Spotlight - Myanmar’s Resistance Forces Take on Governance: April 4, 2023

With Myanmar’s dry season underway, the State Administration Council (SAC) appears to be organizing a multi-front military offensive to gain back control over territory liberated by the major ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). The EAOs and their allied People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) spent the winter preparing for the impending onslaught, and are ready to defend their people from the atrocities frequently committed by the SAC forces. The next three months could be a critical time for Myanmar’s nascent democratic revolution.

While the combined forces of the EAOs and PDFs prepare for battle, people in the liberated areas of Chin, Kachin, Karen, and Karenni states have begun the process of creating local and state governments of their own design. Local committees, consisting of commanders of the EAO or PDF units and representatives of the towns and villages, are forming new government structures that suit the community’s culture and priorities. A ground-up, organic democratization process is underway across many parts of Myanmar’s ethnic states.

The push to form local government is being driven by a combination of passion and practical concerns. For the first time in over 100 years, local populations have an opportunity to form village and town governments of their own design, rather than having it imposed by Myanmar’s central government. Across these states, local residents, and especially younger people, are enthusiastically discussing and forming the governments they want, often with the support and encouragement of the EAO or PDF commanders in the area.

In addition, basic necessity is also driving the establishment of new and more democratic local governments. Having successfully driven out the junta’s military forces and its appointed local officials, people have to establish new ways to deliver electricity, water, education and other social services to their families and friends. In some places, former SAC officials have “defected” to the new “revolutionary governments,” providing much needed experience and knowledge about running a government.

Moving beyond these immediate concerns, newly established local leaders are also discussing plans for forming state governments of their own design and choosing. With the support of EAO and PDF leaders, as well as other concerned organizations, committees are being formed to draft proposed state constitutions for the Chin, Kachin, Karen, and Karenni. In Chin State, at least three distinct, but overlapping, groups are working on draft constitutions for the creation of an autonomous Chinland.

The drafting of these state constitutions is well underway, but many difficult and complex issues remain to be resolved. The Chin, Kachin, and Karen are considering expanding the past boundaries of their states to include areas in the neighboring regions of Bago, Magway, and Sagaing that they consider as part of their ethnic homeland. Also, these committees are considering changing the borders of their state’s townships to more accurately reflect local cultural connections. In the past, Myanmar’s military juntas drew township boundaries to undermine community ties and possibly sew discord.

The spontaneous emergence of grassroots democracy in Myanmar’s ethnic states provides an opportunity for the U.S. government to demonstrate its commitment to the development of democracy in that country. Assistance should be provided to the newly-created local governments on practical matters, such as administering social services and creating local budgets. In addition, the U.S. government could sponsor and facilitate the convening of meetings to discuss the creation of democratic state governments that reflect the goals and desires of the local population.

If these efforts to form democratic state governments are successful, it may also improve prospect for the future establishment of a democratic federal republic in Myanmar. In the past, the creation of a federated state in Myanmar was a “top down” process in which the military powers imposed a dominant federal government and subservient state governments that suited the military’s desire to control the country. For the first time since the end of British colonial rule, the people of Myanmar have a chance to create a truly democratic federal republic. Congress and the Biden administration should demonstrate their support for this opportunity.

Michael F. Martin is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Michael Martin
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program