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

Just over a year ago, Myanmar’s shadow government declared a defensive war against the military junta that seized power in a February 1, 2021, democracy-suspending coup.

The junta’s unpopular rule has moved from disaster to disaster, driving the economy into ruins and sparking resistance to its rule that has spread civil war across the country to an unprecedented scale.

In a speech earlier this month, Duwa Lashi La, acting president of the anti-coup National Unity Government (NUG), stated that it and anti-military “ethnic armed organizations” (EAOs) now control more than half of Myanmar’s geography.

“Amid our territorial dominance and as our military capabilities have strengthened, the operations, territorial control and public administration of our partner EROs have significantly improved,” he stated, referring to the newly-popular and alternative acronym for the ethnic militias, “ethnic revolutionary organizations.”  

A recently-released report by the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, a group of former UN experts, argued that the junta has effective control over less than a fifth of the country’s territory while the NUG and its allies control 53%. The rest is contested, according to the report.

Estimates on who controls what in Myanmar are complex and contested, though. Yet Western democracies are, slowly and unevenly, beginning to engage more with the NUG. Malaysia is leading the charge for greater recognition of it by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

And there are now rising calls from some in the Western establishment for either outright recognition of the NUG as Myanmar’s legitimate government or at least greater financial support. 

“It needs support—and especially money—from the West. If America recognized it as the legitimate government, the NUG could claim the US$1 billion in Burmese assets that America froze after the coup,” argued a recent article in The Economist headlined “Myanmar’s shadow government deserves more help.” 

Acting president Duwa Lashi La of Myanmar’s National Unity Government declares a ‘national uprising against military rule’ in a video message on September 7, 2021, and asks citizens to revolt against the junta in all parts of the country. Photo: EyePress News / via AFP

But there’s still scant interest among Western democracies to open channels with some of Myanmar’s EAOs that analysts say are providing essential support to hundreds of thousands displaced by the conflict or refuge to those targeted by the junta.

The US position on the EAOs is non-recognition with no direct engagement, said Zachary Abuza, professor of Southeast Asian studies at the Washington-based National War College. 

Most likely that is because some of them are involved in illicit narcotic production, although that is “short-sighted,” he said, as only a few EAOs are involved in the drug trade. Of those that are, most have sided with the junta or are not taking sides in the civil war. Almost all of them are in Shan state. 

“The EAOs control vast swaths of territory. Four of the largest are now allied – or at least aligned – with the NUG,” Abuza said. “They will have a seat at the table in a future government, especially should there be a negotiated settlement that leads to a genuine federal democracy.” 

The NUG, formed by members of the coup-ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) and anti-military activists, has vowed to introduce a new federal system if it is able eventually to remove the junta from power. 

Representatives of eight EAOs, either as direct participants or part of local consultative councils, are part of the National Unity Consultative Council, a consultative platform between the NUG, EAOs, civilian activists and non-profit organizations.

Certain anti-military People’s Defense Forces, or PDFs, are actively working with the EAOs, which are known to provide training and security. The NUG has control over many PDFs but not all, including several fighting in fierce battles against the Tatmadaw in Sagaing Region.  

According to one recent estimate, 13 of the NUG’s 26-strong cabinet are from ethnic nationalities, including the acting president, Duwa Lashi La, and Prime Minister Mahn Win Khaing Than. 

While four major EAOs are cooperating intensively with the NUG, another three or four are only quietly collaborating, according to the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar report. Around a dozen more oppose the junta but are not actively supporting the NUG. 

Arakan Army soldiers take aim from an undisclosed location in Myanmar. Photo: Arakan Army Video

The well-armed Arakan Army, active in Rakhine and Chin states, has not formally aligned itself with the NUG but recently clashed with the Tatmadaw after a ceasefire period and now appears to see its future best served in a federal Myanmar.

According to some observers and analysts, the coup has also altered ethnic relations in Myanmar. 

“The coup has prompted a shift in how much of the Burman majority views ethnic armed groups and minorities’ demands for a fairer distribution of political power,” argued a paper by the International Crisis Group, a think tank. 

“Decades of propaganda had castigated minorities as the cause of Myanmar’s political problems, but Burmans angry at the regime now view ethnic grievances much more empathetically,” it added. 

Last year, the NUG and its allies published their Federal Democracy Charter, a roadmap of how they intend to rule during a transitional phase — meaning current conditions amid divided control of the country — and then once the junta is ousted. 

“Some of the major EROs are also deliberating options for re-orienting their existing constitutional frameworks to the new situation, as they gain increasing autonomy and responsibilities for local populations,” stated the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar report

“Continued negotiation and implementation of the Federal Democracy Charter, widened to include other EROs and political parties, could lead to these various systems developing into a viable federal and democratic structure that would be able to assume the rights and responsibilities of the state.”

Myanmar’s numerous and long-fighting ethnic armies are far from homogenous and are warring for different demands. Indeed, some are in open conflict with one another in their states. Shan state, Myanmar’s largest by territory, is particularly rumbustious. 

Many are taking a wait-and-see approach and historically have distrusted both the military and the NLD, the party of deposed and now-jailed Aung San Suu Kyi who failed to live up to democratic expectations among many EAOs.

The powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA), the country’s largest narcotics-trafficking militia with as many as 30,000 under arms, is still fence-sitting.

The Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), meanwhile, at first declared its support for the Civil Disobedience Movement, a series of anti-coup actions in early 2021, but has since held talks with the junta. 

In April, ten EAOs attended peace talks with the junta. But fewer attended second-round talks last month, according to media reports. Some objected that the NUG, which the junta considers a “terrorist organization”, was not a party to the discussions. 

Myanmar’s coup maker Senior General Min Aung Hlaing attends the 9th Moscow Conference on International Security in Moscow, Russia on June 23, 2021. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency / Sefa Karacan

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the junta chief and coup-maker, has proposed that ethnic armies sign ceasefires and be absorbed into the national military – a rejected suggestion that has been made by military leaders since the 1980s.

In 2015, during the quasi-democratic presidency of Thein Sein, a military appointee, ten ethnic armed groups signed a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. The larger and more relevant EAOs did not sign the deal, which was widely panned as a farce by analysts and observers.  

Now, they argue that Western governments need to rethink their approach to certain EAOs because they will play a key role in a post-junta Myanmar if the NUG wins. 

Scot Marciel, a former US ambassador to Myanmar, argued in an essay last month that the international community needs to “increase public and private engagement with the NUG and other key actors who are active against the junta, including the critically important ethnic armed organizations and leaders of the civil disobedience movement.” 

Foreign powers, the analysts say, need a more nuanced position that allows them to engage different EAOs. That must be done on a case-by-case basis; Western capitals could even learn a few things from how China has engaged its favored EAOs, including most crucially the UWSA and to a lesser extent the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

“The Chinese arm them, but in return expect them to protect Chinese economic interests. They have a diplomatic and security flexibility that the US simply refuses to give itself,” said Abuza. 

Foreign assistance has long been provided in EAO-controlled areas through local affiliates of these groups. But because few foreign governments recognize them officially, funding and support has to go through intermediaries, explained Kim Jolliffe, a researcher on Myanmar politics.

This is an increasingly problematic dynamic as the escalating civil war decimates news areas of the country previously unperturbed by conflict, including in Sagaing Region and Chin state.

Vital assistance to Myanmar’s many impoverished regions has been disrupted by the conflict, with the UN estimating in May that more than one million people have been internally displaced nationwide.

It is thus now “crucial” that greater social and humanitarian assistance is channeled to and in coordination with EAOs and the NUG, argues Jolliffe. 

“This cannot continue through piecemeal grants to community-based organizations only. There need to be foreign commitments to establishing a much more comprehensive aid mechanism with direct participation of the EROs and NUG as the responsible local authorities and social service departments,” Jolliffe added. 

“Foreign democracies also need to firmly back these groups politically,” he said, meaning through monetary assistance and diplomatic support to their civilian wings.

Neither a spokesperson for the US State Department nor the European Commission responded to Asia Times’ requests for comment on the issues of recognizing and funneling assistance through the NUG and EAOs. 

This picture taken on February 4, 2015 shows Shan State Army - South (SSA-S) soldiers training at their headquarters in Loi Tai Leng, in Myanmar's northeastern Shan State, a few days ahead of the 68th Shan National Day celebrations which were held there on February 7. The Shan National Day marks the unification of many Shan principalities into a single Shan State in 1947. The SSA-S is one of the largest rebel groups in Burma and fights in Shan State for self-determination of the Shan people in Myanmar. Though a ceasefire was signed in 2011 sporadic fighting continues between the SSA-S and the Myanmar army. Myanmar's government on February 12, 2015 held a somber ceremony marking the nation's symbolic unification after the colonial era, but a coveted ceasefire with ethnic rebel groups remained out of reach as conflict sweeps across northern borderlands.   AFP PHOTO / KC Ortiz / AFP PHOTO / KC Ortiz
Shan State Army – South (SSA-S) soldiers training at their headquarters in Loi Tai Leng, in Myanmar’s northeastern Shan State, a few days ahead of the 68th Shan National Day celebrations which were held there on February 7, 2015. Photo: AFP / KC Ortiz

According to Roshni Kapur, an independent researcher based in Singapore, while direct military and financial support to EAOs are for now off the table, “Western governments can reach out to these groups through unconventional ways including humanitarian assistance, capacity building and distribution of vaccines.”

“Working with rebel groups could be a better alternative to deliver the much-needed assistance,” she added, noting that many of the EAOs are key providers of education and healthcare in local communities. 

Several EAOs are also willing to build better relations with the West, noted Salai Samuel Hmung, a research officer of the SEARBO project, an academic research and advocacy program. 

“Since the coup, some EAOs, especially those fighting against the military, have been able to extend their influence in domestic politics with public support,” he said. “The West cannot ignore their influence and their role in shaping the course of the revolution and the country’s future.”

Shawn W. Crispin provided reporting from Bangkok