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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar 'parallel government' pressures junta ahead of ASEAN meeting

Creation of National Unity Government highlights diplomatic dilemmas

People march in support of the National Unity Government in Dawei, Myanmar, on April 18. The NUG presents itself as a shadow government in opposition to the junta that staged the coup on Feb. 1.   © Reuters

BANGKOK/YANGON -- The formation by Myanmar's anti-coup movement of a "National Unity government" (NUG) led by elected lawmakers from the National League for Democracy has further challenged the military regime's claim of legitimacy and deepened the dilemma facing the international community over how to respond to the crisis in the country.

Deposed leader State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint -- both under arrest and facing a variety of charges brought by the junta -- maintained their positions in the NUG, which presents itself as a shadow government. The rest of the 27-member body, which includes 15 "cabinet" portfolios and 12 deputy ministers, brings together parliamentarians, technocrats, civil society leaders, ethnic representatives and activists in a body that one Yangon-based diplomat described as "the most diverse and inclusive political body the country has seen."

Major ethnic minorities, including representatives of the Kachin and Karen, two groups whose armed forces have been actively fighting Myanmar's military since the coup, are among those named to the NUG. The decision to give them leading positions could galvanize support for the anti-coup resistance among ethnic communities.

"Under the circumstances the elected government is making a great start," said Kim Joliffe, an independent analyst of Myanmar politics. "They are building a coalition that has the capacity to take power ... while under extreme threats and pressure."

The composition of cabinet members in the parallel government stands in stark contrast to members of the junta, who call themselves the State Administration Council. Made up of military leaders, ministers from president Thein Sein's administration in 2011-2016 and politicians who fell out with Suu Kyi's NLD, the junta struggles to run the government apparatus and has prioritized maintaining control over any semblance of governance.

The move to assemble a parallel government comes ahead of an emergency meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders, set for April 24 in Jakarta, to discuss the post-coup situation in Myanmar. The meeting highlights the dilemma the group faces over how far to engage with the junta, which has insisted the agenda does not focus on Myanmar but other regional issues.

Leaders from the 10 ASEAN states, including Myanmar's coup leader, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, are scheduled to attend the mini summit. Several ASEAN diplomats have expressed doubt that the junta chief would attend amid the rapid deterioration of the economy, escalating unrest and a brutal crackdown by security forces on civilians that has seen more than 740 people killed and at least 3,230 people detained since the Feb. 1 coup.

The meeting -- initiated by Indonesia with support from Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, the group's current chair -- has been described as a crucial test of ASEAN's unity and ability to mediate a crisis that has divided the bloc. Many critics have hit at ASEAN's inaction, and big powers, including the U.S. and China, have urged Southeast Asia to take the lead in mediating and resolving the crisis.

ASEAN officials privately confirmed to Nikkei Asia that the group is considering a proposal to send a humanitarian aid mission to Myanmar as a potential first step in a long-term plan to broker a dialogue between the junta and its opponents. They also said that some ASEAN members are likely to urge the junta chief to halt the killing and detention of civilians, and to provide space for emergency relief deliveries to "all sides" of the conflict.

But already, sharp differences are apparent between members over issues such as whether Myanmar's junta leader should have been invited to the meeting. While there is broad agreement on the need to urge the junta to halt the violence and permit ASEAN to coordinate delivery of humanitarian aid, several countries are understood to have called for tougher messages, including the unprecedented step of threatening Myanmar with suspension from ASEAN.

A key issue facing the regional group, as well as other governments and international organizations that have expressed alarm about the escalating violence, is whether and how to engage with the new National Unity Government. Regional diplomats told Nikkei there was "no chance" that ASEAN would recognize the body as a government in exile, but acknowledged that the move had added momentum to the anti-coup movement.

The concept of a National Unity Government was initiated by the Committee to Represent the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), which was formed shortly after the coup by NLD lawmakers elected in the November poll. In announcing the new body on Friday, the CRPH stated it would remain in charge of the legislative pillar, while the NUG would oversee the executive pillar. An institution in charge of the judiciary pillar would be formed soon, it added. The NLD won the November 2020 elections in a landslide victory that the coup leader claimed was fraudulent.

The reappointment of Suu Kyi and Win Myint to their existing positions as state counselor and president, respectively, may bolster the legitimacy of the parallel body, especially in the eyes of "naysayers" in China and Southeast Asian countries, said Jason Tower, Myanmar country director of the United States Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank.

States that are hesitant to engage the CRPH because it did not include the senior NLD leadership may now need to reevaluate this position, he noted. Tower highlighted concerns, also expressed by other analysts, about the absence of stakeholders in ethnic states such as Shan and Rakhine, the latter including both Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.

In terms of overall strategy for the summit, ASEAN should move quickly to familiarize itself with the new body, he added. "Given that the NUG has only just been announced, ASEAN states might do well to first establish strong contacts and lines of communication with the leaders before the summit. The key question is whether this can happen in time."

Min Aung Hlaing, meanwhile, "will certainly leverage his attendance to try to enhance his domestic standing," said Tower, adding that ASEAN urgently needed to consider how it approaches both sides. "An option for ASEAN states to manage this would be by putting out statements in advance that clearly state that they do not see him as representing a legitimate government, and that the summit is [being] held to respond to the regional crisis created on Feb. 1 by the army's actions."

For Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, establishing a parallel government means that the gap between the junta and the democracy movement "has been narrowed significantly."

The international community now has a dilemma, and ASEAN is in an even tighter spot as its Myanmar-focused summit approaches, he noted. "Clearly the coup is proving to be more complicated, certainly not a runaway fait accompli."

Like it or not, the NUG will increasingly become the focal point for the civil disobedience movement, international support and lobbying efforts, said a Bangkok-based Burmese investor. "So far, we have seen resistance activities. To gain more confidence, what investors need to see is their policies, particularly on the economic front, to get the country moving again," he said.

But regional hopes should not ride on ASEAN, he warned. "I have no hopes the group can influence anything. It is too split and, by the very nature of its construct, it is weak. ASEAN needs to issue a strong position and drive home to the regime that this behavior is unacceptable."

There is a long way to go for the parallel government to transform itself from an interim resistance movement into a body with executive powers, with broad-based support -- externally as well as within Myanmar, he said. "The reality is that the noble targets put forward by the NUG are complex -- easy to use as rallying cries but hard to execute. It suggests to me that this crisis is still in its infancy. As an investor, it doesn't entice us to consider reentry at some point. But then, it gives enough hope to keep supporting the cause."

To a Myanmar-focused Western business consultant, "the new parallel government shifts the needle a bit, but not much. They are like ants scratching the foot of an elephant."

"What concerns me is that the military is not changing gear at all," he said. "Of course [the NUG] have legitimacy, and that will help abroad, in the West especially. But alas, we are a long way from having a functioning shadow government with actual policies that would have actual impact. That's what we need to see."

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