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

These were some of the earliest reforms of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government when it came to power in Myanmar in 2016: rescinding the 1975 State Protection Law and the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act and amending the Ward and Village Tract Administrator Law.

The former two had been used by successive military governments to persecute dissidents, the third to enact social and movement controls on the people. 

In essence, the NLD’s quest had been to demilitarize and liberalize the state. A key element of that strategy was to reintroduce politics at the level where it matters most to the people, in their wards and village tracts.

After the reforms, Myanmar’s 16,000 ward and village tract administrators were elected instead of appointed by the state. This was the first step toward local government, as opposed to just local administration.

In Myanmar’s system of governance, these administrators are the link between the community and the state. Among other things, they represent the community in the state planning process, where key decisions are made on where public funding is allocated on anything from schools to roads.   

In 2018, the government removed the General Administration Department, the backbone of the state in Myanmar, which is the institutional home of these ward and village tract administrators, from military control and put its under a ministry in charge of central coordination. This severely curtailed the influence of the generals on how the country was run. 

Immediately after the military overthrew the elected government early this year, at a time when protests against the coup were still entirely peaceful, the junta, ruling by decree, rolled all of these reforms back, seeking to build a military state.

The junta fired the democratically elected ward and village tract administrators and replaced them with loyalists, who themselves were often former soldiers. It reintegrated the General Administration Department into the military apparatus.

The junta regime drastically reduced the delivery of services – public health care, for instance, is all but unavailable – while extending its coercive apparatus: When the resistance to the junta hardened, the regime escalated deadly violence on the one hand, and social and movement control at the community level on the other. 

Local administrators now work hand in hand not only with the military but also with local “Pyu Saw Htee groups,” pro-junta militias. They terrorize the communities, controlling people’s movements, informing on resistance sympathizers, abducting people to extort ransom, torturing and raping in the process.

Many have taken to bearing arms themselves. It is no surprise that of those civilian representatives killed by the resistance “People’s Defense Forces,” the overwhelming majority have been local administrators – if indeed these can be meaningfully described as “civilian.”

The result of the junta’s efforts is a state that seeks to enforce totalitarian control on its population but is failing spectacularly at it. It is losing manpower, with thousands of soldiers and police having defected. One organization working with defectors claims to have processed as many as 8,000 of them.

New recruits are impossible to come by and so the military has turned to veterans to power the latest offensives, which have hit the civilian population hard as the military tries to cut off resistance forces from host-community services by displacing those host communities. 

Despite the military’s multiple offensives of recent weeks, the opposition National Unity Government (NUG), a coalition of lawmakers elected in November 2020, democracy activists and ethnic political and armed groups, and its allied People’s Defense Forces are making progress against the junta.

In parts of the ethnic-majority Bamar heartland, where the junta never established meaningful control, People’s Defense Forces claim to have created pockets of control where civil servants loyal to the NUG are said to have resumed administration and provision of services. 

The NUG is in many ways the antithesis to the junta regime. It enjoys strong support by the people.

While it has stepped up its military efforts since declaring a “people’s defensive war” in September, the focus very much remains on supporting the 400,000 striking civil servants and providing services to the people – in person in the “liberated areas” controlled  by its ethnic minority areas, and remotely or through mobile teams in junta-controlled territory.

Services include tele-medicine, mobile emergency medical assistance, tele-education, and humanitarian assistance. 

The impact is limited but increasing: The NUG is accessing fresh resources. Volunteers among the striking civil servants are a reservoir of skilled labor to recruit from to expand the service menu.

The NUG last month emitted a sovereign “revolution bond” through financial markets. While no government has yet recognized it (the Czech Republic arguably made a big step in that direction when it announced it would communicate with the NUG’s representative office on consular affairs), some development partners are quietly engaging. 

More support may be forthcoming as the National Unity Government communicates its vision for the future of a federal democratic Myanmar and its plans for service delivery through the upcoming budget. But it needs to spend more time saying what it wants for Myanmar’s future than it has so far.

Make no mistake, the NUG’s core values and objectives of securing equal rights for all, genuine democracy, decentralization, and civilian control of the military could also be lifted directly from one of the New Deal Compacts the international community has been pouring money into to enable crisis countries to “transition from fragility to resilience.” 

And a cursory glance at Myanmar’s history shows that it is the harshly authoritarian military states that have been to blame for the country’s fragility. The National Unity Government deserves support in building a free, democratic, responsible state that can keep the soldiers in the barracks. 

Philipp Annawitt

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