Recent moves by resistance groups in eastern Myanmar to set up an independent local government shows the growing sway of such groups and could inspire similar action elsewhere, say analysts.
They also reflect persistent schisms within the broader resistance movement, the analysts add.
The comments follow the June 12 announcement of an Interim Executive Council of Karenni State by an alliance of armed, political and civil society groups to manage government functions, independently of the military junta that seized control of the country in a 2021 coup.
The council “aims to protect the lives and property of the people, to deliver public services and to fulfill the fundamental needs of the people including education, health, food and other basic necessities,” it said in a public statement the same day.
A patchwork of armed groups across Myanmar has been fighting the junta since the military toppled the country’s elected government and crushed the protests that followed with deadly force. While the junta still holds the major cities and most towns, resistance groups are believed to control or contest roughly half the countryside.
The groups – which the junta brands as terrorists – have been taking over basic government functions in small pockets, but those in Karenni are the first to do so across the whole of one of Myanmar’s 14 states or regions.
‘It is the new way’
Khu Plu Reh, the council’s general secretary, told VOA this past Thursday the new setup was needed to fill the vacuum in basic services left by the previous state government’s collapse after the coup.
He said the council had already appointed people to head some of the 12 departments being created to run the schools, hospitals and other services. Those departments, he added, are working on wooing civil servants who refused to work for the junta, officially the State Administration Council, and devising ways to fund their operations though taxes, donations and other means.
More than that, Khu Plu Reh said, the council is a step toward the “federal democratic union” they would like to see replace not just the junta but the centralized government Myanmar has had since independence from Britain in 1948.
“The creation of the IEC is the first step [to] what we want. We are creating our own … administration body, we are creating equality, and also we … reject all centralization, including [the] SAC,” he said. “It is the new way.”
In the months after the coup, groups opposed to the junta across the country drafted a so-called Federal Democratic Charter, a framework for a future constitution that would give Karenni and other ethnic minority-dominated regions of Myanmar more autonomy.
The Karenni council’s inception reveals the growing, but still not total, control resistance groups are gaining across much of the country, David Mathiesan, a Thailand-based Myanmar analyst, said.
“It’s exactly where I think a lot of the revolutionary complexes are moving,” he told VOA, referring to the combination of opposition armed, political and nongovernment groups joining forces on increasingly equal terms in expanding pockets around Myanmar.
He said the Karenni council was also likely to galvanize some other groups that may be waiting on Myanmar’s so-called National Unity Government, a shadow administration of leaders in hiding and self-exile vying to oust the junta, to show them the way forward.
“It’s partly inspiration,” Mathieson said of the council’s impact. “It’s like, look, you can think local and you can do it yourself. You don’t have to wait for the NUG to come and give you orders. … If there’s a catch phrase for explaining it all, it’s bottom-up administration, it’s bottom-up self-governance.”
Resistance groups in a few other states and regions seem to be making initial moves at setting up interim governments of their own, according to Mathieson and Aung Tun, an associate fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a research group based in Singapore.
Aung Tun said something similar appears to be happening in western Rakhine state.
“For Rakhine, for instance, they’re not saying that exactly, like an interim executive council, but they are doing … similar things, basically. They have control [of] some areas where they implemented their own administrative system and judiciary system, and even in some areas taxation, that kind of thing,” he told VOA.
Mathieson said what the Karenni groups have done will be hard to replicate elsewhere, however, and that any new governing bodies spanning other states or regions — or large parts of them — may look different.
About the size of Qatar, Karenni is one of the smallest and least populated states in Myanmar, and ethnically more uniform than most. The resistance groups there can also draw on the deep experience of the Karenni National Progressive Party, which has been fighting the military for autonomy for decades; party head Khu Oo Reh chairs the new council.
Karenni also demonstrates the challenges the NUG faces trying to knit the country’s resistance groups together.
The new Karenni state council has pledged to work with the NUG, and Khu Plu Reh told VOA relations between the two were “good.” The NUG publicly congratulated the council on its launch.
In April, though, KNPP officials issued a public statement rebuking the NUG and a group of lawmakers ousted in the coup for openly promoting the creation of their own “people’s administrations” in parts of Karenni without their cooperation.
Mathieson said the dispute reflects some degree of competition among the groups as well as lingering tensions between minorities and the National League for Democracy party. The NLD, dominated by Myanmar’s ethnic majority Burmans, led the national government toppled in 2021 and is seen by some as playing an outsized role in the NUG.
“There’s a longer-term frustration with how the NLD treated a lot of ethnic communities when they were in power, and then post-coup the way that the NUG still seems to have this NLD-centric, born-to-rule mentality that really grates with people,” the analyst said.
Aung Tun said it also shows the dearth of dialogue among resistance groups and the need for more.
“You have to have an agreement … in terms of administrative power, in terms of executive power, in terms of judiciary power, in terms of financial power, in terms of resource allocation, that kind of stuff,” he said. “It’s going to be a very complicated political process if they don’t sit down together and agree a power sharing agreement.”