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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar parallel parliament raises stakes in fight for ethnic support

Meanwhile, junta announces another cease-fire amid concerns of slide into civil war

Buddhist monks, left, show support for an opposition group vowing to resist the Feb. 1 coup and rewrite the constitution. Right, an ethnic armed group takes part in a protest. (Source photos by KIC NEWS PAGE/Reuters and AP) 

BANGKOK/YANGON -- Forces opposing Myanmar's coup raised the stakes significantly on Wednesday, announcing plans to set up a "unity government" under a new federal charter and abolish the 2008 military-drafted constitution. The opposition Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) said the new charter would draw together a broad array including ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), elected lawmakers and civil society groups.

The move appears to set the stage for a violent showdown between forces of the junta, or State Administration Council, and a parallel government made up of members of the ousted National League for Democracy administration as well as technocrats and political activists.

The announcement comes amid fierce clashes between government forces and ethnic armed groups in eastern and northern Myanmar, extending the military's violence against civilians protesting the Feb. 1 coup and fueling concerns that the country could descend into civil war.

Stressing the urgency of the crisis in an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, the U.N. special envoy on Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener warned on Wednesday night of a "civil war" and an "imminent bloodbath." She urged the council to weigh "potentially significant action that can reverse the course of events."

The opposition group's plans to set up a unity government have galvanized resistance to the coup, attracting more than $7 million worth of support within a few days on a crowdfunding platform. The group's "acting ministers" have been received in Western capitals. But some critics, including the Taihe Institute, a Beijing-based think tank backed by the Chinese Communist Party, dismissed its proposals as futile, saying that no country has recognized the body as the parallel government, despite its international diplomacy.

However, some analysts said that a show of support from ethnic minority organizations, which between them have about 26 armed groups in regions in Myanmar's west, east and north, near the Chinese border, would significantly boost the body's international momentum.

It remained unclear on Wednesday night how many armed ethnic groups would support the opposition proposals. "But the launch of a federal charter could make a difference, as it would represent unity among the CRPH as the civilian government and ethnic armed groups," said Jason Tower, Myanmar country director of the United States Institute of Peace think tank. "If [it has] any chance at all, a united resistance is more likely to prevail," he added.

The CRPH on Wednesday night also announced a decision to abolish the existing 2008 constitution, written by the military to guarantee the military an outsize role in governing Myanmar, notably in appointing lawmakers and controlling three key ministries in the security field. The abrogation of that charter would meet a key demand of ethnic communities, bolstering support among EAOs for the parallel government, another analyst said.

Myanmar's ethnic groups, which make up about a third of the country's 54 million population, had been relatively quiet until last week, although many voiced opposition to the coup. Ten ethnic armed groups allowed a cease-fire agreement they signed under the previous government of President Thein Sein to lapse. But the three additional groups that let their cease-fire agreement expire on Wednesday are among the most significant in terms of firepower and fighting forces.

Heavy fighting since Saturday including aerial bombing of villages in the eastern part of Myanmar controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU) have sent thousands of Myanmar refugees fleeing across the Thai border.

A total of 13 armed ethnic groups in Myanmar have allowed a cease-fire signed with the military to lapse, posing a new challenge to the junta's authority.   © KIC NEWS PAGE/Reuters

The junta on Wednesday evening announced a one-month nationwide cease-fire and unilateral suspension of its operations against ethnic armed groups until April 30. But it qualified the statement, saying security forces would continue "defending against actions that disrupt government security and administration."

It was not clear how much weight the announcement carried, since similar ones in the past did not stop the military from attacking ethnic armed groups. Earlier clashes had sent nearly 3,000 refugees fleeing across the Thai border and into northern Kachin State on Wednesday.

The military's unilateral cease-fire gambit could signal an attempt to prevent armed groups from forming a unity government with the CRPH, said Philipp Annawitt, who was an adviser to Myanmar's parliament and government until Feb. 1

Thailand sought to publicly assure that it would provide "temporary shelter" to refugees, but reports and video footage showing refugees being pushed back by Thai security forces have highlighted uncertainty over Thailand's refugee policy.

If the junta launches a major offensive on Karen state, with potentially thousands of ground troops, it would be significant because the military has not attacked the KNU in such a scale for a long time, and because many dissidents and democracy leaders are located there.

The KNU's halting of cross-border supplies from Thailand, recent seizure of a military outpost by its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army, during which the military suffered a humiliating loss of lives and ammunition, public criticism of the coup and engagement with CRPH are seen as seriously challenging the regime's grip over the country, according to a Karen analyst in Yangon who specializes in ethnic conflict and politics.

"All of these actions put together, including sheltering activists fleeing Bamar areas and the pledge to protect anti-coup protesters, have driven the Tatmadaw ballistic and say, 'OK, you need to stop now. We are going to show you what we are capable of,'" the analyst told Nikkei Asia, using the local name for the military, Tatmadaw.

The fighting intensified on Wednesday and spread to northern Kachin and central Shan states, the day that a fragile cease-fire agreement between three main ethnic armed organizations and the military expired. The three, the Arakan Army, based in western Myanmar near Rakhine State; the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army in the northeast; and Ta'ang National Liberation Army in central-northern Myanmar, form the Brotherhood Alliance. The three have previously issued joint statements, cited the junta's violence against unarmed civilians and threatened to launch an offensive against the military.

The collapse of the cease-fire agreement and negotiations between the ethnic armed groups and military leaders came after heavy fighting flared up between the regime and the KNU. The move by the ethnic armed groups to abandon their cease-fire agreements raises the prospect that Myanmar's military could face active fighting groups on at least three main fronts -- to the east, west and north of the main city, Yangon.

More significantly, the three groups warned the military that they would collaborate with other ethnic armed organizations and anti-coup protesters to counter the regime's bloody crackdown if the violence continued.

The 26 or so ethnic armed organizations operating in Myanmar, ranging from barely 200 or so fighters up to the largest, the United Wa State Army, which is based in the Wa autonomous region in northern Shan state and is estimated to have a standing army of than 25,000 fighters. Combined, the EAOs account for 75,000 to 100,000 fighters, according to military analysts. 

The statement by ethnic groups, featuring the Chinese-speaking Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, based in the northeast area of Kokang near the border with China, is also likely to have implications for the Wa group, which has been silent since the Feb. 1 coup.

"The statement is further indication that the vast majority of Myanmar's ethnic armed groups no longer see the Tatmadaw as legitimate, and that they are unwilling to negotiate with it," said USIP's Tower.

The Arakan Army had previously signaled an intention to negotiate with the military, and had been hesitant to speak out before issuing the joint statement, noted Tower.

"Following the horrific violence across the country, Rakhine civil society became increasingly vocal, demanding first that the Rakhine political parties condemn the military's actions, and make clear their intentions not to collaborate with the military. This has certainly also played a role in shifting the [Arakan Army's] position. The [Arakan Army] is in a stronger position to speak out now that the group has met many of its military and political objectives, including taking significant territory in Rakhine State and getting the junta to remove the 'terrorist' designation against them," he added.

But the regime's strength could be tested if internal fighting breaks out, said Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based regional defense consultant.

"Fighting to date has been fairly contained geographically as none of the ethnic factions has gone on a general offensive. This could change rapidly however, particularly if the so-called Brotherhood Alliance in northern Shan and Rakhine states enter the fray," he said.

Such a development would inevitably trigger a large-scale response from the junta involving sustained air and heavy artillery strikes in addition to ground force deployments, he noted.

"Under those circumstances, full-scale conflict in the borderlands would inevitably spill over into the cities of central Myanmar in a multifront civil war."

But Annawitt, the former government adviser, noted differences to the example of the Syrian civil war.

"Min Aung Hlaing [junta chief] and the [State Administration Council] do not have a clear territorial base. The junta enjoys modest support among the security forces and some economic elites but nowhere are their supporters in the majority," he noted.

Without a base, the army would start losing ground to a coalition of ethnic armed organizations fighting in the borders and resistance in Bamar heartlands, he added. "They have no safe haven to retrench... If the generals lose, they lose decisively."

"Myanmar's scenario is very different from Syria where Assad had always had a safe haven where his sect was in a clear majority, which was untouched by war and where the government and the economy were still working."

In Davis's view, a "best case" scenario might involve ASEAN diplomacy, if the regional bloc could "summon up the courage and cohesion to persuade the Tatmadaw command to step back from the brink."

"But given ASEAN's calamitous incapacity to act swiftly in crisis mediation mode and Tatmadaw's own intransigence and paranoia, that seems increasingly improbable," he said. "If the main ethnic factions see this as an opportunity to finally break the back of military rule in Myanmar, a more likely scenario is a descent into civil war across much of the country."

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