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The Role of Ethnic Minorities in Myanmar

Ana Rosa Del Rey Revilla, Charlotte Morton, Hayden Cribbon, PACOM

Date: April 18, 2021


The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) is one of the ethnic-based paramilitary groups in Myanmar[1]


Ethnic minorities are estimated to represent between 30% and 40% of Myanmar’s population. Multiple ethnic-based armed groups are active in the country, where they have carried out an insurgency for decades. Amid the intense socio-political unrest in the wake of the February 1 coup that brought the military (Tatmadaw) in power once again, many of these groups have expressed their support for pro-democracy protesters against the regime. There are credible concerns that this will lead to a renewed escalation of violence between these paramilitary groups and the Tatmadaw, which may escalate to a civil war or genocidal acts. This would not only deteriorate Myanmar’s stability and domestic security but would also likely result in mass displacements of people in neighboring countries with serious humanitarian and security consequences.


Ethnic minorities living in Myanmar include the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Rohingya, and Shan. Myanmar’s minorities make up approximately 30% to 40% of its 52 million population.[2] The ethnic minority regions in Myanmar makeup half of the land area and are concentrated in areas close to the country’s borders.[3] Myanmar has experienced ethnic-based strife since independence in 1948, with the ethnic minorities calling for autonomy or even secession. The coup is reviving these centrifuge tendencies as the Tatmadaw is determined to preserve the unity of the country and the prerogatives of the central government. The distribution of minorities increases the risk of conflict spillover to other countries, especially those where the same ethnic groups are present, such as Thailand.


There are up to 21 armed groups fighting in Myanmar, alongside many local militias.[4] Such paramilitary groups are fighting against the Tatmadaw, and in some cases against each other. Among them, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) is one of the most well-known internationally, but the most relevant paramilitary organizations present within Myanmar’s ethnic groups also include the Karen National Union (KNU), the United Wa State Army (UWSA), and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).[5] [6] Such groups represent a variety of ethnic, religious, and tribal communities. They have the potential to unite their efforts, building a community and fighting for their respective regions. Alternatively, the paramilitary groups may act independently, representing a set of specific ideals or beliefs. This variation in the goals and intentions of paramilitary groups in Myanmar is the main obstacle to unity between them.


In eastern Karen State, recent airstrikes have displaced thousands of civilians, causing many of them to flee to Thailand.[7] To the west, the Rohingya minority resides in Rakhine State, but more than 700,000 have fled out of the country since the government launched a military campaign in 2017.[8] In 2018 the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar described the Tatmadaw’s military campaign as “clearance operations” in minority regions, in which large-scale massacres, civilian killings, mass gang-rape, burning, and looting was perpetrated.[9] The targeting of Myanmar’s minority groups is likely to have created chaos within their communities, therefore limiting effective communication and weakening their ability to maintain control over the regions they have previously inhabited. One repercussion of this is that solidarity between minority groups in Myanmar is likely to be made more difficult, enabling the Tatmadaw to effectively achieve a division between groups.


The Tatmadaw relies on the hostility between ethnic groups because the possibility of an alliance between such groups threatens their power. This may be one reason why the Tatmadaw has imposed a high degree of force within the minority groups, as weakening and dividing the minorities will allow the military Myanmar government to maintain control. A trend that has arisen during the media coverage of the Myanmar crisis is that the targeting of the Rohingya community by the military junta has received more attention than other groups. One possible reason for this disproportionate reporting is that it was difficult to acquire information about the violence at the beginning of the crisis in 2017 due to the chaotic situation, so all media outlets focused on the Rohingyas when the first reports came, also because of the large scale of the phenomenon. As a result, the Rohingya persecution became a matter of international concern, leaving other groups medically marginalized. This may have contributed to the lack of an effective resolution to the crisis to date. The international community is largely unaware of how many minorities were involved, which further played into the divide that already existed between groups. If the international community recognized the potential influence that all minority groups could have in combating the crisis if they banded together, such a resolution could have taken place and the Tatmadaw may have faced greater resistance. However, this joint effort by ethnic minorities was and remains an unlikely scenario because of geographic fragmentation, difficult communications and transports as a result of the rugged terrain, and divergences between the various communities.


The minority groups are made up of communities that face disproportionate discrimination as a result of the violence in Myanmar. Such communities encompass a range of gender and sexuality identifications, such as women, transgender, and homosexual communities. These categories are discriminated against regardless of their ethnic grouping, but the phenomenon is particularly prevalent in Myanmar’s ethnic minority groups. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified gender-specific discrimination because women who were previously at risk of poverty, dropping out of school, early marriage, and domestic violence are currently at greater risk.[10] One tactic used by the Tatmadaw is sexual and gender-based violence, such as rape against women, children, and transgender people.[11] One possible reason for this is that the government is trying to reduce the number of minority civilians in Myanmar and such gender-based targeting may deter women and girls from returning to their homes, thus limiting reproduction from occurring within the minority communities. The mass forced relocation of the Rohingya population is likely to have interrupted their stable employment and school curriculum, further disadvantaging this minority group.


Almost since its independence from Britain, Myanmar has been struggling with ethnic minorities calling for independence or a federalist system in the country. Even though the relationship between ethnic minorities and the former civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has never been based on complete trust, the situation that the country is experiencing right now could lead to a certain understanding between them. Since the coup d'état took place in the country on February 1, the Tatmadaw has feared an organized response from ethnic-based armed groups. Their armed organization and the possibility that they carry out a coordinated response against the military government has been a matter of concern for the Tatmadaw, as it would force it to a complex and probably long counter-insurgency campaign that would, in turn, reduce its ability to suppress dissent and maintain its grip on power. In addition, the human rights abuses that would likely ensue would further isolate the military and push the international community to introduce new sanctions on the regime.


On the day of the coup d'état it offered a truce to some ethnic-based armed groups including the Peace Process Steering Team (PPST) which includes 12 minorities that had signed the 2015 National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).[12] The offer was not only rejected, but the group affirmed its support for pro-democracy protesters. The situation has since become noticeably much more dangerous. The Tatmadaw has responded with violence against the generally peaceful protesters who were demanding the release of their civilian leader and a return to democracy. Since the coup d'état took place, the deaths at the hands of the military have increased significantly, now reaching more than 700.[13] Given this situation and the flagrant violations of human rights, armed groups of ethnic minorities seem to represent the last alternative to Myanmar citizens.


Armed groups have repeatedly stated their support for a return to democracy, which inherently implies supporting protesters. However, the underlying long-term problem is the lack of agreement between the paramilitary groups and NLD supporters. Since the former demand greater autonomy for ethnic minorities while the latter a return to a democratic government that does not necessarily imply decentralization to areas where minorities live. But despite this lack of understanding between the two, there is a common objective in the return to democracy, which begins by distancing the military from the government of the country. On the other hand, also in response to the high number of casualties among civilians, the paramilitary groups have threatened to join forces and confront the Tatmadaw if violence and human rights violations do not stop. This is the main reason why neighboring countries and the international community as a whole must monitor the development of events in the coming months in the country. Not only because of the violation of human rights that needs an urgent response, but also if not mainly because a possible confrontation between the paramilitary groups allied with the pro-democratic protesters could lead to a civil war against the Tatmadaw.


If ethnic-based armed groups and pro-democracy protesters join forces in an armed and coordinated strategy, the Tatmadaw’s responses could be even more violent. From water cannons, rubber ball shots, and arrests, to real near-death shots, the measures have increased in their level of violence and aggressiveness over the days.[14] All of these tactics have been Tatmadaw’s responses to peaceful protests, blockades of main avenues, and street graffiti by protesters. Everything points to the fact that if these peaceful tactics of the protesters are transformed into armed and more violent tactics, the real risk of a civil war would increase significantly. The violence and the deaths would increase even more in the streets of a country that threatens to become torn by violence and systematic violations of human rights.


Following the coup, instability inevitably threatens peace and security in the region. Minorities who have been historically persecuted are especially at risk as the newly-formed government seeks to consolidate its power by galvanizing the public against them. This can culminate in genocidal policies that can contribute to not only the deterioration of security in Myanmar but also the wider region, as persecuted minorities flee across borders to seek asylum in neighboring countries. Mass migration can lead to extremely precarious living conditions, as often migrating populations have insufficient access to food, water, and other vital resources; while also being vulnerable to attack as they are traveling with women and children across unknown terrain.

As a result of the historical ethnic and political tensions within Myanmar, minorities like the Rohingya Muslims have already faced mass displacement due to threats of persecution and genocidal violence. The coup is most likely going to result in escalating these pre-existing tensions to the point that conflict between the Tatmadaw government and militarily capable minorities becomes increasingly severe. Myanmar's minority ethnic groups are already facing increasing uncertainty in the borderlands of Myanmar where they live, and If factional violence continues to escalate, further mass displacement will be a consequence for not only historically persecuted minorities but also those who happen to be caught in conflict zones. The waning security of minorities was thrust in the spotlight recently as the military launched airstrikes against ethnic Karen guerrillas in their homeland on the eastern border, displacing thousands and sending civilians fleeing into neighboring Thailand.


Those who did not flee across the neighboring borders are hiding in concealed camps and are too afraid to return to their farms to plant their crops as they usually would before the rainy season.[15] Minorities in Eastern Myanmar are effectively stranded in these camps and as a result, the annual return from their harvest will be forfeited this year. Therefore, even when disregarding the immediate threat to their lives, the post-coup effect will be disastrous for these displaced people, as they will likely face a crippling blow to their financial and food security. Furthermore, humanitarian aid for civilians in the borderlands has already been strained by the pandemic, and communication with NGOs has become nearly impossible in remote camps. If the conflict in borderlands increases in severity and prevalence, it is likely Myanmar experiences diminishing food security due to the country’s already low-level food storage resources and capabilities.

Another critical factor in the aftermath following the coup is the potential for militarized minorities and militias to join forces to confront and challenge the junta government. After the killings of hundreds of pro-democracy protesters, several of the rebel armies have threatened to take collective action if the killing of civilians does not stop. This scenario remains unlikely due to inter-community divergences, geographic fragmentation, and difficult communications and transports. However, if this is to eventuate, a civil war would not be out of the question, which clearly would place the security of the country and the region in danger. Furthermore, If militia groups in the borderlands use the coup as an opportunity to challenge the Junta and expand their territories, they will likely be met with strong military action and a prolonged conflict between the government and the militias will result. This is because the Tatmadaw have profited hugely from occupying areas rich in resources such as tobacco fields and gold, ruby, amber, and jade mines, therefore the Tatmadaw are unlikely to concede these areas in a bid to ease tensions.


The Counterterrorism Group’s (CTG) PACOM team recommends that international organizations and governments of neighboring countries reinforce their commitment to international human rights standards by working collaboratively to foster the return of democracy in Myanmar as soon as possible. This could come in the form of increasing diplomatic dialogue with key stakeholders in the country to help prevent and stop human rights violations, including among ethnic minorities. Sanctions are advisable to punish those responsible for such violations and to deter them in the future. In the long term, mediation should be aimed at finding a compromise solution between the central government and ethnic minorities. If the situation escalated to an armed conflict, the international community and NGOs should attentively monitor the situation to detect any human rights violation by any of the warring parties and to deliver humanitarian aid to affected civilian populations. The PACOM team will continue to monitor any development in Myanmar that could change our recommendations to the governments and international organizations. Please contact us for further assistance.

_______________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Kachin State Under Siege” by AK Rockefeller, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

[2] Minorities in Myanmar borderlands face fresh fear since coup, AP NEWS, April 2021, https://apnews.com/article/aung-san-suu-kyi-myanmar-indonesia-united-nations-asia-pacific-1b69c4069a7d60abc0da399038c23567

[3] World directory of minorities and indigenous people: Myanmar/Burma, Minority rights group international, November 2020, https://minorityrights.org/country/myanmarburma/#:~:text=Burma's%20geographic%20position%20has%20resulted,inhabit%20half%20the%20land%20area.

[4] Myanmar coup: Ethnic minorities, pro-democracy protesters warily united, DW, February 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/myanmar-coup-ethnic-minorities-pro-democracy-protesters-warily-united/a-56685579

[5] Militias in Myanmar, The Asia Foundation, July 2016, https://asiafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Militias-in-Myanmar.pdf

[6] Myanmar coup: Ethnic minorities, pro-democracy protesters warily united, DW, February 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/myanmar-coup-ethnic-minorities-pro-democracy-protesters-warily-united/a-56685579

[7] Minorities in Myanmar borderlands face fresh fear since coup, AP NEWS, April 2021, https://apnews.com/article/aung-san-suu-kyi-myanmar-indonesia-united-nations-asia-pacific-1b69c4069a7d60abc0da399038c23567

[8] The Rohingya Crisis, Council on Foreign Relations, January 2020, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/rohingya-crisis

[9] Statement by Mr. Marzuki Darusman, Chairperson of the United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, at the Security Council, United Nations Human Rights Council, October 2018, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/Pages/NewsDetail.aspx?NewsID=23778&LangID=E

[10] Overview of Australia’s development partnership with Myanmar, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2021, https://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/myanmar/development-assistance/development-assistance-in-myanmar

[11] Sexual and gender-based violence in Myanmar and the gendered impact of its ethnic conflicts, Human Rights Council of United Nations, September 2019, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/FFM-Myanmar/sexualviolence/A_HRC_CRP_4.pdf

[12] Ibid.

[13] Myanmar coup: The people shot dead since the protests began, BBC, April 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-56636345#:~:text=More%20than%20700%20people%20have,three%20people%20who%20have%20died

[14] Myanmar anti-coup protesters met with water cannon and rubber bullets, NBC News, February 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/anti-coup-protesters-myanmar-met-water-cannons-rubber-bullets-n1257116

[15] Minorities in Myanmar borderlands face fresh fear since coup, AP NEWS, April 2021, https://apnews.com/article/aung-san-suu-kyi-myanmar-indonesia-united-nations-asia-pacific-1b69c4069a7d60abc0da399038c23567

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