For some the nightmare has returned, but for ethnic people the nightmare never stopped

When the military seized power on February 1, arresting elected National League for Democracy (NLD) leaders including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, the current nightmare started.  

The people of Myanmar already know what life is like under a military regime: No rule of law. No right to speak or to move freely. A poor education system and a lack of healthcare. Social problems, economic stagnation, and a loss of livelihoods. No human rights.

But for ethnic nationalities there is also an added dimension: fear.

While the media focus has largely been on the protests against the coup in Myanmar’s major cities, there has been little attention paid to the uniquely challenging plight of the country’s ethnic and indigenous peoples, who make up at least 30 percent of the population. There has been little coverage of military operations now occurring in ethnic territories. 

There is no recognition that for us, this nightmare never stopped.

Before the coup, in December 2020, fighting was already escalating between the Myanmar military and the Karen National Union’s (KNU) armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) in Karen State’s Mutraw District, known as Hpapun in Burmese, and in Ler Doh (Kyaukkyi) Township in Bago Region. 

An estimated 5,000 villagers fled their homes, becoming internally displaced people (IDPs), scattered throughout the forests, forced to survive without schools, medicine or adequate shelter. 

The fighting extended to Kawkareik Township, Karen State, following the coup. The Myanmar military launched mortars into villages and farmland, disrupting people’s lives and livelihoods, giving them no choice but to run and hide in the jungle. They know from experience that if they are caught by Myanmar soldiers, they will be forced to be porters, or even shot and killed. 

An additional 2,000 people were displaced by the post-coup clashes, bringing the total number of IDPs to around 7,000 at the time of writing. Fighting continues still, with people terrorised daily. 

While the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), signed by a minority of ethnic armed organisations, appeared to initially reduce episodes of armed conflict in southeastern Myanmar, it did not necessarily reduce conflict, nor did it create security or stability for ethnic communities in conflict areas. Following the NCA, clashes and military atrocities actually increased in Kachin, northern Shan, and Rakhine states. 

For this, the NLD consistently provided the military with political cover. 

When the NLD came to power after the 2015 general election, the domination of ethnic people long practised by the military continued in different ways. Pressures to “develop” increased, as we were informed of projects planned for our lands ranging from monocrop plantations to mining ventures to hydropower dams. 

We were not consulted about these plans and we did not give consent. Our customary land laws were ignored, ethnic armed organisations’ land policies disregarded, and our calls for peace and federalism denigrated. Our voices were never listened to. The projects mostly went ahead anyway. 

The NLD continued what the Thein Sein government started in 2012, with the passing of the Farmland Law and the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law. These statutes affirmed that all land in Myanmar was the property of the state, in accordance with the military-drafted 2008 Constitution. Land confiscation by the government and private companies became legalised. Land grabbing and natural resource extraction increased in ethnic areas that were subject to decades of brutal offensives by the military. Legal mechanisms created to deal with complaints were inept and ineffective. 

There was no any political will to address the plight of ethnic people who suffered in the name of the NLD’s vision for “development.” 

Under the NLD, legal reforms–such as 2018 amendments to the aforementioned laws, and the introduction of a new Forest Law–were used to further cut indigenous people off from their ancestral lands. Our customary lands were categorised as “vacant,” as though we did not exist, and were subsequently handed out to private companies or local officials to control and exploit as they wished. 

Customary land tenure and rights, integral to our survival, have never been protected under Myanmar law. Though the 2016 National Land Use Policy outlined an intent to do so, it was not legally binding. This created tensions between indigenous communities, investors, and the Union government, which, in turn, has led to increased food insecurity, poverty, and political instability. 

The position that ethnic and indigenous people have been in for the last five years–caught between the military’s guns and the NLD’s repressive laws–cannot be described as freedom. 

Seven decades of military domination have left a deep, unmistakable trauma across ethnic communities. The familiar pattern of forced portering, extrajudicial killings, military attacks, arrests of local leaders, and the destruction of property continues, even as scores of courageous people in Myanmar’s urban areas risk their lives to protest the regime. 

There are multiple reports detailing the imprisonment of the NLD’s leadership, and the persecution of party members on the ground. But the constant fear we live with largely continues to go unnoticed and unreported. While some Burmese people are now acknowledging the long-standing suffering of ethnic and indigenous communities, many are still ignorant that this reality exists in their own country. 

We have endured war, authoritarianism, exploitation, chauvinism. But just as our nightmare did not start with the coup, neither did our struggle. Our fight is for national equality, democracy, federalism, self-determination, and the right to live in peace without fear. 

The General Strike Committee of Nationalities (GSCN), a leading voice in the Civil Disobedience Movement, has defined objectives that we should all be able to embrace: release political detainees, abolish the dictatorship, abolish the 2008 Constitution, and build a federal democratic union based on equality and the right to self-determination.

It breaks my heart to see the people of our country gunned down while demonstrating against the military coup. These youth hold no weapons, only hope for a better future. 

It is my hope that the Burmese people will understand why we do not want to go back to living under a system designed by the 2008 Constitution, or under a government controlled by the NLD. At this critical moment, I ask you to stand together with ethnic nationalities in shared compassion, committed to respecting us all as equals.


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