The National Unity Government’s declaration of a “people’s defensive war” has raised a host of political and ethical questions. Southeast Asian and Western countries have urged all sides in Myanmar to refrain from violence and allow in humanitarian aid, after the country’s shadow government declared a nationwide uprising against the junta that took power in February. On Tuesday, the National Unity Government (NUG), which was formed in April to resist the junta’s rule and compete with it for international recognition, declared a “people’s defensive war” to oust the “military terrorists” now ruling in Naypyidaw.
In a video message, the NUG’s acting president Duwa Lashi La called on Myanmar’s raft of ethnic groups to “immediately attack” the military, while ordering People’s Defense Force (PDF) militias to “target to control the military junta and its assets” in their respective areas. He also called for soldiers, police, and civil servants to cease working for the junta and swell the ranks of the anti-coup resistance.
The call to armed conflict, which was greeted enthusiastically on social media, has prompted consternation from international organizations and foreign governments. In a statement yesterday, the Special Advisory Council on Myanmar (SAC-M), a panel of international experts, said that it understood “the NUG and the people’s frustration after seven months of brutality by the junta and inaction by the international community.” At the same time, it said the escalation was “unfortunate.”
“Violence is the cause of the suffering of the people of Myanmar, it is not the solution,” SAC-N’s Chris Sidoti said in the statement. “We empathize with the NUG, but we fear for what will happen as a result of this decision.” In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price noted the declaration of a “people’s defensive war” but called for peace to allow the aid and medicine delivery. “The United States does not condone violence as a solution to the current crisis… and calls on all sides to remain peaceful,” Price said.
Similarly, the United Kingdom’s Ambassador to Myanmar Pete Vowles condemned the junta’s brutality, but encouraged “all parties to engage in dialogue,” while Indonesian foreign ministry spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah said that “all parties must prioritize the safety and well-being of the Myanmar people,” noting that security was necessary for humanitarian assistance to proceed.
The resort to a “defensive war” was probably inevitable, and in many ways merely formalizes the situation that has existed in Myanmar for months. The junta has shown no interest in peaceful dialogue. It has declared the NUG and its armed wing, the PDF, to be “terrorist” organizations, and has killed more than 1,000 people resisting the coup. Meanwhile, for all the condemnations that have issued from foreign capitals, the outside world has been unwilling or unable to do more to prevent the military from consolidating its coup. There is thus a strong argument that intensified armed struggle is the only way forward for the resistance. “How can you talk with someone who wants to kill you or make you kneel to them? It‘ll never be an equal dialogue,” one Myanmar activist commented on Twitter. “A history of long ongoing civil wars show us how far negotiation attempts only take us.”
At the same time, the NUG’s resort to armed struggle raises a host of ethical and practical complications. When the PDF was established in May, the shadow government released a military code of conduct stating that its forces “must not threaten, target or attack civilians” or target places where civilians might be located. The purpose of the code was clear: to distinguish itself from the Tatmadaw and its legacy of indiscriminate brutality, and to tackle the culture of impunity that many believe has perpetuated Myanmar’s cycles of conflict.
In the heat and confusion of war, however, it is unclear whether the lines are so clear-cut. It is hard to see the NUG’s declaration of war not being taken as a tacit encouragement for civilian fighters to ramp up targeted assassinations of junta officials and civilians perceived to be collaborating with the Tatmadaw, something that will almost certainly claim civilian casualties.
The PDF also lacks direct or effective command over the many civilian militias that have sprung up in the seven months since the coup, raising doubts about whether it can hold them to its code of conduct. As one Myanmar Twitter user rightly commented, if the NUG fails to hold its own side accountable for war crimes, “we’ll not be fully liberated & the culture of impunity will continue.”
The ethical conundrum was highlighted in an interesting report published today by the long-form journalism outlet New Naratif. The article, by the Myanmar-American journalist Aye Min Thant, revealed that Dr. Sasa, an important member of the NUG, took part in June in an online seminar with an American gun aficionado named Marc Andre LeQuieu. During the webinar, LeQuieu, “an American hunter and self-described machinist,” taught a gathering of Myanmar anti-coup activists to make crude pipe bombs and mortars – indiscriminate weapons that could kill or maim civilians as well as soldiers.
Aye Min Thant concluded that Dr. Sasa’s presence at the weapons-making webinar “raises questions about how the shadow government intends to balance its ‘people’s defensive war’ against the junta with its ongoing struggle for democratic legitimacy.” They also suggested that the desire to pursue a violent struggle is a minority position within the broader anti-coup movement, which has also been marked by labor mobilizations and mass public sector strikes.
Ethical questions to one side, an escalation of the struggle will also narrow the NUG’s political options; its declaration of war could well complicate or doom its already slim chances of gaining international recognition by foreign governments. Finally, the justness of a cause is no guarantee of its success. Leaving aside the fissiparous nature of the civilian resistance to the junta, it is unclear whether Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups, each driven by its own goals and interests, will ultimately participate in the nationwide uprising.
The hard truth is that the military is unlikely to collapse at the first sign of violent challenge. Indeed, its history suggests that it will respond with overwhelming force. The result could be “a more intensive and protracted civil war where attrition through carnage marks what could pass for triumph,” longtime Myanmar watcher David Scott Mathieson wrote earlier this week. But, he added, “A Pyrrhic win over a wasteland is no victory.”