After months of rising unrest with increased attacks against security forces by growing numbers of civilian People’s Defense Forces (PDF) against the February 1 coup, Myanmar’s opposition National Unity Government (NUG) has officially declared a nationwide uprising.
The subject of speculation for the past several weeks of a “D-Day” to topple the military’s State Administration Council (SAC) seems to have arrived. Or has it?
Acting NUG President Lashi La announced today (September 7) in a formal statement and an address posted on Facebook “a people’s war against the military junta”, a public revolution “within the entire Myanmar.”
Lashi La presented 14 points for the nationwide revolution. Following a people’s war, he appealed to PDFs to “(t)arget the control (of) the military junta and its assets in your respective areas.”
It is somewhat unclear if he is referring to more than 150 PDFs estimated nationwide, only a small number of which have pledged loyalty to the NUG. Attacks by the PDFs in August resulted in 800 military, or Tatmadaw, casualties in 400 engagements, according to the NUG.
He next called on “(a)ll the military-appointed administrators at different levels of administration immediately leave your positions.”
This could potentially drive a further exodus of local-level officials, who have been targeted by gunmen and their offices bombed in numerous cities and towns across Myanmar since March: scores if not hundreds have been killed or wounded. Point 13 specifically mentioned all public servants: “we warn and forbid you from going to the office.”
In one indication of how much individuals associated with the SAC and Tatmadaw are being targeted, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the former military-aligned ruling party, announced in early September that 253 of its members have been assassinated since the coup and blamed squarely the NUG.
Like most post-coup conflict claims and counterclaims, the figure could not be independently verified. But Lashi La’s specific mention of administrators could spell an intensification of targeting local officials as “soft targets.”
Other points called on the PDFs to follow the NUG’s “military codes and conducts”, which Asia Times reported on in June, and for them to “protect the live and properties of all the people in your respective villages and towns.”
The address called on civilians to avoid unnecessary travel and “(t)imely report the movement of the military council to the PDFs.”
The seventh point calls on ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) to “immediately attack the Min Aung Hlaing and the military council with different forms. Fully control your lands.”
This seems to indicate that the NUG has not achieved any demonstrable command and control of a disparate group of armed actors. Several EAOs have provided shelter and support to the NUG and trained PDFs of various stripes.
Some have pledged loyalty to the NUG, whilst others such as the ethnic Kachin, Kayin and Kayah groups have reiterated their opposition to the military junta. Others, particularly in Shan and Rakhine states, have refused to recognize or work with the NUG. The NUG’s call for concerted EAO action is then more aspirational than affirmative.
Most EAOs are predominantly concerned with conflict within their own areas of operations where fighting looks set to broaden, and do not necessarily share the NUG’s nationwide perspective. They are all struggling to respond to a heightened humanitarian crisis of conflict, flooding and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Lashi La also wishfully called on the Tatmadaw-controlled “Border Guard Forces and all the militias…to join with the people and attack the people’s enemy.”
This seems highly unlikely for now, as these groups have been expanding operations in support of the SAC and attacking PDFs. There are widespread reports of increased recruitment into these irregular military-backed forces.
He also called on all soldiers and police personnel to join PDFs and report to the Ministry of Defense of the NUG. Whilst there have been reported cases of defections, particularly among police, it is hard to see the possibility for increased numbers joining the opposition without guarantees for the safety of their families.
In a nod to international sensibilities, the announcement called the uprising a “just revolution” and that the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the United Nations and other countries “understand that we do it out of necessity.”
By the end of the day, the Facebook video post had received 558K views, 65K likes, and 8.1K comments. The announcement sparked widespread concerns in urban areas throughout Myanmar, with the potential for intensifying PDF attacks and reprisals by the Tatmadaw and security forces.
Reports of an augmented military presence in the commercial capital Yangon have spread, as have accounts of people stocking up on foodstuffs and medicine. Rumors of a looming internet shutdown swirled for days ahead of today’s announcement.
Why the declaration now?
Talk of an ill-defined and dateless “D-Day” had been received with widespread derision. Since its announcement, the puzzled retort from many in Myanmar has been “every day is D-Day.” The scale of conflict, displacement, human rights abuses and humanitarian emergency since the coup has many fearful about how much more the situation could deteriorate.
So what blend of domestic and international factors made the NUG move?
Many are speculating that D-Day is timed to attract international attention ahead of the United Nations General Assembly convening in mid-September.
The NUG hopes that the UN Credentials Committee will approve the position of not just incumbent Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, who broke from the SAC in February and support the parallel government, but broader recognition of the NUG as the legitimate government of Myanmar.
Recognition of the NUG, regardless of how just it may be, is unlikely, and the NUG must comprehend that any escalation of armed action will likely alarm the West.
Today’s call for insurrection coincides with the call by the ASEAN special envoy for a four-month ceasefire to ensure the provision of humanitarian assistance, which was reportedly accepted by the SAC.
This call was welcomed by several EAOs of the Peace Process Steering Committee (PPST), signatories to the now moribund Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). The Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) from Shan state has also welcomed the announcement.
There is thus obviously no unified response to the SAC’s consolidation of power regardless of its vulnerabilities, widespread anger from across the country and lacking legitimacy.
The NUG may have calculated that an escalation could inspire more widespread revolt and bolster support for the multitude of PDFs and EAOs. But already many in Myanmar are fearful of what cost this will entail.
A decisive knockout blow in a situation such as this is highly unlikely, and could result in a more intensive and protracted civil war where attrition through carnage marks what could pass for triumph.
A pyrrhic win over a wasteland is no victory.
David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, peace and human rights issues on Myanmar