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FOCUS March 2022 Volume 107

Cooperation, Reconciliation and Self-reflection: A few thoughts on the NUG and ethnic minorities in post-coup Myanmar

Yaolong Xian

In Myanmar, marginalized ethnic minorities have suddenly received a great deal of attention after the military coup in February 2021 by the Tatmadaw. Many media outlets reported on the anti-coup protests organized by ethnic people and their condemnation of the military coup and the dictatorship. The more compelling discussion was about the cooperation between the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) and the National Unity Government (NUG) in fighting the Tatmadaw. Many militias of the People's Defence Force (PDF), the armed wing of the NUG, have either received assistance from the EAOs or directly allied with them. For example, the Kachin Independent Army (KIA) and Karen National Liberation Army have allied with PDF to conduct joint military operations. 1 Against this backdrop, some observers see this cooperation as a sign that divisions among Myanmar's ethnic communities have softened after the coup. 2 It is safe to say that EAOs are playing an important role in the post-coup era that could even shape the country's future, and yet this does not mean the marginalization of ethnic minority communities in Myanmar has disappeared.

While their motivations for cooperation are manifold, the self-interest that comes from fighting a common enemy is at play significantly. 3 The NUG's goal is to overthrow the Tatmadaw and transform itself from a shadow government to a government in office. For EAOs, fighting the Tatmadaw (their decades-old foe) alongside the NUG, which enjoys a popular support base, can enhance combat power as well as legitimacy. The KIA, for example, has taken this opportunity to seize Tatmadaw bases, gaining control of territory and requiring all PDFs in Kachin state to be administered by it. There is no doubt that this has increased the autonomy of the Kachin community in its controlled area, but it remains to be seen whether or not this can contribute to the assertion of ethnic minority rights nationwide. Also, there is uncertainty regarding equal treatment of ethnic groups that do not directly support NUG in the future. Thus, this cooperation may facilitate change in recognition of ethnic minority rights but does not in itself mean that the situation of ethnic minorities in Myanmar has improved.

Some of the plans that the NUG is currently implementing to promote ethnic minority rights appear to be attempts at winning cooperation and international attention. For example, the NUG took a stand in June 2021 that the Tatmadaw was responsible for the citizenship issue of ethnic minorities, and expressed intention to repeal the 1982 citizenship law to guarantee the human rights of the Rohingyas (Muslims living in Rakhine State); and then invited the Rohingyas to cooperate with the NUG against the Tatmadaw. 4 Admittedly, it is a positive statement, as it officially recognizes the Rohingya and rejects the 1982 citizenship law. This law provides that "Nationals such as the Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Burman, Mon, Rakhine or Shan and ethnic groups as have settled in any of the territories included within the State as their permanent home from a period anterior to 1185 B.E., 1823 A.D. are Burma citizens." Not being explicitly included in this list, the Rohingyas have not been recognized as Myanmar citizens and have suffered restrictions on movement, landholding, education, health, and employment. 5 This law made Myanmar home to one of the largest stateless populations in the world. 6

However, mere top-down repeal of law would not resolve a problem in a complicated society setting. Clashes between believers of Islam and Buddhism have been occurring since the 20th century, while Islamophobia among the general population of Myanmar exists. Buddhist-dominated nationalist movements in Myanmar such as the monk-led 969 movement in 2012 and the MaBaTha movement in 2013 openly voiced out Islamophobic sentiments, which further translated into disapproval of the identification of the Rohingyas as Myanmar nationals, and violence against them. On the other hand, Buddhists are in many cases a pro-democracy force in Myanmar. For example, the monk-led Saffron Revolution in 2007 was against Myanmar's military dictatorship and demonstrated support for Aung San Suu Kyi. A seemingly contradictory result is that there is an overlap between people who support the NUG and those who oppose the Rohingyas. To protect the rights of the Rohingyas, NUG has to facilitate reconciliation of the two religious groups, a more complicated task than repealing the citizenship law.

Some ethnic communities see the military coup as essentially an intra-Bamar (Burman) civil-military power struggle, 7 which aligns with their long-held view of "Burmanization" under the decades-old "one language, one religion, and one culture" policy. To be fair to the previous National League for Democracy (NLD), Myanmar's Ruling Party from 2015 to 2021, and the current NUG, they are far too liberal compared to Tatmadaw's attitude towards ethnic minorities. The NLD also expressed that it never had a Bamar-dominance mentality when it won the 2020 election. 8

However, research shows that NLD's contribution to promoting minority rights while in office is minimal. 2016-2020 data show very little progress in providing mother-tongue education in Myanmar's minority areas and in including minority history and culture in the school curriculum during the NLD's term. 9 The Karen Human Rights Group revealed in its 2020 report how the Burmanization policies affected peoples' everyday lives and challenged their ethnic identity; and concluded that the NLD government actually continued to embody the Burmanization agenda from 2015 to 2020. 10 In some Kawthoolei areas, the teaching of the Karen language is allowed only after school hours, which means that the students are longer motivated to learn. 11 In early 2016, the ethnic Mong Wong people in northern Shan State were officially reclassified as Mong Wong-Bamar to qualify them for citizenship application. 12 Ironically, they are actually ethnic Chinese, and therefore, this move does not imply recognition that they are a distinct "national" of Myanmar but a strategy for assimilation. The NLD was silent at the time on this ridiculous solution.

Given the fact that many NUG officials are political veterans of the NLD, traditional fissures of distrust between the NLD and ethnic minorities groups could quickly reemerge. Therefore, the NUG's ethnic policy must be based on its self-reflection in order to remove the shadow of long-standing Burmanization and build trust with ethnic minorities. Without such a reflection, NUG might simply exploit EAO's military strength to fight Tatmadaw, and subsequently fail to include the ethnic policy in its political agenda. 13

Some conclusions arise from these discussions. First, the phenomenon of post-coup cooperation between ethnic minorities and the NUG in Myanmar does not represent a change in the long-standing marginalization of ethnic minorities. Second, the Rohingya citizenship issue suggests that in addition to top-down approaches, such as repealing the law, the NUG needs bottom-up initiatives to promote reconciliation to truly solve the problem rather than just gain cooperation and attention. Last but not least, the NUG needs to reflect on the ethnic minority policy during the NLD administration when officials thought they were free of the Bamar-dominated mentality and yet contributed to Burmanization in practice.

Yaolong Xian is an Erasmus Mundus Awardee, currently studying a joint Master program in international humanitarian action in Ruhr University Bochum and Uppsala University. He is also working with a non-governmental organization on Myanmar's peace process.

For further information, please contact: Yaolong Xian, The Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict, Ruhr University Bochum, Germany; e-mail:


[1] "Commentary | As War Brews in Myanmar's Karen State, Civilian PDF Groups Welcome the Fight," The Irrawaddy, 21 December 2021,

[2] Hannah Beech, "'Now We Are United': Myanmar's Ethnic Divisions Soften After Coup," The New York Times, 30 April 2021,

[3] Crisis Group, "Myanmar's Coup Shakes Up Its Ethnic Conflicts," 12 January 2022,

[4] National Unity Government, "Policy Position on the Rohingya in Rakhine State - National Unity Government," 3 June 2021,

[5] Meghna Kajla and Nasreen Chowdhory, "The Unmaking of Citizenship of Rohingyas in Myanmar," in Citizenship, Nationalism and Refugeehood of Rohingyas in Southern Asia, Nasreen Chowdhory and Biswajit Mohanty, editors, Springer Singapore, 2020, pages 51-70,

[6] The European Network on Statelessness, "Country Position Paper: Statelessness in Myanmar," European Network on Statelessness, accessed on 29 January 2022,

[7] Yun Sun, "One year after Myanmar's coup, old and new resistance Is undermined by divisions," Brookings (blog), 1 February 2022,

[8] "Election 2020 | 'We Never Had Bamar-Dominated Thinking': NLD Vice-Chair," The Irrawaddy, 18 November 2020,

[9] Jacques Bertrand, "Education, Language, and Conflict in Myanmar's Ethnic Minority States," Asian Politics & Policy, 12 January 2022, pages 12-21,

[10] Karen Human Rights Group, "Newly Elected NLD-led Government Must Work To End Burmanization," 30 November 2020,

[11] KECD KTL, Interview, Head of Karen Education and Culture Department, Doo Tha Htu District (P'Doh Saw Per Nu), 2020,

[12] "The Mong Wong, Burma's Newest Citizens, Face Backlash," The Irrawaddy, 6 May 2016,

[13] "Myanmar's Opposition Is Forming Fragile Alliances With Armed Ethnic Groups," Foreign Policy (blog), accessed 1 February 2022,