January 31, 2024
BANGKOK – The recent takeover of strategic Myanmar territory by an alliance of ethnic armed groups fighting the junta under a campaign called “Operation 1027” has renewed interest in the country’s three-year-old crisis.
Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), a civilian-led body challenging the legitimacy of the military junta, says it has received more queries about the extent to which the armed groups under its command have also joined the campaign.
But the NUG continues to get the cold shoulder from four out of the nine other Asean member states, says its foreign minister Zin Mar Aung. This is despite the fact that it reaches out equally to all governments in the 10-member bloc when it issues any statement.
In an online interview with The Straits Times on Jan 28, Ms Zin Mar Aung said it was currently engaging with five Asean member states – some of which prefer to keep their interactions out of the public eye.
Citing diplomatic protocol, she also declined to reveal the contents of recent discussions she had with Asean’s special envoy on Myanmar, Mr Alounkeo Kittikhoun. The veteran Lao diplomat held separate meetings with her as well as Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing in January 2024, as part of his mandate to engage with all relevant stakeholders in Myanmar to help facilitate dialogue.
But Thailand, which recently said it wants to facilitate the provision of humanitarian aid across the Thai-Myanmar border, has so far not officially reached out to the NUG, she disclosed.
“They haven’t talked to us formally, professionally about what needs to be done. We hope there will be more direct engagement with us in the near future,” she said.
The Myanmar junta that emerged after the February 2021 military coup declared the NUG a terrorist organisation. NUG has done the same to the Myanmar military and its affiliated organisations.
While the Ukraine and Gaza wars have pulled attention away from the Myanmar crisis, Ms Zin Mar Aung visited Britain, the United States and Japan in 2023 to keep her country on the global agenda.
“NUG represents the struggle of the people of Myanmar against the illegitimate coup and the military dictatorship,” said Ms Zin Mar Aung. “Through our foreign policies, we always try to put Myanmar on the agenda of other countries. Looking from that perspective, I wouldn’t say our profile has faded in 2023.”
The NUG has representative offices in Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Czech Republic, France, Britain, Norway and the US. It engages with governments of countries hosting the Myanmar diaspora to alleviate the impact that the military junta’s policies may have had on them.
For example, to make up for a revenue shortfall, the regime in 2023 started levying income tax on Myanmar’s overseas citizens, requiring proof of tax payment before renewing passports. Some Myanmar nationals have also had their passports revoked while they were overseas – allegedly for expressing their opposition to the junta.
Ms Zin Mar Aung says her ministry appeals to these host governments to make special arrangements for these stranded citizens.
“We cannot issue passports. We talk to the respective foreign ministries in the countries we ask for assistance, so they have a right to stay in the country because if they don’t have their passports, they cannot extend their work permit and they will not be able to work,” she told ST.
“The foreign ministry office has to provide protection to our citizens to keep them from danger. We cannot provide full consular services, but we do what we can.”
The NUG’s representative office in Japan, for example, has worked with Tokyo to allow Myanmar nationals whose passports have expired to get the necessary paperwork to leave and enter Japan again.
“It’s not in every country that we can do that. It depends on the political system,” said the minister.