A supporter of the Karen National Union holding a sign supporting the Committee for Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, Myanmar's shadow 'parliament,' during a demonstration in Dooplaya district in Myanmar's eastern Karen state on April 2, 2021. Photo: AFP

Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has taken time to mount a coordinated response to the military’s February 1 coup, which toppled its democratically-elected government, arrested its top leadership and installed an abusive junta regime.

NLD MPs who have maintained their freedom have since formed the Committee Representing the National Parliament (CRPH), an emerging on-the-run parallel government the State Administration Council (SAC) junta has declared an unlawful association and accused of treason.

Ever since a successful general strike launched on February 21 to protest the coup, the CRPH has been firmly in the driver’s seat of the democratic opposition, manifested nationwide through the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) which was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

As the military, or Tatmadaw, cracks down on the resistance, killing hundreds, detaining thousands and terrorizing the general population through murderous raids on resisting communities, the CRPH is building step-by-step the country’s true representative government.  

A CRPH-led public administration program has already established local councils headed by MPs and civil servants in what it estimates to be over 60% of Myanmar’s townships.

In those parts of the NLD’s heartland where the level of military repression is less severe, including in Sagaing, Magway and parts of Mandalay, the CRPH local councils now provide public services that the SAC junta cannot or will not.

One medical doctor leading CDM efforts in a rural Sagaing township told this writer: “Healthcare does not run anymore as 85% of our district hospital staff participate in CDM. So we are organizing our own mobile clinics to provide the healthcare that people need.”

Protesters hold up signs supporting the Civil Disobedience Movement, or CDM, at a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on February 14, 2021. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

These grassroots efforts are strongly aligned with the CRPH, but the government-in-hiding is still not able to directly or materially support a nationwide parallel administration. But the situation is quickly moving in that direction.

On April 1, the CRPH presented a federal democracy charter developed with a number of yet unnamed civil society, political and ethnic minority organizations that will provide the basis for the struggle against the junta and introduce a new national federal political system.

It is a cleverly written document that provides a platform for all actors in the opposition, including ethnic minority groups, to agree and coalesce.

The charter’s provisions represent a radical break with Myanmar’s constitutional history by basing “sovereignty of the federation on its states and their people” while upending Myanmar’s military-led tradition of centralist rule.

A constitutional assembly will work out the new constitution’s details, which will ideally later be approved in a national referendum.  

In the interim, the charter established a “National Unity Government” will guide the resistance to the junta, direct public administration, support CDM action and advocate for international recognition.

The charter reconfirms that the bicameral union and the state and region parliaments comprised of the MPs elected in November 2020 still represent Myanmar’s people, regardless of the military’s democracy-suspending coup. To make this workable in practice, the CRPH, rather than a full parliamentary plenary, will seek to hold the new National Unity Government accountable.

It also settles the relationship of the proposed federal army to be made of Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations that will lead the armed resistance against the SAC. The federal army will be a franchise under which leading ethnic armed organizations such as the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) will fight the military in Myanmar’s borderlands in the southeast, east and north of the country.

Karen National Union soldiers in a parade for the 70th anniversary of the Karen revolution at a remote base on the Thai-Myanmar border, January 31, 2019. Photo: AFP/Karen National Union

These ethnic armed organizations will under the scheme be represented on a so-called National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), which will direct the war effort against the junta.

Under the charter’s provisions, the NUCC will also have political influence, nominating in coordination with the committees representing state and region parliaments in state and region governments. This represents a major concession to ethnic armed groups who currently have no representation in Myanmar’s institutions and no say on the governance of “their respective ethnic states.”

This is an attractive proposition that may well attract other ethnic armed organizations to the cause. The rebel forces of the so-called Three Brotherhood Alliance, most importantly the powerful Arakan Army now operating in the country’s Rakhine and Chin states, are being courted and could be decisive in the battle.  

Meanwhile, civil disobedience action is set to continue in Myanmar’s Bamar heartland, challenging the regime through peaceful protest while shaming soldiers and police by exposing the illegitimacy of the junta for which they are now killing innocent civilians.

With popular pressure mounting on security forces both in the borderlands and urban centers, the National Unity Government hopes soldiers and police will defect en masse, causing Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s coup regime to crumble under its own top-heavy weight.

The success of the National Unity Government will depend on its ability to sustain civil disobedience in the weeks and months ahead in the face of a looming economic and humanitarian crisis. For this, it urgently needs resources to distribute to CRPH-affiliated local councils across the country.

Those resources could start to flow if Western governments recognize the National Unity Government as Myanmar’s legitimate representative and provide it with aid. The United States in particular could give it access to the over $1 billion worth of Myanmar public funds now frozen under sanctions in American banks.

If those funds start to flow, the next challenge will be to disseminate the money from the National Unity Government’s clandestine base on the border with Thailand to Myanmar’s heartland.

Thailand’s role will be key. Finances will need to flow unhindered through its banking system, goods will need to be bought on its markets and exported across the border, and refugees will need to be accommodated in Thai border areas as the Tatmadaw intensifies its attacks, seen in recent air assaults on civilians in Myanmar’s southeastern Karen region.

Myanmar’s soldiers during a parade to mark the country’s 74th Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw on March 27, 2019. Photo: AFP/Thet Aung

The National Unity Government’s natural pro-democracy Western allies will need to gently persuade Thailand to allow these money, goods and people movements to flow freely, despite the current Thai government’s ties to Min Aung Hlaing’s regime and the nation’s dependence on Myanmar natural gas imports.

China’s role will also be decisive. So far China has mainly stayed on the sidelines of Myanmar’s conflict, refusing to condemn the coup but not actively supporting the junta either. The new National Unity Government needs to make sure it stays there. It certainly cannot afford to have the US and China fight the first proxy war of Asia’s emerging New Cold War on Myanmar soil.

China has recently moved troops to its border along Myanmar’s eastern Shan state for unclear purposes, though likely to deal with any surge in refugees and also to protect key infrastructure including gas pipelines where they enter China.

To be sure, the new National Unity Government’s path to democratic victory will be long and arduous. The Tatmadaw, a dysfunctional but disciplined totalitarian institution that ruthlessly represses internal dissent, will attack vigorously and not crumble easily. In the weeks and months ahead, casualties will inevitably rise, both in Myanmar’s heartland and ethnic border states.

Some commentators have already spoken of a Syria-like failed state scenario with a debilitating war raging for years. But such comparisons fail to recognize how little support the junta has among Myanmar’s people, as the NLD’s consecutive landslide election wins have clearly and democratically proven.

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