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Myanmar’s National Unity Government Must Be Doing Something Right

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Myanmar’s National Unity Government Must Be Doing Something Right

While the country’s shadow opposition has attracted criticism, it has made significant gains on both the political and diplomatic fronts.

Myanmar’s National Unity Government Must Be Doing Something Right

Leading members of Myanmar’s opposition National Unity Government take part in an online meeting on April 16, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/National Unity Government of Myanmar

The National Unity Government (NUG) was established in the wake of the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar, by a coalition of ousted democratically elected lawmakers and parliamentarians that sought to establish a parallel or exile government.

Since its inception, the NUG has faced constant criticism from various quarters. Formed hastily in April 2021, it immediately encountered challenges in assembling its cabinet members, many of whom had fled the country to evade the junta. Doubts have since persisted among international observers and governments regarding the NUG’s ability to unify or collaborate with armed Ethnic Resistance Organizations (EROs), which had been in conflict with the majority Bamar-dominated Myanmar military for six decades. Initially dismissed as an “online-only” government, the NUG also faced criticism for its perceived strong alignment with members of the ousted National League for Democracy party. In reality, 53 percent of the NUG’s cabinet members are non-Bamar ethnic minorities, and only 38 percent are NLD members.

As the NUG marked its third anniversary last month, there are signs that the once unassailable Myanmar military junta may be on the brink of collapse. Struggling to maintain control, the junta has lost key border trading towns, depleting its resources, and relinquished swathes of territory. The military’s nerve centers in Naypyidaw and Pyin Oo Lwin have been breached by drones and homemade rockets, narrowly avoiding significant damage. Recent commentaries and analyses from international observers have cautiously predicted the military’s eventual demise, marking a departure from earlier expectations. This shift underscores the failure of many to fully appreciate the astuteness of the NUG and to understand the complex dynamics among and between EROs, the position of neighboring countries, and the mindset of the Myanmar military, while underestimating the resolve and resilience of the Myanmar people.

Early on, the NUG recognized the absolute necessity of coupling its political efforts with armed resistance to challenge the authoritarian military regime, which flouts human rights norms and the laws of war with impunity. Understanding that victory would be impossible without the support of EROs, the NUG realized that its fledgling People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) would be outmatched by the well-equipped military. Historically, the military had employed divide-and-conquer tactics against the EROs, forging ceasefires with some while deploying troops from across the country to overwhelm others. For the first time, the EROs would have to set aside their narrow self-interests, coordinate among themselves, and attack on multiple fronts simultaneously to pin down the Myanmar military. The NUG succeeded in convincing many EROs of the viability of this new strategy, which has culminated over the past year in a series of embarrassing defeats for the Myanmar military in northern Shan, Kachin, Karenni, Karen, and Rakhine states, a phenomenon unseen in the past 60 years.

While supporters of the NUG yearn for tangible evidence of close collaboration between the NUG and EROs, geopolitical realities complicate overt displays of solidarity. Landlocked EROs, reliant on a powerful neighboring country for essential supplies and arms, find themselves forced into a delicate balancing act as that country, China, seeks to maintain influence over them while simultaneously bolstering the military regime, hedging on both sides. Consequently, the NUG treads cautiously, wary of drawing unwanted attention from this influential neighbor. The delicate nature of these relationships underscores the intricacies of the NUG’s strategic maneuvering. Encouragingly, in a third anniversary press statement released on April 30, the NUG at last tacitly confirmed the collaboration between its PDFs and EROs in various battlefields.

Criticism of the NUG’s alleged lack of support for ethnic Bamar PDFs fighting in Myanmar’s heartlands overlooks the geographical challenges inherent in these regions. Central Myanmar’s flat terrain favors the military and its air force, providing little cover for PDFs and their supporters, who lack mechanized divisions or anti-aircraft measures. Most attempts to smuggle in arms and ammunition through junta-controlled roadways and towns of central Myanmar are intercepted. In contrast, arms shipments through neighboring ERO-controlled territories have proven more reliable. The sooner the EROs prevail in their respective contested areas against the military, the easier and smoother the flow of arms and logistics will be to the PDFs in the central flatlands, highlighting the strategic significance of peripheral regions in gradually encircling the military junta.

Despite lacking formal recognition as Myanmar’s government, the NUG has made significant strides on the international stage, engaging with governments at the highest levels. With a liaison office in Washington, D.C., and representation at the United Nations through Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, the NUG has garnered international support. In a sign of its genuine inclusivity, the NUG appointed Rohingya activist Aung Kyaw Moe as its deputy human rights minister in July 2023. This followed the NUG’s Rohingya policy and position announcement in June 2021, which affirmed its commitment to ensure Rohingyas’ right to citizenship, protect their human rights, and repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law that discriminates against ethnic groups, including Rohingyas, that are deemed non-indigenous. While EROs have achieved admirable feats inside Myanmar, they lack international representation, and have benefited from the NUG’s status as the face of the Spring Revolution to the rest of the world. The NUG’s Finance Ministry has also devised creative fundraising methods, as it does not receive any financial support from foreign entities.

While the NUG has ample room for improvement, it has made significant strides over the past three years. The tangible outcomes speak for themselves. Surely, the NUG and its leaders must be doing something right.