Protestors wear hats in support of the Civil Disobedience Movement in Yangon shortly after the coup in February 2021. (Frontier)

Purity or pragmatism? The CDM dilemma

Opposition forces in Myanmar are trying to roll out public services in newly-conquered territories, but public resentment is holding them back from employing regime civil servants.


Daw Kyipyar Tin*, a civil servant at the Immigration Department in Hsipaw Township, was luckier than her colleagues.

She had travelled from Hsipaw in northern Shan State to her hometown in the southern part of the state for the Thadingyut holiday in October, just before the Three Brotherhood Alliance of ethnic armed groups launched Operation 1027.

The stunning military offensive saw opposition groups seize huge swathes of territory in northern Shan, with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army taking half a dozen major towns. Although it was unable to claim Hsipaw, fierce clashes penetrated into the town before the TNLA agreed to a ceasefire with the Myanmar military in January.

While Kyipyar Tin was safe at home, many of her colleagues and their families were left stranded.

“The staff wanted and waited for instructions from the headquarters – the ministry in Nay Pyi Taw – like permission to shut down the office and evacuate the town. But there was no word from them. As the fighting got more intense, the staff were fleeing the town on their own,” she told Frontier. “No one even said, ‘just close the office and flee as soon as possible because your life is more important’. No one said anything.”

The department in Hsipaw stopped functioning in November after most officials had fled. But rather than giving them time off, or allowing them to work close to home, the regime recalled the staffers to Nay Pyi Taw, without even offering to cover transportation costs.

“It created an extra burden for us,” Kyipyar Tin said.

After two months in Nay Pyi Taw, she was reassigned to her native township in southern Shan, leaving her frustrated and annoyed that she hadn’t been allowed to remain there in the first place.

Kyipyar Tin said after this experience, she is having second thoughts about continuing to work for the regime. While this could be an opportunity for the resistance to co-opt an experienced civil servant, she said she feels it’s too late to switch sides.

Hundreds of thousands of state workers walked off their jobs in protest immediately after the February 2021 coup, in a mass strike dubbed the Civil Disobedience Movement. The National Unity Government, a parallel authority appointed by elected lawmakers deposed in the coup, gave all civil servants a deadline of April 2021 to join the strike. In January last year, the National Unity Consultative Council, a body for coordinating high-level policy between resistance groups, released a policy paper outlining certain punishments for regime civil servants who failed to meet that deadline.

The NUCC policy paper said non-CDM officials, including those who joined the strike after April 2021 or later returned to work, will face a range of punishments depending on their civil service rank. Deputy directors and above will be permanently blacklisted from state jobs, while lower ranking staff will be sacked but given the option to apply for readmission at entry-level positions. Non-CDM staff will also be put under temporary foreign travel bans and could face other unspecified punishments.

That hostility has pushed people like Kyipyar Tin away from the pro-democracy movement.

“If I quit, I’ll just quit normally,” she said. “I have many friends who joined the CDM, or lead CDM activities in my town. But when I chose to continue working after the coup, they ended their relationship with me and criticised me behind my back.”

Throwing red meat to the base

Social stigma is just the tip of the iceberg. Even lower-level regime civil servants have been routinely assassinated by resistance groups, despite being classified by international law as civilians. Immigration Department officials have been no exception.

The issue of how to treat non-CDM civil servants has become particularly thorny recently, as opposition groups seize more territory and try to roll out their own administrations.

In the last four months, the TNLA and its close ally the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army have seized large swathes of northern Shan, including sizable towns, while third Brotherhood member the Arakan Army has made similar gains in Rakhine State and southern Chin State.

Members of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army stand guard in a temple area near a camp seized from the military in northern Shan State’s Namhsan Township on December 13. (AFP)

But these groups are encountering difficulties in striking a balance between building a functioning administration and keeping their revolutionary support base satisfied. TNLA vice chair Tar Jode Jar faced widespread backlash after he told local media in January that the group is open to working with non-CDM civil servants to administer its new territories.

The criticism was so severe that the TNLA had to backtrack, issuing a statement the next day apologising for the comments and promising to only work with CDM participants.

In November, the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force launched an assault on the Kayah State capital Loikaw. The group took nearly 200 civil servants and family members into custody from Loikaw University and the Government Technical Institute, placing them under investigation. The Karenni Interim Executive Council, a local parallel governing authority, released and expelled them all from the state, except for five senior officials, requiring that they sign a pledge to never work for the regime again.

A resistance-run court in Hpruso Township later fined the senior officials K1.7 million (over US$800) each, a verdict that left many CDM participants unsatisfied.

“They should have been sentenced to prison for one or two years, that’s the punishment they deserve. Letting them go with just a small fine is like child’s play,” said Ko Lu Maw*, a CDM doctor who used to work at Loikaw General Hospital.

Khu Plu Reh, general secretary of the Karenni IEC, told Frontier that the group must act according to human rights and within practical limitations.

“We exiled them after they promised not to work again under the authority of the regime, and to cooperate with the people,” he said, adding if any of them are found to be working for the military again, they will be punished more severely.

He explained that the IEC has limited capacity to hold prisoners safely and ethically. A CDM police officer in Loikaw told Frontier in December that the Karenni resistance only has one large prison (and a number of small makeshift holding cells) in Kayah, and so must prioritise holding prisoners of war and serious criminals.

Not everyone thinks alienating regime civil servants is a winning strategy. Ko Kyaw Ko Ko, prominent activist and former chair of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, said holding a grudge against non-CDM participants isn’t productive.

“We have to remember that there are many non-CDM people who didn’t join because of fear and pressure,” said Kyaw Ko Ko, who launched the Social Democratic Party last year. “When resistance groups defeat the dictator, who the non-CDM people fear, then there is nothing to fear anymore. At that time, revolutionary forces should utilise those human resources.”

Kyaw Ko Ko said treating them harshly will only push them away, benefitting the regime and hurting the resistance.

“We have to make them become our friends. If we oppress them, they will go to military territory. If they don’t dare live in the liberated areas and go to military-controlled areas instead, we will lose human resources and the enemy’s strength will increase,” he said.

They must suffer the consequences’

But the brutality of the conflict means punishment remains appealing to many. CDM participants have risked their lives and livelihoods to oppose the coup, and chafe at the idea that others who have continued helping the regime may face no consequences.

Many CDM participants have been murdered by the regime, at times in gruesome fashion – like a teacher who was decapitated in Magway Region, his severed head displayed on a school gate. Others have suffered severe economic hardship, like the thousands forcibly evicted from government housing, sometimes at gunpoint.

The NUCC did not respond to Frontier’s requests for an interview, but a source close to the council said it took months to approve the CDM policy because of the fierce disagreements over whether and how to punish non-CDM participants. In general, senior officials urged forgiveness, while rank-and-file strike participants demanded punishment.

“There are many leaders in the NUCC who don’t want to treat to the non-CDM people as the enemy, but CDM representative groups want to punish the non-CDM people,” she explained. “The leaders worry this policy will create a situation where the non-CDM people have no exit.”

A woman at an anti-coup demonstration holds a placard calling civil servants to join the CDM in Yangon on March 8, 2021. (AFP)

The NUCC has seemingly since tried to quietly walk back the policy, issuing a new paper in December that vaguely mentions punishment for “those found to have committed a crime”.

But state-level resistance authorities have started drafting their own policies, seemingly largely following the NUCC’s first policy paper. The Interim Chin National Consultative Council released a CDM Policy on November 22 that mimicked the NUCC’s original punishment categories. Khu Plu Reh also told Frontier that the Karenni State Consultative Council is in the process of writing its own CDM policy, which is also expected to include punishments for non-CDM members.

U Nay Min*, a spokesperson for Myanma Railways CDM staff, said he doesn’t harbour any hate against his counterparts working for the regime but insisted they should be punished.

“Due to the pressure of the military council and their fears, the people felt they had to work under the junta. I don’t want to blame them, but when the civilian government returns they must suffer the consequences of choosing to work under the junta,” he said.

He said those who joined the CDM in the last few months, because resistance groups conquered the territory they live in, should not be treated as true CDM participants like those who joined immediately after the coup.

Nay Min referred to those latecomers as alin win thu, a phrase that roughly translates to “those who enter the light from the darkness”, and is commonly used by the military to describe rebels who surrender. While resistance groups in Sagaing Region, where he is based, continue to accept new defectors, the promise of punishment remains.

“We accept everyone who requests to join us. Right now, there is no punishment except that they must sign a pledge not to work for the junta again,” he said. “But after the revolution they will be disciplined.”

That’s not an appealing prospect for many of Myanmar’s civil servants, who claim they support the revolution but increasingly feel trapped between two antagonistic forces.

“Although the leaders of the revolution have invited non-CDM to join the CDM, the CDM participants on the ground are not like that,” said Daw Oo Oo Khin*, a tutor at the Yangon University of Education. “Whenever we talk to them, they treat us like traitors. They don’t even care – or maybe they don’t believe – that there are many non-CDM people who support the revolution.”

Oo Oo Khin said hearing the phrase alin win thu upsets her, because non-CDM people aren’t rebels against democracy, but ordinary people caught up in difficult circumstances. She said if the revolution succeeds and the next civilian government implements a policy of punishing non-CDM participants, she will retire from public service.

“I’ll just go teach at a private school. I invested my time and energy to become a tutor here, if they send me back to a basic education school, I won’t accept it,” she said.

While the question has become a vexing problem for the resistance, Kyaw Ko Ko said it shouldn’t be too complicated.

“Non-CDM people are also civilians; they’re not the enemy. The only enemy is the military dictatorship. We can say those working in armed institutions like the army and police force are our enemies, but we can’t say that about people who aren’t working in oppressive institutions, like education, healthcare and social security,” he said. “The revolutionary forces must consider the situation with a big heart.”

Kyaw Ko Ko’s position hasn’t made him popular, and he’s even received hate mail and threats for speaking out on social media. But he said the leaders of the pro-democracy movement have an obligation to stand up for what’s right, even if it’s not popular.

“As politicians, we must put aside love and hate, and talk about practicality. We have to do the right thing. If not, there will be more difficulties in the long run. I would like to urge the NUCC and NUG to do real work rather than just seeking popularity,” he said.

*indicates the use of a pseudonym for security reasons

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