Burma in Crisis

On February 1, 2021, the
military overthrew the

civilian government and

the people rose up in


Dr. Ashley South

Dr. South is an independent writer and consultant, and Research Fellow at Chiang Mai University

In 2021 Burma faced two extraordinary and inter-linked crises: the Covid pandemic, and the February 1 coup. This ‘critical juncture’ provides an opportunity to re- imagine the type of country Burma could be. For the first time in generations—at least since the 1988 democracy uprising—young people from the towns and cities have been exposed to the full violence of the Tatmadaw. Many members of the Bama ethnic community, particularly young people who previously had little chance to understand the suffering of Burma’s ethnic nationalities, have come to better appreciate the struggles and aspirations of minority communities. This has led to a renewed solidarity and commitment to ending the Myanmar Army’s brutal rule, and insisting that in the future the military should be under civilian rule.

Since the coup, the Tatmadaw has been rampaging across Burma, including in states and regions previously largely unaffected by armed conflict, such as Chin, Sagaing and Magwe. The Myanmar Army often behaves like a violently occupying and murderous colonizing force. In response, local communities have joined together in People’s Defence Forces (PDFs), to resist the junta’s violent assaults. Many PDFs have aligned themselves with the National Unity Government (NUG). Others work more closely with Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs), which provided many of these groups with basic training. Although not entirely caused by the State Administrative Council (SAC), the junta’s mishandling of the Covid crisis, including numerous well-documented attacks on health workers, has massively exacerbated the impacts of the pandemic. Many thousands have died, and livelihoods have been massively impacted. The economy has shrunk by up to a third since the coup, in part due to the pandemic but mostly because of the military regime’s mismanagement and violent attacks on citizens.

By mid-October, 1,178 people had been killed by the junta forces, with over 3,500 still detained. Many of these people have been subjected to torture. In the meantime, food security has plummeted, with the U.N. World Food Program estimating that an additional 3.4 million people in Burma will go hungry after the coup. In this context, EAOs, such as the Karen National Union and Kachin Independence Organization, have played key roles in combating the pandemic and opposing the junta. Following the coup, Burma’s EAOs and partner Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) are providing some of the few credible and successful service delivery systems in the country. For example, at least 300,000 of Burma’s most vulnerable children go to EAO schools, and many EAOs have provided health and other services to their people, where the junta has failed—albeit with only limited international support.

The services and governance administration provided by EAOs point towards the possibility of a transformed and more just and equitable Burma. Many EAOs enjoy high levels of political legitimacy among local populations. Their governance and administration roles, combined with the locally owned and delivered health, education, and other services often provided in partnership with CSOs, can be seen as the building blocks of a new type of federalism. This ‘emergent federalism’, based on locally owned and delivered practices and structures, draws on the resilience of communities, civil society actors, and EAOs.

 Arguably, the present crisis offers the best opportunity since the 1947 Panglong Conference to achieve a federal union based on agreements between sovereign states. Federalism in Burma should proceed on the understanding that emergent ethnic states, and the EAOs which govern them, are sovereign entities, which may join together in forming a federal union. Community and EAO resilience is central to absorbing, coping with and adapting to shocks and crisis. Nevertheless, local coping capacities may be stretched beyond a ‘tipping point’, making positive responses harder to achieve. The increasing likelihood of devastating future impacts from climate change make it all the more important to work with and support local actors in adapting to rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns.

Furthermore, some of the world’s best remaining forests and biodiversity hotspots are located in EAO-controlled areas. These are key resources for mitigating climate change. In this sense, EAOs play globally important roles, beyond the boundaries of Burma. According to the economist Milton Friedman, “Only a crisis … produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” Burma has in the past two years experienced two massive crises: the Covid pandemic, followed and exacerbated by the coup. These violent disruptions have made it possible to think about the country’s future in new and creative ways. With the SAC junta widely regarded as illegitimate and ineffective, the roles of EAOs are more than ever relevant.

Civil disobedience movement in Yangon
Civil disobedience movement in Yangon (Rangoon)

* Tatmadaw refers to Burma’s armed forces

Youth protest in Yangon (Rangoon)
Yout protest in Insein
Youth protest in Insein