This week Yun Sun was the latest analyst to raise the supposed divisions within Myanmar’s federal democracy resistance movement as a point of existential weakness. This is somewhat understandable given the complexity of actors involved. One only needs to look at a multi-coloured map of territories held by different armed actors in Myanmar, or glance at a list of hundreds of oddly named people’s defence forces, to conclude that it all looks pretty messy. Many foreign diplomats and outside observers regularly draw the same conclusion – that Myanmar’s resistance movement needs more unity to stand a chance of success.
But this perspective largely ignores the actual politics driving this revolution – a politics of diversity, a politics of equality over hierarchy, a politics of decentralised action: a politics of ‘ahlone ga goun zoun beh’ – of ‘anyone can be a leader’. Strict emphasis on unity, order, clarity and centralised control on the other hand, are all hallmarks of the regime they are trying to overthrow. For over 70 years, the Myanmar military has stared in the face of the country’s diversity and has sought to bring it under strict centralised control. For over 70 years it has failed repeatedly, causing nothing but more conflict and suffering.
Most importantly, claims that Myanmar is on the verge of chaotic collapse ignore the institutions that have been built by the resistance to manage diversity and to keep a wide range of different actors with a legacy of diverse interests towards the same goal. Among the first actions taken by the Committee Representing the People’s Hluttaw last year was to form the National Unity Consultative Council, which then approved the formation of the National Unity Government.
The NUCC has now grown in influence to form a People’s Assembly, which is promulgating the latest version of the Federal Democracy Charter, outlining legal structures for governance and political decision making in the interim (or revolutionary) period, as well as founding principles for the future federal democratic constitution.
At state and ‘ethnic national’ levels, consultative and coordination councils have been formed, bringing together youth, striking civil servants, protest leaders and armed resistance organisations under common banners to take the lead in their areas. The relative success of all these institutions in fostering unity so far has been a central reason that the military is closer than ever to collapse.
NLD leaders and others remain on an intensive crash course in how to understand each other and work together collaboratively and are all still learning. But, more importantly they are being brought under an institutional foundation that provides them all a degree of autonomy, and means that they don’t have to agree of everything or see things the same way.
The Myanmar Spring Revolution is diverse and segmented in three main ways:
If any single leader or group of leaders had tried to start a unified top-down revolutionary movement in February 2021, it would have failed immediately. The fact that all these groups have taken it upon themselves to act (to some extent for their own interests but mostly because the moral case is so abundantly stark) is the reason that they have made so much progress. Whenever leaders have tried to exert too much top-down influence, they have been quickly put in their place as other leaders (typically younger and/or ethnic nationality leaders) have pushed back or retreated from collaboration.
Much of the analysis out there on the question ethnic unity has missed the point, by focusing on the continuation of tensions between different groups or by counting the number of ethnic ministers on the NUG cabinet. Different groups have different interests, different perspectives and even display animosity towards each other because of these differences. Managing that reality is the entire point of democracy and it is the entire point of federalism. NLD and ethnic leaders don’t have to agree; they don’t have see things the same way; they don’t even have to respect each other all the time. That’s politics. What they need is clearly defined powers and roles so that they can pursue their own goals without fighting each other and without allowing megalomanic kleptocratic psycopaths to take over the country ever again.
Ethnic nationality movements could not have been clearer since independence that they have no interest in being bit part actors in a central government – they want federalism that assures them self-determination for their people and a representative stake in union-level affairs. No leading Shan or Arakanese politician has any interest in being a prop on a union-level cabinet roster. Even where ethnic blocs have delegated leaders to the NUG to have a stake in union affairs and to put their revolutionary experience to good use, they have maintained a focus on building up local structures and local institutions for their own areas as a central goal.
The key to bringing more and more stakeholders from different ethnic movements will be in creating a framework that gives their own institutions legitimacy and recognition, not to give them token portfolios. Similarly, the goal is not to develop a single unified vision for the future of the country that can be immortalised in stone and that will bring endless Nyeinchanye and Taingyanye (peace and tranquility) to the lives of every woman, man and child. The key is creating a foundation for the inclusion of all groups and a demarcation of responsibilities so that these things can be argued about for eternity without resort to extreme violence and within a government that is still able to make authoritative decisions.
To take the example of other federal countries, politicians in München don’t have to like politicians in Berlin and Bonn. Politicians in Texas don’t have to agree with politicians in Washington. Politicians in Gujarat do not have to appreciate the attitude of politicians in Dehli. They just have to not kill each other and to have enough space to get their job done as leaders for the public interest.
The first set of local actors taking control of their own affairs in the interim period are the ethnic armed organisations that have existing governance structures, in some cases with their own elections, and who often operate in territories that were fully or partially excluded from Myanmar elections. The second set are coordination or consultative councils that were set up to unite civil different revolutionary forces in their states or among their ethnic nationalities.
The Karenni State Consultative Council, whose armed wing the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force claims to have taken over 90% of the state’s territories, has established committees for civilian oversight of the military, police and health and education sectors. It is in the process of formalising the administrative structure with judiciary.
The Interim Chin National Consultative Council is developing a Chin State Charter to establish an interim Chin State government to incorporate (but not entirely subsume) the various township level bodies that are already governing locally. The Chin Joint Defence Committee has also unified the many Chin armed resistance forces under one banner, without creating rigid structures that hamper decision making. This is a key example of where increased unity is often best achieved in a tiered manner, with state-level actors coordinating township level actors and then taking part in union processes, rather than trying to force everything under one single command.
The Federal Democracy Charter provides for interim governance affairs to be led by the NUG and/or by interim state governments and other federal units. That means – in the spirit of federalism – local governance can be devolved to EAOs, consultative councils or others as necessary. Meanwhile, some areas will fall under the administrative leadership of the NUG as appropriate.
Importantly, they all exist under a common constitutional framework – in other words, under a common source of external sovereignty. They are not competing warlordss – they are distinct political bodies with their own rights, all united under a common federated framework. For armed organisations not formally within this framework, the NUG maintains policies to not override or compete with their existing systems and to coordinate as much as possible to avoid tensions.
Don’t get me wrong, unity still remains the central challenge of the revolution. Bringing more actors on board and avoiding ruptures between existing participants remain the absolute most important task. Ensuring civilian leadership of the disparate armed organisations (at appropriate administrative levels) is an absolute necessity. Mitigating the risks of mindless inter-elite or sectarian violence in certain places is non-negotiable.
But, examination of this issue has to start with the fact that the Myanmar polity is by its very nature an extremely diverse space. That has been a strength for the resistance movement so far and one that leaders on all sides are extremely reluctant to spoil by arguing over hierarchy or territorial demarcations. Maintaining this equality and decentralised action is just as important as establishing unified structures so it all looks nice and orderly.