The inner demons of Myanmar’s NUG – Asia Times

The inner demons of Myanmar's NUG - Asia Times

The recently enacted Military Service Law, announced on February 10, has further shaken an already rattled and exhausted Myanmar population. That’s especially true for young people who meet the criteria under the law for conscription and who could be forced to fight on the side of a war they don’t support.

The motivations for the move are like much of what passes for decision-making, a mixture of making it up and desperate measures, for a gradually losing military regime. Another compulsion is surely to create new opportunities for corruption by a capricious and complicit bureaucracy.

The new conscription law has been rightly condemned by the opposition National Unity Government (NUG) and its ostensible supervisory body the National Unity Consultative Committee (NUCC). Both organizations must now develop a series of practical policies to respond to what is already a surging exodus of military-aged young people fleeing into neighboring Thailand.

But the NUG also issued a deeply worrying statement on February 24 from its “Counter-Terrorism Center” of its shadow Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration (MOHAI), threatening punishment and prosecution under the 2014 Anti-Terrorism Law to anyone assisting in any way with the junta’s new conscription law.

The announcement, Notice 01/2024 (in Burmese, with no English version issued so far), claims that anyone assisting with the recruitment process would be prosecuted under Section 3, Subsection B and sections 13, 15 and 16 of the law, provisions that broadly ban acts deemed as terrorism or supporting terrorism.

The 2014 Anti-Terrorism Law was written with the assistance of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), an agency reflexively comfortable with assisting the repressive security system in Myanmar. Before the coup, only two armed groups were ever publically declared terrorist organizations under the law: the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and the Arakan Army (AA).

Since the coup, an unknown number of protesters, Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) followers and members of armed resistance forces, both ethnic armed organizations and anti-junta People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) have been charged and imprisoned under the law. In March 2023, the law was amended with even more expansive provisions making it easier to surveil suspected “terrorists.”

By now there is an uncontestable consensus that the biggest perpetrator of terrorist actions in Myanmar is the State Administration Council (SAC) junta, the Myanmar military and its multiple allies and proxies. From extra-judicial executions to torture to air strikes to arson to destruction of property to mass homicide to ethnic cleansing, there is no atrocity the SAC has not perpetrated.

The aftermath of a Myanmar military bombing of a Kachin internally displaced person camp, October 2023. Image: X Screengrab

The immolation of the Sagaing Region town of Kawlin, retaken by regime forces in recent days after a short period under the NUG’s administration, is the latest example of the terrorist mindset of the military.

So is the now ritualized pulverization of marketplaces that fall to resistance forces, with multiple towns in Rakhine state targeted for air and artillery strikes as the AA methodically liberates them from military occupation.

But is the use of a repressive counterterrorism law to ameliorate the impact of the conscription decree the right tool? Is fighting state terrorism by using the same terrorism law the SAC has been using to terrorize civilians really the best course of action? Is there not a worrying cognitive dissonance in effect at the NUG’s MOHAI?

Just days before this announcement, the NUG’s Ministry for Human Rights (MOHR) released an online complaints mechanism for people to report cases of forcible recruitment. This seems a far more practical use of that shadow ministry’s resources.

Other ministries could provide practical assistance for people to seek shelter in multiple liberated zones with EAOs and PDFs or financial assistance to obtain legal travel documents to leave Myanmar.

It’s not the first time the Myanmar anti-junta opposition has threatened people with prosecution under the law, with the NUCC issuing a warning in early 2023 that anyone getting involved with the planned SAC “nationwide” elections would be similarly prosecuted.

Yet there is a deeply muddled messaging at the top of the “revolutionary complex”, characterized by a clear lack of coordination and consistency.

In its response to the announcement of the conscription decree in early February, the Committee Representing the Pyithu Hluttaw (CRPH), the body of members of parliament elected in November 2020, reminded the public that it “has announced that people do not need to accept and follow any laws, orders and instructions for the citizens including the government officials made by the illegal military group as they all have no legal effect, with the statement (3/2021) on 11 February 2021.”

That is about the clearest section in the entire statement; the rest of the English version is largely incoherent. Strategic messaging remains non-existent in the NUG/NUCC/CRPH universe.

Nowhere does it appear that the CRPH considered the symbolic repeal of the 2014 Anti-Terrorism Law and the many other repressive laws the junta regime is using against nearly 20,000 political prisoners.

There are two concerns over the NUG/MOHAI statements: first, what effects will it have on EAO and PDF conduct in conflict zones, and second, what it suggests about the opposition’s commitment to human rights norms and accountability.

Members of the People’s Defense Forces (PDF) who have taken up arms against Myanmar’s military junta are seen on a front line in Kawkareik, Myanmar, December 31, 2021. Image: Twitter / Screengrab

The NUG’s bellicose statements can serve as radicalizing agents to armed groups on the ground. There may be well-founded concerns that a statement like this could be misused to target rivals or suspected informants.

But for a number of armed groups, this relative carte blanche has already taken hold. In particular, there are growing numbers of atrocities being perpetrated by NUG-backed PDFs.

The Myanmar Now news agency recently reported on a harrowing series of extrajudicial executions near Dawei in Tanintharyi Region. Over several months, the Launglon PDF has executed 16 civilians, including a 64-year-old Buddhist nun, who they suspected of being military informants, the report said.

The role of the international community in providing the NUG free rein to issue declarations such as this without censure also needs to be considered. How does this reflect on the significant foreign assistance going to the resistance in the form of funding and advice on everything from conflict analysis, governance, administration, police reform and investment laws?  

If Western-funded advisors were having such a productive and profound impact, the NUG, NUCC and CRPH would be more effective than they are currently and not as subjected to widespread and sustained criticism amongst many Myanmar people.

These groups may be necessary but they could also be much more effective. An advisor from Myanmar or another country who was actually being listened to could have volunteered that threatening people with anti-terrorism charges whilst they live under threat of the SAC charging them under the same law raises a hazardous moral equivalence.

As Professor Ben Saul, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, said in a recent statement, “(p)rotecting human rights in criminal justice responses to terrorism is not only necessary to safeguard the dignity of accused persons…It ensures law enforcement officials are accountable for their conduct, and are thus more disciplined and focused in combating to terrorism.”

Failing to speak out forcefully against obvious breaches of human rights norms not only betrays the victim but bolsters the perpetrator and solidifies systems of control.

This is why people in Myanmar should expect strong condemnation from the United States Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews, the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) and major independent human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Key Western donors who finance support projects for the NUG, NUCC and CRPH must speak up and insist that the “legitimate” opposition must commit to the highest standards of international humanitarian law and human rights law. Left unattended, this culture of threat could curdle into retributive cycles of violence that imperil ultimate victory. It could also jeopardize post-military transitional justice.

The relative silence over the MOHAI’s statement indicates a culture of censorship that surrounds the NUG: that any questioning, regardless of how well-intentioned, informed and principled it may be, is reflexively denounced as “counter-revolutionary.”

And yet the ability to question and the cultivation of healthy criticism is fundamentally revolutionary and will always be the best way to combat terrorism, as opposed to becoming a terrorist yourself.

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, humanitarian and human rights issues