Protesters marching with banners in support of the National Unity Government in Hpakant in May 2021. (KACHINWAVES/AFP)

NUG settling in for long fight against junta

As the National Unity Government enters its second year of existence, it faces the herculean task of simultaneously governing and fighting a war against the military with limited resources.

By FRONTIER

Last April, following bloody crackdowns that killed hundreds of protestors demonstrating against the military coup, lawmakers elected in the 2020 election appointed the National Unity Government. Since then, the NUG has been leading a “people’s defensive war” against the Myanmar military while trying to gain international recognition and provide government services to a country engulfed in conflict. 

Unlike the previous mass movements against military dictatorship in Myanmar, this nationwide uprising — also known as the Spring Revolution — has been characterised by the shift away from the non-violent activism that has long been espoused by the reimprisoned Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. 

The Acting President of the NUG, Duwa Lashi La, outlined the parallel government’s strategy to defeat the military regime, which calls itself the State Administration Council, during a declaration of war last September. 

“We have to initiate a nationwide uprising in every village, town and city in the entire country,” he said in a televised address. He also directed public servants to remain on strike and urged ethnic armed organisations as well as newly formed militias largely known as People’s Defence Forces to attack the junta’s assets and forces. 

“As this is a public revolution, we urge all citizens within the whole of Myanmar to rebel against the rule of the military terrorists led by Min Aung Hlaing,” he said

On April 16, Lashi La addressed the nation via Facebook live to commemorate the NUG’s first anniversary and thanked the people involved in the Spring Revolution for their support and generosity. He laid out the NUG’s plans to expand governance and the provision of education, health, and justice services, as well as scale-up humanitarian assistance. He also called on the international community to support the revolution.

Though the military is reviled by the vast majority of the country and the NUG generally enjoys popular support, not everyone is convinced that the parallel government will come out on top. Foreign governments and some powerful ethnic armed organisations have been reluctant to treat the NUG as the legitimate government of Myanmar. But despite much initial skepticism, the civilian-led administration has come a long way in just one year.

Impressive numbers

The NUG has claimed many impressive achievements, some with more veracity than others. 

The NUG abolished the 2008 military-drafted constitution and recognised the crimes committed against the Rohingya. Many have embraced these acts as signs that the nascent body is serious about transforming the country beyond simply removing the military from government.

Achievements listed by the NUG in its maiden budget statement last year included mobilising K2.03 billion (approximately US$1 million) in aid for people displaced by conflict and support for the families of those killed or arrested by the junta. The junta has attacked aid workers, blocked humanitarian supply routes and seized relief supplies throughout the country since the coup. The UN refugee agency estimates that there are nearly 800,000 displaced people in Myanmar.  Through a range of fundraising efforts, the NUG has also said it has been able to accumulate a budget of US$700 million

“It’s difficult to express an objective judgment since we don’t have the data for aid distribution. But the NUG is regularly contacted and consulted and it has demonstrated anecdotally that it owns the high moral ground and the sort of maturity you would expect from the leadership,” said a senior diplomat working in Myanmar who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Additionally, although it’s unclear how much control the NUG exerts over PDFs and to what extent it has managed to establish a united front with EAOs, the diplomat said it was important for the parallel government to discourage attacks on civilians.

Frontier has not been able to independently verify the budget numbers, but striking civil servants, to whom the parallel government had made promises to provide salaries, have complained of a lack of funds.

In an interview with Radio Free Asia on April 19, NUG Defence Minister U Yee Mon said there are between 50,000 and 100,000 PDF members. He also claimed that a total of 259 PDF battalions have been formed, as well as 250 township-based forces and 401 guerrilla forces and that most were in contact with the parallel government.

Contact does not necessarily mean collaboration, however, and many of these armed groups act independently of the NUG and each other. 

The NUG defence ministry released a statement on February 16 claiming resistance groups killed more than 9,000 soldiers and police between last June and February 2022. The number of civilians killed by resistance forces, usually for being seen as collaborating with the regime on some level, was not provided. Frontier could not independently verify this number.

According to a six-month report posted by Yee Mon, the NUG defence ministry has received over US$30 million in donations as of March 13, and 85 percent of which was used to buy and produce weapons. Despite these claims, some PDF members have said they have not received much support from the ministry. 

In an interview with Frontier on April 19, NUG International Cooperation Minister Dr Sasa said its successes during the past year included ensuring that the SAC is not recognised as Myanmar’s government and cutting its access to finance and weapons. 

“We had a huge success on the first point compared to the 1990 palace coup by Than Shwe. The international community then started to recognise the coup government within a few months, but this time because of our combined efforts, we have put a roadblock to the international community; not even [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations], they will not recognise Min Aung Hlaing as the leader of the country,” Sasa said. 

Though the NUG is not recognised on the international stage as Myanmar’s government either, it has had extensive interactions with Western nations and democratic governments in Asia. It also established offices in Japan, South Korea, the United States and the Czech Republic. 

Sasa said the NUG has been lobbying the British, French, Norwegian, German, Japanese, Australian and New Zealand governments, and the European Union to recognise the NUG as the legitimate government of Myanmar. 

Myanmar’s United Nations ambassador seat has also remained outside of the junta’s grasp. Ambassador U Kyaw Moe Tun declared his loyalty to the overthrown civilian government and has since aligned himself with the NUG, as the junta failed in its efforts to replace him.

On the economic front, the revolutionary movement has been able to hold strong on a general boycott of brands associated with the military within the country, push for stronger and ever expanding sanctions against military-affiliated companies from the international community, and has been able to pressure multiple large corporations to leave Myanmar, including those in telecommunications, oil and gas, and beer. 

Additionally, the NUG finance ministry’s guidelines on responsible investment are being closely watched by multinational companies according to business sources in Yangon, though the same sources say that the NUG’s demand that no businesses pay taxes to the SAC is unrealistic. Business owners and their employees face shutdowns, physical attacks, or arrest if they do not pay taxes to the junta. 

However, the NUG has been fairly successful in getting companies to be wary of appearing to work with the regime. NUG finance minister U Tin Tun Naing warned foreign chambers of commerce against legitimising the junta after some of their members met junta-appointed investment minister U Aung Naing Oo last September. 

“The NUG and associated social punishment still is influential in its pressure on businesses not to meet and gladhand the SAC,” said a local business leader who asked not to be named for their safety.  

Protesters burn the Chinese flag in Yangon in April 2021. China has largely been seen as supportive of the junta. (Frontier)

‘There is still a lot of wishful thinking’

Although resistance to military rule remains steadfast, some wonder whether the NUG can lead the people to victory.

Peacock Generation, a troupe famous for satirical verses traditionally performed during the Myanmar new year known as thangyat, mocked the NUG and its consultative body, the National Unity Consultative Council, in a video live-streamed on social media on the parallel government’s first anniversary on April 16.

“The revolution is winning… it’s winning… in Zoom meetings,” the troupe sang, mocking the NUG’s frequent online meetings. Other lyrics included “Did you receive guns from NUG… yes we got some airsoft guns”. The reference to “airsoft guns” is Burmese wordplay for doing a lot of talking.

The 27-minute long video was watched by more than 335,000 users, and largely garnered positive feedback. One user commented that “NUG shouldn’t take these as finding faults but constructive criticism and start fixing things.”

Diplomats in Yangon told Frontier the parallel government is not in a position to challenge the junta’s grip on power.

The NUG and the anti-coup movement have moral leadership but that’s limited in practice, one senior diplomat in Yangon who spoke on the condition of anonymity said on April 20. “There is still a lot of wishful thinking [about toppling the military],” the diplomat said. “Both sides appear to believe their own rhetoric, when the reality is that… any form of ‘victory’ appears impossible.”

Another key concern, the diplomat stated, is that China and India have decisively sided with the junta. 

The diplomat cited a statement by China’s foreign minister Mr Wang Yi, during an April 1 visit to Beijing by his junta-appointed counterpart, U Wunna Maung Lwin. Wang stated that China “has always placed Myanmar in an important position in its neighbourly diplomacy” and would always back Myanmar, “no matter how the situation changes”.

Meanwhile, Min Aung Hlaing accepted the credentials of India’s new ambassador, Mr Vinay Kumar, in a ceremony at Nay Pyi Taw on April 6.

Unlike Aung San Suu Kyi, who in 2015 became the first foreign opposition leader to meet China’s head of state President Xi Jinping, the NUG has not been able to convince Beijing that it is the government-in-waiting. The parallel government has also struggled to garner support from Delhi.

“For China, the military will always be an important force in Myanmar politics. The civil war might be rampant, but it doesn’t mean NUG and PDF plus EAOs can drive the military out,” said Ms Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the US-based Stimson Center, on April 20. 

In the minds of the Chinese government, “the military is going to rule the country, no matter how limited its territory and how much domestic resistance. Its legitimacy might be disputed, but it is what can still be regarded as the central government,” Yun said.

The NUG has been critical of China for its stance, and has also criticised the international community for not doing more to support the parallel government. Sasa pointed out that while the international community was quick to sanction Vladirmir Putin and Russian oligarchs after the invasion of Ukraine, it took some time for Myanmar’s generals and their allies to be subject to the same mechanisms.

It is also important for the NUG to talk to Asian governments, the Yangon-based diplomat added. “They spend a lot of time preaching to the converted, that’s us, and not enough speaking to those who need to be converted,” the diplomat said. 

To garner more international support, there was also a need “produce policy statements that reflect the progressive views of modern democracies, such as on the death penalty, human rights, inclusiveness, tolerance towards diversity, fair and conducive economic policies,” the diplomat added.

A Myanmar business leader agreed. She told Frontier on April 26 that the NUG should create stronger connections internationally and “ensure its platform is not just for resistance but also for nation-building.”

“Internally, the NUG needs to connect with the younger generation and outline what they will bring for the country,” she said,“externally, they need to do a better job of articulating why the world should care about Myanmar. Not just repeating the injustice done to us but for the world to see Myanmar as a place of hope and a promising integration into the global community, and more emphasis on how we are going to help ourselves, not just asking for outside help.”

Dr Khin Zaw Win of the Tampadipa Institute, a Yangon-based think tank, said Myanmar’s neighbours have had cozy relations with the military for decades. It has become innate in neighbouring countries to consider the military in their institutional and strategic plans and the NUG should therefore be focusing on establishing closer relationships with them, he told Frontier on April 19.

“[These countries] are not going to abandon [engagement with the military] in a hurry, and it’s not enough for the NUG to say ‘you should have relations with us because we are the elected government’. Elections and democracy matter very little for those countries,” Khin Zaw Win said, “what’s the use if you don’t influence your neighbours?”

A screenshot of a video uploaded to Facebook on May 28 that purports to show the first batch of trained fighters from the People’s Defence Force, a national resistance army formed by the National Unity Government.
A screenshot of a video uploaded to Facebook by the NUG showing the first batch PDF graduates in May 2021.

‘The NUG deserves credit’

Specialists on Myanmar say that despite its shortcomings, the NUG has come a long way and succeeded in maintaining revolutionary momentum.

Independent researcher and analyst, Mr Matthew Arnold, told Frontier on April 18 that although there is “a sense of frustration and impatience”, the NUG “has achieved what the democratic resistance didn’t manage after the 1988 coup. It has created a viable resistance that has a real chance of unseating the junta.”

“Right now the country is in the midst of an armed revolution. But if it is successful, then the political framework and relationships laid down through the NUCC will be critical,” he said, “the NUG deserves credit for much of this work, mostly due to the willingness of leaders to compromise and think big.”

“In many ways the NUCC process picks up on dynamics that were disrupted since the military first staged a coup in 1960/62,” Arnold said. 

There is still room for improvement though, argued a Myanmar political analyst who requested anonymity due to security risks. 

“The NUG will have to triage the range of needs it can handle, including funding the ongoing self-defensive, and now increasingly offensive, war effort, but also the needs of civilians on the ground who have become collateral damage in the military’s razed earth tactics, not to mention the bottom of the pyramid that is increasingly feeling the socioeconomic impact of the coup and political unrest,” he said on April 27. 

The analyst added that although key ministries working on service delivery are impeded by finance and reach, areas to improve on have been identified with support from allies including key EAOs and their associated networks, local organizations and grassroots networks, health professionals, and others. 

Independent researcher on Myanmar, Mr Kim Jolliffe, said “the people are desperate, so nothing will ever be enough. The NUG needs to keep learning, adapting and pushing new boundaries”, but “overall, the movement has made more progress in its crucial goal than any movement since the 1962 coup. It is still building and building. Actors all over the country say they have never seen the military so weak”. 

A year on, the NUG has had time to show the Myanmar people and the world what it is capable of. The largely jubilant welcome it received when it was first announced has given way to constructive criticism and thoughtful engagement. People seem to remain largely hopeful, but are demanding ever more from the parallel government. 

“Although the NUG was established tumultuously, I see it becoming an organised government with time. As the [NUG] members have to throw themselves from the old system to a completely new system, there still remains some old habits. But, [the NUG] has the desire to fix these habits,” said Ma Wint, a protester from Yangon, “this is and must be one of the characteristics of a government that will walk side-by-side with the people.”

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