The emergence of a People's Defence Forces in Myanmar Danu self-administered zone will have implications for the rest of Shan State and other parts of the country.
For years, the Danu self-administered zone (SAZ) in Myanmar’s Shan State was largely free of armed conflict and ethnic tensions. Following the country’s historic coup in February 2021, the people in the SAZ have started to arm themselves against the military junta. This will have implications on the rest of Shan State and other parts of Myanmar.
The development is significant, and sets the Danu SAZ in alliance with the people in the country’s anti-junta Spring Revolution. The SAZ is part of Myanmar’s elaborate patchwork. In a reflection of the country’s ethnic diversity, Myanmar is divided into seven states in which diverse ethnic groups reside and seven regions in which the majority Bamar populations reside. Further, within the seven ethnic states are five self-administered zones (SAZs) plus one SAZ in the majority-Bamar Sagaing region. The SAZs were created for certain ethnic groups in recognition of their population status and are enshrined in Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution. Shan State — the country’s largest administrative division by land area — is particularly diverse, hosting five of those six SAZs. Danu, one of the six SAZs and the home of members of an ethnic group of the same name, is located in southern Shan State.
Danu is the latest SAZ to arm itself. Myanmar’s other five SAZs have already had their own armies for some time (see table). Among them, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) represents one of the strongest armed groups in Myanmar. It controls the constitutionally designated Wa self-administered zone that enjoys greater autonomy than Danu and the other SAZs. Why? Both because arms matter in Myanmar, and because the UWSA enjoys strong links to China.
There are important reasons for Danu’s ongoing recourse to arms. First, Danu youths, like other youths across Myanmar, participated in various forms of peaceful protests against the February 2021 coup. The military cracked down on the protests and tortured many people. These developments suggested that peaceful protests cannot topple the brutal SAC regime. Like other members of Myanmar’s younger generation, Danu youths cannot help but act — arming themselves and joining the people’s resistance movement. The result is the creation of People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) in the Danu SAZ. According to local sources, there are at least eight local PDFs in different forms in charge of different locations in the SAZ and opposing the forces of the Myanmar military. It is believed that they have links to PDFs operating in neighbouring Karenni (Kayah) State, where intense fighting has occurred.
Danu’s recourse to arms is a break from its political history. The consequences of this break should not be underestimated. The fact that the 2021 coup has forced peaceful Danu communities to arm themselves has wider political and security implications for Myanmar.
Now facing armed conflict, Danu people also confront a major transition for their community, a transition resulting from last year’s coup. The Danu community long enjoyed peace on its own terms. It enjoyed an absence of armed conflict, of ethnic tensions, and of major drug-related activity. These traits have distinguished the Danu SAZ from other ethnic areas in Shan State. Similarly, Danu political actors have been less vocal: national-level political stakeholders do not pay much attention to their voices in discussions of the peace process, self-determination or federalism, and so forth. In part, this has perhaps been due to the zone’s not having an army of its own. This is set to change, given that arms matter in Myanmar’s politics.
The military coup of 2021 has apparently changed the course of Danu history. The people of Danu are now more politically motivated than ever before. Political discussions that rarely occurred in Danu streets and homes are a part of daily life there today. The discussions centre on the need to collaborate with other armed groups to fight the junta — groups which share the Danu people’s aspirations for a future federal state. Residents of the SAZ are taking up arms. A different Danu community has emerged.
The situation in the Danu area has several important political, and security implications for the rest of Shan State, and for the rest of Myanmar. The Danu SAZ will, like other SAZs, soon have its own armed forces as local PDFs become better organised. Further warfare is in the offing in Danu. The Danu PDF will add to the militarised landscape in Shan State, which is already home to the most armed groups – small, moderate-sized, and large. Out of around some 20 established ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) in Myanmar, at least seven are based in Shan State. Five of the seven have already engaged in armed conflict with regime forces. Some have clashed with one another over territorial disputes. These conflicts have distracted some Shan EAOs from last year’s coup and the repression that followed. Having more armed groups will inevitably mean more territorial disputes and more clashes, as other ethnic minorities — especially those who are not arming themselves yet — will be likely to follow in Danu’s footsteps. Still more of Myanmar will be pulled into the vortex of violence.
In response to this unfolding situation in Danu, the SAC junta has already begun to strike back. During the Myanmar New Year or Water Festival, on 15 April 2022, the junta’s forces fired artillery targeting the Danu’s fledging PDF base in a village in Ywarngan Township, which includes the capital of Danu SAZ. The attack killed two Danu PDF members, left one injured, and saw others arrested. The regime has also initiated recruitment into local militia groups to fight against the anti-coup forces in the area. This will inevitably lead to more clashes. Arrests have continued across several villages, and instability has grown across Danu SAZ. The junta’s actions in Danu will likely lead to counter-reactions against it by armed groups in Danu, the rest of Shan state and even across Myanmar.
Danu’s recourse to arms is a break from its political history. The consequences of this break should not be underestimated. The fact that the 2021 coup has forced peaceful Danu communities to arm themselves has wider political and security implications for Myanmar. Just as much as the brutal hanging of four junta opponents that has so horrified the world, this development is a bellwether that demands attention from stakeholders in the country’s future.
Aung Tun is Associate Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.