance organizations (EROs) started as social movements decades ago, not armed groups, and continue to serve their own communities. They include the Kachin Independence Organization, Chin National Front, Karenni National Progressive Party, and Karen National Union.

Despite international anxiety that unaccountable armed groups may emerge and exploit local communities, USIP research and programming has found few instances of this phenomenon as compared to similar conflict settings. Other than a massacre by the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) in mid-2021 (which led to the KNDO being expelled from the Karen National Union), there are no documented cases of civilian massacres by the resistance. When intra-resistance conflict does occur, it receives widespread news coverage, yet evidence shows that these flare-ups constitute an aberration.

Although national-level political dialogue among resistance forces remains stuck, including those within the National Unity Consultative Council, on the ground, a continuity of mission exists across ethnic lines. This common objective is likely to motivate resistance stakeholders to negotiate a shared future rather than to pursue warlordism, fragmentation or their own political objectives. Basic conditions on the ground in central Myanmar, especially the absence of widespread high-value extractives, also limit these threats. Most resistance actors there depend on public support to sustain themselves.

Achieving a new political arrangement will not be straightforward and will likely require years of national dialogue. But USIP research shows that the movement has already made meaningful progress toward national reconciliation and building a shared vision. The various forms of collaboration between EROs and Bamar communities on military operations, social service provision and humanitarian response further demonstrate growing solidarity.

2. Underlying social cohesion is stronger than perceived.

Jangai Jap and Isabel Chew’s research finds that interethnic relations in Myanmar are no worse than in countries with substantially lower levels of violence. Furthermore, national identity (i.e., Myanmar) is at least as important as ethnic identity — another factor that would motivate resistance groups to seek a national political agreement rather than to fragment.

Both findings from Jap and Chew’s experimental research cut against the dominant narratives about intercommunal relations in Myanmar. They undermine the fatalistic perception that Myanmar is irreconcilably fractious and dispersed and its citizens loyal to subnational ethnic identities. In fact, this movement has been more resilient and effective against powerful military forces than many comparable resistance movements (Myanmar in 1988, Iran, Syria, Sudan, etc.) — because its participants aren’t as fractured as many observers believe them to be.

These findings suggest that intercommunal conflict is driven primarily by exclusionary governance structures and divisive political dialogue. Both issues are priorities for the resistance movement and are addressed in the Federal Democracy Charter. Similar results on national identity emerged in a second, yet to be published, USIP-supported survey of the Myanmar diaspora by Jap and Amy Liu.

Jap and Chew’s research also found that “collective effort” is a powerful narrative for building intercommunal solidarity. A national reconstruction process based upon the notion that “we are in this together” paired with major investment in mental health and psychosocial support could help a stable federal democracy take root.

3. Shifts in political power and norms could enable a successful political dialogue where past peace processes have failed.

Myanmar has never had a genuine nation-building process. The peace processes that emerged every decade or so from 1950 to 2021 failed under the weight of military domination. A national dialogue freed from military control and led by pro-democracy stakeholders tied to communities opens the way for a more equitable, just, inclusive and stable political paradigm.

USIP-supported research by Bertil Lintner identifies three main ways that past peace processes have failed — all of which are less likely to plague a post-junta dialogue. First, whereas past peace processes have failed because key actors were excluded, the resistance is led by the most inclusive political coalition in Myanmar’s history. If it continues to be governed by the principle of inclusion and collective leadership, a dialogue is more likely to succeed. Second, whereas misinformed foreigners ignored the public and injected resources into past peace processes, thereby creating unbalanced negotiation, there has been considerably less international involvement in intra-resistance dialogue processes. And, third, the military did not participate in the peace process in good faith and structured the process (called “among the most complicated in the modern world”) to serve its own aims. If the military is involved in a political dialogue process, it would do so from a position of weakness.

Furthermore, the lack of a single charismatic leader or political party has allowed the emergence of a new political landscape of younger and more diverse leaders. Although many analysts have cited this as a vulnerability for the movement, it has proven to be a critical asset. This diversity will continue to be a plus in a post-conflict national dialogue.

4. Positive shifts in intercommunal relations since the coup have diminished the potential for intercommunal violence and offer a better environment for dialogue.

Three USIP-supported research projects found improvements in interethnic and interreligious trust and affinity since the coup. A team of researchers from among the pro-democracy movement interviewed young people in the movement from seven states and four regions. Respondents from across ethnic and religious communities articulated a remarkably consistent vision for an inclusive federal democracy characterized by secularism, nondiscrimination and protection for the cultures of traditionally marginalized communities. Many cited an exclusionary national identity propagated by successive Bamar-dominated governments, both military and National League for Democracy-led administrations, as the primary driver of conflict and violence in Myanmar.

Respondents in this research, as well as in a separate project by USIP student scholar Thin Zar Htet, confirmed marked improvements in interethnic relations since the coup. Sympathy and understanding of traditionally marginalized groups, including Rohingya, has increased. Virtually all respondents in these two projects, many of whom hold important positions within the resistance movement, see the movement as a unique historic opportunity to build a more stable and equitable Myanmar around a more inclusive national identity.

This is visible in the previously inconceivable military collaboration and resistance solidarity between Bamar and ethnic minority organizations — as manifested in the most recent coordinated multi-group operations involving Kokang, Rakhine, Bamar, Shan and Ta’ang fighters and with Karen, Karenni and Chin groups operating in parallel.

Thin Zar Htet’s research found that while extreme forms of religious nationalism persist, the public has become more politically informed and resistant to extremist propaganda and incitement, so extremist viewpoints are less likely to escalate to violence. Respondents also indicated support for a more secular governing structure, wary of politicians who manipulate religion for political gain. The younger generation saw what was possible during the transition period of relative freedom under an elected government. Their sense of empowerment has been supercharged by the achievements of the resistance movement.

The Resistance Is Laying the Foundation for a New Nation

The research findings echo throughout USIP’s programs.

For example, demand for USIP’s Peace Education program, which trains nonviolent actors in core peacebuilding skills and mental health awareness, has grown considerably since the coup. Although “dialogue” has taken on negative connotations since misinformed international actors began pressing resistance groups to engage in talks with the coup government, resistance stakeholders continue to request more training on peacebuilding methods. In response, USIP has trained nearly 1,000 nonviolent resistance actors in peacebuilding skills since the coup.

The participants tell USIP that they join the training not only to build more effective resistance cohesion and resolve community-level tensions, but also to prepare for a national dialogue process. Demand for these skills aligns with the conclusion that this movement is about political transformation and that communities will push their leaders to engage in dialogue toward that end.

USIP research on local governance structures in areas controlled by the resistance identified a widespread and interconnected network of institutions that could serve as a starting point for stable administration and distribution of assistance in a post-junta period.

Work to Be Done

Many respondents in USIP-supported research agree that the resistance leadership, particularly the National Unity Government, reflects progress over the past senior actors. But in their view, leaders must show a greater commitment to a new governing paradigm by devolving more authority to ethnic minority-led organizations and to local leaders who hold moral authority in their communities.

Critically, the various studies summarized here indicate positive trends among the public for a dialogue process. That support, however, is unlikely to hold up if elites who do not share the public’s perspectives or have ulterior motives control the process — as happened in the past. It is essential, therefore, that the bottom-up nature of this movement be maintained in all dialogue efforts. Participation in the national process should be based on community legitimacy, not coercive power.

Many in the international community seem to prize stability above all, making them indifferent to whether Myanmar is under the control of a military dictatorship. Of course, the military is the primary cause of instability, while the resistance movement offers the most credible path to stability. But stability per se is not the movement’s foremost objective. USIP’s research clearly shows that this is a national uprising aimed at building a new nation, with the accompanying hope that stability will follow.

Myanmar’s problems are challenging and complex, but not intractable. Military domination is not inevitable. Despite constant contention in the international community that the military cannot be defeated, the resistance is gaining. Despite receiving little tangible assistance, the regime’s opponents have persisted. As the resistance movement enters a new phase, its participants should be allowed to choose their own future.

Thin Zar Htet is a graduate student at Brandeis University and a student scholar at USIP. She has supported peacebuilding programs in Myanmar for almost 10 years.

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