Protesters march during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on April 11, 2021. Photo: AFP/Stringer

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A parallel government is fast taking shape in Myanmar as the Committee Representing the National Parliament (CRPH) attempts to restore civilian rule following the military’s democracy-suspending coup on February 1.

A vision for a “National Unity Government” is coming into view, one that – if fully realized – could upend the country’s military-led tradition of centralist rule.
 
Asia Times’ contributor Phillip Annawitt reported last week on efforts to formalize an alliance between deposed lawmakers with the National League for Democracy (NLD), urban-based protesters and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) based in the country’s borderlands.

The longer-term aim of the anti-junta alliance is to overturn the Tatmadaw’s bloody rule and introduce a new national federal political system. The CRPH presented a federal democracy charter on April 1 that aims to provide a platform for all actors in the opposition, including ethnic minority groups, to agree and coalesce.

But there are several practical, military and logistical obstacles that threaten to overwhelm and undermine the nascent federal resistance forces. Annawitt shared his assessment of the situation with the Southeast Asia Insider. 
 
You wrote that the CRPH is still not able to directly or materially support a nationwide parallel administration, but could soon do so if Western governments recognize it as Myanmar’s legitimate representative, allowing for access to public funds frozen in the US banking system, for instance. As pressure builds on democracies to act, what is holding them back from recognizing the CPHR as Myanmar’s legitimate government?
 
One reason surely is that the CRPH did not need to be recognized. The CRPH appointed cabinet has always styled itself an interim government, standing in for the detained NLD ministers. The mandate of the old NLD government only expired on March 31 and only now that situation is changing.

Most international partners may think it prudent to wait out how broad an umbrella government the CRPH can put together to see also if it has any chance of surviving when the junta starts attacking affiliated EAO positions in earnest.

A weak National Unity Government will be crushed. Now the CRPH is in the course of building a national unity government and has announced an inclusive vision for the way forward. We can expect more movement on this front in the coming days.

Karen National Union (KNU) soldiers taking part in a parade for the 70th anniversary of the Karen revolution at a remote base on the Thai-Myanmar border in January 2019. Image: Handout/Karen National Union/AFP

We need to understand that formally recognizing the national unity government is not a decision made lightly as the junta may react by breaking off diplomatic relations and expelling diplomats of any country that recognizes the CRPH.

Maintaining channels of communication with the junta will be important to have continued influence over the outcome of the contest in Myanmar, in particular for those great powers like the US, India and Japan who see the coup in Myanmar through the prism of a New Cold War that looks to be building up with China in Southeast and East Asia.
 
But we see that there is movement now: for the first time on Thursday, the Chinese embassy in Yangon has made contact with the CRPH to discuss the way forward. I think we should not get ahead of ourselves.

This is China keeping its options open and staying on the sidelines. This is where the national unity government needs it to be: China’s neutrality will be hugely important for them to be able to win this. I also think this is realistic as China’s interests in Myanmar do not align with the junta’s, as I have recently argued here.

The parallel administration’s base is near Thai border areas, and as you acknowledged, Thailand’s authorities would have to allow goods, funds and people to move across its border as the critical lifeline for the CRPH as its allies. Is the Prayut Chan-ocha administration shifting its stance toward the situation in Myanmar and is it really likely to allow the facilitation of such flows?
 
For now, the CRPH is supplied almost exclusively through the Karen National Union (KNU). CRPH and CDM activists are sheltered in different KNU districts and interact foremost with the respective local commanders who act quite autonomously. KNU has long-standing relations with the Thai military hierarchy and for now this may be enough.

In the future, the political stance of the Thai government may indeed be a problem. It surely has no interest in any victory in Myanmar that can be claimed by the CDM movement with their close ties to Thailand’s protest movement through the Milk Tea Alliance. The Thai government has no beef, however, with the EAOs now supporting CRPH, nor with the NLD.

A banner featuring Aung San Suu Kyi is displayed on February 15 as protesters demonstrating against the military coup surround police who had blocked off the street leading to the headquarters of the NLD. Photo: AFP / Ye Aung Thu

It also has no interest in the sort of attrition warfare the Tatmadaw will be waging in the country’s southeast when they go all out to crush the KNU, which will displace tens of thousands of civilians and send them fleeing over the Thai border.

The CRPH needs to get its National Unity Government off the ground quickly and convince its Western backers with influence in the region to lean on the Thai government to provide the necessary support it needs.

One argument there is that a military victory by the junta will not bring stability to Myanmar as the resistance will continue and may even turn more violent as time progresses. The Tatmadaw were never able to control all of Myanmar, and they will not be able to now.

One thing is clear, however. Without Thai government support the National Unity Government will be crushed quickly.
 
The CRPH has proposed that a federal army made of Myanmar’s EAOs lead the armed resistance against the junta. How viable it is for how the country’s ethnic armies, some of whom have battled each other, to join forces at this juncture? Moreover, where would federalists get arms if China or the United Wa State Army (UWSA), widely seen as the best-equipped ethnic force, withhold those supplies?
 
I think the franchise model is the only viable option for the federal army. The purpose of that army will be to stretch Tatmadaw forces, inflict pain and deny them a clear and swift victory while CDM continues across central Myanmar and undermines discipline in the police and the Tatmadaw.

The proposition is that with enough pain inflicted and with cracks appearing in the totalitarian control of the leadership over its forces as they are stretched and undersupplied, and these forces having to continue to crack down on and kill civilians, something gives and eventually we will see desertions and defections.

I think it would be unrealistic to expect a coalition of EAOs to defeat the Tatmadaw in set-piece battles in the field and “take cities” in the Bamar heartland of Myanmar as some people are expecting.

The CRPH are politicians with legitimacy. Their part will be the coordination and support of CDM actions, not war. A force formed of volunteers, hastily trained and led by the CRPH would be no match for the Tatmadaw.

A soldier stands next to a detained man during a demonstration against the military coup in Mandalay on March 3, 2021. Photo: AFP/Stringer

Unfortunately, and quite understandably we are heading in that direction. More and more townships in central Myanmar are forming “defense committees” to protect their neighborhoods from attack by the Tatmadaw and police. Myanmar volunteers are now being trained in guerrilla warfare in the southeast to be sent back to defend their townships.

This could actually be counterproductive, as they will be no match to the security forces, expose their communities to even harsher violence and actually harden discipline and resolve in the Tatmadaw, whose leadership is craving for a “real enemy” they can “defend Myanmar against.”
 
Supplies in the north should be less of an issue I would think. While we will not see the UWSA involve themselves in the coming war against the Tatmadaw, China has also stayed above the fray so far, which I think is the best the National Unity Government can wish for right now.

In my mind, that will not preclude China from continuing its relationships with those EAOs they have cultivated in the past: the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and to a degree the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Supplies look to me to be more of a problem in the southeast and east, which will continue to have to come from Thailand.
 
EAOs in northern Shan state have indeed been fighting among each other, mostly as the Restoration Council of Shan State has been trying to grab territory (with occasional Tatmadaw support) at the expense of the Shan State Army-North and the TNLA.

However, I would not overemphasize these opportunistic moves.

Philipp Annawitt

Philipp Annawitt served as an adviser to Myanmar’s government and parliament from 2015 to 2021.