CHIANG MAI, THAILAND —
Anti-junta forces in Myanmar, facing a common enemy in the country’s post-coup rulers, are divided internally, and the leaders of dozens of ethnic armies aligned with the opposition cannot agree on a common political strategy, all of which has its costs in terms of funding, arms, sanctions and time, specialists interviewed by VOA in recent weeks say.
Even supporters of the opposition National Unity Government — born out of the ousted National League for Democracy — complained in conversations with VOA that the armed wing of the NUG in Myanmar, known as the all-volunteer guerrilla People’s Defense Force, lacks a single military command structure wedded to a coherent political policy and an unsullied leader.
There are also too many differences among NLD-allied ethnic armies — sometimes referred to as ethnic armed organizations, or EAOs, especially regarding what they are fighting for, said Michael Martin, an adjunct fellow with the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington.
“They speak in terms of liberating their homelands. That’s the first task,” he said. “Once they’ve liberated their homelands, their next objective is to set up a government of their design, of their own choosing.” That contrasts sharply with NLD ambitions of ousting military rule and reestablishing the democratic order in the whole country under now-detained former leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Myanmar’s opposition armed forces include about 135,000 members of about 20 ethnic armies and 65,000 soldiers in the NUG’s People’s Defense Force, backed by about 200,000 state workers in the Civil Disobedience Movement.
However, Ross Milosevic, a risk consultant who conducts field research in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, said the PDF command structure and the patchwork of EAOs are riddled with divisions.
“They talk about revolution a lot, but a revolution in anyone’s doctrine must have a political and military solution that works side-by-side. And if they don’t, their revolution will not work,” he said.
“This is what they don’t understand, and they need to put in place, because if they don’t do it and include the ethnics in a formative alliance, they’re going to be living in the jungle or on the Thai side of the border for the next 50 years.”
Hoping to improve ties with the ethnic armies — many of which have fought for self-rule since independence in 1948 — the NUG formed an Alliance Committee early last year. Among its negotiators is David Gum Awng, NUG deputy minister of international cooperation.
He told VOA there is “contentious debate” on military command, political objectives and working with members of different ethnic groups.
“There are many challenges involved that’s for sure,” but “we are all in this together… and we will try to work this out,” he said.
The combined NUG-EAO strength of 200,000 troops, which Gum Awng said would continue to grow significantly, should be more than a match for the military under Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.
The military’s total strength has been put as high as 400,000 but the United States Institute for Peace says 150,000 personnel is closer to the mark, including 70,000 combat-ready troops.
Who’s in control?
The Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, a group of experts supporting democracy efforts in Myanmar, maintains that the junta has “stable control” over only 17% of Myanmar territory, that 23% is contested, and that Peoples Defense Forces and ethnic armies hold “effective control” over 52%.
But Martin said the NUG-PDF lacked the resources to set up necessary government structures in areas it controls and instead relies on existing capacity established by the ethnic armies.
“They basically control no territory on their own,” he said, adding the ethnic armies see the NUG as a communications coordinating entity and as part of a broader coalition in the resistance, as opposed to the country’s government-in-waiting.
When the NUG goes to the U.S. State Department or the U.S. Agency for International Development “and speaks as if they are a government,” Martin said, “legitimately, the State Department says, ‘OK, how are you going to do these things you say you are going to do.’ And they don’t have the resources to do it.”
He said this would also apply to Australia, the United Kingdom, EU or Japan. The ethnic armed organizations have experience running governments but were not recognized as a country, which poses problems for ethnic armies seeking aid from foreign governments.
“They don’t have any political status and there’s debate within the Biden administration on who, what way and in what manner – and with which EAO – to coordinate or work with,” Martin said.
Meanwhile, divisions among the EAOs continue, including competing territorial claims that overlap Myanmar’s seven states.
A recent report by International Crisis Group said the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, one of the opposition-aligned ethnic armies, had used the coup to expand its territory in northern Shan state, recruit soldiers and strengthen its parallel administration.
“Although it has quietly supported anti-coup resistance forces, it has clashed with the military only rarely and has met with regime representatives,” it said, adding this expansion had created tensions with other ethnic armed groups and non-Ta’angs in Shan.
“The group’s ambiguous political positioning since the coup reflects the complex environment in which ethnic armed groups operate,” it said. “It also helps explain why building a countrywide anti-regime alliance has proven so difficult.”
Two other ethnic armies, the United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Organization have provided the Ta’ang with needed training and weapons, although Martin said the Wa are not actively fighting the junta because they already have what they want: a self-administered region in Shan.
Elsewhere, the Chin are fighting for their own country in western Chin state, the Arakan are seeking autonomy in neighboring Rakhine state, and both have shown a willingness to work with the junta in return for relative autonomy.
“The major groups who are really leading the military campaign against the junta have no interest or desire to consider the unity government as the legitimate government,” Martin said.
Of the remaining states, Milosevic said the Karen National Liberation Army was divided by leadership issues while the fighting in Mon state had eased. He ranked the Arakan as the “most solid and best organized” among the EAOs.
Then there are issues with Suu Kyi and her fall from grace — unprecedented for a Nobel laureate — following the alleged genocide committed against the ethnic Rohingya in 2017 under her leadership, and there have been calls for a younger leadership to succeed her.
“She has a very unfortunate record when it comes to the Rohingya issue and so she’s lost a lot of ground in the West, but I think there needs to be a new generation [to] come through,” Milosevic said.
The NUG, though, is steadfast in its support for Suu Kyi, who was moved from prison to house arrest in July, and the group’s deputy minister Gum Awng said her support base in Myanmar should not be underestimated by those outside the country, even if “her reputation was more or less tarnished.”
“She is still this driving force for democracy,” he said, pointing to her immense popularity in Myanmar, and not just politically, being “seen and revered as Mother Suu, it’s the endearment that people associate with her.”
Martin agreed, saying the key issue is whether and how Suu Kyi, the NLD and NUG can “forge functional relations” with the major ethnic armies, their affiliated PDFs and groups in the Civil Disobedience Movement.