The Southeast Asian country is home to some of the world’s longest civil wars, where myriad ethnic insurgencies have fought the military, central government and each other for greater rights and autonomy. Some of those bloody conflicts have ebbed and flowed in the borderlands for 70 years.
Throughout years of conflict in Myanmar’s jungles and mountains, ethnic people have witnessed and been subjected to horrific atrocities including massacres, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture, forced labor and displacement by the armed forces, as well as state-sanctioned discrimination.
In 2016 and 2017, the military launched a brutal campaign of killing and arson that forced more than 740,000 Rohingya minority people to flee into neighboring Bangladesh, prompting a genocide case to be heard at the International Court of Justice. In 2019, the United Nations said “grave human rights abuses” by the military were still continuing in the ethnic states of Rakhine, Chin, Shan, Kachin and Karen.
This week, that brutality played out on the streets of Myanmar’s biggest cities, as the ruling junta launched a systematic and coordinated attack on unarmed peaceful demonstrators calling for an end to the February 1 coup. Witnesses, footage and photographs showed police and the military shooting dead anti-coup protesters, beating detainees and reported extrajudicial killings, while images of crumpled bodies laying in pools of their own blood or being dragged through the streets shocked the world.
Determined to fight against those abuses and ensure their distinct voices and demands are heard, ethnic people have loudly joined the nationwide protests, uniting in solidarity against a common enemy. Though many fear further violence and intensified conflict from an unchecked military junta operating with impunity and now firmly in control of the country.
“This fight has been since the beginning of the forming of the country itself. We hope that the current fight against the military coup in 21st century might be a new hope for our people,” said Chin activist Sang Hnin Lian.
Ethnic demands go deeper
Protesters have called for the military to honor the results of the November 2020 election, which saw the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, win with a thumping majority. They are also demanding the release of Suu Kyi, ousted President Win Myint and other government officials from detention.
But minority people, of which there are 135 official groups, say these demands are largely made by the country’s majority ethnic group, the Buddhist Bamar, who traditionally live in the country’s heartlands — which includes large cities like Yangon and Mandalay — and say the fight goes deeper than just the military verses the NLD.
“This is a very important transition period,” said Karen activist Naw Esther Chit. Using another name for Myanmar, she added: “In Burma, ethnic people were marginalized, and their voices excluded… ethnic people need to come together and raise a voice for our rights.”
A group called the General Strike Committee of Nationalities (GSCN) was established to support the protests and be a central place for the many protesting ethnic minorities. Made up of 29 ethnic groups, the GSCN wants to end military rule, abolish the military-drafted 2008 constitution, build a federal democratic union and release everyone who has been unjustly detained.
“Ethnic people don’t want dictatorship, we don’t want to bring back military government to rule the country because we already know the consequences of military rule in ethnic areas,” said Chit, a GSCN member.
When Suu Kyi’s NLD won elections in 2015, there was hope her promise of national reconciliation would halt the abuses, bolster the peace process, and give ethnic people a voice in the new Myanmar. But many minorities felt Suu Kyi governed for the majority and were excluded from consultation on issues that affected them.
Meanwhile, the peace process floundered.
The NLD did make headway on building infrastructure such as roads, construction, internet access, and education, “but when we talk about the policy stuff, nothing has changed in the past 10 years,” said Sang Hnin Lian, with the Chin Human Rights Organization.
Nestled high in the mountains bordering India and Bangladesh in Myanmar’s far west is Chin state. The remote and rugged state of 500,000 people is one of the country’s poorest, and over the past 20 years a heavy military presence has built up there, according to Sang Hnin Lian. Its people have recently been caught up in fighting to its south between ethnic Rakhine rebels and the military.
Sang Hnin Lian said Chin people have been used as human shields in war in the past, and forced to porter or guide the military.
“Portering was one of worst human rights violations, forcing villagers to carry their (rice and equipment) and asking civilian people to guide them when they went to go. And this is still happening in last two years,” Lian said.
And because of decades of conflict, landmines still contaminate many ethnic areas across the country. The Chin Human Rights Organization has documented more than 12 landmine deaths in the state in the last two years.
CNN has reached out to the ruling military regime via email but has not yet received a response.
If the Myanmar military succeeds in establishing a full administration, Lian’s biggest fear is that fighting in ethnic areas will increase.
“There will be more human right violations, loss of life,” he said. “This will of course cause a mass exodus to neighboring countries.”
Anti-coup protests have been ongoing in the Chin state capital Hakha and other areas. Lian said among the biggest demands are for a federal democracy and abolishing the 2008 constitution.
In the months leading up to Myanmar’s independence from the British, an agreement was signed in 1947 between some of the country’s ethnic groups to unify the country in exchange for federal autonomy. Suu Kyi’s father Gen. Aung San led the interim government that negotiated the Panglong Agreement but was assassinated shortly after and the promise of a federal union was never fulfilled.
Instead, successive military rulers subjected minority ethnic people to a policy of forced assimilation called “Burmanization,” which restricted non-Bamar religious and cultural practices, made the Burmese language mandatory in schools, and favored the dominant Buddhist religion.
Non-Bamar ethnic people were oppressed, Lian said. “You could be slapped if you were found not speaking Burmese,” he added.
Since then, Myanmar’s ethnic groups have fought for self-determination of their ancestral lands, where states are run by ethnic people, not by the central government in Naypyidaw.
Karen protect their lands
That long struggle is shared by the Karen, an ethnic minority who mainly live in the Irrawaddy Delta and hilly border regions with Thailand in the country’s east.
Since December, renewed fighting has broken out between the military and the Karen National Union — one of the oldest rebel groups — despite a 2012 ceasefire, forcing villagers to flee their homes.
The Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian group operating on the front lines of many of Myanmar’s conflicts including in Karen, said attacks are the most intense and widespread since 2012 and 6,000 displaced people are sheltering in the forest.
The group’s founder Dave Eubanks believes the increased fighting is directly linked to the coup as the military wants “to exert full control in Burma.”
“The coup evidently was well planned beforehand and we saw the pressure begin to build in the ethnic areas here in December of last year and January and then after the coup even more,” Eubanks said. “Right now the ethnic leaders felt not only are they trying to protect their people and protect the displaced but also they feel in solidarity with the pro-democracy and CDM in the cities and plains of Burma.”
On Tuesday, a statement from more than 2,500 Karen people in 34 villages protested against the army “occupying our land and threatening our lives and peaceful existence.” In solidarity with the anti-coup movement, they demanded the army “immediately withdraws from our territory” and the regime be “held accountable for the crimes that have been committed against ethnic people.”
“We practice self-determination, and we declare that we are the legitimate political authority in our territory. We reject all centrally imposed systems, reject the Burmese military dictatorship and its imposed administrative system in our territory,” the group said. “As custodians of our ancestral territories, we must protect our environment and keep it free from outside interference that threatens to damage our inhabitants.”
Empathy for ethnic struggle
Though an uneasy ceasefire is now in place, fighting in western Rakhine state between the ethnic Arakan Army and the military from November 2018 became one of the most serious and intense conflicts in the country, leading to civilian casualties, 200,000 displaced people and a prolonged internet blackout.
And while ethnic people have united in protests against the military coup, attitudes in western Rakhine state are more complex.
Khine, a Rakhine activist living in Yangon, said for many in the conflict-torn north of the state there is little difference between the military and the ousted NLD government, which backed the army’s recent campaigns in the state.
“The majority (in northern Rakhine) see the two enemies, the NLD and the military, join forces together to fight against the Arakan Army for two years. Now they are fighting each other,” he said.
In March 2020, the government designated the Arakan Army and its political wing a terrorist organization, and in the run up to the November polls the election commission canceled voting in many Rakhine townships, citing security concerns.
Last month, the Arakan National Party — the biggest political party in the state and fierce critics of the NLD — sent a representative to join the military’s State Administration Council, prompting widespread criticism from Rakhine people and civil society.
Khine said the move “totally damaged” the state’s political reputation, so he formed the Arakan Against Dictatorship protest group in Yangon “to show we are against the coup and dictatorship and show solidarity with people here.” Though he said an outcome in which the NLD returned to power under the 2008 constitution would not be worth risking lives over.
The conflict in Rakhine followed the bloody military campaign against the Rohingya. Some Rohingya people now living in refugee camps in Bangladesh have expressed solidarity with protesters, posting on social media or holding their own demonstrations.
The coup has even led to soul searching among the Burmese population, with some apologizing on social media for not recognizing the ethnic struggles.
As the Rohingya crisis unfolded, “the general population in Myanmar shared the same view with the military at the time,” Khine said. When Suu Kyi defended the military’s actions at the ICJ, it may have even increased her popularity ahead of the elections.
“But after the coup, many shared sympathy toward them that the terror happened but we neglected it,” Khine said.
He added to move forward, “feelings and sympathy is not enough, they need to show with their action.”
For many of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, the bloodshed inflicted across the country’s towns and cities this week is a continuation of the oppression they have suffered at the hands of the military for decades.