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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar military woos ethnic minorities after coup

Junta aims to demonstrate better governance than ousted Suu Kyi

Demonstrators protest the military coup in Myanmar in Yangon on Feb. 11, demanding the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.    © Reuters

BANGKOK -- With Myanmar's military in full control of the country since a Feb. 1 coup, the junta is now trying to win over ethnic minorities in the face of continuing street protests against the takeover.

For decades the military has been locked in a violent struggle with minority groups demanding greater autonomy. The military hopes to justify the coup by bringing the civil war under control and highlighting its ability to govern.

The State Administration Council (SAC), Myanmar's highest decision-making body that was set up after the coup, pardoned more than 2,300 people serving jail sentences. Aye Maung, a former member of the lower house of parliament from the western state of Rakhine who was arrested on treason charges, was among those released, according to local news media.

In a TV address on Feb. 8, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing said reconciliation with ethnic minorities is a priority for the junta. "We shall perform our responsibility to achieve eternal peace in as many ways as possible" while the military holds power, he said. Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims are not among the ethnic minorities the military will seek to achieve peace agreements with.

The aim is to achieve peace with ethnic minorities under the military's leadership before a new government is formed through a "fair" general election. The junta has promised to hold such a vote but has not given a date.

The SAC is made up of 16 members, six of whom the junta appointed from ethnic minorities, including the leader of the Arakan National Party (ANP) in Rakhine State, and others from the eastern states of Mon and Shan.

Between the general election last November and the coup, ethnic armed groups allied with the ANP agreed to a cease-fire with military. Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation, the Japanese government's special envoy, acted as mediator. The two sides started peace talks and the military created a negotiation committee independent of the government, then led by Suu Kyi.

After the coup, the military said it would open its hospitals to ethnic minorities because the quality of public hospitals has dropped due to health care workers' participation in the civil disobedience movement against the coup.

Through reconciliation efforts with minorities, the military hopes to demonstrate that it can govern Myanmar more effectively than the National League for Democracy, which won a landslide victory in the 2020 election under Suu Kyi, who is now under house arrest.

After notching up a big win in the 2015 general election, the NLD came to power and began trying to move Myanmar toward a federal system. Although the party promised to mend fences with ethnic minorities during the election campaign, negotiations became snarled over such issues as local autonomy.

The talks also failed to make headway due to mutual distrust and a lack of coordination between Suu Kyi and the military, which continues to battle armed groups. Under the government led by Suu Kyi, only two ethnic armed groups agreed to a cease-fire with the military.

The central government of Myanmar is largely led by ethnic Burmese, who make up 70% of the population. Following independence from Britain in 1948, the military began to clash with ethnic minorities demanding greater rights.

Thein Sein, a former army officer, became president in 2011 and began peace talks with some 20 ethnic armed groups. In 2015, eight of these signed cease-fire agreements. The military now hopes to conclude cease-fires or peace accords with the remaining 10 or so groups.

But the military is unlikely to see its hopes fulfilled, as many minorities remain hostile to the armed forces. Moreover, ethnic minorities are hardly in step with each other. Ten armed ethnic groups that have already signed cease-fire agreements denounced the coup in a statement released Feb. 2. And some ethnic parties reportedly refused to participate in the SAC.

Before the 2020 election, political analysts predicted ethnic minorities would turn their backs on the NLD. But the party appears to have received more votes from minorities than in 2015. That reflected voters' concerns that a defeat for the NLD would bring the military back to power, said political analyst Min Zaw Oo.

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