Myanmar has never been a nation. Could it become one now?

In the face of military violence, solidarity between minority ethnic groups and Bamar-majority political forces is growing.

Karen refugees carrying belongings are seen at Salween riverbank in Mae Hong Son, Thailand on March 29, 2021 [Karen Women's Organization/Handout via Reuters]

Since February 1, when the Myanmar military carried out a coup against the country’s civilian government, protests, strikes and other forms of civil disobedience have been taking place across the country. In response, the army, also known as Tatmadaw, has deployed brutal force to suppress dissent, killing over 600 people, at least 46 of them children.

Much of the violence has taken place in major cities, as well as the periphery of the country. Since late March, there have been repeated aerial bombings in Karen state, resulting in roughly 19 people killed, more than 40 injured and thousands displaced. The Tatmadaw has also escalated military activities in Kachin state and increased violence towards civilians in Karenni state. Fighting has also displaced more than 1,000 people and killed civilians in Shan State.

That such attacks are taking place should not come as a surprise. Growing solidarity is emerging between the various ethnic groups, which have been victimised by the Myanmar military for decades and make up almost a third of the population, and the Bamar majority and ethnic peoples who are in the streets struggling against the coup. This certainly has worried the military leadership and may explain the increased aggression.

In seeking to resolve the situation in Myanmar and bring back civilian rule, the international community should not repeat its past mistakes. It should understand that the country has never had a unified nation and acknowledge the aspirations of the different ethnic groups within its borders.

A disunited nation

The foundation for Myanmar’s longstanding ethnic conflicts was laid during British colonisation, which began in 1824. British colonisers imposed racial categories and hierarchies of favour to divide and rule the population. During World War II, ethnic groups, such as the Karen, fought on the side of the British against the Burmese, hoping to get in return an independent state.

After the British left in 1948, the Karen and other ethnic groups continued their struggle for self-determination and to this day they refuse the imposed vision of a Burmese nation. There have been movements of autonomy or independence among numerous groups which have manifested in dozens of ethnic armies and parties.

Of the many conflicts these aspirations have resulted in, the struggle of the Karen National Union (KNU) for autonomy is widely considered one of the world’s longest-running conflicts. In 2015, the KNU signed the multilateral Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) along with several other ethnic armed organisations and became involved in the Myanmar Peace Process. But this has not resolved tensions. The Myanmar military has continued to expand army bases and roads through Karen territories in violation of ceasefire agreements, provoking frequent armed clashes with the KNU. In 2018, the KNU as well as the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), the two most important signatories, suspended their involvement in the peace process, which has now completely broken down after the February 1 coup.

The lack of understanding within the international community and media towards the ethnonational dynamics in Myanmar was made apparent when in 2017, just two years after the start of the peace process, the army undertook a massive ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya people in Rakhine state. The massacres, sexual violence and mass expulsions of civilians shocked the world, and so did opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to defend the genocidal actions of the army.

But to members of Myanmar’s various ethnic nationalities, this was not surprising. They have long pointed to the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of a Burmese general and her National League for Democracy (NLD) has operated under a political worldview rooted in Burmanisation: the cultural domination and erasure of ethnic minority languages, cultures, religions and territories by the ethnic Bamar majority.

Myanmar is better understood not as a cohesive nation, but as a territory forced together by the iron grip of the military, fraying at its edges. The ethnic armed groups which are clashing with the army are not just “rebels”, but in many cases de facto governing bodies in parts of the country long abandoned by the central authorities. The people living in these territories understand themselves as citizens of independent, sovereign states.

In collaboration with local civil society, these ethnic organisations provide healthcare, education and other social services while fulfilling virtually all functions of the state. In contrast, the central Myanmar government has never consistently achieved this even in the territories it controls. Thus, these de facto ethnic states could (and, we argue, should) be considered more legitimate than the brutal junta, which most Bamar citizens do not support. In fact, ethnic armed organisations have long been an essential, if overlooked, element in resisting dictatorship in Myanmar. The same is true today.

Anti-coup resistance

The one unifying factor among the diverse peoples in the country has been the oppressive decades-long rule of the military. In the wake of the February 1 coup, these groups are increasingly united in their opposition to the military junta, if coming from different perspectives.

They are beginning to communicate across their differences more than ever before. This is despite reservations among ethnic nationalities who share a pervasive sense of betrayal by Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the NLD. Could this be the moment of genesis for a shared political imaginary – one rooted in something other than cultural hegemony by the dominant Bamar ethnic group? The ferocity with which the Myanmar military is responding to this newfound inter-ethnic solidarity suggests this may be happening.

Protests against military rule, including the far-reaching Civil Disobedience Movement, continue across the country despite the brutal crackdown. It is increasingly clear that this moment is about much more than simply the release and reinstatement of Aung San Suu Kyi and other detained NLD party members. In Yangon and Mandalay, ethnically diverse cities with a Bamar majority, red headbands and images of Aung San Suu Kyi mix with ethnic nationality flags and traditional dress, as well as signs bearing messages such as, “Myanmar Military Stop Stealing Indigenous Lands” demanding federal democracy.

Meanwhile, in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, and in Karen-controlled Mutraw (Hpapun) District, different kinds of protests have been taking place: ones rejecting the military junta while asserting ethnic national identity and sovereignty.

Fervent calls from many protesters have resulted in the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the country’s parallel civilian government, announcing plans to abolish the 2008 constitution which enshrined the army’s control of the government. This represents a major turning point for the county. For many ethnic activists in particular, it represents a moment that many have worked for their entire lives.

Inter-ethnic solidarity in the protest movement has also moved the country much closer towards federal democracy than could have been imagined only a few months ago. Now even members of the Bamar majority are increasingly contending with the reality of being part of a diverse, multi-ethnic political entity. This emerging multi-ethnic coalition is a constituency united primarily by decades of exhausting life, and death, under the boot of the Tatmadaw.

There is also a legacy of support between ethnic nations and pro-democracy activists that dates back to the 1988 uprising or “People’s Democracy Movement”. This was a working class and student-led movement protesting against grinding poverty under an isolationist totalitarian regime, which focused resources on strengthening the military while its people suffered. It was during this protest movement that Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a leader. However, the breadth of solidarity now evolving across ethnic lines in Myanmar and its borderlands in opposition to the military regime is unprecedented.

Generation Z youth is a driving force in the protest movement and is at the forefront of calls for ethnic minority rights. Thanks to their active internet and mobile use, members of this generation have had much broader exposure to images and news of civil wars along the country’s borders than their parents ever did. Access to the internet only became widely available in Myanmar after 2014 and has been repeatedly curbed in various areas since then, including now during the anti-Tatmadaw protests.

The General Strike Committee of Nationalities, formed by a younger and more ethnically diverse crowd than the CRPH, and responsible for coordinating protests all across the country, has outlined its aim of establishing a federal democracy in which ethnic nationalities have equal representation in government. It has managed over the past few weeks to establish a sweeping political imagination that moves beyond ethnic majority domination, beyond vestiges of colonialism and the genocidal violence of the modern Myanmar state. It combines the perspectives and interests of all peoples of Myanmar.

There is also a realisation among members of the civilian government and parliament that ethnic minorities are valuable allies that the country should go towards. The CRPH has removed the country’s ethnic armed organisations from the state terrorist list. This is a substantial step towards building unity among the diverse nations in the country.

Ethnic nationalities are cautious about trusting such an alliance, given the historic injustices and betrayal by the previous NLD government. However, it is worth noting that the anti-fascist Bamar-ethnic contingency in central Myanmar, unlike the ethnic administrations, does not have its own military. Thus, the anti-coup movement will become increasingly dependent on ethnic states and their armed wings in the likely absence of a foreign intervention. Indeed, there is every indication of a strong will to work together across ethnic groups for the overthrow of military rule.

More and more civilians from urban areas, most of them Bamar, including most of the members of the CRPH, are now becoming displaced and taking shelter in areas controlled by ethnic armed organisations. The KNU alone says that they are providing food and shelter to more than 2,000 refugees. It has also reported that army soldiers have defected to KNU territory to join the opposition to the coup. These developments highlight the increasingly important role of ethnic armed organisations in the struggle against the military.

A product of the era of post-colonial nationalism, Myanmar has not yet achieved a shared political imaginary among the numerous ethnic nationalities within its borders. The assumption that Myanmar is a coherent nation fundamentally hinders appropriate international response to ongoing state violence.

The reality is that a shared anti-authoritarian vision of the national project is, as of yet, undetermined. This is an incredibly raw and painful moment, as activists and civilian leaders are taken from their homes and as innocent protesters and ethnic civilians are killed daily in growing numbers. It is also a moment ripe with possibility, as new grammars of emancipation begin to take form. For Karen, Rohingya, Kachin, and the many other non-Burman ethnic nations, a return to the status quo is out of the question.

In light of the coup and the two months of protests, it is time for the international community to change its approach to Myanmar. It should realise it was a mistake to promote and fund the deeply flawed peace process amid the Tatmadaw’s never-ending attacks in ethnic territories. Donor governments should acknowledge they failed to take ethnic concerns seriously.

The United Nations and the governments of the world should cease to engage with the coup-makers and stop supporting the now undeniably failed peace process. They have the tremendous power and responsibility to engage with the pro-democracy forces in the country which aim to establish a new regime of governance that guarantees the political, cultural and territorial rights of all ethnic groups in the country.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.