Nearly two and a half years into Myanmar’s Spring Revolution, many are now wondering what it will take to bring the country’s struggle for democracy to the next level. While the National Unity Government (NUG) and its allies, especially among the ethnic resistance organisations (EROs), have achieved some success in their fight against the military, there is a growing sense that this year will be “do or die” for the revolution.
Until now, coordination among the different anti-regime forces has been at the tactical level, and the focus has been on short-term military wins over relatively easy targets. But for the resistance movement to make the leap from Phase I to Phase II, it will have to start producing shared political goals among the various ethnic minorities and the Bamar majority.
The NUG itself has been especially vocal on the need to make this transition in the near future. By framing 2023 as the year that the revolution must make its breakthrough, it is no doubt hoping to motivate its forces on the ground—and also shore up support in the face of a potential decline in Myanmar diaspora funding beyond this year.
However, based on my own personal experience as an activist who spent seven years on the border in the 1990s, when outside support was minimal, I would say that such concerns are unwarranted. The “make or break” narrative severely underestimates the resilience of the people of Myanmar, many of whom have sacrificed their lives since the long struggle against military rule began in 1962. They are resolute and determined, and have displayed ample courage in the face of adversity, acknowledging that the process of democracy building requires time and sustained commitment.
There are many reasons to believe that the current struggle has advantages that previous attempts to remove the military from power did not. In addition to having the backing of a large diaspora that did not exist in the years after the 1988 uprising, today’s revolutionaries also have strong support within the Bamar heartland. The international community has also demonstrated an unprecedented level of concern. The United States has introduced its BURMA Act to put pressure on the regime, fellow member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have spoken out against the junta’s continued violence, and the United Nations Security Council has adopted a Myanmar-specific resolution. Importantly, Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, who was appointed by the pre-coup government, remains the Permanent Representative of Myanmar to the UN.
But none of this changes the fact that in strictly financial and military terms, the junta is vastly stronger than the resistance forces. This means that at this stage in the revolution, there is little prospect of the NUG achieving its stated goal of overthrowing the regime. What it can do, however, is use its armed wing, the People’s Defence Force (PDF), as leverage to continue strengthening its political position.
According to the latest analysis of the Economist Intelligence Unit, the struggle between the regime and its opponents is expected to last at least five years. As it reaches the halfway point in this protracted battle for the future of Myanmar, the NUG needs to consolidate its support among the EROs. While this will not be easy, given their diverse interests, the NUG has so far done a remarkable job of maintaining the political momentum of the Spring Revolution, both by crowdsourcing its funding and by reaching out to other groups inside Myanmar.
Going forward, however, the NUG and other revolutionary forces will have to work out a more viable, long-term plan, and this is not something that can happen overnight. We must give ourselves at least one to three years to move beyond Phase I. To advance to Phase II, political collaboration among the NUG and its various ERO allies is crucial to synchronise efforts and pool resources across multiple operational areas, all aimed at achieving the shared political goal of achieving a federal union where all nationalities and ethnic communities can protect their own interests and are guaranteed their right to self-determination. As political consolidation among ethnic groups and the Bamar Buddhist majority is achieved, it is likely that the military—which is already beset with mass defections—will ultimately collapse in on itself.
For now, we must focus on re-establishing common ground among the NUG—which is backed by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) and the ousted ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD)—the EROs (including those representing the Wa and the Rohingya), and civil society groups such as women’s organisations, which are all significant political and social actors in Myanmar.
First, we must revisit fundamental issues and identify the shared goals of the NUG, the EROs, and the other stakeholders. This process could involve a review and reformulation of the Federal Democracy Charter (FDC)—based on an interim constitution drafted by NLD lawmakers elected in 1990 and their ethnic allies—and the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), a body formed in late 2021 to bring together forces opposed to the regime that seized power in February of that year.
The FDC should be amended to exclude any clauses copied from the military-drafted 2008 constitution, and representation in the NUCC should be expanded to include emerging subnational groups such as the Sagaing Forum and mixed ethnic regions such as Ayeyarwady and Tanintharyi.
The roles of the CRPH and the NLD in the border areas should be clearly defined. Meanwhile, EROs must be realistic in their political negotiations as well. Rather than asking for the formation of a Bamar state that would put the country’s largest ethnic group on a more equal footing with the others, they should instead be asking for meaningful political engagement from the NUG, NLD, and CRPH by encouraging them to enable the participation of subnational political groups from existing Bamar-majority territories. We must also acknowledge that while the NLD has always had institutional limitations, it is now also dealing with a leadership vacuum in major decision-making due to the absence of Aung San Suu Kyi.
The NUG also needs to consolidate the country’s disparate PDF forces, particularly in the five Bamar-majority regions of Sagaing, Magwe, Mandalay, Bago, and Yangon. This consolidation will provide political leverage and strengthen the NUG’s position. It is important to ensure effective coordination and collaboration among the PDFs, aligning their efforts towards common goals. Local PDFs that are not under the command of the NUG’s Ministry of Defence should be encouraged to form coalitions to protect their local communities and act as allies to the ministry’s nationwide agenda.
The resistance foreign policy decision-making process also needs more ERO involvement. Extensive coordination and consultation with ethnic leaders should be undertaken to ensure their participation and input. This will help garner support from neighbouring countries such as China, India, and Thailand, whose policies towards Myanmar depend on developments in ERO territories, and will ensure their recognition of the NUG as the representative government of all the people of Myanmar, and not just the Bamar majority.
Myanmar’s junta is at a dead end. It has only one option left—military aggression. The NUG and the EROs can strike back using a two-pronged strategy—increased military cooperation and the employment of a set of political tactics, as discussed above. Political cohesion among ethnic groups and the NUG is the key to defeating the military junta. The NLD, as the controlling entity of the CRPH and NUG, must prioritise effective collaboration with the EROs before its 2020 election mandate expires at the end of 2025. By implementing these steps and fostering political cohesion, the Spring Revolution can transition into Phase II, which can then pave the way for Phase III: a strategic-level partnership for victory.
Former student activist Zaw Tuseng is president of the Myanmar Policy Institute (MPI), an independent organisation serving the needs of Myanmar’s pro-democracy policymakers