August 1 marks 18 months since the military’s seizure of power in Myanmar. The period since has seen the country descend into economic dysfunction, political chaos, and renewed conflict. Myanmar is currently in the grip of a nationwide struggle, a multi-fronted civil war between the military junta led by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and a raft of opponents, including ethnic armed groups, civilian militias known as People’s Defense Forces, and the National Unity Government (NUG) that was set up by opponents of the military administration last April.
Duwa Lashi La, a Kachin lawyer and politician who serves as the acting president of the NUG, has played a central role in coordinating the anti-coup resistance. Last September, he announced the launching of a “revolt against the rule of the military terrorists led by Min Aung Hlaing in every corner of the country.”
In this interview conducted remotely from an undisclosed location inside Myanmar, Duwa Lashi La spoke to Sebastian Strangio, The Diplomat’s Southeast Asia Editor, about the challenges of capturing international attention and concern, the changing contours of Myanmar’s ethnic relations since the coup, and the NUG’s approach to relations with China. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Much of the world, particularly the world’s advanced democracies, has rallied around Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February, but Myanmar’s coup has failed to elicit a similarly unified response. What do you think accounts for the difference, and what is at stake in Myanmar’s conflict?
First, I feel great sadness and concern for the people of Ukraine, who deserve all the international attention and support they’ve received. I have saluted them in support several times, as it is an unlawful invasion and attempted occupation. Our U.N. permanent representative has co-sponsored a resolution at the General Assembly in support of Ukraine. Second, although all contexts are unique, the people of Myanmar are still suffering grave war crimes and human rights violations committed by a criminal military that seeks to unlawfully occupy our country. Our people have been bravely defending themselves. We are witnessing the genocidal military in Myanmar committing similar atrocities and crimes against the entire Myanmar population for one and half years. The lives and freedoms of our people are at stake. The people want to live in peace with equality and democracy. The military is using extreme violence, including atrocity crimes, to continue to suppress, causing suffering.
We are thankful for the support that we have received so far, but it is not enough. The world can clearly do more to support the people to defend themselves from atrocities and isolate the junta. Just a small fraction of the support Ukraine has received would be an investment in us. That would help us end atrocities quickly, save many thousands of lives and bring forth a democratic Myanmar.
What is the current state of the armed struggle between the People’s Defense Forces and the military regime?
There are many challenges, and the military is targeting civilians with horrendous violence. I’m always saddened to hear the story of how the military is tormenting people and destroying villages throughout the country. On the other hand, it is clear that the people’s resistance has made impressive progress in a short period of time. The military cannot win. On the 5th of May, 2021 we started forming the People’s Defense Force, called the PDF, with a policy to follow a military code of conduct and international humanitarian law.
Within a year, we achieved significant successes on the military and administrative fronts. Together with our allies, the resistance forces control more than 50 percent of Myanmar territory. Due to increasing integration with the ethnic resistance organizations, called EROs, and strong support from the people, the territory that we hold and control is growing week by week. For example, in Chin State and Sagaing and Magwe regions, the PDFs and allies are denying access to the junta forces and inflicting heavy losses. In Sagaing and northern Magwe, traditional strongholds of the military, more than 80 percent of rural areas, and the transportation infrastructure are under PDF control.
The people of Myanmar completely reject the junta. Although the military does have capabilities and bombs villages and IDP camps, including with jets supplied by Russia, our People’s Defense Forces are gaining in strength with the people’s support. More than 10,000 of the junta’s security forces either defected to us or deserted, and the junta is struggling to find new recruits. And the military junta is depleting their manpower and losing the ground war.
You mentioned codes of conduct for the PDFs. One thing that has been reported is that quite a significant number of civilians are being targeted for working with or collaborating with the military regime, including some innocent people that might’ve been mistakenly targeted. What is your response to that claim?
While some people accuse us of being the same as the Myanmar military, we are different. Most of the people we encounter in our actions are the people who are destroying our policy… those people are like spies of the military. That’s all destroying our job, that’s why the people don’t like [this], so they counter-attack… But we must tell them not to ignore international law. We must take care and warn [collaborators], don’t disturb our people’s will… It’s a reasonable number [those killed by resistance fighters], compared with the military atrocities and killing of the people.
What has struck many outside observers is the extent to which the anti-coup resistance quickly moved from seeking a reversal of the coup to a more ambitious revolutionary goal of toppling the military and removing it permanently from Myanmar’s political and economic life. This holds out the question of when, if ever, the NUG will be willing to engage in dialogue with the military. Is total defeat of the military the only possible outcome? When might the NUG consider engaging in dialogue?
Actually, we want to end the people’s suffering quickly, in a way that transforms our country so that these horrors cannot be repeated. We are holding political dialogue, which is the basic foundation for establishing a truly federal union, with concerned political party leaders, ethnic leaders, and civil society organizations. Our goal is to end the military’s attacks on the people. Out history proves that this requires political change. We are committed to forming a federal democratic union, a union that is based on democratic governance, with a military under the democratically elected civilian leadership. There are multiple ways to achieve this goal, but any dialogue must fulfill the will and interests of the people. This obviously requires certain conditions. So far the junta has refused to end its attacks on civilians, permit humanitarian access to those in need, or leave politics and accept the federal democratic constitution… The military must accept the will of the people.
This touches on the question of justice and accountability. The military has committed atrocities, war crimes, and crimes against humanity dating back decades, including what some describe as genocidal attacks on the Rohingya people of Rakhine State. Will pursuing accountability for the military’s crimes help or hinder the cause of peace?
Everyone can witness from our history that impunity for so many decades of crime by the military against many in our country – including the Rohingya, my own Kachin people, and Rakhine, Karen, Karenni, Shan, Chin, and the political prisoners and others – has only led us to even more awful crimes by the same military. During the last decade, many people within the country and internationally thought peace and democracy would be possible without accountability. Today, more than a million people are internally displaced. This military believes it can continue massacring those it likes: men, women, and children, wherever they live, without consequence. They have done so throughout our history and now do so with modern weapons.
We believe in justice and accountability. I want the next generation to know peace. We must break the cycle of impunity, and say no more to these atrocities. The National Unity Government has given the International Criminal Court jurisdiction over all crimes since July 2002 under the Rome Statute. The court should pursue those crimes; if necessary the U.N. Security Council should refer our situation to the court. State parties to the Rome Statute should also call for the court to investigate all relevant crimes.
In May, The Economist published an article claiming that Myanmar’s resistance was “at risk of believing its own propaganda” and that many local media outlets were “painting an overly optimistic picture of the war” – a skepticism that I’ve also heard voiced by some other Myanmar watchers. How successful has the NUG actually been in delivering governmental services (administration, education, health care, law enforcement, etc.) to people on the ground? How many townships are now under its effective control?
Myanmar’s independent media are accurately reporting the resilience and determination of the citizens’ resistance movement, the loss of life and property, as well as the junta losses. They are working under some of the most dangerous conditions in the world and deserve praise for their commitment to their profession. I think all of us from Myanmar who live inside the country know what is happening. No one is ignoring that. The article you refer to is I think in some way misleading.
Thank you for your question about effective control. The military junta is attempting to use violence to claim it has the ability to control territory. But it cannot gain support from the people, and therefore has no effective control. Effective control requires that the people accept one’s governance. The people generally support us, and we are going our best to provide them with more and more services that they need. The NUG has effectively formed and trained people’s administrations in 36 townships, excluding townships in states, and it is expanding. Judiciaries are now in 15 townships under our PDF-controlled areas, and the NUG has also formed a people’s police force to ensure the rule of law. We also formed a central committee for natural resources administration and township-level sub-committees to manage natural resources in NUG-controlled areas.
The NUG is providing on-the-ground and online education. We are providing school-based education as well as home-based education to over 150,000 students, with 16,600 teachers in eight regions. We have 52 online schools and 4,000 teachers providing education services to over 120,000 students under our Ministry of Education. We are delivering at-care services through 167 mobile clinics and 52 hospitals across Myanmar. Six more hospitals with 50 beds each are under construction. Tele-health and telemedicine are being made available to more than 90 percent of the townships across the country, totaling 309 townships. Currently, over 3,600 CDM [Civil Disobedience Movement] healthcare provisioners, including 156 specialists and volunteer at-care provisoners from 11 countries, are providing healthcare services. Ethnic-based services are also operating in ethnic resistance organization-controlled areas around the country. Our directly managed administrations and ethnic administrations are all legal under the federal democracy charter.
Do you have the capacity to collect tax from populations in areas under your control?
We are not exactly taxing. We are beginning to think and plan for the future because we need some money, but we need to take care, because some people advised us that taxation is not fit for the current revolution. That’s why we are being careful. We have not decided yet.
Ethnic relations between the ethnic Bamar majority and Myanmar’s various ethnic minority groups have been a challenge since independence in 1948, including under the NLD government that took office in 2016. As a Kachin, how do you see ethnic relations have evolved since the coup? What is the NUG’s plan for addressing longstanding minority demands for autonomy, and preventing Bamar chauvinism from once again rearing its head after the military, a unifying enemy, is defeated?
As an ethnic minority myself, I have witnessed the challenges of building trust and relationships among us all my life. Having been involved in the peace process, I have seen the lack of trust between the majority Bamar and the minorities as the main barrier to national reconciliation. However, the situation has changed since the coup. I have seen that more Bamar people have come to see our sufferings, the brutality of the military, as well as our political aspirations as ethnic minorities. Now we have witnessed unprecedented unity among us.
Of course, we still have to work on bringing more unity. The NUG is working to build understanding and take actions to bring different ethnic nationalities together in establishing a federal democratic union. We have agreed to the political principles in the Federal Democracy Charter [drafted by the NUG in 2021], which fits with longstanding ethnic goals for federalism, self-determination, and equality, including special provisions that must be adopted in the future federal democratic constitution. We must also work together to get the practical results we want to see. This will always require more work, and we are committed to this as a priority. Despite the challenges, I have never seen a more promising time for our people to find common ground and establish a genuine federal union together.
A closely related question concerns the fate of the Rohingya. Members of the NLD government, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, have been accused of whitewashing the military’s crimes during the “clearance operation” that was launched in 2017, and she subsequently defended the government at The Hague in 2019. What is the NUG’s policy toward the Rohingya now? Does the NUG acknowledge that the majority of the Rohingya are in fact entitled to citizenship of Myanmar? How will it ensure accountability for the crimes committed against the Rohingya?
Let me clarify that the Rohingya are a vital part of our country. They are entitled to justice and citizenship under laws that respect and uphold their rights and those of all people. We must resolve the refugee crisis, but the military is currently an obstacle to that issue. For practical details, I would refer you to some of our public statements. Our policy position on the Rohingya in Rakhine State was published last year, a document that acknowledged the rights of the Rohingyas.
Last month, the NUG Ministry of Human Rights released a series of statements on the U.N. Human Rights Council 50th session discussion. You will see that they are a set of commitments for actions, such as submitting a motion to repeal the recent religion protection laws of 2015; prioritizing the amendment or replacement of the 1982 Citizenship Law with a law that bases citizenship on birth in Myanmar, or birth anywhere by Myanmar citizens; advocating for the acceptance of Myanmar’s declaration under the Rome Statute granting the International Criminal Court jurisdiction in Myanmar; supporting states’ universal jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for atrocity crimes; consulting with Rohingyas and other communities as laws and policies are developed. These are just some of the actions we must take.
Do you have a plan for the resolution of the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh?
We are thinking about it. If we have complete administration in that area, we are planning, we want to quickly move [them] because they are our people. They have the right, they deserve to live in our country. That is our aim and object in the future. We don’t discriminate against them. But first of all, we need to control our area first.
Earlier this month, the Chinese Foreign Minister was in Myanmar, during which he vowed to “build a closer relationship” with the military junta. How does the NUG view relations with China, a nation that many in the anti-coup resistance have condemned for supporting the coup government? What is your view of Beijing’s policy of accommodation toward the military junta, and how would your government handle relations with China if it came to power?
China is our neighbor, and we value good relations with the government and people of China. Our government continues to practice an independent, active, and non-aligned foreign policy and we are committed to continuing that policy in the future. We are always looking to strengthen relations with our neighbors, regional states, and others around the world. We will ensure compliance with international business and we guarantee the continuity and sustainability of relationships with existing and emerging business and trade partners, including China.
The junta is weaponizing some major foreign investment projects and creating instability around those projects. For example, junta troops are stationed inside the Wanbao copper mine project in Letpadaung. They ransack nearby villages and murder those in the villages, including Wanbao’s local employees. In contrast, the NUG will create a stable and friendly sustainable investment environment for local and foreign investors.
What is your plan for handling some of the large-scale Chinese infrastructure projects, Belt and Road Initiative projects, railways, highways, and the deepwater port in Kyaukphyu? What policy do you have toward these projects?
Our policy is to continue working according to the previous government’s position, according to what the law allows. So we don’t want to stop their projects if the projects are not disturbing our people’s will. If the people willingly want to allow them, then okay, our NUG government will also allow… We also want to peacefully work together with China and other countries, for the purpose of economic promotion.
You mentioned before the need for Myanmar to have an “independent, active, and non-aligned” foreign policy. Could you talk a little bit more about how the NUG would seek to position itself within the context of increasing strategic competition between China and the United States and other powers in Asia?
We are not on either side of the powerful countries, like the West and China. We are only looking for our people’s will, for the goodwill of our nation’s people, for the progress of our people, and the safety of our people. So the NUG continues to practice an independent, active, and non-aligned foreign policy that is grounded on democratic values and aligned with international laws. We recognize our strategic and geopolitical value in the region, which presents an opportunity to play a practical role in promoting regional stability.
ASEAN special envoy Prak Sokhonn is in Myanmar this week on his second mission to the country. How do you view the progress on ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus?
Right after seemingly agreeing to the Five-Point Consensus, Min Aung Hlaing said that he would not follow it – and he has consistently violated it ever since, escalating the violence, blocking humanitarian access, and refusing to meet with other key stakeholders. This is unlike the NUG, which is willing and able to work more closely with ASEAN to bring peace and stability to our country and our region. Real progress can be made on this by working together. We are so sorry to see that the military flew a jet into Thailand’s airspace the other day, and their violence continues to force villagers to flee to neighboring countries. Working together with the NUG we will end such problems and bring stability to the region.
Do you have any specific suggestions for how the ASEAN countries should approach the country’s crisis?
We want them not to follow the normal way, there must be alternative ways. The ASEAN approach is not enough. I think ASEAN-plus, like the U.S., EU, Japan, and other powerful countries, must be supporting this to get peace in our country. I think other countries should support ASEAN to overcome this crisis, to get peace in our country. I am afraid that the whole region will get into trouble if we go slowly. The military’s policy is a time delay policy, so we shouldn’t waste our time, [we should] do action immediately.
As we approach 18 months since the coup, what is your message to the outside world?
The military junta continues committing the most awful atrocities against the people in our country, including children. However, the military junta is losing on the ground. They cannot gain any support from the public. They cannot operate an effective administration. It will never be legitimate or legal. In only one-and-a-half years, the people have made impressive progress. They have formed a new government, negotiated the Federal Democracy Charter, set up public services in many locations, and taken control of territory from the military. Prominent international analysts have publicly changed their assessments of our situation. Initially, they thought the military would certainly prevail, but now, the world is noticing that the junta cannot win.
The path to peace and democracy is the roadmap agreed upon by the many pro-democracy stakeholders and any support to the junta will only prolong the suffering caused by the junta. That includes supporting the junta’s proposed sham undemocratic elections [scheduled for August 2023]. Those elections are unacceptable to the people and can do nothing to help Myanmar gain democracy, peace, and stability. We ask for strong support for our movement fighting for their freedom and democracy. Even a small investment in supporting us and in further isolating the junta will have an enormous return for our people and the world.