The idea of a Federal Army for Myanmar is as old as the country’s struggle for democracy. The vision is a part of the larger picture of decentralization and democratization of the multiethnic nation of 54 million and was first seriously floated in 1988 as a counterweight to Tatmadaw and to rally the support of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) during 8888 Uprising. The idea has recently received unprecedented momentum following the ousting of NLD-led civilian government on February 1, 2021. The formation of an EAO-supported People’s Defense Force (PDF) that amalgamates the Bamar youth with anti-junta ethnic rebels has sparked new optimism in this regard. Spontaneous attacks from civilian resistance fighters and other similar groups, such as Taze People’s Comrades, Kalay Civil Army and Chinland Defence Force have also contributed significantly to this growing interest.
Considering the context, raising the issue of Federal Army may appear premature to some. For the time being, the focus rests on the ousting of usurpers. However, one can also define the current situation as decisive battle for Myanmar’s future which has made a return to post-2008 arrangements almost impossible. Where the dreams and aspirations of the people of Myanmar lie have never been clearer. The junta would never achieve stability, let alone development. For Thant Myint-U, the rule of junta would lead Myanmar to the brink of state failure, but a new Myanmar would rise victorious on the other rise of the tunnel; its youth would chart the future. In that sense, a Federal Myanmar is more relevant now than ever. A new Myanmar must learn from its past mistakes.
While no EAO has so far outright opposed the idea of forming a Federal Army, implementation of such ambitious initiative would need to address a myriad of grievances and demands and may call for great sacrifices from both the Center and ‘non-state’ peripheries. Broadly speaking, despite having one common foe, the Tatmadaw, one can hardly say the NLD and EAOs got along well during the five years of NLD rule. However, with the coup, the tables are now turned and the EAOs have a much larger say in its talks with deposed NLD leaders. Regardless of this newfound congeniality, the proverbial ‘elephants in the [negotiating] room’ are many.
Firstly, the lack of trust between NLD and EAOs runs deep. The five-year NLD rule has only further deepened EAOs’ lack of confidence in Bamar politicians. Aung Sun Suu Kyi, on several occasions, has made it clear that any substantial effort for federalization can come only after proper democratization of Myanmar. This vision may seem a pragmatic one on several grounds. Nevertheless, NLD, while in power, adopted a policy of Tatmadaw appeasement, the common foe that binds it in alliance with the EAOs, raising questions how sincere NLD is to the cause of federalization. Moreover, NLD never questioned Tatmadaw’s handling of insurgencies. It sealed its lips when the Military launched its ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’ campaign against the Rohingyas and Suu Kyi even defended the Generals on International Court of Justice (ICJ). Two years later, when Tatmadaw again launched another violent crackdown in Rakhine, this time against Arakan Army, NLD assumed the role of a cheerleader. The President’s Office, in an utterly unnecessary move, released a statement, urging the military to “crush the [Arakan Army] terrorists”. While an NLD-appointed Chief Minister was in power, Rakhine state saw the world’s longest running internet shutdown. Ironically, in Rakhine, internet was restored in full capacity only after the military took over on February 1.
The stories of grievances are not limited to Rakhine only. Though NLD hosted the 1st 21st century Panglong Conference in 2016, the EAOs who did not agree to the ‘repressive’ terms of ceasefire were excluded. Rather than addressing grievances, building trust and holding informal talks, Suu Kyi government focused more on making demands that were unrealistic at that stage, such as: disarmament, demobilization and reintegration.
Secondly, the NLD government has also managed to even further marginalize the ethnic political parties as well. Instead of forming meaningful alliances, NLD focused more on solidifying stronghold in ethnic states, much to the chagrin of local political parties. Aung Sun Suu Kyi adopted a winner-take-all approach, hardly showing any intention to compromise, share power or show reconciliatory tone. During NLD’s term, the Ethnic political parties brought up recommendations for more than 3,000 amendments to constitution, crucial for a decentralized government. NLD did not endorse any of those proposals. Such stance eventually caused divide between NLD and ethnic parties. It was NLD that proposed Myanmar Hluttaw Committee Law to put the state and regional Hluttaws (legislatures) on a much tighter leash, drawing harsh opposition from ethnic parties and also ironically, from Tatmadaw representatives.
Thirdly, the internal structures of the EAOs and the way they operate also pose a threat to the formation of any Federal Army. Much like the state of Myanmar, the EAOs are not monolithic entities. While acknowledging that a Federal Army would be an ideal win-win outcome for both NLD and EAOs, Padoh Taw Nee, the Head of Foreign Affairs for the Karen National Union (KNU), also voiced his doubt in a recent interview, “Ethnic coordination is very, very difficult from the north to the south. They are different in their ideas, their thinking, their nature and history, as well as geographically.” In the same article, Twan Mrat Nain, the founder and commander-in-chief of the Arakan Army (AA), was quoted saying, “he could not see the AA joining a federal army but would be more inclined to forming or strengthening a coalition among ethnic militaries, similar to the existing Northern Alliance among four such groups in Myanmar’s highlands.”
Internal contention and fragmentation often prompt EAOs take decisions that are suboptimal to their greater interest. Each EAO, in many cases, has sub-groups, such as the top elites, grass root soldiers and activists and also criminal gangs. There are instances where such roles overlap. Different EAOs also clash with each other for control over territory and business interests. Subsiding differences to form once single chain of command would require larger understanding and trust.
Besides, there is always a chance of Tatmadaw implementing its well-known ‘Divide-and-Rule’ policy, i.e. having ceasefire and good relations with some EAOs while cracking down on others. Since the coup, Tatmadaw held meetings with the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the most powerful and organized EAO in Myanmar. Tatmadaw-backed Myanmar Time reported that there had been three meetings in eight months between Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and UWSA representatives. UWSA has maintained strict silence on the issue of coup. There are also reports of Tatmadaw courting Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP), the political wing of Shan State Army (SSA).
Fourthly, Formation a Federal Army is subject to the win of pro-democratic forces and total dismantling of Tatmadaw as we know it. If the ongoing stalemate and instability persists for too long, it would put the People’s Defense Force (PDF), dubbed as the precursor of Federal Army, in a highly precarious position. PDF’s predecessor in this regard, All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) enjoyed a broader access to Thai grey weapon markets and external support. A sustainable armed struggle for democracy requires recognition of NUG by countries sympathetic to its cause and other forms of supports, particularly from neighboring countries. The latter has, so far, been unlikely. A prolonged civil war in Myanmar, causing refugees and spike in narcotic trade, would be highly detrimental to the interests of neighboring China, India, Thailand, Laos, and Bangladesh. Based on the reactions to the military takeover and pragmatic geopolitical calculations, ASEAN as well as neighboring countries are likely to focus more on end of violence than engaging themselves in risky regime change game. Besides, EAOs, on several occasions, have been found to be susceptible to Chinese influence and engagement to a varying degree. One may question whether this susceptibility could extend to PDF. Given China’s ongoing ambitious infrastructure and energy projects in Myanmar, Beijing is far less likely to muddy the water even more.
Fifthly, NLD has often been criticized for resembling a ‘personality cult’. Even if, in near future, an NLD-led central government is restored defying all odds, it is uncertain whether Suu Kyi will follow through the promises made by NUG and CRPH leaders. Besides, the EAOs cannot possibly rule out a possibility where NLD would be tempted by the Tatmadaw at some point in future with a promising power-sharing arrangement.
The vision of a Federal Army for Myanmar transcends the event of a coup but is still at an embryonic stage. The questions that need to be raised and answered for the formation of a Federal Army are the same questions that need addressing for the emergence of Myanmar as a modern consolidated state. For now, one can only say that the situation is ripe and the decisive factors are all in right places.