By engaging with ethnic minority groups and the National Unity Government in exile, Australia can offer greater support to Myanmar’s resistance than through sanctions alone.

In 2021, Myanmar’s military ousted the democratically-elected government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, in a coup d’état which dramatically transformed the country’s political landscape.

Not only did it throw the Southeast Asian nation into immediate crisis, but it brought to an end a decade-long peace process between the government and some of Myanmar’s ethnic resistance organisations (EROs).

Ethnic minorities account for approximately one-third of Myanmar’s 50 million-plus population, with the other two-thirds being the dominant Bamar ethnic majority.

Ever since Myanmar gained independence in 1948, the country’s minority ethnic communities have sought acknowledgement of their cultural identities and the establishment of self-governance. However, the Bamar-dominated military regimes that ruled the country until 2011 failed to satisfy many of the minorities’ desire for self-determination.

In response, certain ethnic groups have resorted to armed resistance against the central governments for over 70 years.

Solidarity with ethnic aspirations

Some progress towards peace and a more unified country was made when the military ceded power to an elected government in 2011, but even this quasi-civilian government was dominated by members of the Bamar majority, and so about 20 EROs remained active.

Since the coup, however, Myanmar has seen a shift in the relationship between Bamar people who oppose the military regime and some ethnic minority groups.

Fighting has erupted in areas that have not seen clashes for many years, including in the Bamar-dominated areas located in the centre of the country. Unlike in ethnic minority areas, these locations have traditionally been spared from armed conflict.

Ethnic minorities account for approximately one-third of Myanmar’s 50 million-plus population. Photo: Roberto/

The coup has also encouraged novel expressions of solidarity, both among Bamar politicians, who have been forced to engage in conversations about Myanmar’s federal future with ethnic leaders, and among the Bamar public, who have become aware of the military’s propagandistic efforts to vilify ethnic minorities.

As a result, there has been a notable increase in public empathy towards ethnic minority demands for a more equitable distribution of power.

However, despite the emergence of a broad coalition supportive of ethnic aspirations, there are still variations in minority groups’ goals and their willingness to back the anti-coup movement. Inter-ethnic tensions, originating from a nation-building process that has been divisive for decades, persist and hinder constructive conversations between various factions of the revolution.

Although most EROs are opposed to the military regime, some are reluctant to join the opposition because of enduring mistrust of Bamar-dominated political processes and perceptions that the military’s downfall is unlikely, at least for now.

Brutal tactics

Although a united coalition of Myanmar’s EROs joining the broader resistance movement against the military regime remains unlikely, substantial political and military cooperation is occurring and may be having some impact on the struggle.

With new fronts stretching its capacity, the military does not hold effective control in more than half the country’s territory. Its local administration system can’t operate in ethnic liberated areas and is collapsing in other areas where resistance forces target administrators.

In their absence, resistance-led local administration bodies are emerging across the country, following the ethnic armed forces’ long-established model of service provision. These bodies are playing a crucial role in meeting public education, health, justice and aid delivery needs.

This aid delivery is especially important in response to the brutal tactics employed by the military against its own population, including burning down villages, massacring civilians and destroying towns.

According to a recent UN report, the resulting displacement of more than 1.8 million people has led to a major humanitarian crisis. It is predicted that more than one-third of the country’s population will be in need of humanitarian assistance in 2023.

The February 2021 military coup overthrew the democratically elected government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: Asia Society/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Support not sanctions

For nations with an interest in seeing democracy returned to Myanmar, such as Australia, it’s critical to understand these post-coup dynamics.

Supporting local actors would be more effective in achieving a sustainable democratic solution and ending the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar than the Australian government’s current approach of sanctioning military officials.

Australia’s recent engagement with the self-proclaimed National Unity Government (NUG), which is composed of elected parliamentarians, ethnic representatives, political parties and protest leaders, is a positive step.

Australian officials should also recognise the importance of political negotiations with ethnic armed actors and even look to build public ties with some of these groups.

Indeed, the involvement of EROs in any democratic transition in Myanmar can’t be overlooked, as they are at the core of the country’s civil conflict.

In addition, collaboration with ethnic armed groups can help address the escalating humanitarian crisis. Australia should not only support local civil society organisations that have a better understanding of conflict dynamics, but it should also work with the well-developed ethnic service provision systems, which have the capacity to reach populations in need.

Beyond strengthening the resistance’s capacity to deliver health and humanitarian aid, it is important to support successful cooperation initiatives between the NUG and EROs and back their calls for the creation of internationally guaranteed negotiated humanitarian corridors and an Inclusive Humanitarian Forum (IHF) to help mitigate the growing crisis.

Given this conflict is likely to be protracted, the international community needs to do what it can to protect local communities amid renewed hostilities.

This article was co-published with The Canberra Times.

Top image: Protestors in Myanmar adopted the three-finger gesture as a symbol of resistance. Photo: One Dragon/

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