A Shared Vision? Reflections on the creation of unity in opposition in Myanmar’s civil disobedience movement since February 2021

Since the Myanmar army overturned the November 2020 election and asserted itself violently against the will of its own people in February 2021, the current political violence and social protests in the country are once again attracting international scrutiny. Attention has been focused on the way the civil disobedience movement (CDM) has unified people across the country, cutting across ethnic and religious boundaries.

One of the recent features of the CDM has been the flow of young people from lower Myanmar to ethnic minority-controlled areas, where many of them are receiving military training from armed ethnic organisations, which have long been in conflict with the Myanmar army. In the process, these young people are learning about places, peoples, languages, and cultures of Myanmar’s border regions in person and often for the first time. For some young activists, the experience is providing connection and insight that enables them to feel more empathy with the experiences of oppression and violence that many minority communities have suffered for decades. Their understanding of what long-standing ‘ethnic conflicts’ have been

about has changed, and with it their ideas of what the political future of the country could look like. Federalism has become a buzz word among a generation of young people who, until recently, were more likely to understand Federalism as a threat to the nation.

Yet how deep is this unity? The political unity of the CDM has emerged in a very short space of time. Immediately before the military’s actions in February, those same armed ethnic organisations that are now being lauded as heroes of the new revolution were frequently distrusted as disruptive and backwards-looking forces; the country’s civilian as well as military leadership was being held accountable for genocidal actions against the Rohingya people by the International Court of Justice; populist sentiment often tipped into xenophobic outpourings in discussions of ethnic and religious equalities and rights. How deep, therefore, is the understanding of ethnic and religious minority concerns among a newly politically awakened urban youth population that now wants Federalism? If these understandings are still relatively superficial, what is required to make them deeper and more substantive? These important questions will be critical to the future of Myanmar but none of these issues is new. While the current situation is undoubtedly distinctive and has unique characteristics, it did not emerge from a vacuum of experience, and there may still be important lessons that can be drawn from situating these events in a longer timeframe. In 1988, there was a similar flow of young Burmese political activists to the border regions, where they sought support and training from ethnic armed organisations, often with poor outcomes. This seminar, therefore, seeks to understand the opportunities and challenges that exist in relation to developing shared visions of the future.

Our speakers will bring unique and compelling insights into these and related issues from a range of perspectives.