Ever since the West turned on the military taps and flooded Ukraine with weapons capable of stopping the Russian advance, the backers of Myanmar’s ousted government have asked: “what about us?” It’s an understandable question.
The National Unity Government (NUG) and its armed wing, the People’s Defense Force (PDF), are in dire need of weaponry as they push the civil war from the jungles into junta-held provincial zones where the military responds with Russian-made fighter jets and artillery.
But the Western response has been limited to sanctions.
The latest sanctions just announced by the European Union include travel bans on 16 individuals and entities, including the junta’s energy minister, high-ranking officers, the ministry of defense and private companies thought to be supplying fuel, arms, and funds to the military.
A number of sources who have had contact with the NUG and witnessed its efforts to seek military assistance from the West, including the United States, say perennial issues remain.
“I have spoken with Congressmen who want to provide military aid but they don’t know who to deal with,” said one ASEAN politician who recently returned from the United States. Despite having liaison offices in eight countries, including in Washington, D.C., “the NUG and PDF have no public face. There is no leader that people can rally around, there’s no central point,” the politician added.
Unlike Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, few would recognize the leader and acting president of the NUG, Duwa Lashi La, and that’s more than two years after the Myanmar military – also known as the Tatmadaw – ousted an elected government headed by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Observers who have had dealings with Lashi La say that he lacks charisma and is reluctant to fill the shoes of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is languishing behind bars, because of his sense of hierarchy and loyalty to the ousted leader.
Aung San Suu Kyi is deservedly recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate leader of Myanmar, despite her fall from grace over her backing of the military during the slaughter of the Rohingya in 2017.
Her ability to carry an audience was formidable and her cult of personality well documented, but her days as Myanmar’s savior are over. There’s just not that much she can do.
Meanwhile, despite Duwa Lashi La granting some interviews to the international press, those around the acting president have proven barely competent when dealing with journalists outside their comfort zone. Disunity remains a persistent issue among the official 135 major ethnic groups and seven ethnic minority states that contribute to the opposition forces.
Latest estimates say the PDF has more than 65,000 troops serving in more than 250 units but there is no single command structure and it would be impossible for each ethnic group to negotiate military aid with countries like the U.S. on their own.
According to the Human Rights Foundation of Monland, a local NGO, much of the latest fighting has taken place in Karen and Mon states and in Tanintharyi Region, which border Thailand. It says the people in Karen State have been harshly impacted, which along with Mon State and the Tanintharyi Region, are being relentlessly and indiscriminately attacked by the junta.
“Destruction of property, including the burning of villages, is ongoing,” it said.
“Thousands more are being forced to flee their homes daily as military impunity and a lack of international action only encourage the junta to commit more atrocity crimes.”
Thus the NUG leadership desperately needs to step up or move on, more so with Indonesia taking the helm of ASEAN for 2023. Jakarta has opened up the prospect of direct negotiations with the NUG, and hopefully, put an end to the dithering and silly political theatrics of the last two years.
The shift in direction matters with the military looking to shore up its legitimacy through rigged, stage-managed elections, which the U.N. special rapporteur for Myanmar, Tom Andrews, has already described as fake because “these are not the conditions for a free and fair election.”
“These are conditions for a fraud that is going to be attempted to be perpetrated against the people of Myanmar,” he quite rightly said. Hence, the NUG needs to get its political act together.
An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that Duwa Lashi La, the acting president of the National Unity Government (NUG) does not speak English