U Yee Mon, 54, the defense minister in the parallel National Unity Government (NUG), is a veteran activist who has opposed military rule since the 1988 pro-democracy uprising.
As a third-year medical student from Mandalay, he took part in street protests demanding democracy in 1988, for which he was sentenced to seven years in prison. Later, he joined civil rights movements under his pen name, Maung Tin Thit.
He was elected for the National League for Democracy in Pobbathiri, Naypyitaw, in the 2015 general election and won again in November 2020. He was appointed defense minister when the civilian NUG government was formed.
U Yee Mon talked to The Irrawaddy about arming the people’s defense forces (PDFs), the relationship between PDFs and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), the NUG’s foreign relations, the possibility of a mutiny within the military and prospects for the establishment of a federal army.
A nonviolent approach was taken in 1988 so why has the NUG chosen armed struggle this time?
[The British commander] Wellington said during the Napoleonic wars that Napoleon would decide the battle plans and how we fight now is determined by the enemy.
It is the regime that has pushed Myanmar’s people to take up whatever weapons are available to defend themselves. The NUG is the people’s government and has to stand by the people. It has to provide leadership to the people. It is our duty. This is how we take it.
The NUG has declared war against the regime. Casualties are rising. Some say it is non-compatible with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s nonviolent resistance.
She has embraced the practice of solving political problems through political means or non-violent resistance. It was her favorite problem-solving approach. We also used a nonviolent approach to peacefully solve political problems through political means.
But how did the military respond to peaceful protesters after the February 1 coup? Everyone has witnessed it. Our people expected protection from the international community. But that did not happen and the people decided to root out the terrorist military this time. And so did the NUG.
You told the BBC that you expected changes this year. Neither the PDFs nor ethnic armed organizations appear to match the junta’s firepower in terms of artillery and air power. What changes did you mean?
Yes, weaponry is important. But a people’s revolution always starts without any arms. We must remember how well our comrades have fought without proper arms.
We examined fighting in three districts in upper Myanmar in December. A total of 291 enemies died in a month and only 11 of our comrades died. Better weaponry does not always ensure victory.
Our fallen comrades are heroes that served the people. People will always remember and salute them. They will be honored after the revolution succeeds.
For the revolution to succeed we need public support and the people have put their minds and souls into this uprising.
We also need morale and wisdom. Our comrades are demonstrating better morale and wisdom and these factors are the main differences between us and the junta.
Everyone has witnessed how cowardly and unintelligent the junta soldiers are. They are cowardly because they dare not fight without air support. When they fight they cannot defeat the PDFs so they torch villages and arrest, torture and kill innocent civilians. They are brainless so they think they won’t be punished for their war crimes. They will all be held accountable by the people.
Some have criticized the NUG for not arming trained PDF volunteers. What difficulties is the NUG facing to arm fighters?
It is a huge challenge to arm all the PDFs. It will cost billions of dollars as there are hundreds of thousands of PDF members. And there are hundreds of thousands more ready to join. But 40 million people are supporting the PDFs. We don’t worry much that they don’t all have arms. We started the fight with whatever weapons we had.
We now have more finances to arm the PDFs. The NUG has found ways to acquire arms and we expect we will get many of the enemy’s weapons soon.
Certain EAOs, such as Rakhine, Shan, Wa and Mongla groups, have distanced themselves from the NUG. What is the NUG’s stance on them?
All the ethnic armed revolutionary groups detest the dictatorship. They have the same objective as the NUG. We all agree the dictatorship must be eliminated and a genuine federal democratic union should be established.
Mutual understanding, trust and cooperation between the NUG and armed revolutionary groups has grown over time. They are cooperating with the NUG directly or helping us indirectly. We have good relations with them.
Tigyaing PDF [in Sagaing Region] has blown up electricity pylons supplying the Tagaung Taung nickel-processing plant, though it did not target the plant itself. We heard the Chinese Embassy in Yangon has contacted the NUG about it. Is the PDF targeting Chinese interests in Myanmar?
We don’t have a policy to attack the investments and interests of our neighboring countries.
We discussed it with China. We said the attack was carried out by Tigyaing PDF on its own volition and the NUG will try to stop similar attacks in the future. But foreign businesses must stay away from junta troops. If possible, they should show they stand with Myanmar’s people. This is what we suggest.
When the NUG declared war in September, some western diplomats raised objections. Does the armed resistance hurt the NUG’s foreign relations?
The international community had concerns when we declared war but those concerns have been largely alleviated today. We have met representatives of foreign countries and they all say they understand the people’s war. We received suggestions from them and they urged us to follow the military code of conduct when defending the people.
We told them that we have adopted a code of conduct and rules of engagement for our troops and we are making sure that the PDFs follow the rules. They believe we will try to build a professional army that complies with a code of conduct.
We heard as many as 2,000 soldiers have defected from the army but we don’t see any high-ranking officers among them. Does the NUG have a plan to provide incentives to persuade commanders to defect?
The root cause of our problems is that the military wants to bully the people. We try to make officers and other ranks understand the revolution is a fight to eliminate militarization.
We understand some military personnel love the country and some have intelligence, despite working for the regime. We don’t intend to give incentives to them to mobilize their support. We want to build a new nation and armed forces that have new ideologies and beliefs. We will inform them about that. And we urge them to cooperate with the people.
Yes, no high-ranking officer has yet publicly cooperated with the people. We understand that they are waiting for the right time and they are not yet ready to join the people. But sooner or later, more and more military personnel will join the people as the revolution grows.
Some ethnic armed groups publicly accept the PDFs, others keep their ties with the PDFs secret and some distance themselves from the PDF. How strong is the possibility that federal armed forces can be established? Some say the country will break up without military rule and only the military can unify the country.
The regime shouts that it has to stop the nation breaking up but it destroyed the federal system while shouting about the non-disintegration of the union. The military wants to maintain its grip on political power forever.
The federal armed forces we have been calling for are already beginning. Our allied EAOs have helped form PDF battalions. They are led by those with military experience from allied EAOs. Some EAOs are fighting alongside the PDFs. This is the birth of the federal armed forces.
Our country will become a federal democracy once the junta is removed and the new armed forces will be multi-ethnic and protect federal democracy and the people.
What else do you want to say?
We are working to achieve victory for the people this year. We are fighting on our own, with the people’s support. I urge the people not to unclench their fists until the end but give us greater physical and financial support and help.
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