U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recently met with representatives of Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) — a shadow government representing the lawmakers elected by the people in the November 2020 election. The meeting boosted the NUG’s regional and international profile as an alternative to the brutal violence of the Burmese military, which has failed to gain control over the country since last February’s coup. But questions remain about whether the NUG and the disparate ethnic armed groups, political parties and civil society leaders that reject military rule can find common ground beyond a shared enemy. 

Protesters shout from behind a makeshift barricade in Mandalay, Myanmar, as police and military forces crack down on protests against the military coup. February 28, 2021. (The New York Times)
Protesters shout from behind a makeshift barricade in Mandalay, Myanmar, as police and military forces crack down on protests against the military coup. February 28, 2021. (The New York Times)

USIP’s Jason Tower looks at the functions of the NUG, the current sociopolitical landscape of Myanmar and what the United States and international community can do to support efforts to prevent further atrocities and end military dictatorship.

How did the National Unity Government form? Who does it represent, and what function does it serve?

Immediately following the coup, members of the deposed parliament came together to form the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) with the aim of carrying forward their responsibilities as the people’s elected lawmakers and ensuring the release of the country’s detained political leaders.

Throughout March and April, the CRPH worked with a loose network of representatives from Myanmar’s many ethnic nationalities organizations, political parties, civil society and others to draft a new federal charter as a basis for the formation of a parallel unity government. This document laid a foundation for the development of a federal constitution to replace the unpopular 2008 constitution, which granted wide-ranging powers to the military.

The NUG was announced in mid-April, including a diverse cabinet which has expanded over the past several months to include a wider range of government functions as the military has continued to deploy lethal violence against the population. While the NUG does not currently control territory, it enjoys strong popular support particularly from the majority Burman population and from a limited number of the country’s ethnic armed organizations (EAOs).

Among the NUG’s primary objectives: preventing the military from establishing control; working with the country’s many EAOs, civil society and community leaders to form a federal democratic union; projecting responsible governance as the state disintegrates under an illegitimate military junta; and gaining international recognition and support for these objectives.

As the military crushed civil liberties, ended free speech, cut off the internet and deployed extreme force on a popular movement against military dictatorship, resistance gradually turned violent by May. In response, the NUG declared the establishment of a People’s Defense Force, and on September 7, announced a “People’s Defensive War.” A growing number of atomized popular defense forces have emerged over the past several months. Combined with a strong response from key EAOs along all of Myanmar’s borders, this has resulted in the junta losing significant ground on the battlefield.

What is the current situation in country between ethnic armed organizations, the military, and the National Unity Government?

Significantly, powerful EAOs in the northern and southern parts of the country have leveraged the violence and collapse of governance to consolidate their positions, while remaining distant from both the NUG and the military. In Shan State, which occupies over 20% of Myanmar’s territory and is strategically nestled along the borders of China, Laos and Thailand, the coup set off an escalation of violence between rival ethnic Shan armies angling for control over lucrative routes for regional trade.

To the north of this violence, the Chinese-speaking United Wa State Army (UWSA) — the most powerful of the EAOs — has closed itself off entirely from the rest of the country while seeking to strengthen its authority over a large enclave on the border with Thailand. Following the NUG’s declaration of a defensive war in September, the Wa leadership signaled growing concerns about the instability in the Myanmar heartland, noting that it might find it necessary to respond if the Burmese army opted to “throw the helve after the hatchet” as it cooked up plans for a dramatic military campaign against popular opposition.

To the south of the country, the Arakan Army — which fought a successful war against the Burmese military over the two years before the coup — has opted to consolidate its gains, signaling its intention to realize a high level of autonomy in the territory along the Indian Ocean in Rakhine State and in Southern Chin State.

Other significant EAOs have worked much more closely with the NUG, including the Kachin Independence Army based along the border with China, the Chin National Army along the border with India and the Karen National Liberation Army and Karenni Army based near the Thai border. These EAOs have engaged with the NUG in a critical dialogue dubbed the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), which includes representation from civil society and other civilian resistance leaders. While the various stakeholders involved have struggled to agree on a specific framework and mandate for the NUCC, they have all signaled strong opposition to military rule and share an interest in eliminating the military’s role in politics entirely. If the NUG and these EAOs can build deeper levels of trust, the NUCC could potentially grow to become a critical consultative body that can support the emergence of a united federal democratic union.

Meanwhile, the junta has lost any and all support from influential EAOs, and at best can maintain tentative cease-fires with some of the more powerful ones — provided it is willing to permit these EAOs to continue campaigns to enhance their local autonomy, influence and control. The military now faces active resistance from EAOs in nearly all ethnic states of the country, as well as further armed resistance from at least 200 local defense forces that have emerged in townships across the country.

The military counts as its allies only a small number of what are known as border guard forces — small ethnic militias that opted to give up their struggles for autonomy and fight against the EAOs in exchange for concessions to engage in a wide range of illicit business activities. Two of these extremely controversial forces — one in Northern Shan and one in Karen State — have deep business ties with Chinese criminal organizations and represent a significant source of revenue to the military. The existence of these forces represents a double-edged sword for the military though, as EAOs in Shan and Karen states see them as traitors who threaten to bridge military dominance and control into their territories. Following the coup, this has sparked major violence in Northern Shan State near the China border.

NSA Jake Sullivan’s meeting with NUG representatives “underscored U.S. continued support for the pro-democracy movement” in Myanmar. What has been the recent role of U.S. diplomacy, and what else might be done to address the situation?

Immediately following the military coup, the Biden administration responded by sanctioning and freezing the U.S. assets of the Burmese military leaders involved, including $1 billion held in the Federal Reserve. It further re-directed millions of dollars of assistance to civil society that might otherwise have benefited the military junta. In the months that followed, senior American diplomats met repeatedly with the leaders of the CRPH and NUG to show continued U.S. support for the pro-democracy movement.

As the aftershocks of the coup and the military’s ongoing violence continued to undermine regional security, the United States also focused on supporting key neighboring countries and partners to address the multi-dimensional crisis unfolding across Asia. This has included a key visit by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield to Thailand, where the United States announced $55 million in new assistance to help address the humanitarian crisis; a visit by Vice President Kamala Harris to Vietnam and Singapore; and a recent visit by State Department Counselor Derek Chollet to Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia that focused on options for neighboring countries to pressure the Burmese military regime to cease violence, release those unjustly detained and restore Myanmar to the path of democracy. The United States has also done work with the United Nations in support of the restoration of democracy, playing a critical role in preventing the junta from unseating the pro-democracy advocate Kyaw Moe Tun as permanent representative of Myanmar to the U.N.   

NSA Jake Sullivan’s meeting with the NUG leaders this week comes at a time when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has made a significant breakthrough in building a consensus to bar the junta’s leadership from participating in the ASEAN Regional Summit. While it had invited the junta’s participation in earlier meetings since the coup, the ASEAN leaders resolved on October 15 to invite only a “non-political representative” from Myanmar due to “insignificant progress” in implementing the five-point plan to address the crisis that had been negotiated in Jakarta in April.

A public meeting with the NUG at this moment by a top U.S. official helps to boost the NUG’s legitimacy and credibility and may offer encouragement to ASEAN states that have grown increasingly frustrated with the military’s ongoing violence against its people and failure to accept key principles of the ASEAN charter.

Even so, the U.N. has warned recently that the Burmese army is now mobilizing troops to commit further violence in northern Myanmar. Sustained high-level U.S. diplomacy with ASEAN states and Myanmar’s neighbors could help strengthen the regional response and push powerful neighboring countries to apply pressure on the army to prevent further atrocities. India, Thailand and especially China all have critical responsibilities in this regard.

Another key role for the United States could be to extend its engagement to include other key EAOs, including both those engaging in the NUCC process discussed above, as well as those like the Arakan Army that have been less open to participation. For the pro-democracy movement to achieve success, it must build deeper internal unity between the many stakeholders resisting military rule.

Over the longer term, the United States can continue investments in sustaining the country’s vibrant civil society, which is increasingly struggling to meet massive needs under impossible circumstances as governance and local security collapse in the wake of the destruction left by the army’s irresponsible moves.

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