South East Asia Program Publications (SEAP)

Myanmar’s Coup: A View from the Borderlands

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After Myanmar’s generals steered the country back to military rule on Monday, the people of Myanmar and the international community alike are in a state of shock. Some people are, however, less shocked than others about Myanmar’s coup. In fact, to activists and resistance fighters from ethnic minority communities in the country’s war-torn borderlands the current development looks different than from the perspective of Yangon or Naypyidaw.

Neither Democracy…

A friend in Myanmar’s northern Kachin State told me: “We are all afraid of what’s going to happen. But I am not surprised that it came to this point.” Importantly, he feels uncomfortable with the widespread calls to “reinstate democracy” because there had not been genuine democracy in Myanmar to begin with. Contrary to the claims of Myanmar’s generals, there is no credible evidence that November’s general elections were rigged. But my friend expressed a sentiment shared by many ethnic minority voters, about 2.6 millions of whom were excluded from voting altogether.

This was the case for a variety of reasons, including military restrictions on voting in regions of active armed conflict, the mass displacement of ethnic minority communities—such as the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh—and the decisions of some ethnic rebel groups. Indeed, the Kachin Independence Organization did not permit polling in its controlled territory because it did not want to partake in what my friend called “displaying fake democracy that does not benefit our people”. While he himself was listed on the voter register in Kachin State’s capital of Myitkyina, he could not bring himself to vote for the same reason.

…  Nor Peace

To be clear, the past decade of military-initiated liberalization has entailed remarkable change in most parts of Myanmar, including improvement of livelihoods and a more open public sphere in Myitkyina. The past decade has, however, neither brought democracy nor peace to many ethnic minority communities in Myanmar’s borderlands. On the contrary, the past decade saw the perpetuation of militarized insecurities and indeed the escalation of civil war and ethnic violence in these parts of the country. This is why ethnic minorities in Myanmar have been more cautious in celebrating Myanmar’s transition.

In fact, activists from ethnic minority communities have long felt that their tangible concerns have been ignored by the international community, who started to flock to Naypyidaw in support of what they perceived as democratization and peacebuilding since 2011. While donor support contributed to an increasingly vibrant civil society across Myanmar, it also meant a shift of funding from activist grassroots networks to militarized state bureaucracies, which co-opted development and peacebuilding initiatives for ethnocratic state-building and counterinsurgency. Viewing Myanmar’s transition primarily as a process of democratization—rather than a more general reorganization of power—has thus not always contributed to but also undermined progressive change.

Rethinking International Engagement

When conducting fieldwork for my book Rebel Politics, ethnic minority activists and resistance fighters often expressed strong resentments of what they saw as a misconstrued international strategy towards Myanmar. Many felt not only as if the international community ignored their concerns over issues such as the escalating war in parts of Myanmar’s borderlands, continued military campaigns in ceasefire territories, and investment-induced displacement in ethnic minority regions. They also felt pressured by Western diplomats and INGOs to participate in what they saw as a deeply flawed peace process, as otherwise they might be sidelined as “hardliners” and “warmongers”.

These activists are under no illusion that the return to full-fledged military rule will improve their dire plight. As expressed by the ethnic minority Karen News outlet: “Burma’s democracy façade has broken—coup or not, ethnic people expect more of the same—displacement, land grabs and militarisation.” Their hope, however, is that their voices will at least be taken more seriously by the international community. Their critical analysis throughout Myanmar’s period of “democratization” urges us to listen more closely indeed.

*Featured image: A camp for internally displaced people in rebel-controlled territories of northern Myanmar serves as a reminder that the plight of many ethnic minorities in the country’s borderlands has not improved since Myanmar’s transition in 2012 (Photograph: David Brenner).


David Brenner is Lecturer in Global Insecurities at the University of Sussex. Follow him on Twitter @DavBrenner.

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