Two years after the February 2021 coup in Myanmar, societal ruptures amidst a civil war demand far-sighted visions for a post-conflict future led by the people.
The author is writing under an alias to protect their identity.
The intensity and extent of armed resistance to the 2021 coup by Myanmar’s military are increasingly deadly and there is now a civil war. Despite its brutal oppression, Myanmar’s military can barely claim to be in full control of the state. However, various actors in the resistance movement face challenges, including the lack of trust among different political actors and communities, their differing ideologies and preferences for post-coup and post-conflict state-building, and limited resources. In addition, they lack traction in their efforts to gain international attention.
With the future of Myanmar’s “Spring Revolution” still uncertain, preparations for a post-conflict future must consider using conflict resilience — defined by Van Metre and Calder (2016) as the ability to absorb, adapt, or transform through self-organisation and learning to maintain peace in response to violence and long-term structural problems. Another important factor is social cohesion — the sense of belonging and solidarity among groups to reduce the odds of a future return to violence. Myanmar’s troubled history since 1948 highlights why social cohesion is important for the country’s political stability and how its lack has undermined attempts to build cohesion.
Formal state institutions — under the State Administration Council’s (SAC) authority — are currently unable to ensure stability. Since February 2021, the provision of public services has essentially collapsed. Local and people’s defence forces, loosely centralised, and autonomous armed resistance groups are challenging the SAC across the country. The former is lacking in arms, ammunition, and financial support but the military is gradually losing control of the security infrastructure in some parts of Myanmar.
As there is no imminent or likely return to a pre-coup political status quo, formal institution-building for a post-conflict Myanmar would be a long-term endeavour. At this juncture, discussing national political frameworks or constitutional design is unrealistic and neglects the bottom-up realities of the resistance movement. The present author suggests that focusing on building a more cohesive society may do more for to inject much-needed stability into Myanmar.
One method for increasing cohesion is to include informal dialogues about identities, belonging, shared values, and visions of a future Myanmar.
Though emphasising a shared aspiration for a union comprising different ethnic nationalities in negotiating independence from the British, successive administrations in Myanmar since gaining that independence in 1948 have not been able to progress toward a truly pluralist democracy. Inequalities in centre-periphery relations and differences in political actors’ views on the country’s desired political direction have led to decades of civil strife, including inter-communal violence. Serial episodes of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims, the historically complicated humanitarian crisis of the Rohingya people, grievances of minority ethnic groups with differing statuses of recognition, and resource conflicts still remain unresolved in today’s Myanmar. Although the military regime seems to present the biggest obstacle to restoring stability and democracy, without forging social cohesion, even in a post-conflict scenario, Myanmar will continue to be prone to instability and violence.
Successive Myanmar governments, including that under the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi (November 2015-January 2021), focused on peace-building processes and altering political institutions, paying scant attention to social cohesion. However, the relative openness and social cohesion efforts by non-state actors and civil society organisations (CSOs) from 2012-21 produced some positive results. Early on in the protests rejecting the February 2021 coup, Bamar politicians and the community made some unprecedented apologies to minority ethnic groups and to the Rohingya. There were also demands for leaders of the resistance movement to broaden their inclusivity beyond ethnicity in their federalist vision.
The General Strike Committee of Nationalities (GSCN), an alliance of youth networks that called for the incorporation of federalism in the anti-coup movement, is an example. A GSCN leader explained that they carefully chose the word “nationalities” instead of “ethnicity” to broaden inclusivity. (The term “ethnicity” in Myanmar is mostly understood as “recognised ethnic group”.) This highlights how social cohesion efforts might foster institutional and structural change in Myanmar’s case. Despite the absence of institutional arrangements for a pluralistic society, young people who are exposed to ideas about diversity, pluralism, and federalism have driven anti-coup activities. Their vision is to create a more inclusive and more democratic country than previous generations have.
On a nationwide scale, however, although the Myanmar people have shown political resilience in their responses against the coup, it would be naïve to say that there is trust and unity among all communities.
The social cohesion-political stability question is circular. The current situation presents some opportunities to bridge the trust deficiency before attempting larger political goals. The resistance against the military since 2021 is a bottom-up nationwide movement. Many informal networks and new actors have emerged, including student unions, civil servants joining the civil disobedience movement (CDM), CSOs, and community-based organisations. These groups play important roles in resisting military rule, challenging old social norms, and demanding a new inclusive social order. However, these dynamics are based on individual trust at the local level.
The protracted conflict and the rupture it has inflicted on the country requires Myanmar to level up and strengthen local cohesion. Bottom-up anti-military coup activities are turbulent events because of unresolved grievances and old hatreds. One method for increasing cohesion is to include informal dialogues about identities, belonging, shared values, and visions of a future Myanmar. These actions can inculcate mutual understanding within a fragmented society, mitigate the harmful effects of conflict, and contribute to the parallel processes of nation-building and state-building for a post-conflict Myanmar. The people of Myanmar — not the military — would be the ones to undertake this daunting task.
Thiri is an independent political analyst and holds a Master's degree in Political Science from Central European University.