Anti-coup protesters show their support for Myanmar's National Unity Government. Photo: Jose Lopes Amaral / NurPhoto via AFP

European governments are under pressure to engage more in the Myanmar crisis, with calls for greater recognition of the shadow government that opposes the military junta.

Several members of the National Unity Government, an anti-junta shadow government, have visited Brussels and European capitals in recent weeks, and European governments have reiterated their support for the NUG as the voice of democratic Myanmar. 

NUG officials have also called on Western democracies to help arm anti-junta defense forces in the same way that financial and military support has been proactively offered to the Ukrainian forces fighting off a Russian invasion. 

In late May the NUG’s health minister, Zaw Wai Soe, visited Brussels to meet with officials of the European External Action Services, the bloc’s foreign and defense ministry. He also met with senior politicians from the European Parliament. 

Days earlier, Soe visited London to meet with Amanda Milling, the UK’s minister of state for Asia and the Middle East, who subsequently tweeted: “We support @NUGMyanmar and all those calling for return to democracy.” 

This month, the NUG’s minister of human rights, Aung Myo Min, met with Jiri Kozak, the deputy foreign minister of the Czech Republic, which next month takes on the biannually rotating European Union presidency. 

After years of political reform led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, the military launched a bloody coup in February 2021. Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s pro-democracy icon and state counselor between 2016 and 2021, was arrested and has now been sentenced to several years in prison for trumped-up charges. 

Swaths of the country are under the control of anti-junta forces or ethnic rebel groups, while the military is fighting a brutal rear-guard battle to impose its will outside the Myanmar heartland. The World Bank reckons the country’s economy likely contracted by 18% in 2021 and will struggle to post any growth this year.

Some 2,000 civilians have been killed in the junta’s crackdown on dissent, and around 14,000 people have been arrested, according to estimates by local rights groups. This month the junta escalated tensions yet again by upholding the death penalty for two prominent activists, which sparked international criticism. 

Junta defies sanctions

The EU has imposed four tranches of sanctions on officials of the junta and military-linked companies in Myanmar, including on its important gas sector. 

The UK has also imposed far-ranging sanctions, with the last round coming in February. “The UK will always defend the right to freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. With like-minded nations, we will hold to account this suppressive, brutal regime,” the British foreign secretary, Liz Truss, said at the time. 

But there are now calls for European governments to do more than sanctions, especially as the crisis in Myanmar shows no signs of abating. 

“When the attempted coup began there were two assumptions which we were hearing,” said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, a lobbying group.  

One was that the military would quickly crush the protests, then adopt economic and other policies seen under Thein Sein, a retired general who oversaw post-junta political reformation as president between 2011 and 2016. 

The other assumption, said Farmaner, was that things would go back to pre-2010 Than Shwe days and the issue of political legitimacy would die down by the end of 2021 as the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, consolidated its rule. 

“Both were proved wrong in terms of the resistance the military faced and the brutal tactics the military would use to suppress resistance. This had forced a rethink in approach,” Farmaner said.

Last October the European Parliament agreed on a motion that described the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the NUG’s parliamentary committee, and the NUG itself as the “only legitimate representatives of the democratic wishes of the people of Myanmar.” 

It also called on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other foreign governments “to include and involve them in genuine and inclusive political dialogue and efforts aimed at the peaceful resolution of the crisis.”

NUG representation

The Irrawaddy, a Myanmar newspaper, reported that this made the European Parliament the first foreign legislative to formally recognize the NUG and its CRPH, although the semantics of the motion are debatable. 

Also last October, the French Senate passed a motion calling for its government formally to recognize the NUG, but this has not yet been supported by the French National Assembly, the lower house. 

European responses have varied. Britain, the former colonial ruler, has publicly met with the NUG for the past year, and it has been “proactive in taking action against the military rather than hiding behind the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus as an excuse for doing nothing,” said Farmaner, of Burma Campaign UK.

The NUG has established representative offices in France, the UK and the Czech Republic, and its officials have been active in lobbying local government and civil-society groups. The NUG’s minister for human rights, Aung Myo Min, gave his coup-anniversary speech in Paris in January. 

Also in January, the German minister of state at the Federal Foreign Office, Tobias Lindner, held a video call with Zin Mar Aung, the NUG’s foreign minister. The presidents of the two chambers of the German parliament sent a joint public letter expressing their support for the CRPH in April.

“Together with our partners in the European Union, Germany regards the NUG and the CRPH as important political stakeholders whose voices represent the democratic aspirations of the people of Myanmar,” an official source in the German Foreign Ministry told Asia Times. 

“They must be key stakeholders in any genuine and inclusive political dialogue,” the source noted, adding that “We have regular contacts with the NUG.” 

Formal recognition of NUG delayed

While the international community has not formally accepted the NUG as Myanmar’s government, analysts say these meetings with NUG officials are important for increasing its legitimacy abroad. 

At the Untied Nations, this issue of recognition was kicked into the long grass last December when states decided not to vote on who should occupy Myanmar’s seat, leaving in place Kyaw Moe Tun, the permanent representative selected by the ousted NLD government and who opposes the coup. It may be resolved at the next annual UN General Assembly meeting in September.

Concerns were raised in July 2021 when the UK appointed a new ambassador to Myanmar, which some claimed could be seen as de facto recognition of the military regime. But the following month Britain downgraded its relations with Myanmar from ambassadorial to chargé d’affaires level. 

After British Ambassador Pete Vowles went abroad on business, the junta barred him from re-entering the country in February 2022 in retaliation. 

Germany has also downgraded its representation in Myanmar, with its embassy now led by a chargé d’affaires. Radio Free Asia reported late last month that Denmark and Italy were considering similar action. 

Calls to arm anti-junta forces

There are now calls for Europeans to do more. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February has added further impetus for Europeans to take a stronger stance on the Mynamar crisis. European governments have become more hawkish on foreign-policy issues and formerly pacifist countries, such as Germany, have announced vast defense-spending projects. 

Last month the NUG’s defense minister, Yee Mon, called on Western governments to help arm Myanmar’s pro-democracy militias, the People’s Defence Forces (PDF), just as they have helped arm Ukrainian forces. 

“The stance of [the] international community for Myanmar is moral support for us and we are grateful for it. We will be much more appreciative if we get physical support such as arms and funding,” he was quoted by Reuters.

“With that support, we will be able to end the revolution sooner, minimizing the loss of people and their property.”

Formal recognition would be a game-changer for the NUG. However, it would also complicate the international response to the humanitarian crisis on the ground. No European government is likely to declare formal support unilaterally for the NUG without agreement from others in the region. 

Formal recognition would also allow the NUG to demand aid from the UN, a boon for the NUG-controlled areas of the country. But the international community is now focused on how to provide humanitarian assistance to the Myanmar people, and any formal recognition of the NUG would likely see the junta stymie those relief efforts. 

“Diplomats see the NUG as a legitimate representative of the people of Myanmar and being more progressive and inclusive than the NLD-led government,” Farmaner said. 

“This is unlikely to translate into recognition as a government, though, as decisions on recognition are being made based on broader foreign policies and not with the specific situation in Myanmar in mind.”

Official recognition of the NUG is unlikely, but there could be a push for greater cooperation from the EU as the Czech Republic next month takes over the presidency of the bloc.

The Czech Republic has been a key conduit for the NUG within the EU. One of the shadow government’s main figures in Europe, Linn Thant, has been based in Prague for decades. The Czech Republic was one of the first in Europe to recognize the NUG’s local liaison officer. 

The Irrawaddy reported in February that the Czech government had allowed the NUG to withdraw cash received from donors and sell bonds through a Czech bank. The shadow government’s funds were initially frozen after complaints from the junta. 

“The NUG has our political support, which stems from our long-term foreign-policy orientation and principles, from our past, and our experience with our democratic transition and its international support,” a spokeswoman for the Czech Foreign Ministry said. 

“We appreciate that NUG has clearly stated that it intends to bring together all relevant stakeholders to build together a new, federal democratic future of the country.

“The Czech position regarding Myanmar since the military coup in February 2021 is consistent and, of course, it will be consistent also during Czech EU presidency,” the Czech spokeswoman said. 

There are allegations that Western governments are simply waiting to see what happens within Myanmar, as the military and anti-junta forces continue to clash, before making a decision. 

Foreign governments are also alleged to be waiting for others to make the complicated decision of which is Myanmar’s legitimate government to be made for them. 

Recently the junta announced that it plans to hold elections by August 2023. Although few believe they will be free or fair – and it is unlikely that the NLD, which won a general election in late 2020 by a landslide, will be allowed to compete – some analysts reckon that foreign governments will accept the results in order to get the Myanmar crisis off the international agenda.   

“I think there’s no chance it could be free and fair, and it can be an attempt to just manipulate the region, the international community,” US State Department counselor Derek Chollet recently commented. 

ASEAN role

One problem for European governments is their continuing support for an ASEAN-led resolution to the crisis, which has become more questionable in 2022. The Five-Point Consensus agreed between ASEAN and the junta last year has largely failed, although the Southeast Asian bloc is doubling down on efforts to bring humanitarian assistance to Myanmar. 

The ASEAN response was also thrown into turmoil when Cambodia took over the bloc’s rotating chairmanship at the beginning of the year. Hun Sen, the country’s prime minister, jetted off to Naypyidaw in January to meet with junta leaders, which sparked consternation from some governments within ASEAN. 

As the ASEAN-led resolution flounders, there are now calls for Western democracies to increase their own engagement in the crisis, possibly by recognizing the NUG and financially supporting its anti-junta forces. 

But snubbing ASEAN would harm European relations with the bloc, while there also doesn’t appear much interest from European governments to involve themselves more directly in a complicated crisis on the other side of the world, especially when there is a war raging in Ukraine. 

Nonetheless, the EU and ASEAN remain in close cooperation on the issue. Igor Driesmans, the EU ambassador to ASEAN, last week met with Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, who has been leading the charge in ASEAN to alter the bloc’s policy on Myanmar.  

Last month Malaysia’s government was the first in Southeast Asia to announce publicly that it had met with NUG officials, raising the possibility that Kuala Lumpur will now push its regional partners to open up more space for the shadow government. 

After his meeting last week with Driesmans, who is also the new EU special envoy for Myanmar, Saifuddin tweeted that they discussed “finding new & creative steps to achieve meaningful implementation of the 5-Point Consensus, including engagements with all stakeholders involved in Myanmar.”

An EU official told Asia Times that there is no change in the bloc’s position. “The coup overthrew the legitimate, democratically elected civilian government. The military lacks any democratic legitimacy. The European Union stands in solidarity with all those advocating for and working towards an inclusive democracy and the respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

 The EU “welcomes” efforts by the CRPH and NUG, and other “pro-democracy forces working towards a peaceful resolution of the current crisis,” the official said, adding: “The EU is already engaging with all key stakeholders looking for a peaceful solution to the crisis.”

But many within the EU are also calling for the bloc to do more. 

“With no end in sight to the crisis in Myanmar and the humanitarian situation in the country deteriorating day by day, European governments are beginning to realize that they need to focus more on building an even closer working relationship with the NUG, the legitimate representative of the democratic wishes of the people of Myanmar,” Heidi Hautala, vice-president of the European Parliament, told Asia Times. 

“With the number of civilians displaced by the conflict exceeding 1 million for the first time and Myanmar turning into one of the most mine-affected countries in the world, European governments will need to redouble their efforts to find a sustainable and democratic resolution to the crisis,” Hautala added. 

“Close ties between European governments and the NUG will be vital in this effort.”

Follow David Hutt on Twitter at @davidhuttjourno