To Support Democracy in Myanmar, Engage with Ethnic Armed Organizations

myanmar 2022a

More than 1,400 people have been killed by Myanmar’s military in the past eleven months. After ousting a democratically elected government in February 2021, the military employed widespread violence and brutal counterinsurgency tactics against local populations. Soldiers have run over protesters with military vehicles, burned civilians alive, and tortured prisoners in interrogation centers. The United States has consistently condemned this violence and called for a restoration of democracy in Myanmar. To put pressure on the military government, the Biden administration has imposed several rounds of sanctions on military leaders, their businesses, and their associates. However, experts debate the effectiveness of these sanctions, which have thus far resulted in few tangible gains.

As the one-year anniversary of the coup approaches, the United States needs to revise its approach to Myanmar. Recent U.S. legislation called for policymakers to “support and legitimize […] entities promoting democracy in Burma, while simultaneously denying legitimacy and resources to the [sic] Myanmar’s military junta.” This goal will be difficult to achieve if the United States continues to ignore some of the strongest and most important actors in post-coup Myanmar: ethnic armed organizations.



About 20 ethnic armed organizations are currently active in Myanmar. While these groups are part of a decades-long insurgency, they also maintain political wings, hold territory, and provide health care, education, and other administrative and social services. Several are oriented against the current military government, and some have supported dissidents and democratic activists. The United States has been understandably wary of providing any of these groups with financial or military support. However, other forms of engagement, including public recognition and relationship-building, could help the United States support a more sustainable democratic solution in Myanmar. Not all ethnic armed organizations are viable partners, but some could be useful allies.

U.S. policymakers should start building public ties with select ethnic armed organizations in Myanmar for three reasons. First, any democratic transition in Myanmar will undoubtedly involve these groups. They are too embedded in the country’s politics to be ignored. Second, the ongoing efforts by the exiled National Unity Government to outline a democratic framework for Myanmar will only be sustainable and inclusive if the ethnic armed organizations participate in negotiations. U.S. policymakers could encourage this cooperation. Finally, working with the ethnic armed organizations can potentially alleviate a growing humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. These groups have the capabilities to deliver much-needed aid to vulnerable populations in conflict-affected areas.

Myanmar’s Civil War and Ethnic Armed Organizations

The democratic crisis in Myanmar has developed in parallel with the country’s civil war. Myanmar enjoyed a parliamentary democracy after gaining independence in 1948, but its democratic trajectory soon reversed when the military took control of the government in 1962. Grievances among minority ethnic groups living in the country’s periphery helped fuel growing instability. Members of several of these ethnic minorities took up arms in pursuit of greater political independence, clashing with state forces.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Myanmar developed into a closed state under strict military rule. Internal threats multiplied as ethnic armed organizations splintered and new factions joined the conflict. As the war progressed, some ethnic armed organizations revised their demands for independence into calls for a federal democracy. In 1984, an alliance of ethnic armed organizations known as the National Democratic Front publicly demanded the country adopt a federal democratic framework with autonomous ethnic states. However, the military government refused to concede any of its centralized authority. It banned the word “federal” from any negotiations with ethnic armed organizations: Simply using the term could reportedly lead to imprisonment. A series of bilateral ceasefires between 1989 and 2010 aimed to stabilize the country, but these agreements did not address underlying political grievances held by many ethnic armed organizations.

In 2011, the military ceded some of its power to a civilian administration, which quickly initiated a peace process with several of the active ethnic armed organizations. The negotiations produced the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, which called for all parties to “establish a union based on the principles of democracy and federalism.” The agreement set out a framework for an ongoing political dialogue between the government and the ethnic armed organizations, which was used to negotiate the specifics of a federal democratic system. Eight groups signed the agreement in 2015, and two more joined in 2018.

When the Myanmar military ousted the civilian government in the February 2021 coup, this political dialogue ceased. The bloc of ethnic armed organizations negotiating with the government fractured, and the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement effectively died. A new wave of violence, initiated by the military government to root out internal dissent and consolidate its control, shook the country.

The ethnic armed organizations are now some of the most influential players in post-coup Myanmar. These groups are stronger and more organized than the loosely controlled forces of the exiled National Unity Government. For example, the strongest of the ethnic armed organization, the United Wa State Army, operates near the Myanmar-China border with 20,000-30,000 soldiers, heavy artillery, and armored vehicles. Along the border with Thailand, the Karen National Union controls territory and governs approximately 800,000 people. The group is highly organized, holds regular elections and internal congresses, and maintains separate political and military hierarchies.

The Ethnic Armed Organizations as Potential U.S. Partners

While the United States has met with the exiled National Unity Government, it has avoided forging relations with the ethnic armed organizations. Policymakers may see these groups as a potential liability for the United States. Some — like the United Wa State Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army — maintain ties to China, while others — including the Arakan Army and Shan State Army-North — have allegedly engaged in the illicit drug trade or have forcibly recruited civilians.

Other ethnic armed organizations, however, have more robust records of advocating for human rights and democracy. This includes many of the ten signatory groups to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. After the coup, these groups affirmed their support for the exiled civilian government and its efforts to establish “federal union through the struggle for democracy.” Additionally, groups like the Chin National Front and the Karen National Union have made public commitments to protect children in armed conflict, prohibit sexual violence, and include women in decision-making processes.

Critics may argue that this commitment to democracy and human rights is performative, aimed to attract the support of international audiences. But it is, at least, longstanding. The time-consuming peace process of the past decade revealed that these groups are willing to exert significant effort to support the development of a durable democratic system. They have also devoted considerable resources to maintaining relationships with local populations and providing important community services. For example, the Karen National Union organized its own Karen Education and Culture Department to administer, standardize, and fund local schools. The Karen National Union also, along with other groups like the New Mon State Party, created health organizations to provide health care to ethnic communities.

Ultimately, U.S. policymakers need to recognize that not all ethnic armed organizations in Myanmar are alike. The United States should rightfully steer clear of relations with groups that abuse civilians, support the military government, or profit from illicit drug trade. However, the United States could benefit from allying with organizations that do not engage in these activities and that have a track record for supporting democratic negotiations and aiding local communities.

The Way Forward

To secure a successful transition to democracy, U.S. policymakers should publicly engage with ethnic armed organizations. First, policymakers should support the ongoing efforts of the National Unity Government to outline the details of Myanmar’s future democratic system in conjunction with ethnic stakeholders. As of November 2021, eight ethnic armed organizations were participating in the National Unity Government’s negotiations. However, if previous negotiations are any hint, disagreements among the negotiating parties may create obstacles to reaching a consensus.

U.S. policymakers can help sustain this cooperation. The public support of the United States would give the ongoing dialogue legitimacy and could attract new organizations to the negotiating table. If U.S. policymakers wanted to go further, the United States could offer ethnic armed organizations non-lethal, non-pecuniary aid, such as intelligence on the military’s positions, in exchange for their continued partnership with the National Unity Government.

A working relationship with the ethnic armed organizations will also help the United States address Myanmar’s impending humanitarian crisis. Since the coup, more than 280,000 people have been displaced by violence and insecurity. The average household has reported a 23 percent drop in income, and low COVID vaccination rates could lead to a lethal fourth wave of cases. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs stressed that better access to vulnerable populations was “critical for the urgent delivery of humanitarian assistance.”

As well-established local actors with the ability to enter conflict zones, ethnic armed organizations are good candidates for delivering necessary humanitarian aid. Many ethnic armed organizations have long histories of providing services and public goods to local communities. Through their health organizations, these groups could help distribute clean water, medical supplies, and COVID vaccines to vulnerable and hard-to-reach populations. Working with these organizations to deliver aid would also help the United States avoid giving humanitarian assistance directly to the military government, which risks enhancing the military’s legitimacy. The United States should coordinate with international nongovernmental organizations and local civil society organizations to determine what type of assistance is most needed and how best to distribute it.

The current U.S. policy to impose top-down sanctions on military officials will do little on its own to achieve a lasting democratic solution and avert a humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. These objectives require the cooperation and support of local actors. As the first anniversary of the coup approaches, the United States needs to engage more directly with ethnic armed organizations, some of Myanmar’s longest standing and most influential political actors.



Kaitlyn Robinson is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Stanford University. Her research examines patterns in the emergence, evolution, and behavior of non-state armed groups, including those operating in Myanmar.

Image: Xinhua (Photo by U Aung)