Myanmar opposition releases plan for post-junta constitution, governance

Keeping ethnic armies on board remains a key post-war challenge.
A commentary by Zachary Abuza
2024.02.03
Myanmar opposition releases plan for post-junta constitution, governance Protesters reenact an arrest during a demonstration to mark the third anniversary of the Myanmar coup in Bangkok, Feb. 1, 2024.
(Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP)

On the eve of the third anniversary of the Myanmar military’s coup d’etat, the opposition National Unity Government and three allied ethnic armies issued a joint statement that outlined six objectives of the Spring Revolution, as the resistance is known, and the principles for establishing a post-junta federal democracy.

Beyond the importance of planning, there is a reason for their bullishness. The military has suffered significant losses, especially since the Three Brotherhood Alliance, which includes the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Arakan Army, launched their offensive on October 27th. Opposition forces have seized over 40 towns in Shan, Chin, Rakhine and Sagaing. 

Protesters stand on pictures of Myanmar coup leader Min Aung Hlaing during a rally against military coup in Tokyo, Feb. 1, 2021. (Issei Kato/Reuters)
Protesters stand on pictures of Myanmar coup leader Min Aung Hlaing during a rally against military coup in Tokyo, Feb. 1, 2021. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

Although the military is preparing to launch a counter-offensive to retake Sagaing’s Kawlin town, the military is spread too thinly, across multiple battle fronts, to retake most of what it lost. 

Three years after ousting the National League for Democracy, the military’s effective control is dwindling. Infighting amongst the senior leadership has escalated amid the economic and military setbacks, while defections are mounting. 

The military has lashed out in anger, bombing lost cities and townships, but that’s insufficient to retake them. 

On the third anniversary of the Feb. 1, 2021 coup, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing vowed to crush the opposition, a pledge the junta chief made for three years, with less and less to show for it.

The National Unity Government (NUG), made up of ousted members of the elected government and other public figures, has held a broad coalition of pre-existing ethnic resistance organizations together through the promise of a federal democracy. The Jan., 2023 statement reinforces that pledge.

New constitution

The statement’s six objectives can be summarized: “To overturn the usurpation of state power by the military, and to terminate the involvement of the armed forces in politics,” while ensuring full civilian control over the military. 

The military-drafted 2008 constitution will be abrogated, and a new charter that “embodies federalism and democratic values, garnering the consensus of all relevant parties” in order to establish a “new federal democratic union” will be drafted. Finally, they seek to institute a transitional justice mechanism.

The joint statement outlines nine positions to address complex wartime and post-conflict challenges. 

The first two are on the military’s illegal usurpation of power, which violated their own constitution.  

Military officers appointed to Myanmar's parliament as per military-written constitution leave after a session in Naypyidaw, March 10, 2020. (Ye Aung Thu/AFP)
Military officers appointed to Myanmar's parliament as per military-written constitution leave after a session in Naypyidaw, March 10, 2020. (Ye Aung Thu/AFP)

The third position makes clear that there is no going back to the status quo ante. Remember, the coup was staged on the eve of the parliament being seated after Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD routed the military-backed United State Development Party in the November 2020 election. 

Moving forward, the elected parliamentarians will not be seated. Instead the November 2020 election will be viewed as a “mandate for revolutionary change and the establishment of a new political system.” 

And as the fifth provision states: “Any election held under the provisions of the constitution of 2008... would merely serve to perpetuate military rule indefinitely.”

While the political bodies established after the coup d’etat, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw and the NUG, enjoy popular legitimacy and will play leading roles moving forward, the document is clear about the need for “collective leadership.”

Going for broke

The statement says “the stewardship of the nation in the post-revolutionary era shall be entrusted to all relevant parties in the cause of the revolution.” 

This should be interpreted to mean that all the ethnic resistance organizations and entities that joined the Spring Revolution will be given a seat at the table. 

The fourth position makes clear that the NUG and their allies are going for broke, seeking the defeat of the military. They will not negotiate with the military en bloc, though they are pragmatic enough to cut deals with individual leaders. 

Burning Myanmar military building amid clashes with ethnic armed group Ta'ang National Liberation Army in northern Shan State, Dec. 13, 2023. (AFP Photo)
Burning Myanmar military building amid clashes with ethnic armed group Ta'ang National Liberation Army in northern Shan State, Dec. 13, 2023. (AFP Photo)

But they are insistent that there will be no seat at the table for the military in the deliberations over the country’s constitutional future. There is every reason for them to fear that if the military is given a seat at the table they will claw back their political and economic rights and prerogatives.

The sixth provision states that “a new federal democratic constitution” has to be “formulated with the consensus of all relevant parties,” but does not identify who those are. 

The eighth position was a rejection of traditional political and economic elites and a call for a more inclusive democracy.

The final two positions focused on their commitment to “engage constructively” with the Southeast Asian regional bloc ASEAN to resolve the conflict and to peacefully coexist with its neighbors. 

To that end, the joint statement outlines six action plans towards the establishment of the federal democracy.

Off-ramp 

These include the continuance of military operations. While they accept negotiations with the “responsible leadership of the Myanmar military to terminate military rule and for peaceful transition of power,” they emphasize a key precondition: the military leadership’s “unconditional acceptance of the six political objectives.” 

And that is not possible without continued and sustained military pressure against the junta. If there is to be a negotiated off-ramp for the generals, it has to be from a position of their weakness.

Upon the military defeat and surrender, a phased transitional process at both the national and local level is outlined, as is the role of a transitional government and the drafting of a new constitution. 

Fighters of Karenni insurgent forces walk in Moe Bye, Kayah State, Nov. 12, 2023. (Reuters Photo)
Fighters of Karenni insurgent forces walk in Moe Bye, Kayah State, Nov. 12, 2023. (Reuters Photo)

A key task will be the redrawing of state borders. Though it was not stated explicitly, there are calls to break up the large ethnic majority Bamar-dominated states. 

It’s important that for all of these, they include “all parties and entities that participated in the revolution against the military dictatorship.”

It appears that the onus for establishing local governments will fall on the ethnic armies, as we have already seen with the Karenni in eastern Myanmar. It is less clear the role that various ethnic armies who did not participate in the Spring Revolution will have in establishing local governance. 

The joint statement concludes with the pledge “to persist in our revolutionary endeavors, maintaining unwavering cooperation and collaboration with our allied revolutionary forces.” 

Concern about non-signatories

But what causes some concern is who did not sign the document. 

The signatories included the Chin National Front, the Karen National Union, and the Karen National Progressive Party. The Kachin Independence Organization and members of the Three Brotherhood Alliance were not signatories, though obviously the door remains open to them.

No reason was given as to why they did not sign. But in the key western state of Rakhine, the Arakan Army does not fully trust the NUG, which they view as being too dominated by ethnic Bamar NLD members. Of all the ethnic armies, they have shown the most desire for independence and are now discussing confederation rather than a federal union.  

A woman sets a protest display with defaced pictures of Myanmar's junta leader Min Aung Hlaing in Jakarta, April 24, 2021. (Antara Foto/Dhemas Reviyanto via Reuters)
A woman sets a protest display with defaced pictures of Myanmar's junta leader Min Aung Hlaing in Jakarta, April 24, 2021. (Antara Foto/Dhemas Reviyanto via Reuters)

If the Arakan Army was not on board with this position paper, it’s understandable that its allies would be in an awkward position if they signed.

There is some speculation that Chinese pressure also had a role in this, though it’s hard to see what would have threatened Beijing’s interests.  

While some will view the joint statement as premature, it’s never a bad time to reinforce the desired end state. 

The closer opposition forces come to defeating the military, the more that the ethnic armies may begin to mistrust the Bamar-dominated NUG. The NUG must constantly reinforce its commitment to a new federal charter that enshrines a substantial devolution of political and economic power. 

Min Aung Hlaing’s vow to crush the opposition is delusional. In three years, the military has not only failed to consolidate power, but it's lost effective control over much of the country, while the opposition has grown in strength, legitimacy, and unity. They offer the only path forward.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or Radio Free Asia.

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