Protesters hold signs supporting the National Unity Government (NUG) during a demonstration against the military coup in Taunggyi, Shan State, on May 2, 2021. / AFP
In Myanmar’s Spring Revolution against the military regime, it is indisputable that the civilian National Unity Government (NUG) has emerged as the main force driving the resistance – even though some might not like the parallel government.
As it confronts various challenges apart from the junta’s military crackdown, the NUG has also faced criticism from other forces and individuals.
The parallel government was formed on April 16 last year and is now over 19 months old. Its armed wing, the People’s Defense Forces (PDF), was formed just a month later in May.
The NUG differs from a political party formed by people with common political views and specific objectives.
It emerged as a political grouping entrusted by the people to lead the armed resistance against a junta using military violence against citizens who oppose the coup.
The NUG is focused on armed resistance and armaments. It called for the establishment of the PDF and was able to form armed groups at a basic level. It managed to bring together the scattered resistance forces. If we are to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the NUG, our focus should be on its armed wing, the PDF.
When the military seized power in February last year, people peacefully demanded that democracy be restored. But after their relatives and friends were brutally killed in the junta’s crackdown on peaceful protests, protesters took up whatever weapons were available to protect themselves and others, thereby leading to the birth of PDFs.
While some PDFs were directly formed by the NUG, others were formed independently by local people. Resistance groups can be broadly divided into PDFs, Local Defense Forces (LDFs), and People’s Defense Teams (PDTs). PDFs are the largest in number and are recognized by the NUG.
In other words, PDFs are local resistance groups operating in their own regions with recognition from the NUG, and are under the command of the NUG and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs).
EAOs have combat experience, having fought the Myanmar military either militarily or politically for decades. They have strong armies and large territories under their control. The Spring Revolution has seen the combination of experienced ethnic armed groups and novice PDFs.
LDFs are fighting a guerrilla war against the regime, outside the command of the NUG. PDTs are mainly intended for the protection and safety of local people. Generally speaking, PDFs are part of the revolutionary army, while LDFs and PDTs are local defense forces formed independently by residents to protect their communities.
Today, there are 221 PDF battalions under the command of the NUG across the country. If combined with battalions of Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF) and Chinland Defense Force (CDF), there are some 300 battalions nationwide. Some 63 PDF battalions are reportedly still waiting for recognition by the NUG’s Defense Ministry.
PDFs comprise roughly 65,000 members. About 25 percent of them have been armed like a regular army while some 40 percent have home-made guns.
Each PDF battalion has around 200 to 500 members, organized in sections, platoons, and companies according to the structure of a regular army.
The NUG estimates that there were around 401 LDFs as of April this year. LDFs outnumber PDFs and PDTs.
Though not under the command of the NUG or EAOs, some 354 LDFs cooperate with them informally.
Some 100 LDF groups have reportedly transformed into PDFs. LDFs vary in size, but it is estimated that there are some 30,000 LDF members. About 25 percent of LDFs have transformed into PDFs in the past six months.
Many of the LDFs are financially independent, and some are equipped and trained by powerful EAOs. LDFs are mainly engaged in landmine attacks, ambush and sneak attacks, and operations to hamper junta administrative functions in their regions.
PDTs were formed by the NUG to carry out guerrilla attacks in towns, help PDFs, rally people, provide logistical support, and offer basic military training for new resistance members.
According to the NUG, there are some 250 PDTs in 330 townships across Myanmar. Many of them were formed at village levels following last year’s coup, especially in the resistance strongholds of Sagaing and Magwe regions.
Formed as village-level units, PDTs also work together at township level. They are mainly equipped with home-made guns and are the basic foundation that connects communities with the national revolution.
Three Military Division Commands (MDCs) have been formed to command PDFs. Some 200 PDF battalions are under the command of MDC 1, which oversees operations in Kachin and Chin states and Sagaing, Magwe and Mandalay regions; some 50 PDF battalions are under the command of MDC 2 and 3, which oversee operations in Karen, Mon and Kayah (Karenni) states.
Resistance forces have reportedly set up some 70 workshops to manufacture weapons. The NUG Defense Ministry is also creating a war office to improve the chain of command. However, with only 60 percent of PDFs armed so far, much more needs to be done to arm the rest and supply ammunition.
Nevertheless, the NUG has basically formed and equipped an army to fight the defensive war it has declared against Myanmar’s military regime. This is the core strength of the NUG.
Yet despite being recognized by most people in Myanmar as the legitimate government, the NUG still cannot procure arms from any country through official channels. And no country has supplied arms to the NUG. Under such circumstances, the shadow government cannot arm some 60,000 PDF fighters quickly, though more weapons than expected were supplied as the NUG has spent a large proportion of its funds on armaments.
By comparison, it took 13 years for Rakhine State’s ethnic armed group, the Arakan Army, to form and equip its force of 30,000 troops. It also took some 13 years for the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army to revive and rearm after the fighting in 2009. And it took nearly 12 years for the Ta’ang National Liberation Army to raise an army of 8,000 troops.
Compared with those groups, the NUG has arguably done well in serving the popular armed revolt.
Another strength of the NUG is its capacity to generate funds for the resistance movement. It has developed innovative means, such as the Spring Lottery, bonds, sale of land plots and NUG-Pay, to raise funds.
It had raised US$55 million as of October this year, and some 4 billion kyats circulated during the trial run of NUG-Pay. Its administrative networks are also providing public services in PDF-controlled areas.
These achievements by the NUG have surprised local and international observers. The military regime found it had badly miscalculated when it failed to crush the resistance movement quickly and easily.
Its achievements have earned NUG wider recognition on the international stage. Meanwhile the military regime has been shunned by the United Nations and ASEAN. The recent ASEAN Summit recognized the need to engage with the NUG in resolving Myanmar’s crisis, which came as a serious blow to a regime that has declared the NUG and PDF as terrorist organizations.
A functioning army, financial flexibility and functioning administrative mechanisms are what make the NUG different from the shadow government of the post-1988 pro-democracy uprising, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma.
The NUG been criticized for failing to take proper care of striking civil servants, who formed the core of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), and defectors from the regime’s military and police. There is also criticism that some NUG leaders are disengaged from the situation on the ground, which is a typical shortcoming of organizations.
NUG has four serious weaknesses that it needs address urgently.
The first is giving false hope to the people; the second is military miscalculation; the third is unrealistic reliance on foreign intervention; and the fourth is differing political views among NUG members.
Politicians who later became members of the NUG and National Unity Consultative Council were offering false hope right at the beginning of anti-coup protests. They said the coup could be overturned if civil servants maintained their strike for one month, and that there would be foreign intervention under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) rule if the CDM lasted for two months.
Some of them continue to give false hopes even now, though people now understand that their personal views do not represent NUG policy.
The armed resistance is a marathon not a sprint. For a sprint you need strength, for a marathon you need perseverance. So, people need a strong mentality and resilience to fight. The NUG must act to prevent its ministers from giving false hopes.
The second weakness concerns military affairs. The enemy seems to have weakened, but its brutality has not. The NUG needs to learn from the folly of the Communist of Party of Burma, which planned to win its fight in two years. It is impossible to achieve this armed revolution in two years. Observers with extensive knowledge of Myanmar, like security analyst Anthony Davis, warn that a rushed transition from guerrilla to semi-conventional tactics could spell defeat for the NUG.
Some 25 percent of PDFs have been properly armed, and to arm the rest is a matter of utmost urgency, setting aside the need to supply them with ammunition.
We must remember that armed revolution needs systematic planning, and fantasies will not win the fight.
Third, the NUG should not hold unrealistic expectations about foreign intervention. The parallel government has recently won greater recognition from the international community and ASEAN thanks to the efforts of people and PDFs bravely fighting the regime.
Some NUG personnel said the greater recognition brought greater likelihood of foreign intervention under R2P. They should stop daydreaming. International recognition is the result of efforts made by people in the country. The NUG should therefore focus its efforts inside the country. Without this, it will not win international recognition.
The fourth weakness is political differences within the NUG. To reiterate: the NUG is not a political party. It is a grouping of political forces with different ideologies who have gathered together to bring down a military dictatorship and establish a federal Union.
It is a grouping of different ethnic and political groups that also have different interpretations of federalism. It comprises various groups that have taken up arms to implement their political objectives.
It is important for the NUG to settle its internal political differences. At present, it is impossible for the military regime to destroy the NUG politically or militarily. But the NUG may collapse if a consensus cannot be reached among members with different political ideologies.
So, it is key for the NUG to negotiate internally and build consensus among members on political issues, especially on federalism, to sustain its efforts over the long term and achieve victory.