There is, among many international opinionmakers, diplomats, and policymakers, a belief that the “solution to the conflict” in Myanmar lies in an accommodation between the military and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which the military ousted in a coup in February 2021.
As one recent commentator says, “A compromise with the opposition when Aung San Suu Kyi is alive and active is the [military]’s only chance to redeem its damaged reputation, as well as to avoid public resentment for many decades to come.”
That sentiment is understandable. It is what most of Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbors would like to see, because it aligns with their lowest common denominator Five-Point Consensus dating from April 2021, and would take the country back to a familiar status quo ante. It also helpfully reduces complexity for the outsider.
But there are those who understand and are able to communicate that complexity better. Teodoro Locsin Jr, the Philippines’ foreign minister, has called for the restoration of “the democratic transition” in Myanmar and a deal between Aung San Suu Kyi, the military, ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), and “all stakeholders.”
“All stakeholders” includes Myanmar’s legitimate government institutions. Those legitimate government institutions are composed of the mostly NLD lawmakers that make up the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Union Parliament) elected in November 2020 and the National Unity Government (NUG) that serves at its pleasure. It includes their civil society and ethnic political allies – 60-70 organizations in total – loosely organized in the National Unity Consultative Council. Also included in this coalition are – and this is often overlooked – the representatives of the 400,000 civil servants that remain on strike, many of them now volunteering to staff the fledgling NUG administrative apparatus.
“All stakeholders” also includes the legitimate government’s armed wing, which is fighting the junta military. Besides several ethnic armed organizations , this includes the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), a decentralized network of probably less than 100 militias active in virtually every part of the country, which total tens of thousands of fighters. These PDFs are loyal to the legitimate government but in large part not directly controlled by it.
For those observing Myanmar, it is not unusual that the legitimate government institutions are not referred to by name. Anything resembling recognition of the NUG is studiously avoided, not only by Locsin’s government but also by Myanmar’s friends in the West. The NUG Foreign Minister Zin Mar Aung has done a great job of tireless advocacy, and the result has been a series of meetings but very little practical support so far for the NUG and its allies.
Despite the limited international support, the NUG and its allies look to be winning. The large and well established EAOs are mentoring and supporting the PDFs. Militarily they are focusing on holding and slowly expanding their traditional territories, while the PDFs have taken the fight to Myanmar’s ethnic Bamar heartland. In spite of the junta dry season offensives announced with great fanfare in October, the PDFs have been able to wrest control of rural areas from the junta’s administrators, and an NUG-loyal grassroots administration is now present across central Myanmar, in Sagaing, Magwe, and Mandalay regions.
The military is in trouble and they know it, as a leaked briefing delivered by a high-ranking officer in Magwe Region shows. The military relies on airpower to contain the PDF’s offensives. Hence its violence has become ever more indiscriminate and more civilians have been killed.
And hapless Western diplomats seek to reward them for it.
On at least one occasion, a Western partner hosted a workshop to help broker ceasefires between the Myanmar military and EAOs, in a noble but ill-informed effort at stopping the violence. The military must be thrilled. In tried and tested fashion, they have for months now tried to win ceasefires with EAOs so that they can turn around and crush the PDFs. Seeing through that, the EAOs have rejected these overtures.
The international community needs to understand that the old opposition of Aung San Suu Kyi vs. the generals no longer accurately describes what is happening in Myanmar, if it ever did. The ascendant force is the NUG and its allies, and the military actions of the PDFs are driving much of the action on the ground, hand in hand with the EAOs.
EAOs understand that this coalition of the NLD, civil society, ethnic political organizations, and ethnic armed organizations is the only hope left for a free Myanmar that is worth living in. Western diplomats should as well.
The coalition’s joint platform of a genuine federal democracy that will allow minorities far-reaching autonomy is something that almost everyone in Myanmar can agree on. This is evidenced again and again. Just look at the position of the Arakan Army, which has remained neutral in the conflict, and carved out large parts of southwestern Rakhine State for itself in the process. As its leader declared in a recent interview: “(If) a Federal Union of Myanmar will have the political space for the kind of confederation that our Arakanese people aspire for… (w)e would prefer to remain with our (ethnic) brothers and sisters.”
The shunning of the junta regime by ASEAN, the sanctions by the West and the effort by Myanmar democracy activists abroad have harmed the junta and helped swing the pendulum toward the NUG. They need to be kept up and expanded.
Yet many policymakers in friendly countries remain woefully underinformed, not least because Myanmar is fairly low down their list of priorities. Lobbying for a meeting between a Western ministry of foreign affairs with an NUG representative, I was recently told that the ministry was hesitant because it did not want to damage Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government – not realizing that the NUG is the elected government.
To help, Myanmar’s friends will need to embrace the new reality, not ignore it. This broad and unwieldy coalition led by the NUG, despite its slow deliberations – it is a national unity government, after all – needs a place at the table. If Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen can acknowledge the existence of two governments, so can they.
Diplomats and development workers need to understand that if what they want is stability and democracy, they need to engage and support the NUG. Engagement is not recognition, but it is also more than one-off meetings without agenda or outcome. If that is difficult to do from Yangon, with the junta breathing down your neck – well, don’t do it from Yangon.
Myanmar has moved on and so should all of we.