(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This article was first posted on Just Security on April 30, 2021).
Disclaimer: Taylor Landis is an independent human rights expert who worked in Myanmar from 2013 to 2020. She is serving as the author of this piece on behalf of the individuals in Karen State who wished to contribute to this series but cannot be identified due to the serious security threats they currently face. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the unnamed individuals in Karen State and do not reflect those of any institution with which Taylor is affiliated.
Since preventing the country’s elected officials from taking their seats in government on Feb. 1, the Myanmar military, known as the “Tatmadaw,” has established a junta called the State Administrative Council and progressed from its initial highly secretive abduction and detention of well-known civilian leaders to a nationwide crackdown of plainly visible violence and intimidation, with over 759 people killed and 4513 arrested by late April. Though intended to end mass protests and silence widespread opposition, the brutal campaign has fueled resistance to the military. Undeterred by the junta’s mass incarcerations and growing body count, people across the nation refuse to be silenced. Myanmar’s streets and social media are flooded with messages pleading for international support, demanding direct western military intervention, requesting a U.N. peacekeeping presence, and calling for the arrest of the junta leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
Veteran civil society activists based in and around Myanmar’s conflict areas have joined these calls. In their communities, where true peace has not been seen since before Burma’s 1948 independence, these are not new messages. Local organizations and leaders within Myanmar’s “ethnic states”—territory bordering international boundaries where ethnic-minority groups tend to comprise the majority of the population—have spent decades documenting human rights violations, conducting advocacy, and campaigning for criminal accountability for atrocity crimes allegedly committed by the Tatmadaw. For some of these activists, recent encrypted chats with far-off former colleagues offered a chance to drop diplomatic pretense and be direct about what they want. “Can you order a drone strike on Min Aung Hlaing?” one asked, in a joke directed to a human rights lawyer with no heavy ordnance on hand. Others laughed about what they really need, “Can you send wine?” All reiterated the obvious, “It’s just been a nightmare.”
Awakening to a Nightmare
Waking up on Feb. 1, a couple in Myanmar’s south-eastern Kayin State (known as ‘Karen State’ among the ethnic-Karen population living there) first noticed their phones were not working. It is common in Myanmar, especially in conflict areas, for cell coverage from one or more providers to be unavailable without warning or explanation. So, the couple shuffled through backup SIM cards, looking for a signal from any of the country’s main providers. They found none. With a lifetime of experience telling them coordinated communications blackouts never coincide with good news, they walked to a friend’s house and asked to turn on the TV. The request surprised him. “What’s the problem?” he asked, unfazed. “The network is just down, as usual.” When he understood that the problem was not one unreliable mobile provider, but that there was no network coverage at all, the friend turned on his TV. Only one channel was available—the Tatmadaw’s.
“That’s when we knew the nightmare was real,” the couple said. “The military had seized power.”
No one in Karen State knew what to do. Cautions against protests circulated online and through communities; anyone demonstrating in the streets would be shot, rumors warned. Nonetheless, a small demonstration in Mandalay soon caught the attention of community members in Karen State. Mandalay is a notorious Tatmadaw stronghold. Its very layout centers on an ancient walled city. In another life, it could have rivalled Chiang Mai, Thailand, for tourist appeal, except that Mandalay’s ancient walls are fully intact, heavily fortified, and serve as the boundary for a sprawling and active military installation. The heart of Mandalay is thus not a tourist attraction, but a massive Tatmadaw complex, cordoned off by a moat, razor-wire, and checkpoints, surrounded by Tatmadaw propaganda posters. If people could take a stand against the Tatmadaw in Mandalay, onlookers in Karen State believed, people could take a stand anywhere.
Nevertheless, as protests began in Yangon and spread throughout the country that week, Karen State remained quiet. People began to plan secretly, passing discreet Facebook messages and whispering with their neighbors, calling for action. Civil society leaders in Hpa An, the capital of the government-controlled area of Karen State, worried they were late to act. Six days post-coup, they attended their city’s first protest, unsure who planned it, thinking only 20 or 30 people might join. They felt excitement and fear as they arrived at a meeting place where only a few others were gathered. As the small group began a peaceful march, more people came out of their houses and emerged from side streets to join them. Older people opened their front doors and raised three-fingered salutes in support of the demonstration. In a place that only recently grew into a city, where 70-plus years of conflict has simmered right on the surface and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), splinter groups of EAOs, the Tatmadaw, and its proxy militias all hold considerable influence over various factions, the show of unity was hard for experienced activists to believe. They offer the only explanation they are sure of: “The people do not want the military in charge.”
Dreams of Democracy and Autonomy
What the people do want is more complicated. Supporters of the democratically-elected National League for Democracy (NLD) initially carried placards demanding that jailed officials be freed, and that the civilian government be restored. Supporters of the Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic armed organization that has been locked in armed conflict with the Tatmadaw for more than 70 years, expressed what they say they have always wanted: greater autonomy within a federal democracy. For them, the release of civilian leaders and a return to what was never more than a quasi-democracy would simply not be enough. Indeed, a resolution based on return to the status quo ante would allow the junta to retain direct control over key ministries and continue to hold 25 percent of all seats in parliament, perpetuating the Tatmadaw’s power to veto any constitutional reform and enabling it to invoke the same “emergency” provision in the current military-drafted 2008 constitution that was used as “legal” pretext for the Feb. 1 coup. Despite their original differing demands, protesters from across Myanmar’s political spectrum reportedly reached a mutual understanding in the streets of Hpa An in early February, marching peacefully together. Whatever is next, they agreed, the Tatmadaw cannot be in power.
Just days after the coup, the KNU released its first statement rejecting the overthrow of the democratically-elected government on Feb. 3. Though this was a welcome sign of support for democracy, Karen civil society leaders note, “The people didn’t think it was enough. They wanted action.” Calls for the KNU to take more forceful steps escalated in the weeks following Feb. 1 as Karen communities, like those all across Myanmar, reported increasingly frequent and increasingly violent night-time raids of civilian homes, businesses, and places of worship, resulting in mass incarceration—including of children, youth, and journalists—and widespread enforced disappearances.
Though tensions continued to escalate in the weeks after, daytime protests across Myanmar remained mostly peaceful until the end of February. On Feb. 28, protests in many areas were marked by violence as the Tatmadaw and Myanmar police deployed stun grenades, water cannons, tear gas, police batons, rubber bullets, and live ammunition against protesters. Since then, protests across the country have been met consistently with immediate and extreme violence. Although at least 759 people have died in the crackdown as of April 29, none of these killings took place in Karen State.
In the weeks and months after the coup, protestors found more common ground among their positions as opposition to the junta grew more vocal and organized. In March, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Burmese for Union Parliament) (CRPH) formed and declared itself to be the representative body of the ousted democratic government. In moves that pleased ethnic-minority communities and urban activists alike, the CRPH moved quickly to “abolish” the 2008 Constitution, declare the Tatmadaw a terrorist organization, decriminalize all EAOs, publish a Federal Democracy Charter, and announce the setup of a new National Unity Government (NUG). With the April emergence of the NUG, there is now a representative government vying for international recognition as the rightful government of Myanmar.
A Guarded Space for Protest
Even as the violent crackdown against protestors intensified in Yangon and elsewhere throughout March, the scene in Karen State was quite different, protestors say. They did not face widespread violence in the streets during daily protests. “The KNU is providing security to protestors,” an ethnic-Karen civil society leader explained in March. Indeed, members of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and Karen National Police Force (KNPF) attended protests under KNU orders, in uniform, armed with machine guns and grenade launchers to defend the protesters.
The KNU’s capacity to provide security against Tatmadaw crackdowns reflects longstanding, ongoing KNU resistance to central government control and the strained status of the peace process in southeast Myanmar and beyond. Though the KNU signed a 2012 bilateral ceasefire and the 2015 multilateral Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the Myanmar government and Tatmadaw, these agreements are now under tremendous pressure. More than 200 armed clashes have broken out between the Tatmadaw and KNU forces since the coup. These have spanned all seven of the KNU’s Brigade Areas and been punctuated by Tatmadaw airstrikes targeting Karen villages in March and April. Much of the Tatmadaw’s focus on scaling up its fight with the KNU is understood to be a response to the KNU’s ongoing support of protesters and its welcome of the CRPH and NUG moves towards federal democracy. With respect to peaceful protesters in Karen areas, the Tatmadaw has been repeatedly warned by the KNU, “Fire on civilians, and we will fire back.” KNU forces have not hesitated to follow through.
Meanwhile, the increasing violence has triggered a humanitarian crisis across southeast Myanmar as an estimated 100,000 people have been displaced across the region. Hiding in KNU areas, in jungles and near the Thai border, displaced people face growing food insecurity and escalating armed conflict as the monsoon season looms.
Nevertheless, an ethnic-Karen protestor considers himself and his friends lucky. “People here are grateful to have KNU protection,” he explains, “and people in other places want it, too.” After seeing photos and videos of armed KNLA and KNPF personnel at Karen State protests, some demonstrators across the country turned to social media to invite the KNU to send similar support to their areas. Besides these invitations, the KNU has reportedly received public apologies via social media from individuals who say they had previously believed Tatmadaw and Myanmar media accounts labelling the KNU as mere “rebels,” “businessmen fighting over economic interests,” or worse. Spontaneous messages of support have been directed to the KNU, translating roughly to: “Now we see who protects the people”; “Now we see who believes in democracy”; “I am sorry I believed the lies about KNU before”; “I’m sorry we didn’t believe in you, please come protect us.” Some ethnic-Karen individuals living outside Karen State have also taken to social media to share their desire to leave “dangerous” government-controlled cities, marked by unchecked and escalating Tatmadaw violence, and return to the perceived safety of areas under KNU control. Overall, more than 2,000 CDM participants from a range of backgrounds are reportedly taking refuge across KNU areas and the KNU has set up seven arrivals centers across each of its Brigade areas to welcome them. With new arrivals every day, there is a dire need of food, shelter, and medicine to sustain the growing number of political IDPs.
Civilians are not alone in seeking out protection in KNU territory. At least seven Tatmadaw personnel and five Myanmar police officers famously entered KNU areas in the early days after the coup to join the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). Though not seeking to join the KNU itself, these individuals would risk execution or arrest for abandoning their duties and joining the CDM in government-controlled areas, so they have turned to the KNU for protection. To discourage security forces personnel from abandoning their posts, the junta now targets the families of soldiers and police officers who desert. On social media, some protesters are vocal about wanting to join the KNU itself. Still, “It’s not that easy,” one Karen activist close to the conflict cautions. “No EAO can accept so many people — especially now. There could be spies.” As EAOs contend with this reality and their own resource limitations, calls for a new Federal Army are resonating across social media—including among representatives of the new unity government—and at least one new armed entity has been publicly seen to emerge in recent weeks.
Despite growing support for the KNU, Karen protestors are deeply concerned by the mass displacement crisis already underway across their region and are wary of the devastating impact that could come with a complete breakdown of the ceasefires. Few are hoping for a return to full-scale armed conflict. At the same time, they stress that the Tatmadaw is not likely to change its approach in response to peaceful protests, boycotts, arms embargoes, or economic sanctions. “We don’t know what will happen,” one leader says, “but the Tatmadaw is only afraid of weapons.”
Even so, the position of all entities holding weapons in Karen State is not yet clear. The local landscape is far more complex than just the Tatmadaw, the KNU, and civilians. There are an additional two small ceasefire EAOs and a massive Tatmadaw-linked Border Guard Force (BGF) active in Karen State, and these have been more guarded in revealing their positions on the coup and Tatmadaw crackdown. Although the BGF officially gets its guns and takes its orders from the Tatmadaw, BGF leaders have kept a low profile recently, and BGF forces have rarely joined the crackdown. Many in Karen State contend that BGF fighters’ only true allegiances are to their cash-flow and their respective charismatic leaders. The leaders have largely stayed silent, and the current steadiness of the cash-flow is unknown. “We will know which side they are on when the big fighting breaks out,” one Karen protestor predicts.
Pressed as to whether they think there will be a full, national revolution, civil society leaders in Karen State are unsure. After a pause, one predicts, “It will be a full revolution because people can’t tolerate Tatmadaw oppression anymore.” As a recent discussion over Signal wound down into the same generic but genuine promises to stay healthy, safe, and in touch that end most 2021 conversations, a voice cut in with a last parting message. “Hey, don’t worry. We’ll meet again after the revolution!” The video connection had dropped out an hour before, but it was clear they were smiling in Karen State.
Taylor Landis is a graduate of Harvard Law School and the former Myanmar Head of Mission for Geneva Call, a Swiss international non-governmental humanitarian organization. She has been working on the situation of human rights and humanitarian crises across Myanmar since 2013, when she began as a Researcher for Fortify Rights with the support of a Satter Fellowship awarded by the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School. Taylor previously worked in the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court as the Legal and Policy Assistant to the Special Gender Adviser from 2011-2012.