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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar coup sparks unprecedented unity of ethnic groups

Majority Burmans regret Rohingya crisis while minorities call for solidarity

A man from the Kachin ethnic minority addresses an anti-coup rally in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, on Feb. 24.

BANGKOK -- Myanmar's ethnic groups are joining the protests against the military coup, demanding the junta return power to the elected government.

The military seized power on Feb. 1, when the second term of the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy was supposed to begin.

Many politicians and activists were detained on the day of the coup, including Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. According to local organization the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, as of Monday, 1,213 people had been arrested and charged amid widespread protests against the coup.

On Feb. 18, ethnic minorities gathered in central Yangon to protest against the putsch. Since then, ethnic minorities have been marching every day in groups to show solidarity with protesters from the Burman ethnic majority. A bloody crackdown took place on Sunday, killing at least 18 people according to the United Nations human rights office, but defiant ethnic minorities are still protesting on the streets.

Tina, a 25-year old public relations executive and ethnic Karen who has taken to the streets, believes the country's younger generations can bring back democracy.

"I have never seen Myanmar people in such strong unity," Tina told Nikkei Asia. "This is not just in Yangon, but also across the whole of Myanmar. Together we will fight for our justice and true democracy.

"We are weaponless, peaceful protesters. We cannot fight the hard power that the military has. They have China and Russia [behind them]. They have weapons. But our citizens have nothing."

She was referring to crackdowns by security forces around the country.

Meanwhile, the Burman protesters, who began by demanding the restoration of democracy, have started calling for rights for minorities, including the Rohingya, that have been denied for decades, even during the five years of the Suu Kyi government's first term.

Many young protesters are now using social media to say they regret how they acted in the wake of the Rohingya crisis in 2017, when hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled the country, by failing to explicitly criticize the government and military.

The atmosphere is now changing, with some protesters on the streets holding placards declaring, "I really regret the Rohingya crisis, which was done by the Myanmar military."

Ethnic Burmans, who make up 70% of the population, have always led the central government in Myanmar. Since the country gained independence from Britain in 1948, the military has been clashing with ethnic minorities, who have been demanding more autonomy and their rights.

After a landslide win in the 2015 general election, the NLD came to power and began trying to take forward a peace process initiated under the government of President Thein Sein. But negotiations with ethnic minorities stalled over issues such as local autonomy and laying down arms. Hostilities flared again in Kachin, Shan and Karen states.

"I don't think the protesters are calling for rights only for Burman people," Nay San Lwin, founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition, a nonprofit organization, told Nikkei Asia. "Race and religion are not an issue. What everyone cares about is humans."

While the protesters are demanding the return of power to elected representatives, ethic parties are also reminding people that another coup could happen at any time due to the flawed 2008 constitution, which gave the military a coup mechanism to take over the country.

"The 2008 constitution was not helping the country at all [before] the coup," said Gum Grawng Awng Hkam, vice chairman of the Kachin State People's Party. "It was not giving us equality. We want to make a new constitution."

He also said the constitution has caused trouble between the Burman majority and ethnic minority groups.

In 1947, ethnic groups and Gen. Aung San, the pre-independence leader of Burma, as of Myanmar was known until 1989, signed the Panglong Agreement, which promised a degree of autonomy to three ethnic groups -- the Shan, Kachin and Chin. Other minorities were expected to follow.

"Since 1947, the Burman majority leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, [have not kept] their promise to the minorities," Awng Hkam told Nikkei. "We should aim for the goal together by joining our hands.

"By restoring democracy, we would have a federal union."

Thein Sein, the army general who became president in 2011, began peace talks with some 20 ethnic armed groups. In 2015, leaders of eight of the groups signed the National Ceasefire Act.

Amid concerns, the Peace Process Steering Team last week said it would stop all negotiations with the coup council. The PPST was formed in 2016 by the eight original signatories of the NCA as a way to maintain peace talks with the government and military.

At the time, it was led by the Karen National Union, the most powerful group among the signatories. Currently, it is led by the Restoration Council of Shan State.

"The new generation represents all of our hopes," said Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist based in Germany. "They are our future leaders. I do hope that they will end the decades of deeply rooted racism and discrimination in Myanmar."

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