Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Protesters take cover behind makeshift barricades during a crackdown by security forces on a demonstration against the military coup, in Yangon's Thaketa township, Myanmar, on March 19, 2021.STR/AFP/Getty Images

Pro-democracy forces in Myanmar say that without international pressure on the military regime, the country could soon slide into civil war.

A senior member of the opposition’s shadow government – made up of parliamentarians deposed by the coup – told The Globe and Mail this week that pro-democracy forces were in the process of building a national unity army that might challenge and eventually replace the country’s existing military, known as the Tatmadaw. The new army would comprise ethnic militias already fighting the military regime in Myanmar’s border regions, along with Tatmadaw units the opposition believes are willing to defect.

Dr. Sasa, a medical doctor and senior member of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, said the opposition remained committed – for now – to peaceful resistance. But after more than two months of violence after the Feb. 1 coup that has seen hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators killed, Dr. Sasa said the possibility of civil war was growing.

“If the country’s armed forces, which should be protecting the country of Myanmar, continue attacking the people of Myanmar … there is a real danger that the country will slide into the greatest civil war, like none we have ever seen before,” he said in an interview via Zoom.

Dr. Sasa is the official envoy of the shadow government, which is known as the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, or CRPH, to the United Nations. Pyidaungsu Hluttaw is the Burmese name of the country’s parliament, which hasn’t been able to sit since Feb. 1. The coup saw the military deployed into the streets and Ms. Suu Kyi and her ally President Win Myint placed in detention.

Hundreds of thousands of Ms. Suu Kyi’s supporters have repeatedly taken to the streets in protest, and the Tatmadaw has responded with escalating violence, including the use of live ammunition against crowds of demonstrators. Dr. Sasa said 564 people had died in the crackdown so far. The CRPH called for a nationwide strike that Dr. Sasa said has paralyzed the military government, with only the ministries of Defence and Home Affairs continuing to function.

There are already signs of a widening conflict. Late last month, the military carried out air strikes on ethnic Karen villages near the country’s frontier with Thailand, causing an estimated 3,000 refugees to flee across the border.

Karen rebels have been fighting an off-and-on war for independence for decades, as have more than a dozen other ethnic militias around the country. Dr. Sasa said the aim now is to persuade those fighters to join the national unity army in exchange for the promise of a federal state with wide autonomy for the regions if the junta is defeated.

He said that while the results of the country’s Nov. 8 election – which saw the NLD win 85 per cent of the seats it was allowed to contest – confirmed that Ms. Suu Kyi remains “the leader of the nation,” the struggle is now greater than Ms. Suu Kyi or her political party.

“This is not about the NLD any more. This is about all the people of Myanmar. We are talking to as many ethnic parties across the country, and civil society organizations, as we can,” Dr. Sasa said, adding that the CRPH was also reaching out to potential defectors inside the Tatmadaw. “We are doing everything we can to make it as inclusive as possible.”

It’s unclear whether the various ethnic militias would be interested in joining hands with the NLD-dominated CRPH. A report published last week by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group noted that some ethnic groups had been disappointed with the NLD-led civilian government that existed before the coup.

“The coup has upended the strategic calculations of ethnic armed groups. Some are seeking to steer clear of the crisis or even trying to engage the regime to further their own goals,” the report reads. “At the same time, however, ethnic minorities have long experience of the army’s brutality and are alarmed at the prospect of a return to authoritarian military rule.”

Dr. Sasa said the national unity army would also include Rohingya fighters if they were willing to join. The Tatmadaw has been accused of carrying out a genocide in 2016 and 2017 against Rohingya villages in the west of the country. The campaign killed more than 10,000 people – and Ms. Suu Kyi defended it as “an internal armed conflict” when she spoke as her country’s representative at The Hague-based International Court of Justice. Parliament stripped her of her honorary Canadian citizenship for defending the military’s actions.

The ICJ last year ordered the Tatmadaw to halt its campaign against the Rohingya and to preserve evidence of past crimes.

Dr. Sasa said that despite Ms. Suu Kyi’s past defence of the military’s actions, the CRPH now looks to the ICJ and the International Criminal Court as potential allies. He said the opposition was compiling evidence against the military for each and every one of the civilians killed in the crackdown.

“We are documenting all their crimes,” he said, in hopes the ICC, which already has an open investigation on Myanmar, will eventually be able to put members of the junta on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The opposition, however, says the international community needs to do more to force the military to halt its use of violence against peaceful protesters. Dr. Sasa said that while the sanctions Canada and other countries imposed on the junta were welcome, travel bans and asset freezes are not enough. The Tatmadaw, he said, needs to be cut off from the international economic system to keep it from accessing the cash it has been using to buy weapons from Russia and China.

“The situation is graver and graver. If the international community doesn’t come with strong actions against the military generals … the only option that will be left is civil war. It will be unavoidable.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe