Myanmar’s parallel National Unity Government (NUG) and its armed wing, the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), pose the biggest threats to the military regime in Bamar-majority areas. Currently, PDFs are strongest in Sagaing and Magwe regions in central Myanmar. In 2022, they have been able to form battalions and brigades equipped with automatic rifles. And although central Myanmar has been hit hardest by junta atrocities, the PDFs are not dispirited and are waging effective guerilla warfare against junta forces.
It is impossible to estimate the number of PDF fighters in Sagaing and Magwe. But it is fair to say that the teamwork, combativeness and innovation of PDFs in those regions means that they are hitting regime forces hard. Guerilla attacks have also been reported in Bago, Ayeyarwady and Tanintharyi regions. They have declined in Yangon and Mandalay, but there are still guerilla attacks happening daily. PDF groups that are fighting alongside experienced ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) have a more systematic structure, as well as better weapons and combat skills, than their counterparts fighting independently.
The NUG says that it has formed more than 300 battalions in over 25 townships. But it is still struggling to establish a network of local PDFs and put them under its direct command. Moreover, there are also other resistance groups like the People’s Liberation Army, Bamar People’s Liberation Army and so on that were formed out of different political ideologies. So there are hundreds of thousands of armed fighters who have emerged in Bamar-majority areas, with the NUG/PDFs at the core of the resistance.
Some compare the NUG with the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), the government in exile which was established by pro-democracy forces following the failed 1988 uprising against the then military regime. However, the NUG is different from the NCGUB. Despite its shortcomings, it has its own armed wing and a financial system that has earned it around US$45 million in a year and enabled the NUG to supply the PDFs. The NUG has also installed parallel administrations complete with courts, schools and health care facilities in some areas controlled by PDFs.
The NUG has won support at home and abroad, as well as establishing diplomatic relations with foreign countries. It also has links with the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), a coalition of political groups opposing the junta, and the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CPRH), a body representing lawmakers elected in the 2020 general election, as well as with EAOs. That is something the NCGUB could not achieve.
However, the NUG suffers from financial constraints. It needs hundreds of millions of US dollars to properly arm and supply the PDFs. And it is not an easy task to distribute arms to PDFs. Despite the lack of proper supplies, resistance forces, which mainly consist of young people, are determined not to waver from their beliefs and that has shocked the regime.
Resistance Forces Shortcomings
- The resistance continues to hold the view that it took during the early days of anti-coup protests, when it believed it would be able to overturn military rule if the Civil Disobedience Movement could be maintained for two months. In similar fashion, the resistance now holds the view that the armed revolution will succeed in a few years.
It takes years to raise an army and it is costly to arm and supply an army. It is wrong to think that victory can be achieved in a short period. Instead, it is important to do long-term planning, set yearly goals and work step by step and have the determination to fight till the end.
- While the regime is trying to crush the resistance using all kinds of violence and brutality, the revolution must take a pragmatic approach instead of daydreaming about an easy victory. It is important to build the PDFs into a strong army, not just to defeat the regime but to establish a force to guarantee federal democracy in the long term.
- International support for the NUG depends on the strength of the armed revolution inside Myanmar. Had it not been for the revolt by the people, there would not have been support from the international community. The NUG and its officials must be well aware of this.
- The CRPH claims a mandate as the body of lawmakers elected in the 2020 general election held under the military-drafted 2008 Constitution. But the NUG has scrapped the 2008 Constitution and EAOs also do not accept it. So there is a need to think about the CPRH and its long-term future.
- Although the NUCC had a good beginning, it is having difficulties in negotiations. Some members have quit the NUCC. The National League for Democracy (NLD) lacks a clear policy about federalism and is unwilling to relinquish its control as the central/Union government of Myanmar, or so some NUCC stakeholders believe. So for now both the NLD and the NUG lack the leadership to politically unify all the ethnic minorities. Even if it can solidify the NUCC, there are other groups that have opted out of joining the NUCC and it is still difficult to politically unify all the EAOs.
- While the NUG has been able to cooperate militarily and establish a chain of command with some EAOs, it still hasn’t been able to secure military cooperation with all the EAOs. But this is not necessarily because of its performance. Ethnic people have different historical backgrounds and cultures, while the size, finances, weaponry, territorial control and political objectives of the EAOs vary. It is possible that some EAOs might be waiting to see how the institutional strength and capacity of NUG develops, but many still do not trust the NLD, the major stakeholder in the NUG, and its policy on federalism and power-sharing among the ethnic states.
What Does the Future Hold?
- The regime will continue to use violence and target civilians in its military operations. Following the junta’s executions of pro-democracy activists in June against the request of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the international community, the regime will face increased isolation on the international stage. The regime is not in a position to crush PDFs and EAOs and it will be depleted over time. It will lose control over territories in the future. What could be the major blow to the regime is the economic crisis that is projected to impact Myanmar around the end of this year. The more the economy slows, the harder the junta will be hit.
- The unification of EAOs and PDFs will speed up the ousting of the regime. But there is no party, organization or person that can unify those forces and lead the fight against the junta. Given the situation on the ground, it is more likely that groups will control their own territories like the United Wa State Army does at the moment.
- While it is still impossible to assemble EAOs and PDFs either politically or militarily, the idea of a federal Union and a federal army is detached from reality. What is more likely in the foreseeable future is a set-up that resembles a confederation.
- Society will face unrest and a crime wave due to the economic crisis and poverty. And it will be difficult to control the actions of people who are unable to stand the cruelty of the regime anymore and who decide to take matters into their own hands. There could be disputes between revolutionary groups over their controlled areas. Some people will call this chaos, but it is difficult to avoid and all we can do is try and overcome that.