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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar shadow government reaps diplomatic harvest

Group gaining allies ahead of UN meeting, says group's foreign minister

The United Nations headquarters in New York and protesters in Yangon: Myanmar's military junta is battling the opposition for international recognition. (Source photos by Getty Images)

BANGKOK -- Myanmar's parallel National Unity Government is pressing the world's democracies to support its battle with the military regime to take control of the country’s U.N. seat.

The opposition has pursued international recognition since the military regime overthrew the democratically elected government in February. The regime has also raised the stakes in this showdown during this month's 76th U.N. General Assembly, where the world body's Credentials Committee, made up of nine countries, will decide who will occupy Myanmar's U.N. seat. The choice is between the Myanmar opposition group's nominee and the military regime's.

The shadow government is already reaping a diplomatic harvest, according to Zin Mar Aung, the group's foreign minister, who has led its international recognition drive from exile. The opposition is engaged with a growing list of Western and Asian countries, some of which have recognized its representatives. The group is also holding behind-the-scenes talks with government officials elsewhere.

The Czech Republic, France and Australia have recognized "our appointed representative in the country," Zin Mar Aung, a twice-elected parliamentarian, told Nikkei Asia in an exclusive interview from an undisclosed location. "We will continue appointing representatives in the U.K. and Japan to extend further cooperation and bilateral relations."

The U.S. and South Korean governments have also reached out to Myanmar's shadow government, as it builds a case globally that it is the legitimate representative of an elected government determined to restore democracy in Myanmar. The few briefings it has had with Washington were capped off by a meeting between Zin Mar Aung and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in early August. Days later, the South Korean president's office announced it will engage with the group "so that the Myanmar situation can be resolved in a direction that meets the aspirations of its people," according to a statement from Seoul.

Zin Mar Aung, foreign minister of Myanmar's parallel National Unity Government. (Photo courtesy of National Unity Government)

"Many Western government officials have reached out to talk," said the 46-year-old parliamentarian for the National League for Democracy, which won the November 2020 general elections in a landslide, granting it a second stint in government. "Even though we have opportunities to discuss and exchange, some countries prefer silent and backdoor diplomacy, and often times these meetings were confidential."

The opposition is using the military's harsh crackdown on opponents to bolster its case to the international community. The violence unleashed by the ruling generals has resulted in more than 1,000 deaths and thousands of detentions, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a local human rights group. Many of those targeted are civilians who joined the pro-democracy protests that swept the country after the military's power grab.

The shadow government's early diplomatic forays have also benefited from lobbying in foreign capitals by members of Myanmar's far-flung diaspora, many of whom had fled the country when it was under the grip of the previous military junta. "The diaspora community around the world has been helpful in lobbying foreign governments and amplifying the realities on the ground," Zin Mar Aung said, singling out efforts in the Czech Republic, France, South Korea, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the U.S.

Bangkok-based diplomats confirmed the Myanmar opposition's work in their home capitals. "Some Western governments have met the NUG's representatives in different situations as a way to keep lines of communications open," a Western diplomat in Bangkok told Nikkei. "This is an important factor in resolving the crisis."

Aung San Suu Kyi, de facto leader of Myanmar's previous democratic government, addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September 2016.    © Reuters

Christine Schraner Burgener, the U.N. Special Envoy for Myanmar, has also given the shadow government a shot in the arm in her official engagements, urging members of the Security Council and the General Assembly to hear directly from elected Myanmar representatives about the deteriorating situation in the country. It is up to the member states and not the U.N. to "recognize governments," she said in a mid-August briefing to journalists in New York, touching on the politically sensitive issue of who represents Myanmar internationally.

According to senior U.N. sources, a growing number of countries at the U.N. support the Myanmar opposition as a critical voice in the pro-democracy movement that arose after the generals stepped in and crushed the NLD at the start of its second term in February. "Some have been more visible in their engagement and support to the NUG, while others have engaged quietly, to preserve space, mostly in terms of ensuring that aid can reach affected people," one U.N. source confirmed to Nikkei.

Such sustained engagement is a way for the shadow government to get around the international convention of countries only recognizing states, Zin Mar Aung concedes. The group has another disadvantage: It controls neither territory nor Myanmar as a state. "Continuous engagement is important, so foreign governments are aware of our policies, actions, and plans for the future," she said.

Ties with China, Myanmar's giant neighbor to the northeast and an influential player in Myanmar's politics, also matters, she acknowledges, touching on the opposition's diplomatic outreach to the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar and the Foreign Ministry in Beijing. "The NLD has also reached out to the Chinese Communist Party," she said. "We [have also urged] China to come to terms with the reality that the military junta does not control the country, and thus continues to inflict instability."

Protesters hide behind shields as they clash with riot police during a protest against the military coup in Yangon on March 1.   © Reuters

This is already paying diplomatic dividends. The NLD was invited by the Communist Party this week to join a virtual meeting of political parties in South Asia and Southeast Asia that it is hosting. The nod from Beijing has complicated the military regime's plans to disband the NLD.

But a place for the Myanmar shadow government at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the 10-member regional bloc that is in the vanguard of efforts to resolve Myanmar's increasingly bloody crisis, remains elusive. The group's frustration with ASEAN has begun to show in the wake of the bloc's official meetings, which have highlighted ASEAN's image as a club of government leaders, rather than their citizens.

"NUG sent a letter to the ASEAN special envoy [to show] our willingness to engage with the regional association," said Zin Mar Aung of the NUG's efforts to engage with Brunei's Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof, the newly appointed ASEAN special envoy for Myanmar. "We are ready to talk."

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