A protester paints symbols of the three-finger salute on the ground with red paint as part of a 'bleeding strike' demonstration against the military coup, in Shwebo in Myanmar's Sagaing region. Photo: AFP

Appeals reverberate these days through Asia’s media landscape: “Recognize Myanmar’s National Unity Government!” The arguments that Myanmar activists, analysts, and elder stateswomen and men make is solid.

The junta that took power in a coup on February 1 lacks all legitimacy: It continues to torture and kill civilians, more than 800 by now, it has lost control over public administration and it has driven the Myanmar economy off a cliff.

The opposition National Unity Government was formed in April and is supported by the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, legitimized in the November 2020 elections. It is a broad multi-ethnic umbrella government that espouses a liberal federal democratic future for Myanmar that offers the only hope for a sustainable solution of the country’s numerous violent ethnic conflicts.

It is now moving toward drafting a new constitution. The NUG has endorsed the formation of a People’s Defense Force, which is now battling the Tatmadaw (the military) in western Chin and eastern Kayah states. Ethnic armed organizations, the Karen National Union, the Kachin Independence Organization, and now also the Karenni National Progress Party, are fighting the Tatmadaw in more or less loose collaboration with the NUG.

True, the NUG does not as of yet do much governing, but through its Interim Public Administration Program it has done more than Venezuela’s Juan Guaidó ever did. Then again, the US and its allies were not locked in a geopolitical struggle with China over the Caribbean Sea when they decided to back Guaidó.

If Western inaction on the recognition question is at least comprehensible – if not easily defensible – the lack of support for the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) is not.

The single most important civilian contribution to the defeat of Myanmar’s murderous junta is the continued general strike, first announced in February by a diverse coalition of pro-democracy actors – trade unions, non-governmental organizations, political parties, and religious groups – that has paralyzed the public and private sectors and made the country impossible to govern for the junta.

It is the resistance of this movement that has denied the junta what it craves most: control over central Myanmar, the major commercial cities of Yangon and Mandalay. To put it bluntly: If the junta can assert its control over central Myanmar, the NUG and its ethnic armed allies may as well rot on the Thai border and up in Kachin State.

Call that idea the “normative force of the factual” – a less than elegant translation from my native German language. Once the junta controls the heartland – given the superpower rivalry of the US and China and their respective regional allies – the coup will be complete and the regional powers will grudgingly reconcile with the idea of a murderous, unreliable, and incapable junta running (the majority of) Myanmar.

I have pointed out that this outcome is in no one’s interest. Make no mistake, continued CDM is not sufficient for the democratic resistance winning it, but it is necessary for it to have a chance.

CDM is fast running out of money. The parallel administrations that have taken over government services in places like the rural Mandalay, Magway and Sagaing regions from March never saw funding support.

“The community supports us, our local farmers feed us and local businessmen provide funds for our CDM action,” Thet Kyu, NLD member in the national parliament for Magway’s Pakokku Township, told me in April. With the economy collapsing, such resources are now drying up across the country.

The NUG has been delivering limited CDM support and promising more, but it lacks funds. First reports have emerged of private-sector employees returning to work to feed their families.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in the last few years promoting responsible business and civil-society development in Myanmar.

What would be more responsible than refusing to work at the barrel of a gun, to perpetuate the Myanmar military’s violent extractive crony capitalism? What better expression is there for Myanmar’s civic vibrance than the multi-ethnic, multi-religious Civil Disobedience Movement that stands up for democracy, self-determination, and inter-ethnic reconciliation?

Development agencies that could fund such initiatives still appear shell-shocked and paralyzed. Development assistance to the government has mostly been frozen but is not yet redirected to productive use.

Many of Myanmar’s development workers want to help but a culture of risk aversion and strict accountability frameworks in their organizations do not let them: “How can we make sure [CDM beneficiaries] won’t turn around and buy arms with these funds?” a project manager for a major multilateral development partner told me recently.

Development assistance is obsessed with accountability, and so it should be in normal times – these are tax dollars being spent, after all. These are not normal times, however. Fiduciary risks need to be taken, and development agencies struggle with that.

Getting the money on the ground is vital and doable.

“There are ways to deliver money directly into the hands of civil servants. For institutional donors and individuals abroad, there are already mechanisms to contribute directly to CDM on a recurring basis. Donor reporting flows can be complied with for larger funding,” a member of the group of technology experts DWMC, which is working with the CDM leaders, told me.

Donors may bill this support as private-sector development or bill it as civil-society development – neither is wrong.

Very likely, though, the impetus for action on CDM support will for now have to come from Washington, Tokyo, Brussels, Seoul, Canberra. There is not a single good reason friendly countries should not fund CDM. There is virtually no political risk attached: The junta will not toss Western missions out of the country for funding CDM.

China is not aligned with the junta; US, Japanese and European money flowing into strike funds will not cause Beijing to throw its weight behind the mad dictator. But it will if the junta can demonstrate that it is in control of much of the country. And others will as well.

CDM is at a critical point. June 1 is a key date for the coup. After being closed for months after the Covid outbreak and the coup, schools are set to reopen. The junta has announced it with great fanfare. It is to be the first step in Myanmar’s return to normalcy.

CDM is particularly strong among teachers. The junta itself estimates that more than 100,000, or 27% of all teachers, remain on strike. Expect that number to get much larger.

News of significant direct support for CDM would be a boost for the campaign to boycott the school opening and deal the junta another significant blow and, most important, visibly deny it the de facto legitimacy that comes with controlling Myanmar’s heartland.

Friendly governments need to fund CDM now. It is the very least they can do. Oh, and they really should recognize the NUG.

Philipp Annawitt

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