On Tuesday, the president of Myanmar’s democratic National Unity Government (NUG) proclaimed D-Day, the launch of a “people’s defensive war” against the military government, to overthrow it and end the oppression. Predictably, that caused a stir in the international community.
One Western embassy reacted by asking its nationals to leave the country as soon as possible, while another ambassador issued a statement calling on all parties to work on restoring democracy peacefully.
D-Day was not, as some surmised, a call to arms to sweep away the Tatmadaw in a large, bloody offensive. Rather, it was a demonstration of will and the acknowledgement of a reality. Myanmar is in the midst of an uprising against what its people consider a murderous occupying force.
The call was taken up by the NUG’s allied ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), the Kachin Independence Army, the Karen National Liberation Army, the Karenni Progressive Party, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and the Ta-ang National Liberation Army, as well as the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), an NUG-allied but disparate host of dozens of militias operating mostly in Myanmar’s Bamar-dominated center.
Fighting increased on that day, but not significantly, compared with the days and weeks before.
In its call, the NUG proclaimed a state of emergency, provided advice to civilians on how to protect themselves, and issued strict rules of engagement to its allied forces, to ensure the uprising complies with the Geneva Conventions. It called on Tatmadaw soldiers and police officers to defect and offered them protection.
Some analysts lamented the call, fearing further doom for Myanmar. Others have pointed to the reality that the military is facing a credible strategic challenge. I am of a somewhat more optimistic predilection.
EAOs are holding their territory, PDFs are proliferating and will continue to do so. Once the rainy season stops, one well-informed analyst told me, they may pop up in locations that have so far been peaceful.
Tatmadaw defections are up. Guerrilla action has reached its gilded capital. All of this could in time overwhelm the Tatmadaw, sap the will of their rank and file to continue the fight, and may lead to them being unable to maintain their posture.
No matter what they believe, everybody observing Myanmar agrees: The fighting will not stop right now, and there is currently no window for a negotiated solution.
We need to remember: The uprising against the military is wildly popular, the military remains utterly despised, and the collapse of the economy was a calculated strategy in the early days of the coup to force out the military junta peacefully.
Everybody agrees that the humanitarian fallout needs to be addressed, and the NUG is certainly willing to do so. The effort by ASEAN’s envoy to declare a humanitarian ceasefire, though, was doomed all along – it suited the Tatmadaw, who would love nothing more than having a ceasefire with EAOs to turn around and stamp out the PDFs. Had the envoy bothered to speak to the NUG, it would have told him that.
Another thing is unchanged: Myanmar still has a legitimate, elected government that has built the most inclusive multi-ethic coalition in the history of the country, and remains the only actor that might have enough about them to keep the country together – if it wins.
It has developed a democratic interim constitutional arrangement and principles for a federal democratic future. It has opened a pathway to Rohingya citizenship.
D-Day has confirmed that there is political will and strategic purpose about this government and its allies. The overwhelmingly positive reactions around the country, from EAOs to student unions, have again demonstrated the support the NUG has.
The NUG has made progress in establishing working relationships with a number of foreign governments. Still, few of these deal with the NUG as they would with an established government. In that respect the decision of the United Nations’ Credentials Committee next week on whether to accept the credentials of the NUG-loyal UN ambassador remains key.
The international community needs to support this claim to strengthen the hand of the NUG, open it up to aid and support from the UN and beyond. Myanmar’s friends need to hold the line, deny the junta legitimacy and work with the NUG. The stronger the NUG and its alliance, the more quickly this uprising will be over.
Building channels for mediation and low-level cooperation is no wasted effort even now. On the question of delivering humanitarian aid and of countering Covid-19, there may be potential for dialogue and limited cooperation at the grassroots level, between the junta and NUG-aligned EAO authorities, with the blessing perhaps of the NUG. That is all there can realistically be hoped for right now.
At the end of it all, there will be a negotiated outcome, but only when the situation is ripe for a solution. For now, interests remain diametrically opposed: Nothing short of the complete overthrow of the regime and the fundamental remaking of the military is acceptable to the people of Myanmar. Without one side all but collapsing, that situation will not change.
Representatives of the diplomatic community and international organizations have a responsibility to communicate the situation as it is clearly to their capitals, and not to muddy the waters by going through the motions: expressing concern, and calling for a peaceful return to democracy. That return is not in the cards right now.
That fact needs to be understood by the decision-makers in the capitals, but also that it does not preclude constructive international engagement in Myanmar.