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Democratic states should recognize Myanmar's National Unity Government

International support would test ASEAN's commitment to resolving the crisis

| Myanmar
Protesters release balloons during the welcoming NUG campaign in Yangon on Apr. 17: many people in Myanmar support the NUG.   © AP

Fuadi Pitsuwan is a pre-doctoral fellow at the School of Public Policy in Thailand's Chiang Mai University and a son of the late Surin Pitsuwan, former ASEAN secretary-general (2008-13). Kyaw Hsan Hlaing is a researcher and independent journalist from Myanmar's Rakhine State.

Just days after Myanmar's junta chief met leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Jakarta and agreed to their call to halt violence in the country, reports of fatal attacks on at least six protesters indicate that security forces are still targeting civilians. Clearly, this is a rebuff of ASEAN's modest five-point proposal for a peaceful solution to Myanmar's crisis. It also adds urgency to the crucial question of who holds legitimate political authority in Naypyitaw.

In mid-April, the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, a body of elected lawmakers from the ousted civilian government, announced the cabinet lineup of their new National Unity Government, in a direct challenge to the generals who seized power on Feb. 1.

With mass protests in the streets of towns and cities throughout the country and most government workers on strike, it is clear that the people of Myanmar support the NUG, many of whose members are either in exile, in hiding or, in the case of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, under house arrest. The formation of the NUG, with its diversity of ages, ethnicities and gender, not only challenges the junta but also heralds a new era: The CRPH had earlier agreed to abolish the military-drafted 2008 constitution, replacing it with a federal democratic system.

The NUG is already operating with some international legitimacy. For example, its representative attended an informal gathering of United Nations Security Council members in early April. And reports this week indicate that U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is considering inviting the group to observe the Group of Seven summit to be held in the U.K. in June.

By contrast, the ASEAN summit proved a disappointment to the people of Myanmar. The NUG sought to send a representative, but coup leader Min Aung Hlaing was the only party to the conflict invited, inadvertently shoring up his legitimacy through state-sponsored propaganda. Worse still, the NUG's demand for the release of political prisoners was dropped from the ASEAN peace plan, which calls for dialogue and a peaceful solution but lacks a timeline for implementation.

Protesters hold a banner as they march on a street in Yangon on Apr. 24: the ASEAN summit proved a disappointment to the people of Myanmar.   © AP

It may seem far-fetched to suggest that ASEAN leaders will recognize the NUG in the near future, mainly because of the organization's long tradition -- based on the self-serving principle of noninterference -- of legitimizing military authority whenever a coup takes place in an ASEAN country.

But we hope that leaders of democratic countries who have already spoken out against the junta, including the U.S., Japan, Australia, New Zealand and various European states, will endorse the NUG as the rightful government. Indeed, to many observers, this is a moral obligation for any nation that considers itself part of the free world. It is also justified under the U.N.'s Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, principle, which legitimizes intervention in the domestic affairs of states to prevent crimes against humanity. Recognizing the NUG would be a step toward such an intervention.

Legitimizing this body would send the right message to the junta. It would also incentivize ASEAN leaders to engage the NUG and test their commitment to carry out the steps laid out in their statement. Furthermore, it would empower the NUG to work with leaders of the international community to begin the immense work of establishing the foundations of a new society.

At the very least, there should be a formal, public meeting between-a key NUG representative, such as Dr. Sasa, the body's minister of international cooperation, and the U.N. permanent representatives of nations that have expressed support. Such a step would put pressure on ASEAN envoys to the U.N. to follow suit.

If nations and international bodies start recognizing the legitimacy of the NUG, ASEAN leaders would be put on the defensive. But if they are diplomatically astute, they could preempt this shift in the international community's stance by acting quickly on the promises in ASEAN's five-point plan and find ways to hold the junta accountable for its crimes against humanity, which have already cost more than 750 civilian lives and resulted in more than 4,500 arrests.

In three staggering months, Myanmar has become a failed state. The health care system has stopped functioning, and economic activity has been brought close to a halt because of widespread strikes. Furthermore, most civil servants, and even some defectors from the security forces, have pledged allegiance to the NUG. Despite the summit, there is also a real danger that civil war -- already flaring up again in the country's border areas -- could spread. That risk could be mitigated if democratic nations work in conjunction with the NUG, which has the support of ethnic armed groups as well as a popular mandate, while ASEAN countries continue to engage in dialogue with the junta.

Accelerating this process demands that a democratic leader such as U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, or New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern takes the lead. As the U.S. starts to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis -- and with both Australia and New Zealand regarded as global role models for their handling of the pandemic -- these countries can do more than just issuing tough statements.

Unequivocal recognition of the NUG by these democratic states could nudge ASEAN into giving real hope to the people of Myanmar. The free nations of the world should also remember that the coup-making process is not yet complete. They can help to ensure that it never is.

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