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What Americans Don’t Under­stand About the Conflict in Myanmar

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What Americans Don’t Under­stand About the Conflict in Myanmar

This struggle is not a civil war. It is a revolutionary struggle to extricate the military from the country’s politics on a permanent basis.

What Americans Don’t Under­stand About the Conflict in Myanmar

FILE – Anti-coup protesters gesture with a three-fingers salute, a symbol of resistance during a demonstration during by police crackdown in Thaketa township Yangon, Myanmar, Saturday, March 27, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo, File

For the past few weeks, I have had the privilege of visiting the United States, touring across the country and meeting with many Americans including elected dignitaries, State Department officials, and representatives of aid organizations who are interested in and supportive of the democracy movement in Myanmar. But sadly, it came to my attention that some American friends are not fully aware of the current situation in Myanmar. Hopefully, this piece can clarify some of those misconceptions.

Firstly, what’s taking place in Myanmar is not a civil war as many in the West often mis-portray it. It is a revolution. I cringe each time the Western media uses the term “civil war.” This is not a situation where factions are waging war against each other for control of territory. This is unarmed civilians directly revolting against an illegal junta that took power through a coup.

My other concern is clarifying the status of the National Unity Government (NUG), formed in the wake of the coup, of which I am one of the ministers. The NUG is neither an exile nor a shadow government. It is an interim, legitimate government constituted of representatives from the last democratic election and other ethnic organizations. Granted, some of the cabinet members reside outside of Myanmar for their safety, but most of the ministers are still residing inside the country or in the border areas of neighboring countries where the military junta does not have control (luckily, the territory where NUG ministers reside and the areas controlled by our ethnic allies are gradually expanding).

Another important misconception is that the NUG is made up of ethnic Bamar members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party that held power during the last administration led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who has remained imprisoned since the coup. The reality is that 53 percent of NUG cabinet members are non-Bamar ethnics, and only 38 percent are NLD members. The NUG’s objective is to establish a truly equal federal democratic union constructed together with the many ethnic resistance organizations (EROs) who are collaborating in our revolutionary fight to establish a democratic nation.

Armed resistance was not our choice. It was forced upon us by the military’s use of brutal force on the thousands of unarmed peaceful civilians who rose to protest the February 2021 coup. The military regime killed more than 200 civilians in the two months following the coup. That is when these self-armed civilians formed Peoples Defense Forces (PDFs) for civil defense. Acutely aware of public sentiment, the NUG endorsed this development, which turned out to be the right move. The NUG understands the concerns of friendly nations that some of these organizations may commit abuses of power. We are committed to turning the PDFs into a well-disciplined military that will replace the junta’s renegade forces.

The world has witnessed the escalation in civilian murders by the junta’s aerial bombing of places such as Let Yet Kone, A Nang Pa, and Pazigyi. These massacres, and future killings, may be prevented with material support to the PDFs and additional humanitarian aid. PDFs currently receive no outside assistance. Remember, the revolution began with homemade single-shot rifles against an institution that ranks as the second-largest military in Southeast Asia. Some expect us to fail, including high-ranking officials from the current U.S. administration. But many underestimate the resilience, tenacity and ingenuity of Myanmar PDF fighters. The lessons from Vietnam and Afghanistan seem to have been forgotten; when the whole population truly rises, no military can defeat them.

I can report from firsthand experience as well as recent assessments by many independent Western analysts that the tide is starting to turn in the resistance’s favor. The PDFs are becoming better armed. They are now engaging in more structured and sustained assaults with offensive strategies. The Myanmar military has lost many troops and forward bases in remote areas and its recruitment is declining. Junta forces can no longer guarantee the safety of their convoys on major roadways in the country. The regime has to rely more and more on air power.

The military has pinned its hopes on indiscriminately and ruthlessly targeting civilians with the hope of stopping their support of the PDFs, but the outcome is just the opposite. In some parts of the country, such as Chin and Karenni (Kayah) states, the military has lost almost all control. Some recent conflicts approached within a 100-120-mile radius of the military’s capital and headquarters, Naypyidaw. The junta is facing military resistance from the PDFs in almost every state and region in the country, stretching its forces extremely thin. The regime is now in its self-destructive phase at the hands of its generals and cronies where corruption and self-enrichment rule.

Our resistance still needs funding and support to ensure our victory and establish a new nation. War is not cheap, but our morale and courage are strong. Furthermore, another major responsibility that we must consider is taking care of the refugees and displaced populations. Many workers who walked out on their jobs in support of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) have permanently lost their incomes for these past two-and-a-half years. The NUG is trying its best to support all of them. Its Ministry of Education is trying to continue educational services to children through online and actual schools in liberated areas staffed by CDM teachers. Most of our funding comes from Myanmar people inside and outside of the country, as well as some friendly ethnic organizations. The international community can do much more. Even if they don’t want to provide direct lethal aid such as arms, they can still contribute help in many other ways such as humanitarian support.

Then NUG may be able to strategically reallocate other monetary sources for its fighting forces. Also, the junta is still receiving considerable revenue because of loopholes in the international banking system. International political and diplomatic pressure as well as appropriate sanctions can be useful with these issues, similar to strategies that have been employed in Ukraine. Although the circumstances may not be identical, there are many similarities between what is happening in Myanmar and Ukraine. The most important is that both are fighting against a much stronger tyrant for freedom, democracy and liberty.

Recently our resistance leaders have publicly pleaded that if Myanmar received 1 percent of the assistance that Ukraine receives, the junta would be defeated in months. There is no room for peace talks or a political solution to Myanmar’s crisis, as described by commentators like Jordan Eriksson, Ye Myo Hein, and Lucas Myers. The Myanmar military junta is the root of the problem and must be removed first. Despite some well-meaning member countries, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its roughly outlined peace plan is not organizationally equipped to solve Myanmar’s problems, given the bloc’s policy of non-interference in countries’ internal affairs.

I am thankful to the United States for all the assistance and support it has given to us in the past two-and-a-half years. The United States is the only country where assistance to Myanmar has been urged by the legislature through the recently passed BURMA Act. I believe Congress can do more with the current administration to implement swiftly the BURMA Act and other measures and stop delegating Myanmar to ASEAN to solve. Bolder and stronger engagements are necessary, such as engaging with allies in the region – Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia – to ramp up sanctions on the junta. During the last few months of our revolution, we have seen the real chance that the military will be defeated, and a true federal democratic union can emerge in Myanmar. We urge the United States to stand strong on our side where it will be recorded as not only a true friend in our history but also as proof that it continues to light the way as the defender of the democratic world.