Protesters hold posters in support of the National Unity Government (NUG) during a demonstration against the military coup on 'Global Myanmar Spring Revolution Day' in Taunggyi, Shan state, on May 2, 2021. Photo: AFP / Stringer

“Defending Burmese democracy is no longer a progressive, sexy cause.” 

That may be at the heart of why Western governments still have not recognized Myanmar’s government-in-opposition that formed months after February’s military coup, according to David Frederic Camroux, an honorary senior research fellow at the Center for International Studies at Sciences Po in Paris.

In the weeks following the coup that overthrew the democratically-elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government and has since seen an installed military junta impose a brutal crackdown on anti-coup protests, Western governments were quick to condemn the putsch and impose sanctions on the military and its aligned businesses. 

However, they stopped short of passing judgment on whether the junta was the new legitimate government of Myanmar, appealing only for it to allow the detained NLD politicians to return to power and for the junta to respect the outcome of the 2020 general election, which the military claims was rigged.

After several deposed and exiled NLD politicians, as well as representatives of the country’s numerous ethnic armies, formed the so-called National Unity Government (NUG) in mid-April, Western governments have refused to say whether they believe the NUG or the military junta is the tumultuous nation’s legitimate government. 

International bodies have also sat on the fence. The World Health Organization and the International Red Cross, as well as the UN Human Rights Council, have temporarily dropped Myanmar from their summits so as not to have to choose between the rival junta and NUG delegations. 

Myanmar protesters advocate for the newly formed National Unity Government that seeks to challenge junta rule. Image: AFP

On the one hand, there are straightforward reasons to explain the hesitancy of Western democracies: It’s far more convenient for them to take a wait-and-see approach to Myanmar’s evolving post-coup chaos. 

“Many of the Western democracies opened embassies based in Yangon during the 10-year period of civilian rule, meaning a decision to recognize the NUG would also result in a closure of their embassy,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.

“The governments and their diplomats are currently loath to do anything they see as possibly shutting them out of any opportunity to influence the situation on the ground in Myanmar,” he added. 

That is especially true since Russia and to a lesser extent China – both of which have de facto recognized the military junta – have increased their influence in Naypyidaw since the coup. For Moscow, it has now achieved its long-standing goal of gaining a foothold in Southeast Asia by drawing closer to the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known.  

If a powerful Western democracy was to formally recognize the NUG as Myanmar’s legitimate government, it would forfeit whatever leverage it has in Naypyidaw, allowing Moscow and Beijing even more influence over the country, analysts say. 

At the same time, analysts agree that formal recognition by a large Western democracy would be a game-changer for the NUG. However, it would also likely set in train a series of responsibilities that no foreign government is at least so far apparently prepared to take, especially without the support of the US or the entire European Union (EU).   

On the international stage, recognizing the NUG would certainly earn the ire of Russia and China, and risk turning Myanmar into a more overt superpower proxy conflict. It is by no means clear that Beijing would side with Moscow in such a scenario, as China’s interests are in a stable Myanmar, but Beijing would certainly oppose any Western intervention in a neighboring country. 

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (L) and Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing as they walk past a honor guard prior to their talks in Moscow, June 22, 2021. Photo: AFP / Vadim Savitsky

Recognizing the NUG would also be an affront to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc, which the US and EU have backed to mediate a peaceful solution to the crisis. Yet ASEAN has also de facto recognized the legitimacy of the junta, analysts say, after negotiating exclusively with its officials while failing to engage with the NUG. 

Western governments may have also remained non-committal because the decision will be made for them in September, when the United Nations must decide on who it considers Myanmar’s rightful government. 

Myanmar’s Permanent Mission to the UN has essentially been split in two since the February coup, with many staff reporting to the junta while Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun has openly opposed the military regime and allied with the NUG. The UN has allowed Kyaw Moe Tun to retain his seat and rejected a military-approved replacement. 

However, a major decision will come in September when at the next UN General Assembly session both the NUG and the junta will submit rival petitions to the Credentials Committee, which will decide on which it considers Myanmar’s legitimate government. Representatives from the US, Russia, China and five other states sit on the committee.  

Typically in the past, this has gone to the party with the power on the ground, although the UN did refuse a seat to representatives of South Africa’s apartheid government. Kyaw Moe Tun’s status as the current ambassador may serve in his and the NUG’s favor, especially if he can successfully lobby his colleagues. 

A UN General Assembly session in early June saw the majority of countries vote in favor of a motion to express disapproval of the junta’s actions, with only Belarus voting against. However, that was a relatively less controversial issue than choosing who the UN considers the legitimate government. 

Despite the West’s failure to date to recognize the NUG, several senior politicians are known to have held informal talks with the rival government. 

No one is holding their breath waiting for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to make a move. Photo: AFP / Sonny Tumbelaka

“Many of the Western democracies are backchanneling on a regular basis with the NUG, and even some Asian governments are having quiet discussions with them,” said Robertson, of Human Rights Watch.

“The NUG is not going anywhere and so eventually both ASEAN and the Western democracies will need to deal with them more overtly and formally because there are no other representative organizations that so clearly have the support of the Burmese people,” he added. 

A European Commission source told Asia Times: “In its efforts to find an inclusive and sustainable solution to the crisis, the EU has engaged with all those advocating for and working towards an inclusive democracy and the respect of human rights.”

“The EU welcomes the efforts of the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) and of the National Unity Government (NUG) and considers that they must be key stakeholders in any genuine and inclusive political dialogue,” they added.

Reading between the lines of official US and EU statements, there also appears to be a concerted message that ASEAN must do more to include the NUG in formal talks. 

The European Commission source commented: “In particular, we look forward to the appointment of the [ASEAN’s] Special Envoy(s),  who must be able to fully engage with all relevant parties in Myanmar in order to fulfill his/her mandate and act to facilitate the establishment of a genuine political dialogue that could bring Myanmar back to its democratic transition and economic development trajectory.”

While the UN decision in September is likely to greatly simplify matters, even if the majority votes go for the NUG, that does not mean Western governments will fully embrace the government-in-opposition. 

“Myanmar [is] a casualty of Brexit,” said Camroux, referring to the United Kingdom leaving the EU. Whereas Britain has a large and active Burmese diaspora – and serves as the base for the influential Burma Campaign UK lobbying group – the rest of Europe has only small and relatively quiet diaspora groups, Camroux noted. 

That’s reflected in European Parliament members’ lack of interest, with only a few of them participating in conferences and talks on the issue. However, in early July some 150 French Senators passed a resolution calling on the national government to recognize the NUG.

Yet the truth of the matter is that the NLD politicians who now compose the majority of the NUG lost many powerful Western friends while they were in office. 

Protesters with placards showing the image of detained Myanmar civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi sit along a street before holding a candlelight vigil during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon, March 12, 2021. Photo: AFP / Stringer

Mitch McConnell, the US Senate minority leader, has cut a solitary figure in Washington by backing Suu Kyi even after her fall from grace. He has also worked closely with the Biden administration to coordinate its response to the Myanmar coup.

Analysts who spoke to Asia Times said that many decision-makers in the West have walked the short path from utopianism to nihilism. 

Many are now skeptical of the NUG’s grand promises because their previous enthusiasm for Suu Kyi, the NLD leader and pro-democracy figurehead, was dashed by her years in office. 

During this time as State Counsellor between 2016 and 2020, her government was slow to enact liberal policies she had pledged to install and even engaged in its own repression of journalists and activists, though no doubt at times at the Tatmadaw’s behest. 

But its biggest stain was Suu Kyi and the NLD’s response to the harsh persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim-minority group that was forced to flee into neighboring Bangladesh to escape military “clearance operations” and now languishes in squalid camps.  

Most of the NUG’s leadership is composed of politicians from the ousted NLD government, which tacitly accepted and even defended what some have referred to as military-led “genocide.” 

For instance, Suu Kyi herself referred to the Rohingyas as “Bengalis,” a pejorative term that adheres to the long-standing assertion among hyper-nationalist groups that they are migrants and not Myanmar citizens. She also referred to reports of mass rape of Rohingya women as “fake” and derided them as “terrorists” for starting the violence, claims she repeated at The Hague.

After 2018, many of Suu Kyi’s international awards bestowed upon her by Western governments were removed because of her tacit condoning of the Rohingya “genocide.” And there remains considerable doubt about the NUG’s true intentions on the Rohingya issue now.  

Rohingya refugees walk after crossing the Naf river from Myanmar into Bangladesh in Whaikhyang.Photo: AFP/Fred Dufour
Rohingya refugees walk after crossing the Naf river from Myanmar into Bangladesh in Whaikhyang. Photo: AFP / Fred Dufour

US Congressman Ted Lieu said at a Congressional hearing last month that he would block any recognition of the NUG until it had a Rohingya representative. 

Soon after, in a move seen by some as a bid to win international recognition, the NUG announced they would revoke the 1982 Citizenship law that has been used to deprive the Rohingya of citizenship, as well as making other pro-Rohingya gestures. 

That will be easier said than done. If the NUG did come to power, would it realistically be able to see the peaceful return of as many as one million Rohingyas back to Myanmar, especially as the NUG will depend on the support of Buddhist nationalists in Rakhine state?

No doubt Western governments have already “war-gamed” what the NUG would actually do in power, in the event that formal Western and UN recognition would spur on anti-junta forces.  

If the NUG does somehow win power, it would likely need to offer up a devolved system of government to end the country’s seven-decades-old ethnic civil wars. While some ethnic armed groups have thrown their weight behind the NUG, several others have not many, including some of the nation’s largest.

The NUG would also face opposition from nationalists if it was seen as weakening the power of the ethnic Bamar majority, many of whom are now on the frontlines in protesting against the military junta.  

Most Western governments have so far held onto the belief that Myanmar can return to the status quo ante, meaning that the junta will eventually allow the elected-NLD government to return to power. 

But that possibility likely evaporated in the days after the coup, a point underscored by the military’s subsequent legal charges against Suu Kyi and her top political allies and insistence the 2020 election the NLD overwhelmingly won was fraudulent.