Amid Myanmar’s civil war, unity emerges… | News and reports
For the first time since we can remember, members of Myanmar’s majority Bamar people are seeking long-term solidarity with the country’s ethnic minorities. Since a February 2021 coup stunned the world, the military, known as the Tatmadaw, has violently suppressed both Bamar and ethnic minority citizens protesting its takeover. His tactics included burning entire villages and firing heavy artillery at his own people. So far, more than 2,000 people have been killed in his nationwide civil war with the poorly armed People’s Defense Forces (PDF).
The Christian NGO Free Burma Rangers (FBR), which has trained 6,000 ethnic minorities as first responders over the past two decades, has watched this growing unity closely. Increasingly, young Bamar in cities like Yangon and Mandalay have given up on their college educations and careers to aid the growing grassroots resistance. Some have gone into the jungle to learn from armed ethnic groups how to fight the Tatmadaw. Others have joined FBR trainings, where trainees alternate between intense physical training and learning how to bandage a gunshot wound or navigate dense jungle terrain.
Even as Myanmar faces its worst fighting in 70 years as a free nation, many point to unprecedented unity across ethnic and religious divides. While the country’s Buddhist nationalist leaders had previously declared that Myanmar belonged solely to the Buddhist Bamar, people from all walks of life have now banded together against the common enemy of the military junta.
“This has never happened in Burma, never in 29 years here,” said FBR’s Dave Eubank. “What you have is hope.”
“You are not an authentic Burmese”
Religion and ethnicity have long been intertwined with politics in Myanmar, also known as Burma: the country has around 130 ethnic groups, the largest being the Bamar, who make up 68% of the population. The Bamar also make up most of the country’s elite, including the Tatmadaw, and have long clashed with other ethnic groups seeking greater autonomy.
Most Bamar practice a mixture of Theravada Buddhism and indigenous Burmese folk religion. Buddhism is the state religion and nearly 90% of the population practices Buddhism. Christianity, which is mainly practiced by the Kachin, Chin, Karenni and Karen ethnic groups, accounts for about 6% of the population, and Islam, practiced by the Rohingya, accounts for 4%.
During the era of British colonial rule (1824–1948), Buddhist nationalism arose as the British suppressed Buddhist practices and promoted secular education. This anti-Western movement led to the creation of the Burmese Independence Army, which the Tatmadaw regard as their predecessor, in December 1941. The country gained independence in 1948.
After independence, Buddhist nationalism was marked by an anti-ethnic minority and an anti-non-Buddhist movement, according to David Moe, a Chin scholar who wrote his dissertation on Buddhist nationalism. The slogan of former prime minister U Nu sums up this idea: only the Bamar race, only the Burmese language and only the Buddhist religion. This underlying thought has led not only to discrimination against those who do not belong to the Bamar Buddhist group, but also to the longest civil war in the world.
“They feel like this nation only belongs to the Buddhist people,” Moe said. “And they also say that in this Buddhist nation, if you’re not a Buddhist, you’re not a genuine Burmese.”
In 2010, the military junta introduced certain freedoms, freed democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and allowed the people to elect some of their leaders. But the ideas of Buddhist nationalism remained. Suu Kyi was widely reviled by the West as she defended the atrocities committed by the Tatmadaw against the predominantly Muslim Rohingya minorities.
Last year’s coup appears to have shaken this lingering fault line, as the Tatmadaw violently suppressed protesters in Bamar angered by the takeover. Soldiers have shot peaceful supporters of the civil disobedience movement in the streets and thrown the movement’s leaders into prison, where torture is common. The Tatmadaw also sentenced Suu Kyi to 20 years in prison, including three years of hard labor, for electoral fraud and a myriad of other charges.
Faced with the brutality of the army, many Bamar have apologized to ethnic minorities for turning a blind eye to their plight. Bamar students, civilian workers and teachers from the towns walked through the jungle to learn how to fire a gun or assemble a homemade grenade from ethnic armed groups such as the Karen National Liberation Army. Back home, they used what they learned to create their own PDFs and advocate for their communities.
Fighting increased in both ethnic areas like Moe’s hometown of Mindat in Chin State and Bamar majority areas like Sagaing region. In Mindat, locals were the first to pick up knives and shotguns to create a local militia to fight against the military. Fighting escalated, and in May 2021 the military imposed martial law on the city, destroying homes and attacking resistance with heavy weapon attacks. Thousands of residents, including Moe’s family and friends, fled the city to jungle villages and IDP camps.
The Sagaing area also saw some of the most intense fighting between the army and the local PDFs. Villagers reported that the Tatmadaw attacked communities indiscriminately, killed civilians, burned homes and forced thousands to flee. In total, more than one million people in the country are internally displaced.
The government in exile, called the National Unity Government (NUG), is drafting a federal constitution that would allow seats at the table for different ethnic groups, something that has never been done before in Myanmar. NUG cabinet member Susana Hla Hla apologized for not “raising the voices of our brothers and sisters from ethnic regions, including Rohingya brothers and sisters”.
Still, Moe notes that the change of heart is mostly affecting young people in Myanmar, especially Gen Z. While he believes this unity can remain if and when the common enemy of the Tatmadaw is defeated, he notes in this new government, the Bamar will remain the majority group.
“I’m optimistic, but on the other hand I have to be very speculative,” he said.
“Because of Love”
As the Tatmadaw attacks spread and increased in intensity, this led to an increased need for RBF services providing medical care to resistance forces and food to displaced people. The army has increased the number of airstrikes in Kachin State and extended them to Karen State (also known as Kayin) and Karenni State (also known as Kayah ), Eubank said.
The deputy director of FBR, a 54-year-old Karenni known as Monkey, said that after the coup many Bamar contacted FBR by mistake thinking they could learn how to fight or even murder the Tatmadaws. Yet Monkey would tell them that this is not FBR’s mission.
“We are helping to get people out of the fire zone,” he said. “We just help people out of love.”
Some leave disappointed, but others join the training. Unlike ethnic minority trainees, many urban Bamar show up in jeans and have no experience of jungle life.
But what they lacked in physical fitness, says Eubank, they made up for in their ability to navigate quickly with a GPS or suture a wound. Unlike ethnic people, most of whom have only an eighth grade education, many Bamar trainees had at least a university education or worked in civilian jobs before the coup.
Monkey noted that usually at the start of training, there is tension between ethnic trainees and Bamar as they don’t seem to trust each other. But over time, they realize they are part of the same team. Participating in dangerous missions to provide aid to ethnic groups fighting the Tatmadaw particularly brings the different groups together, Monkey said, as they realized they had to rely on each other to survive.
As a Christian, Monkey noted that while FBR stands with the people, “we are not against the enemy. We pray for them before and after the missions…we pray every day for the Burma Army to see the truth.
FBR saw soldiers defecting and repenting of their actions. Monkey discovered that when praying for their enemy together as a group, Buddhist trainees also join in the prayer.
“Without God, we can’t do it,” Monkey said.