Southeast Myanmar: a shared struggle for federal democracy
Conflict in southeast Myanmar is shaped by a convergence between the goals of longstanding ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) and newer groups formed in response to the coup.
Edited by Aaron Connelly
Since Myanmar’s independence in 1948, the southeast has been central to struggles over the country’s political future. Both before and after the coup, ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), activists and exiled lawmakers have come together in this area to negotiate a unified stance against the Tatmadaw. Southeast Myanmar has thus long symbolised the possibilities and challenges of finding common ground between ethnic majority-Bamar-led struggles for democracy and minority-led struggles for self-determination.
Today in southeast Myanmar, struggles against the State Administration Council (SAC) junta are led by EAOs coordinating their efforts with the wider anti-coup resistance. Key EAOs in the area – namely the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) – were among the first to denounce the coup and to match their words with military action. Both openly support the shadow National Unity Government (NUG). Among Myanmar’s EAOs, the KNU and KNPP are also remarkable for their extensive cooperation with proximate People’s Defence Forces (PDFs); training them, supplying them and in the KNU’s case, incorporating them under a joint-command structure.
As with previous periods in Myanmar’s history, EAOs and civilians in the southeast have paid a heavy price for opposing the Tatmadaw. The SAC has initiated crackdowns against protesters, engaged in armed clashes, and launched airstrikes against civilian targets. As of April 2022, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees noted that 234,600 people had been internally displaced in the southeast, both before and after the coup. A further approximate 91,000 refugees live in camps in Thailand, most of whom had been displaced before the coup. Moreover, many of those displaced have been absorbed into the Myanmar migrant-worker population in Thailand. Estimates of this population, a large proportion of which is undocumented, range up to four million.
Ethnonationalists and their allies
Parts of Myanmar’s border with Thailand have never been incorporated into the Myanmar nation-state. In 1949, just months after Myanmar’s independence, the KNU – formed out of a coalition of Karen organisations two years prior – rebelled against Myanmar’s incipient government. The KNU had petitioned the British colonial government for autonomy several times to no avail. Amidst worsening communal violence between Bamar and Karen (Myanmar’s second largest ethnic minority) populations, KNU leaders began to consider insurgency inevitable.
The KNU’s rebellion began with a 111-day siege of Insein township, a suburb of Rangoon. In subsequent decades, the Tatmadaw pushed the KNU towards southeast Myanmar, where it operates today. In 1974, a new KNU constitution formalised the external boundaries of Kawthoolei – the Karen homeland it claimed, which spans Myanmar government-designated Kayin State, Mon State, Tanintharyi Region and eastern Bago Region – and the internal boundaries between Kawthoolei’s seven districts. The KNU divided the areas it claimed into seven administrative districts and established hospitals, clinics, schools and government departments in each, which oversaw issues such as agriculture, fisheries, justice and defence. For this reason, the KNU and some other EAOs – such as the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and the United Wa State Army – can be seen not only as armies or insurgents but as de facto governments in the territories they control.
In 1957, the KNU helped establish the KNPP. Like the KNU, the KNPP fought for and maintained ‘liberated zones’ in southeast Myanmar, albeit across a smaller geographic area in Kayah State and neighbouring townships. Both EAOs sustained themselves by taxing the black-market trade across the Thai–Myanmar border, which expanded dramatically after General Ne Win’s 1962 coup isolated Myanmar from the rest of the world.
Karen and Karenni ethnicity
As with other ethnic categories in Myanmar, the origins of the categories ‘Karen’ and ‘Karenni’ (‘red Karen’) continue to be debated. The two groups are related but distinct, with both consisting of several subgroups. The British colonial regime classed Karenni speakers as Karen, although it considered the ‘Karenni States’ to be nominally independent. After Burma’s independence, the central government classified the two groups separately. The origins of this decision are contested: some scholars argue that the Burmese government did this deliberately, seeking to divide the Karen population; others argue that Karenni leaders insisted on a separate ‘Karenni’ classification.
Ne Win also introduced the Tatmadaw’s ‘Four Cuts’ counter-insurgency strategy, through which the Tatmadaw sought to cut insurgents off from their sources of food, funds, intelligence and recruits. Dozens of Karen and Karenni villages were razed to the ground. However, they did not quell the KNU- and KNPP-led ethnonational movements, which persisted at a similar tempo until the early 1990s. Both EAOs were fighting for self-determination, against a central government that had become increasingly repressive towards minorities. In the words of former KNPP representative Teddy Buri, ‘the Karenni people took up arms not because they love war … They took up arms to defend their national identity, to defend sovereignty’.
The conflicts in southeast Myanmar proved pivotal for the rest of Burma in 1988, when the Tatmadaw’s crackdown on the pro-democracy ‘8888 uprising’ drove 5,000 protesters into KNU- and KNPP-controlled areas. This made the KNU’s headquarters at Manerplaw the epicentre not just of the Karen resistance, but also of Burma’s exiled democracy movement. Bamar activists arrived in droves at territories governed by ethnonationalist insurgents. ‘Many were shocked to find schools, hospitals, and the machinery of well-run governments’ the historian Martin Smith wrote, ‘brought up on a strict diet of [Burmese junta] propaganda, they were completely unaware of the scale of the wars raging inside their own country’.
New alliances formed between these unlikely bedfellows. The Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB) was established at Manerplaw, comprising the National Democratic Front – a coalition of twelve non-communist EAOs founded a decade prior, including the KNU (but not the KNPP) – and student activists. At Myanmar’s 1990 general elections, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 80% of the seats contested, but the junta refused to allow the NLD to form a government. Ousted lawmakers also fled to Manerplaw, where they founded the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB). The NCGUB saw itself as Myanmar’s government-in-exile until 2012, when the NLD successfully won a by-election. Ethnonational groups from other parts of Myanmar arrived at Manerplaw too, seeking to take part in vigorous debates over the country’s future. For these reasons, the political scientist Josef Silverstein described Manerplaw during this period as one of Burma’s ‘two centres of politics’, on par with Yangon.
The fall of Manerplaw
However, tensions soon emerged between democracy activists and the southeastern EAOs with whom they sought refuge. Some democracy activists did not sympathise with the EAOs’ aspirations for self-determination and their insistence on armed struggle as a means of achieving it. Bo Mya, then the chairman of the KNU, articulated his frustrations with the democracy movement in an interview years later. ‘We Karen had to feed 5,000 of them’, he said, ‘we gave them weapons… [But] later, they decided that it was not necessary to hold arms’. Bo Mya went on to explain that the NCGUB had typecast the KNU as rebels: ‘as we are rebels and they the “government” [the NCGUB] said, “both the government and the rebels cannot work together”’.
But the Tatmadaw ultimately dealt the final blows to cooperation between Myanmar’s democracy activists and ethnonational fronts. The Communist Party of Burma – then the Tatmadaw’s most formidable opponents – fractured into four northeastern EAOs in 1989. That year, by reopening Burma’s economy to the world, the new State Law and Order Restoration Council junta also undermined the cross-border black market, putting the KNU and KNPP, who depended on taxing this trade, under financial strain. Then in 1994, the KIO, a DAB member, agreed to a truce with the Tatmadaw. The Tatmadaw leveraged these developments by focusing its military might on the southeast, culminating in a devastating attack on Manerplaw on 27 January 1995. Taking advantage of tensions between the KNU’s Christian leadership and its Buddhist foot soldiers, the Tatmadaw encouraged the mutiny of 1,000 Buddhist Karen troops, who formed the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). The DKBA led the Tatmadaw to Manerplaw, who then occupied the headquarters of the KNU, DAB and NCGUB. Manerplaw, once the symbol of a nascent alignment between forces for democracy and self-determination, was destroyed.
The KNU leadership subsequently lost key bases along the Thai border. The KNPP – seeking to avert the same devastating defeat – signed a ceasefire with the Tatmadaw in 1995. However, the KNPP ceasefire broke down within weeks over accusations and counter-accusations of illegal logging and military movements. More than 500,000 people were displaced in southeast Myanmar in total, of whom approximately 150,000 fled to refugee camps on the Thai–Myanmar border. Nine camps remain today; seven predominantly comprise Karen refugees, while two have a Karenni majority.
Manerplaw’s fall undermined Myanmar’s southeastern EAOs. The Tatmadaw’s Four Cuts campaigns fragmented the areas claimed by the KNU, transforming them into a checkerboard of sorts. In the Tatmadaw’s parlance, these consisted of ‘white’ areas (Myanmar government-controlled), ‘black’ areas (KNU-controlled), and ‘brown’ areas (where the Myanmar government, the KNU and other armed groups such as the DKBA were regularly present). Between 1995 and 2011, the Myanmar government expanded its authority into ‘brown’ areas. Despite the KNU’s efforts to continue providing social services in these areas, its legitimacy among local people wavered, as KNU soldiers could no longer provide civilians in ‘brown’ areas the same level of protection from the Tatmadaw. As for the KNPP, the Tatmadaw also whittled down its territory, leaving it with few strongholds, although it maintained a military presence in some townships and provided social services over a more extensive area.
The fall of Manerplaw also triggered changes in Karen and Karenni society writ large. A generation of Karen and Karenni people grew up in refugee camps, in contact with donors, NGOs and sympathetic foreign activists. They founded community-based organisations (CBOs), which pioneered what is known today as cross-border aid, or aid delivered into the southeast’s conflict areas from logistics and management bases along Myanmar’s 5,400 kilometre-long border with Thailand. Cross-border aid, alongside the KNU and KNPP’s social services, provided crucial sustenance to war-weary populations living in EAO-controlled areas. From their bases in Thailand, CBOs also spoke out about the Tatmadaw’s abuses in ethnic areas, at a time when human-rights reporting was severely curtailed across most of Myanmar. The Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO), for instance, became a forerunner in speaking out against the extensive use of sexual violence in conflict during this period.
Bilateral ceasefires and the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement
Both the KNU and the KNPP signed bilateral ceasefires with the Tatmadaw in 2012, less than a year after the Myanmar government transitioned into a quasi-civilian regime. In 2015, the KNU was one of eight EAOs to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), whereas the KNPP was among the 12 that abstained. While these ceasefires halted heavy fighting in most parts of southeast Myanmar, they also deepened EAOs’ mistrust of the Tatmadaw – and later, the NLD, which formed a government for the first time in 2016. This made a realignment between Myanmar’s democracy movement and its various self-determination movements an even remoter possibility.
Of the two EAOs, the KNPP had long been more wary of coalitions involving Bamar groups. Former KNPP chairperson Abel Tweed stated in 1996 that ‘we want all Burmese to recognize that the Karenni are supposed to be a nation … as the Karenni recognize Burma as a nation’. This explains why the KNPP declined to sign the NCA: the KNPP leadership was reluctant to participate in the NCA before their claim to Karenni to nationhood was fully recognised. Subsequent events confirmed the KNPP’s scepticism. In 2019, the NLD government erected a statue of Bamar independence hero, Aung San, in Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State. This unleashed widespread protests among Karennis who perceived the statue as a symbol of Bamar domination. The violent crackdown that followed further indicated that – in the words of a protester – ‘there is no equality among the ethnic groups and no federal democracy’.
As for the KNU, both ceasefires were controversial from the outset. The 1990s Four Cuts campaigns had fragmented the territory claimed by the KNU, which in turn precipitated a split within the organisation. There were vehement disagreements between KNU officials who supported the ceasefires (and were associated with areas lost to the Tatmadaw) and those who opposed them (and were associated with remaining KNU strongholds). While the former dominated the KNU’s leadership, the latter was more popular among the local populations, who became increasingly disillusioned with the stagnant peace process. Karen CBOs, too, spoke out against the ceasefires, citing clashes between the KNU and the Tatmadaw in 2016 and 2018 which displaced approximately a further 7,000 people in total. Consequently, the KNU suspended its participation in peace negotiations after the 2018 clashes, stating that ‘the peace process is not going as well as expected’.
Hence by the time of the coup, despite the ceasefires prevailing over southeast Myanmar, tensions between EAOs and the central government – both the Tatmadaw and the NLD – were building. In part, the KNU and KNPP were responding to the frustrations of their respective grassroots, who perceived that the ceasefires had not resulted in real peace – by which they meant a federal democratic state based on principles of self-determination.
A coordinated fight for federal democracy
In 2021, mass uprisings against the coup brought protesters of various ethnicities together against a common enemy. These offered southeastern EAOs an opportunity to realign themselves with the democratic opposition, which, to a degree unprecedented in Myanmar’s history, appeared willing to acknowledge their complicity in subjugating minority populations in the past. Although protesters initially demanded only respect for the NLD’s victory at the 2020 elections, they soon broadened their demands to include federal reforms. In part, protesters were roused by the SAC’s violent crackdowns, which made the Tatmadaw’s brutality visible to Bamar protesters who had never travelled to Myanmar’s war-affected borderlands.
Simultaneously, in March 2021, ousted NLD lawmakers – organised as the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) – decriminalised all EAOs and declared the 2008 constitution null. The Constitution, which granted the Tatmadaw an unassailable veto over federal reforms, had been a key sticking point during the peace process. Soon after, the CRPH released the Federal Democracy Charter Part I, which it drafted with unnamed EAOs, civil society organisations and political parties. The Charter set out a roadmap towards a Union in which ‘all ethnic nationalities’ were guaranteed ‘equal rights and self-determination’; terms that resonated with the long-held demands of the KNU and KNPP. In April that year, the NUG was formed. The NUG soon announced that it would collaborate with EAOs in order to overthrow the junta, in support of a growing appetite for armed resistance among protesters.
The coup’s aftermath inspired a vision for the future of Myanmar which diverse actors could rally around. For southeastern EAOs, it pointed to the possibility of again aligning their struggles for self-determination with countrywide struggles for democracy. This time, these struggles were coordinated on elite and grassroots levels. Numerous Karen and Karenni civil society groups stood by their respective EAOs’ decisions to denounce the coup, reflecting the extent to which southeast Myanmar’s ethnonational movements are deeply embedded in society.
Southeastern EAOs were among the earliest armed groups to denounce the SAC. Two weeks after the coup, the KNU announced its support for non-violent protests, becoming the first EAO to do so. Both EAOs had also sheltered thousands of protesters by April 2021. Then, the formation of the NUG kickstarted high-level cooperation between southeastern EAOs and the pro-democracy movement, predominantly through the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC). The Council, which launched in November 2021, is a platform for developing a consensus over how to achieve federal democracy in Myanmar. Besides the NUG, CRPH, civil society groups, political parties and striking civil servants, the Council also includes eight EAOs. Only three of these eight EAOs have disclosed their names: the KNU, the KNPP and in northwest Myanmar, the Chin National Front. In March 2022, the Federal Democracy Charter Part II was released, having been drafted and approved by the NUCC. Part II lays out more detailed steps towards achieving federal democracy in Myanmar, such as the NUCC’s involvement in drafting a transitional constitution.
Conflict and governance since the coup
Both EAOs have backed their aspirations for federal democracy with military action. The KNU has participated in regular armed clashes against the SAC in nearly every part of southeast Myanmar except Kayah State. The KNU has also worked in concert with newly formed PDFs, training them, equipping them and incorporating them into a mixed-command structure. According to a KNU spokesman, PDF fighters sometimes function as deputy commanders in a KNU-led unit. Researcher Ye Myo Hein thus estimates that there are approximately 30,000 anti-junta fighters in the Karen theatre, comprising 20,000 members of the KNU and smaller armed groups allied with it, as well as 10,000 PDF fighters.
The fiercest fighting between the KNU and SAC has occurred in two areas. Firstly, Hpapun township – ‘Mutraw’ in the KNU’s parlance – became the KNU’s ‘last stronghold’ in the 1990s. Hpapun, where many villages had never been controlled by the central government, bore the brunt of violence during the clashes with the Tatmadaw in 2016, 2018 and 2020. Since the coup, the SAC has carried out the highest number of airstrikes in Hpapun as compared to all townships in Myanmar. Furthermore, three of the five townships with the highest number of airstrikes since the coup are in the southeast. These represent the first airstrikes against KNU and KNPP targets in 25 years. Airstrikes and clashes in Hpapun resulted in the displacement of 70,000 citizens in March 2021, amounting to 90% of the population. Another epicentre of the KNU–SAC conflict has been Myawaddy township. In December 2021, fighting broke out in Lay Kay Kaw town after a Tatmadaw raid in search of dissidents sheltered by the KNU. The fighting – during which the SAC also deployed airstrikes – caused 15,000 civilians to flee, some to neighbouring Thailand. Lay Kay Kaw was built in 2015 as a resettlement site for returning Karen refugees and was an emblem of rapprochement between the KNU and the central government.
Conflict in Mon State
The Conflict Map also features intense fighting in Mon State’s Kyaikto and Ye townships, where both the KNU and PDFs have clashed with SAC forces. The Kyaikto Revolution Force, for instance, has reportedly worked with the KNU to attack SAC forces, but also worked alone to conduct mine attacks against Tatmadaw convoys. There is also a high incidence of unidentified armed groups in these townships relative to the rest of southeast Myanmar, which likely correspond to mine attacks conducted by PDFs without the assistance of EAOs.
Although the Mon are associated with an EAO – the New Mon State Party (NMSP) – the NMSP, which signed a ceasefire in 1995, has not engaged in fighting since the coup. In May 2022, the NMSP supposedly reached ‘an agreement’ with the junta, although the contents of this are unclear. However, the scale of PDF activity in Mon State suggests that a significant proportion of area’s inhabitants are dissatisfied with the NMSP’s acquiescence towards the SAC. In her discussion of Mon politics since the coup, Mon commentator Kun Wood points towards divisions among the Mon people, writing that the current crisis ‘is like walking but not moving forward’.
Nevertheless, forces under the KNU have launched successful offenses against the Tatmadaw, through which they have captured five Tatmadaw bases since the coup, starting with Hpapun’s Thee Mu Hta base in March 2021. These attacks have also allowed the KNU to recapture territory it lost to the Tatmadaw in decades prior and strengthen its administrative systems therein. According to Ye Myo Hein, the junta’s significant losses in this theatre can be explained by its fighters’ lack of morale, lack of knowledge of local terrain and experience with guerrilla warfare to match that of the KNU.
In Kayah State, a flurry of PDF activity has revitalised the KNPP, which since its 2012 ceasefire, had engaged in few clashes with the Tatmadaw. In May 2021, in response to the SAC’s crackdowns on protesters in Kayah State, five PDFs merged to form the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF), which now claims to have 8,000 fighters. The KNDF chair, Khun Bedu, is also a deputy minister in the NUG, reflecting close cooperation between the NUG and Kayah State’s PDFs. The KNDF regularly cooperates with the KNPP, although they remain separate entities. Altogether, Ye Myo Hein estimates that there are 20,000 anti-junta combatants in Kayah State, encompassing the KNPP, KNDF and smaller PDFs. By February 2022, the KNDF claimed that the SAC only controlled 90% of Kayah State; this figure may have been an exaggeration, but to the extent it was accurate, it would have represented a sea change from the pre-coup situation.
Fighting in Kayah State has been most intense in Demoso township. According to the Institute of Strategy and Policy, 95 out of 123 SAC airstrikes launched up to April 2022 were in Demoso. Demoso’s neighbouring townships – Hpruso, Loikaw, and Pekon – have also experienced significant armed violence. Similar to the Dry Zone, armed conflict here has garnered international attention due to the SAC’s use of brutal scorched-earth tactics, documented in reports of razed villages and charred bodies. As of May 2022, 89,700 people had been displaced in Kayah State, amounting to more than 30% of the population.
Having destabilised the SAC’s grip over the area, various Karenni organisations – including the KNPP, political parties, and other organisations – formed the Karenni State Consultative Council (KSCC) in April 2021. The KSCC has established subcommittees for education, healthcare and humanitarian assistance, with the aim of establishing a new, decentralised and democratic governance system that is true to principles of federal democracy. The KSCC also oversees the Karenni State Police, which was formed in August 2021 out of defecting policemen. The Karenni State Police claims to have established police stations and prisons throughout Kayah State, which hold 80 inmates, including informants and drug dealers. According to Khun Bedu, ‘the NUG is our interim government [of the country] and the KSCC is our interim government of Kayah State’. Correspondingly, the NUG has vowed to recognise the KSCC as such.
Aligning democracy and self-determination
There are three levels on which southeastern EAOs have aligned their struggles for self-determination with the ongoing anti-coup movement. Firstly, they have made public overtures to the NUG, speaking out in support of the NUG and openly participating in the NUCC. Secondly, they have used military action to undermine the SAC’s control of southeast Myanmar, working with PDFs to do so. There are subtle differences between the KNU and KNPP’s approaches to PDFs, which reflect their relative strength: the KNU has chosen to subsume PDFs under its control, whereas the KNPP remains separate from PDFs but coordinates its offensives with them.
Thirdly, both EAOs have expanded their administrative systems in the territories they have wrested from the SAC. Here again, their approaches vary slightly: the KNU is focusing on expanding its own social services, whereas the KNPP is doing so as part of a new coalition of Karenni groups – the KSCC. Nevertheless, both approaches are expressions of the same idea: by administering territories on their own terms, southeastern EAOs seek to reveal the SAC’s incapacity to govern, while demonstrating the viability of a future federal union in which various ethnic groups have the right to manage their own affairs. The struggle in southeast Myanmar is not just about arms, but about which authorities are, in practice, serving local populations and managing the lands they inhabit.
By administering territories on their own terms, southeastern EAOs seek to reveal the SAC’s incapacity to govern, while demonstrating the viability of a future federal union in which various ethnic groups have the right to manage their own affairs.
Nonetheless, cooperation between southeastern EAOs and the wider resistance movement has not been frictionless. There have been and continue to be disagreements over the extent to which EAOs, PDFs and the NUG are fighting for the same goals. In April 2022, the KNPP opposed the CRPH’s plans to implement an interim administration in Kayah State. The KNPP contended that the CRPH’s plans ran contrary to the Federal Democracy Charter, therefore attesting both to historic tensions between democracy and self-determination and to the importance of the Charter’s role in mediating them.
Tensions have also resurfaced within the KNU and may continue to do so. In July 2022, a KNU breakaway group formed: the Kawthoolei Army, led by Brigadier-General Nerdah Bo Mya, who had disagreed with the KNU leadership over how to mete out punishment against the junta. A year earlier, the KNU had suspended Nerdah Bo Mya, formerly the commander-in-chief of one of the KNU’s two armed forces, for killing 25 civilians who he claimed were SAC spies. The KNU insisted that it sought to uphold ‘international standards’ – human rights groups had accused Nerdah Bo Mya of contravening the Geneva Convention – and expelled him in January 2022. The Kawthoolei Army is still decisively anti-SAC, and both sides claim to be working towards a tolerant coexistence. The KNU, which remains by far the largest armed group in Karen areas and the only Karen EAO with mechanisms for governing local populations, is also unlikely to renege on its anti-SAC stance. However, some factions in the organisation believe that the KNU could do more to challenge the SAC. The KNU is due to re-elect its leadership in a quadrennial meeting that has already been repeatedly postponed. A new leadership could choose to steer the KNU towards an even harder stance against the junta.
Geographical location is critical to the southeast’s unique place in Myanmar politics, as a patchwork of EAO-controlled areas, refugee camps and key border towns in the Thai–Myanmar borderland has hosted a variety of groups struggling against military rule. This has given rise not only to southeastern EAOs willing to challenge the SAC, but also community-based organisations which provide humanitarian assistance while working towards federalism, democracy and peace among war-affected populations. Since the coup, cross-border aid – and CBOs’ decades of experience in providing it – has become an a increasingly important means of getting aid into southeast Myanmar and beyond while bypassing areas controlled by the junta. Moreover, despite the Thai government’s good relations with the SAC, the coup has once again made the Thai–Myanmar borderland a place of refuge for exiles imagining a new future for the country. This borderland is critical not only to the KNU and KNPP, but to the arduous task of once again interweaving various groups’ enduring struggles for democracy and self-determination.
Dr Shona Loong is a senior scientist in political geography at the University of Zurich, and a non-resident Associate Fellow for Southeast Asian Politics and Foreign Policy at the IISS. Her research focuses on conflict, peacebuilding, and the politics of development in Myanmar and its borderlands.