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Young women of diverse ethnicity receiving NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) training from Kachin Independence Army near Laiza, Kachin region. Photo by Naw Dii, 24 May 2022.

The Need for Trust-building in a Post-Coup Future Myanmar

  • Seng Mai Aung
  • January 17, 2024

Achieving unity poses the greatest challenge for Myanmar, given the systemic division among diverse religious and ethnic groups that has persisted during seven decades of military rule. Myanmar has existed in seclusion, tightly controlling information and manipulating narratives to underscore the military’s role in preserving “unity” among the populace. This division functions like a contagious virus, spreading throughout the community and undermining trust between Myanmar’s various ethnic and religious groups.

A scarcity of trust has been the root cause of Myanmar’s chronic disunity. And the military has of course eagerly exploited this absence of trust to foster division between ethnic and religious communities and strengthen its rule.

Nevertheless, when the military embarked on its coup d’état in 2021 and seized control of the civilian government, an unexpected development took place that surprised many both within Myanmar as well as international observers. When hundreds of peaceful protesters, many of whom were urban young people from the Burman majority, were shot and killed by military forces, it was a revelation for Burmans and exposed many to the brutality and cruelty of the military that they had not experienced in the past. The military’s hardline response to protests led many of the young professional Burman population to conclude that the only way to eliminate military rule was to directly confront and dismantle the military itself.

As the military’s brutality was laid bare on the streets of major cities, young Burmans stepped forward to acknowledge their ignorance about the plight endured by ethnic and religious minorities under the military’s oppressive rule for many decades. Furthermore, many of these young individuals made efforts to express apologies to ethnic and religious minorities, including the Rohingyas.

This contrition and sincerity resonated well with ethnic and religious minority communities. The younger generation of Burmans also took the lead in reaching out to ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) across different parts of Myanmar, many of which have been embroiled in conflict with the military for decades. Recognizing that they were in urgent need of military training and equipment, the young Burman resistance sought to build relationships with groups such as the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), Chin National Front (CNF), Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Kachin State, Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) in Karenni State, and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) in Shan State.

Faced with this unique situation, EAOs responded in different ways. Some groups like the Arakan Army hesitated to collaborate. Their reluctance stemmed from the fact that those seeking assistance from them were, in some cases, the same individuals who, just a few years prior to the coup, had labeled the Arakan Army as “terrorists” and advocated for their defeat and elimination by the military.

Other EAOs recognized the young Burman resistance’s outreach as a valuable strategic opportunity to unite forces against what was now a common enemy, the Burmese military, which had caused untold suffering to their people for many decades. Taking into consideration their limited materiel and personnel, these EAOs realized that they could not defeat the military solely with their existing resources and that they required additional manpower if they hoped to completely defeat the military.

Immediately following the coup, opposition leaders established the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), an elected political body serving as a parliament-in-exile. CRPH, in collaboration with EAOs, formulated the “Federal Democracy Charter Part – I” and subsequently established the National Unity Government (NUG) in 2021. Much of Myanmar’s general population acknowledges the NUG as their government-in-exile. Since then, the NUG has closely collaborated with EAOs and has based its operations in EAO-controlled territory.

The road to collaboration between the CRPH and EAOs was not easy, however. The EAOs, which already possessed trained and experienced fighting forces honed over decades of conflict with the military, were wary of being used as mercenaries by the CRPH and bearing the brunt of casualties in any fighting. During the coup, the EAOs found themselves at a crossroads, having to choose between supporting the resistance or maintaining neutrality – an outcome that would have been favored by the military. Opting for the latter may have allowed the EAO to sustain political negotiations with the military while avoiding armed conflict. On the other hand, aligning with the resistance brought the prospect of bloodshed, high financial cost of waging war, and crucially, having one’s civilian population being specifically targeted by the military in retaliation. Thus, any mutually acceptable agreement would need to ensure that EAOs held significant leadership and decision-making authority in the NUG.

Despite some EAOs being party to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), there was a fundamental lack of trust in the military. EAOs were hesitant to cooperate with the CRPH, not only because of their initial political differences but also due to a longstanding lack of trust. The repeated instances where trust in the pre-coup civilian government had been broken, especially during the civilian government’s attempts at reconciliation with the military, contributed to EAOs’ skepticism. The historical lack of trust presented a significant obstacle for EAOs to commit to a cooperative arrangement, making the official agreement to collaborate with the NUG a challenging process.

As anticipated, the ethnic communities residing in the areas where EAOs operate have been particularly targeted by the military. Hundreds of thousands of people in these regions, especially in the northern part of Myanmar, have been displaced, while major cities like Yangon in the south have, for the most part, remained insulated from the broader conflict. Initially, residents in conflict areas were angered by the EAO’s decision to ally with the NUG for fear of retaliation from the military. Nevertheless, as has been their custom, they eventually chose to support the decision of their EAOs.

What did EAOs gain from cooperation with the resistance?
After the EAOs decided to collaborate with the NUG, public support and opinion regarding their partnership turned positive. The collaboration with the NUG served as the foundation for the significant support the EAOs received when the 1027 Operation commenced. This was a military campaign that commenced on October 27, 2023, led by a coalition of three EAOs that have called themselves the Three Brotherhood Alliance (3BHA). Many Burmans who had previously derided EAOs as “rebels” have now thrown their support behind the 3BHA after seeing their success in taking over military bases in Northern Shan State. Such support from the general Myanmar population would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. In fact, the Arakan Army which was one of the EAOs previously labeled as “terrorists” by the government is one of the three EAOs in the 3BHA.

In response to the 1027 operation, the military has resorted to airstrikes and heavy artillery attacks targeting civilians. Cities like Theinni, Nam Kham, and Ta Monye in Northern Shan State suffered severe bombing and destruction, marking the worst casualties in a long time. Nevertheless, civilians, who have often been targeted by the military, continued to support the EAOs.

The key difference in people’s opinion of EAOs from a few years ago to now is that they are united against the common enemy—the Myanmar military. People’s cooperation, despite losing everything they have, stems from the perceived unity among EAOs and the resistance group. They believe that with such unity, the military will surely be defeated this time. Despite economic exploitation by some, there is also mutual support and assistance, even with limited food supplies among people. People share food with those fleeing conflict zones on foot, even when they themselves lack sufficient stored food. This humanitarian response is grounded in the belief that the military will be decisively defeated this time, and any inconvenience will be temporary. This optimism is supported by expert predictions that the military will be defeated sooner rather than later.

Looking Ahead
While there is considerable encouragement and hope among the people regarding the EAOs successfully defeating military bases, residents in conflict zones, especially in Northern Shan State, express concerns about what awaits them after the military’s defeat. The local population is uncertain about the agreements made between the EAOs and the resistance government for the post-coup era. Despite apparent unity among the people, the divisions among different ethnic and religious groups remain pronounced.

Some individuals worry about the potential authority granted to EAOs that successfully defeat the military in a specific region and whether they will rule the region afterward. Others fear the possibility of continued oppression under a different ruler. These concerns are not unfounded when one is familiar with the context and challenges in the region.

The resolution to these concerns will largely hinge on the intentions and the extent to which EAOs and resistance groups are committed to fostering trust in the future. While the goal is a Federal Democracy, it raises questions about how many groups initially reached an agreement with their own interests in mind. The crucial question centers on whether trust existed during the cooperation agreement or if the agreement was forged based on promised interests in exchange for cooperation. Only the stakeholders involved in this significant agreement possess the answers to such questions.

Trust and the willingness to cultivate it emerge as the key factors when contemplating the future of Myanmar. Will Myanmar persist in fragmenting into smaller jurisdictions governed by distinct authorities, or are the stakeholders genuinely committed to overcoming the challenges necessary to establish authentic trust across political, ethnic, and religious lines? Only with such trust can they successfully construct a nation under a Federal Democracy system.

About Seng Mai Aung

Seng Mai Aung is the Program Officer for Myanmar at the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) and is based in Provo, Utah. Prior to joining IGE, she worked at the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Center of Education for International Understanding (APCEIU) in Seoul, Republic of Korea, where she organized training workshops for educators from the Asia-Pacific region and beyond on peace education, human rights, cultural diversity, and education for international understanding.

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