August 11, 2023

Can the NUG reform itself?

Frontier Myanmar

While the National Unity Government has scored some impressive achievements and continues to enjoy widespread support in Myanmar, many would like to see internal reforms or a cabinet reshuffle, but institutional deadlocks make that unlikely.


“Nu Gyi is coming, Nu Gyi is coming to make the people happy,” rings out pre-recorded lyrics from loudspeakers as a man dances before a lively crowd.

The performer is wearing a gaung baung, a traditional headwrap worn by elected parliamentarians, many of whom were imprisoned or forced into hiding after the 2021 military coup.

“Support the campaign, support the project, but if there are any problems, don’t say anything!” the song continues.

The performance by the Peacock Generation Anyar troupe was in Tabayin Township in Sagaing Region, within the arid central region known as Anyar, where anti-junta armed groups known as People’s Defence Forces have become particularly strong. It was a thangyat, a traditional Myanmar performance held during the Thingyan new year celebrations in April that typically lampoons authorities.

While other Peacock Generation performers in Yangon had been previously jailed for mocking the military, this group was trolling the National Unity Government. Nicknamed “Nu Gyi”, the NUG is a parallel cabinet appointed by lawmakers deposed in the coup.

Despite the NUG enjoying broad support in Sagaing and much of Myanmar, the performance was well-received by locals in the crowd and internet users. A video of the performance racked up 33,000 likes on Facebook. Although likely intended as good-natured mockery, Sagaing-based activist Ma Su Htet* said it spoke to a growing sense of frustration.

“To tell the truth, some people on the ground see some things the NUG says as a joke,” said Su Htet, who lives in Yinmabin Township, another PDF stronghold. “People working on the ground are sometimes frustrated with the NUG. That’s why many people liked that video.”

The NUG was appointed in April 2021, around two months after the military overthrew the elected National League for Democracy. Widely viewed by the people of Myanmar as the legitimate government, it has managed to survive in extremely difficult circumstances, serving as a focal point for fundraising and organising armed resistance to military rule.

But more than two years since its formation, even committed supporters are increasingly calling for it to reform.

“I’m a die-hard supporter of the NUG in this revolution. But I think it would be better if the leaders change in some positions,” said Ko Kyaw Min*, a resident of Mandalay Region. He said every month he donates K100,000 (nearly US$50) to PDFs under the NUG’s command.

“I feel that the people who lead some ministries are not the right people in the right position,” Ko Kyaw Min said.

He said people were patient with the NUG in the beginning and avoided criticism because they didn’t want to undermine it, but now their expectations are higher.

“At first they had limited resources but now it’s been over two years,” he said.

Despite the growing demand for it, there are many obstacles to a leadership shake-up in the NUG.

With so many prominent political figures in prison, there is a limited pool to draw from. State counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and president U Win Myint were symbolically reappointed to the same roles in the NUG despite being behind bars, but in their absence it’s not clear who has the authority to deliver a cabinet reshuffle.

The NUG is also something of a coalition government, with roles given to prominent representatives of influential ethnic armed groups or political parties. That makes it one of the most inclusive administrations in the country’s history, but it also means any changes in personnel could upset delicate and crucial alliances.

Most alarmingly, some prominent figures appear to have blurred the lines between forging relations between armed groups loyal to the NUG and forming their own private armies.

Accomplishments but mounting frustration

The NUG has achieved diplomatic breakthroughs that most other parallel or exile governments could only dream of.

Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations has aligned himself with the NUG, which has the added benefit of effectively blocking the military junta from the world’s highest intergovernmental body.

The regime has also been excluded from high-level ASEAN summits, while the NUG’s foreign minister Daw Zin Mar Aung has publicly met with a number of prominent international government figures. This includes the United States Deputy Secretary of State Ms Wendy Sherman, the foreign ministers of Malaysia and Indonesia, the foreign secretary of the United Kingdom and most recently the president and prime minister of Timor-Leste.

The group has also served as a rallying point for the diaspora and domestic donors, raising $44 million for its defence ministry alone in its first 14 months in existence.

Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations U Kyaw Moe Tun gives the three-finger salute favoured by anti-coup protesters while he addresses an informal meeting of the UN General Assembly on February 26, 2021 in New York. (AFP)

Perhaps most importantly, the NUG has been remarkably successful at winning support from the general public – far more so than the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, a similar body set up after the military refused to recognise the results of the 1990 election, which the NLD also won in a landslide.

Many young people similarly joined pro-democracy armed groups in that period, most notably the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, but they never saw anything close to the battlefield successes of today’s post-coup uprising.

Virtually everyone Frontier interviewed supported the NUG’s role, but also expressed a variety of criticisms and disappointments.

“We appreciate the NUG’s foreign affairs efforts and that the People’s Defence Forces have dominated in Sagaing and Magway regions,” said Ko Moe Thway, the prominent co-founder of activist group Generation Wave.

He also praised the NUG for establishing alliances with ethnic armed organisations. The trust it has built with marginalised groups is well beyond anything achieved by the NLD, either during its term in government before the coup or as Myanmar’s dominant opposition party.

“However, people are also starting to criticise the NUG’s weak points,” Moe Thway said.

For instance, some sources criticised the NUG’s education ministry for urging families in a May 28 Facebook post not to “kneel down and surrender” by returning their children to regime-run schools, following a boycott that has gradually waned since the coup. Although the post received some approval, it also attracted many comments from parents complaining that they had little choice but to re-enroll their kids.

“We can’t rely on the [NUG’s] Ministry of Education,” said Ma Watha*, a striking university teacher. “Many children and youth joined the strike and boycotted the military’s education system. But the NUG can’t support a good alternative for them.”

While the NUG has accredited online schools for those participating in the boycott, there have been some serious problems. In some instances, there were security breaches leading to the arrests of students and teachers. In others, people running NUG-accredited schools were accused of stealing funds.

“They could not store the privacy data of the students securely. It was very disappointing,” said Ko Zaw Min Thu*, an executive member of the University of Yangon Students’ Union. “These cases were very bad. People lost trust in the NUG’s schools.”

Multiple activists criticised the fact that Dr Zaw Wai Soe serves as both the education and health minister, and often talks publicly about military affairs, saying he should stay focused on healthcare and somebody else should head the education ministry.

A gap on the ground

Ko Thaw Zin*, a 32-year-old member of an NUG donor group based in Yangon, said it was only natural that he’d support the NUG.

“Before the military coup, I voted for the NLD in the election,” he said, referring to the November 2020 vote that the party won in a landslide, prompting the military to seize power three months later under the spurious pretext of electoral fraud. “After the military coup, we had to support the NUG, which appeared from the result of our votes.”

However, on May 6, the NUG’s legislative counterpart the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw made an announcement that left Thaw Zin and many others puzzled and annoyed. The statement said the CRPH and NUG’s ministry of electricity had discussed asking members of the public to apply for permission to install private electric transformers and household meters.

“I was very surprised when I saw the news,” Thaw Zin said. “There’s no reason for us to apply for permission to install our own transformer.”

The announcement caused a stir on social media, where some people even mocked the NUG.

“We have no idea when NUG got a power plant,” Moe Thway said to Frontier. “It looks like they’re joking.”

At the core of the problem is that the NUG styles itself as the legitimate government of Myanmar but struggles to actually provide public services or protect citizens on the ground. Many of its ministers are abroad and those that are in the country have limited ability to travel. They are usually confined to the territories of powerful ethnic armed groups – like the Kachin Independence Army’s Laiza headquarters – which have longstanding parallel governance structures completely independent of the NUG.

Local administrations in PDF strongholds, like Sagaing and Magway regions, are largely subordinate to PDFs, meaning there is little civilian oversight of the various armed groups. This has led to a rise on criminal activity linked to PDFs and NUG local administrators – including sexual assault, illegal logging and gambling dens.

“There is a great space between the NUG and their people on the ground. I think it wouldn’t even matter if the ministers changed,” said Su Htet, the Sagaing-based activist.

As an example, she pointed to PDFs committing human rights abuses in Sagaing with impunity, including rapes and murders. “If we submit a complaint to the NUG to take action, nothing will happen,” she said.

While many PDFs are under an NUG chain of command in theory, in practice they operate with a large degree of autonomy, and the NUG has repeatedly proven unable or unwilling to control them.

A spokesperson for the NUG did not comment despite repeated attempts by Frontier since last month.

Moe Thway said it’s not clear who is evaluating the NUG’s performance or who has the authority to make changes in policy. According to the Federal Democracy Charter, which acts as an interim constitution, the highest-ranking person not in prison is Prime Minister Mahn Win Khaing Than. But with Vice-President Duwa Lashi La now serving as “acting president”, he may outrank him.

“We don’t know who has the main responsibility to make changes,” Moe Thway said.

The return of pocket armies?

Myanmar politics in the 1950s was defined by the rise of pocket armies – personal militias loyal to prominent politicians or businessmen. “They were used as personal security forces by politicians, and they engaged in violence and intimidation,” said the seminal 2016 Asia Foundation report on militias in Myanmar.

With hundreds of newly formed armed groups across Myanmar since the coup, this phenomenon risks returning and would make it harder for the NUG to reform itself. If some of its leaders go, they could take whole groups of armed men with them.

Ko Min Khant*, an official in the NUG’s defence ministry, said the parallel government is wary of making changes that could disrupt its efforts to overthrow the military.

“The armed struggle is accelerating so the NUG can’t suddenly change their government,” he said. The ministries of defence and home affairs are seen as especially untouchable, because they oversee the PDFs and police.

People’s Defence Force fighters take part in training at a camp in Kayin State on October 6, 2021. (AFP)

But some sources indicated there’s another reason why home affairs minister U Lwin Ko Latt in particular is above reproach.

Ko Kyaw Swar Oo*, an activist and resistance fighter living in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, said it’s well known that the Special Operation Force in the NUG’s Southern Command is personally loyal to the minister. This claim was repeated by another resistance fighter in Kayin State and a fundraiser for PDFs with personal links to NUG staff.

The SOF is under the home affairs rather than defence ministry, despite being a sniper and commando military unit rather than a police force.

“We understand this SOF group is loyal to Lwin Ko Latt,” Kyaw Swar Oo said. “So, the minister has a private armed force. If NUG sacks [him], his loyal armed force will go with him,” he warned. “I think it’s a mess.”

Meanwhile, critics say Lwin Ko Latt’s preoccupation with military affairs is distracting him from his core duties as home minister. “The minister needs to oversee police and administrative affairs, but instead we see him going to the frontlines,” said a member of the Women Alliance Burma in Sagaing who asked to remain anonymous.

She said instead, Lwin Ko Latt should be focused on training newly formed police forces to understand their duties and act professionally. NUG police in Magway Region were recently accused of repeatedly raping a woman they had detained for alleged theft.

Frontier requested an interview with the home ministry but it did not respond.

Multiple activists on the ground said lower-ranking NUG officials also have private armies in places like Sagaing and Magway regions.

“It starts from PDF groups building good relations with the NUG’s township administration officials in order to easily get weapons from them. Then those officials with loyal armed forces begin to build their influence across the region, and it becomes very difficult for other township officials to take action,” explained Su Htet from Sagaing.

NUG defence ministry official Min Khant denied that this is the case. “PDFs are loyal to the people, not any one minister,” he said.

But he did acknowledge that building relationships with armed forces on the ground, as well as other important groups, is a key part of the process and can’t be easily replicated with a new minister.

“Ministers have connections with revolutionary groups, ethnic armed groups, fundraising programmes and the international community. So, if we replace a minister, it will be like starting over from scratch,” Min Khant said.

Security breaches and delicate alliances

Many cabinet members were also seemingly appointed to shore up the NUG’s relationship with influential ethnic armed groups, which many PDFs are dependent on for weapons, training and support. Often based in Myanmar’s mountainous borderlands, these groups have far more combat experience, established territory and access to weapons.

The NLD was routinely criticised for failing to pursue genuine federal reform while in power, and multiple ethnic armed groups accused the party of taking the military’s side. The outreach to ethnic groups was therefore politically necessary to get them on board with the armed uprising, but has also made the NUG far more inclusive than the NLD.

The minister of federal affairs, for example, is Dr Lian Hmung Sakhong, who serves simultaneously as vice-chair of the Chin National Front, an ethnic armed group formally allied to the NUG. His deputy, Mai Win Htoo, previously served as general secretary of the Ta’ang National Party. The TNP has informal ties with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, a powerful armed group in Shan State that has helped train and arm some NUG-aligned groups, including the Mandalay PDF.

The deputy minister for home affairs, Khu Hte Bu, is a senior member of the Karenni National Progressive Party, a veteran armed group in Kayah State that has also fought alongside PDFs there.

“Including those members in the NUG shows our commitment to federal democracy,” said Min Khant from the defence ministry. “It also helps build alliances with other revolutionary groups and ethnic armed groups.”

He acknowledged that if any of those positions were to change, the NUG would need to first discuss this with the ethnic armed groups and the National Unity Consultative Council, an advisory body that includes civil society and armed groups.

“If the NUG changed those ministers’ positions without consulting other groups, it would hurt their relationship with ethnic groups and activists,” he said. “It would not be good for the revolution. This is one of the barriers to changing the cabinet… Now we’ve reached an important period and the NUG needs to be careful.”

Min Khant said members of the cabinet were all carefully vetted and selected because they are trustworthy, which makes them more difficult to replace. He also said there’d be an inherent risk in firing a minister.

“If a minister or important person was expelled from the NUG, they could spread internal information,” he said. “Leaking inside information would be very risky to all of us. I don’t think any minister would do this, but if it did happen, what would we do?”

But activists like Moe Thway find these arguments unconvincing.

“If they have ministers with poor performance, they need to be removed,” he said, claiming this is the “democratic” way.

“The NUG is important for the future of our country. So, if the people want a cabinet member to change, they should change.”

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