The trite appeal to “follow the money” masks a broader truth that power follows money. A low-resolution sweep of the situation in Myanmar finds that so much of it is a question of finances. Can Western sanctions impoverish the junta enough to stymie its barbarism? Can resistance forces survive to fully undermine the junta’s critical vulnerability, the economy? And can ASEAN really claim to serve as a neutral arbitrator when its member states are amongst Myanmar’s main investors and when Southeast Asian ministers pressure junta officials to improve bilateral trade in meetings ostensibly convened to discuss a peace?
Yet the opposition National Unity Government (NUG) is also presented with something of a financial chicken-or-egg situation. On the one hand, Western democracies remain wary of offering it greater recognition and resources because – one primary reason amongst others – it doesn’t command the loyalty of much of the anti-junta resistance, from the civilian People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) to the country’s numerous ethnic armed organizations (EAOs).
On the other hand, by denying the NUG recognition and, more importantly, money, Western governments are also denying it the simplest means by which it could get the disparate resistance movement on board. And, in fact, the lack of a single entity that hands out the funds in return for fidelity increases that splintering. It’s difficult to see how the NUG could get to the position that the West wants it to be in if those Western governments continue to deny the NUG the financial resources necessary to achieve it.
Indeed, your columnist was told by one Western diplomat that the NUG needs to convene a Yalta-like conference of “all relevant opposition stakeholders, who lock themselves up for three days somewhere and then emerge with a realistic plan of action alternative to the [junta’s] plan.” How the NUG would entice most of this fractious bunch, if not with the promise of considerable financial patronage, is hard to imagine. Yet think of how many revolutionary organizations become primus inter pares in disparate movements because they out-finance the rest.
The NUG’s coffers are (justifiably) murky. Yet most conversations with NUG officials will feature some complaints about money. It’s believed the NUG could afford to open a liaison office in Washington last month because of certain financial support, yet efforts to open similar offices in Brussels and Berlin are running aground because of money. At home, greater financial acumen would turn the tide. It would not only be able to pay for more defectors from the military ranks; and defectors – who often demand considerable sums for their entire family to flee the country – not only deplete the military’s forces but also bring with them useful intelligence.
A more sizable purse would also mean the NUG could provide actual equipment and weapons to the PDFs. More importantly, a wealthy NUG would turn the heads of the ethnic armed groups. Some are still unsure about its intentions; others seem content to go along with the junta’s planned election later this year if it earns them greater political power and more revenue.
A wealthy NUG, then, would be a tempting proposition; a few hundred million dollars, back-of-the-sofa sums for the Americans or Europeans, would be a game changer. What are the chances of that? Quite slim, it seems. The NUG isn’t even fortunate enough yet to be in Kyiv’s position where escalating commitments are followed through at a glacial pace but at least are flowing. Nonetheless, on December 23, President Joe Biden signed a military spending bill that sneaked in a modified version of the Burma Unified through Rigorous Military Accountability (BURMA) Act. Amid its provisions, it allows for the appropriation of funds by the U.S. government for “programs to strengthen federalism in and among ethnic states in Burma, including for non-lethal assistance for Ethnic Armed Organizations in Burma.” Financial assistance could also be found for “efforts to establish an inclusive and representative democracy in Burma,” as well as for “technical and non-lethal support” for the EAOs, PDFs, and “pro-democracy movement organizations.”
Michael Martin of the Center for Strategic and International Studies – who admittedly opined last month that “the provisions of the BURMA Act…[are] unlikely to result in major changes in U.S. policy in Myanmar” – noted that authorization of “non-lethal assistance” provides Washington a liberal interpretation of military aid. “In Syria and Ukraine,” he wrote, “‘non-lethal assistance’ allowed the provision of uniforms, protective armor, armored military vehicles, radar equipment, and medical equipment and supplies.”
But this could cut two ways. On the one hand, the BURMA Act allows the U.S. to provide the EAOs and PDFs with “non-lethal assistance,” whereas the Biden administration has typically steered away from direct dealings with such groups, preferring (limited) engagement with the NUG. Should U.S. money begin to flow directly to those groups, rather than to the NUG, the shadow government would find itself ever more isolated. Why would they need to listen to the NUG – which many PDFs and ethnic militia regard as stuck to the politics of the ousted Aung San Suu Kyi regime and still clinging to “civil disobedience” when outright violent rebellion is needed – if they had a more direct source of money from the West? On the other hand, the BURMA Act states that assistance can go to “pro-democracy movement organizations,” which presumably means the NUG, so it could be the primary conduit for such assistance.
One isn’t necessarily talking about weapons, although, as noted, “non-lethal assistance” is a rather broad category. Money is needed to bribe and cajole. Imagine how many more military defectors the NUG could entice if the shadow government had ample bags of cash. It needs money to support schools, hospitals, and the wider society in areas ostensibly under its control. PDFs and ethnic armed groups would be more clientelist if they had a wealthier patron. And if the NUG is genuine about a federal system, it needs some preparation on how to distribute funds to the country’s peripheries.