Guest Column

Forging a Revolutionary Foreign Policy for Myanmar

By David Scott Mathieson 16 May 2023

Thailand’s policy towards Myanmar was the subject of a recent event at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT). The speakers were former Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya and two academics, Sirada Khemanitthathai from Chiang Mai University and Pinitbhand Paribatra from Thammasat University, who discussed potential changes to Thailand’s policy towards its restive neighbor.

Who was not there? The following officials from Myanmar’s opposition National Unity Government (NUG) Ministry of Foreign Affairs: the deputy minister for Thailand Affairs [and her political advisor, press officer, and Thai-language speechwriter], the deputy minister for Southeast Asian Regional Affairs, and the NUG National Security Advisor [Asia Branch] and her two advisors [one of whom is a fluent Thai speaker, the other fluent in Mandarin].

What was the reason they weren’t in attendance? Because those positions or people don’t exist. Why is that?

Thailand is, along with China, the most important neighbor that Myanmar has and, as yesterday’s general election demonstrated, is also broadly opposed to military rule. There are multiple reasons why Thailand is crucial to the opposition to the State Administration Council (SAC) and continued military misrule, and has been for many decades.

How effective has the NUG’s foreign policy been? The SAC are still in Naypyitaw, and war rages across half of Myanmar. The conflict rarely makes the international news anymore, and few people globally could tell you who the NUG’s foreign minister is [it’s Daw Zin Mar Aung], let alone who the acting President is [it’s Duwa Lashi La]. Extreme atrocities make a brief news cycle, but in a crowded field of crises, Myanmar’s story has been lost, and some, if not all, blame must be placed on the NUG’s moribund foreign policy establishment

Consider five broad steps to forging a revolutionary foreign policy. First, and most crucially, forging a coalition foreign policy where the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), especially the NUG’s tentative partners in Kayin, Kayah, Chin and Kachin armed groups, but also the more distant groups under China’s orbit are ‘equal’ partners to policy formulation and there are representatives of all EAOs and non-NUG aligned People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) if possible. Non-NUG or ‘coalition’ partners must be afforded equal position and respect. The recent statement by the NUG, Karen National Union, Karenni National Progressive Party and Chin National Front calling for the ‘Inclusive Humanitarian Forum’ with the United Nations (UN) Special Envoy is an important development and evidence that cooperation on such a crucial sector is possible.

Coalition building is hardly revolutionary as a theory. Working together has been a cornerstone of anti-SAC alliances since shortly after the coup and the formation of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the National Unity Consultative Committee (NUCC) and the Federal Democracy Charter. What must be revolutionary is turning coalition building into a reality after so much private and public advocacy for the resistance to do better. Expectations are so low that radical action must be taken now.

The NUG needs to downscale and redistribute resources which have a more vital strategic role to play. Senior leadership in the President’s Office; fighting the war of national liberation through the Ministry of Defense but discordantly also the Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration which requires considerable restructuring; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ensure the revolution dominates the international narrative; Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management; the Ministry of Women, Youth and and Children Affairs, and any various fundraising departments. All other ‘government like’ ministries should be relegated to secondary importance. Muting the Minister of International Cooperation Dr Sasa was a positive step, he was a blustering oddity, but it has left a vacuum in communications that neither Daw Zin Mar Aung nor her deputy U Moe Zaw Oo have filled.

The NUG would be better advised to scrap the Ministry of Federal Affairs, or downgrade it and the increasingly unconvincing minister Dr. Lian Sakhong into an advisory position. Consider then the savings in time and money for more important ventures and how more straightforward the revolution would be to explain to the outside world. Failing to reign in the Sisyphean mania of federal modelling could derail the exiled opposition: win the war first. Do this by excommunicating carpet-bagging foreign organizations such as International IDEA from all Myanmar activities: they and so many other ‘governance and elections’ opportunists are asphyxiating innovation by smothering the resistance in pointless workshops. For the price of one federalism workshop you could potentially buy two DShK 12.7mm heavy machine guns with 5,000 rounds of ammunition to shoot down SAC helicopters.

The NUG is not a real government, so stop wasting time acting badly like one. Work as members of a coalition. Embrace the outlook of Chao Tzang Yawnghwe of “common goal, diverse action.” In other words, compile all the approaches of the National League for Democracy (NLD) towards ethnic political aspirations in and out of the ‘peace process’, and make sure not to repeat those dreadful mistakes.

Second, a revolutionary foreign policy must be a political project, not an activist campaign. The NUG has tried passing itself off as an actual government, at least symbolically. Yet activists impulses still intrude. This is especially acute around the primacy of human rights abuses. This is hard not to do given the scale and repletion of SAC human rights violations. This doesn’t in any way justify a call for ignoring atrocities or forgetting political prisoners. But winning the war to dislodge the SAC, and neutralize the Myanmar military is the best way to end suffering, not the desperate hope that international intervention is coming.

The Permanent Mission to the UN in New York and the current ambassador U Kyaw Moe Tun are doing a fine job of keeping the issue of Myanmar alive. But is survival actually progress? The ‘Weekly Updates’ frontload human rights violations and the incessant military regime killing machine, but this has attracted little actual practical change beyond statements of concern and diluted resolutions from the UN Security Council.

Foreign policy advocates must stop bleating about all the attention and support going to Ukraine; it’s both counter-productive and self-defeating. Help isn’t coming. Diplomats don’t want to hear at length about civilian suffering. They want to hear your plan to end the suffering.

It may have seemed refreshingly novel to have a Ministry of Human Rights and a prominent and well-respected activist such as U Aung Myo Min as minister. Having a ‘Complain Human Rights Mechanism’ (sic) online reporting mechanism to report an abuse is commendable in principle. But it ignores the obvious: governments should not be involved in documenting human rights abuses, especially if they and their allies are also perpetrating them. Governments should commit to upholding human rights and ensuring its various ministries and armed wings don’t violate the law. That there are some three NUG ministries documenting human rights is absurd, and a waste of foreign funding. Independent bodies should investigate abuses, and Myanmar has a plethora of excellent grassroots human rights organizations to do so.

The NUG and EAOs and some PDFs have pursued sound promotion on international humanitarian law promotion, and rules of engagement and codes of conduct. But actual enforcement is different from an infomercial on a Facebook page. Any resistance progress on promoting human rights can be undermined immediately by one egregious transgression, such is the fragility of non-state actors in a system of state-centric bias.

If there is anything the mass violence against the Rohingya proved, it’s that activism can promote your plight and spark international outrage, but it doesn’t translate to guaranteeing rights and livelihoods. ‘Brand Myanmar’ has been almost irrevocably sullied by not just the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, but Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s misjudged defense of it at the International Court of Justice in late 2019, where she admitted to war crimes but not genocide. There has been no real atonement for these atrocities, or entreaties of atonement have been insincere. Consider then the utter lunacy of dispatching U Win Myat Aye, the NUG’s Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management on a recent trip to Jakarta with Asian Parliamentarians for Human Rights. When he was a minister in the first NLD government, U Win Myat Aye was a notorious Rohingya atrocity denier.

While it is a gross miscarriage of justice that Suu Kyi and many NLD leaders are imprisoned, the NUG is much freer to develop foreign policy without a single rallying figure to captivate and hence simplify international attention. Yet the challenge of constructing a political message instead of suffering narratives has not been successful at all.

Third, the coalition must pursue an Asia first realignment. Forget the West, in almost everything but humanitarian assistance and solidarity. Time and again, regardless of the past support from the United States for Myanmar democracy development, Washington has emphasized cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its floating face down in the water Five-Point Consensus peace plan. US State Department Counselor Derek Chollet’s March article in Fulcrum, “Partnering with ASEAN to Promote Peace in Myanmar” was bad déjà vu: after two years of ASEAN failure, false hopes, and humiliation, is all the US can do is trust that Indonesia as the new regional grouping rotating chair can do better?

In her speech on “Australian interests in regional balance of power” to the Canberra National Press Club in April, Australian foreign minister Penny Wong mentioned Myanmar once: as the only Southeast Asian country she had not visited. ASEAN was lauded as the “enduring, central institution” of South East Asia and the current Australian government “has made engagement with ASEAN and its members a core priority.”

In an article on ASEAN in the establishment Foreign Affairs magazine March/April issue, Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani mentioned Myanmar once, in yet another addition to elite foreign policy fawning over the deft diplomatic navigation of superpower rivalry, echoed by another piece in the current edition by Huong Le Thu.

The West is saying loud and clear: you have ASEAN and nothing else. That is an excrement sandwich. Working around this unpleasantness will require a radical and adaptive approach. Balancing China-Western rivalry [and the many sub variants] is going to be an insurmountable challenge. No one wants to live under Chinese suzerainty. But the West lives far away, and is distracted right now, and for the foreseeable future.

Revolutionary foreign policy must emphasize key Asia capital presence for multi-level advocacy. The absent officials at the recent Bangkok event must have positions created and be present in most major capitals: Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Seoul and Tokyo. But they have to be serious officials with position, language skills, and insights and contacts, not the smarmy lounge lizards of the previous exiled government who traded in supposition, extrapolation and pure invention to half-interested diplomats and distracted reporters in the 1990s and 2000’s at the FCCT.

Wobbly defenders of the NUG will moan that there is no funding for such positions. Yet there might well be if current funding was realigned to an Asian presence over opening offices in Oslo, Italy, or France. Washington and Brussels are important, London and Canberra less so: both the United Kingdom and Australia are abandoning Myanmar. Success, or at least the presence of a plan and semblance of forward momentum will possibly procure requisite funding. Simply expecting a handout rarely works, unless the patron expects a dividend, which in Myanmar’s case doesn’t exist.

Coalition foreign policy with key states such as Thailand and China have to balance the need to engage on a multitude of important political, economic, and security matters to seek support, and the justifiable activism around Thailand’s PTT energy deals with the SAC, or Chinese investment in Monywa’s Letpadaung  mine. These are serious issues that require deft diplomacy.

Fourth, performance legitimacy is better than formal recognition in the global system of states or the UN. That the anti-SAC resistance has far more more legitimacy than the military council is unquestioned. The CPRH keeps alive the memory of the 2020 election victory in important ways, and always will. But its effective political utility has an expiry date in reality. As long as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and senior members of the legitimate government and more than 17,000 political prisoners are incarcerated, and civilians continue to be murdered, the SAC will never have a sliver of credibility.

The laudable work of the Myanmar Accountability Project and others on UN credentials for the NUG ambassador U Zaw Moe Tun is vitally important, but the status quo is likely the most success we will see on this front. Inclusion of revolutionary foreign policy officials in international meetings is vitally important, but seek actual substantive interactions over symbolic photo-ops. More, ensure that officials have the right blend of skills to engage in convincing diplomacy, not just a luu-gyi mentality of self-importance.

And lastly, engage in long-term public planning. It’s important to publically articulate foreign policy goals, in speeches, policy documents such as ‘white papers’ and not just statements and formulaic op-eds [although these are important too]. The problem is not prognostication, but policy development beyond issuing statements: the NUG’s foreign ministry is prolific in this regard, but lacks substantive foreign policy articulation. If the minister has a speechwriter it’s a well-kept secret.

Have a number of foreign policy scenarios mapped out. Develop a set of basic negotiating points as public discussion topics, not carved-in-stone inviolate positions. Articulate gains and losses on the battlefield, in social services, progress in alliance building including accepting different forms of federalism, and not issue decrees demanding international action. Any foreign policy designed to topple the military must be a coherent coalition with a firm plan and a realistic shot at success. Right now the NUG doesn’t embody these qualities, and is shedding legitimacy daily over the lost time of two years of lackluster direction.

It is not too late however. Two important elements of policy planning are the internal, elite level discussions and research, and the more important public discussion of trends and approaches. Too often the former is privileged over the latter. In times of revolutionary national liberation this is a mistake, and the revolutionary coalition must actively encourage public discussion of complex issues, in the media, think-tanks and public intellectuals and civil society.

Some of the best thinkers and strategists, and often the most cosmopolitan, are think-tanks such as the Institute for Strategy and Policy, Salween Institute and many others, who should not be subordinated to the NUG or EAOs but recognized for the important contributions they make to public debate. So, too, the media should be encouraged to produce even more news analysis on international issues and the plurality of views.

So much policy formulation is concealed behind firewalls of paranoia by political operators who perceive saboteurs or rivals everywhere, and value loyalty over innovation. This has been the NLD curse. It works against stress-testing, peer review, and the professional cultivation of constructive criticism.

Foreign donors and advisors often encourage this secrecy, to ensure against any accountability for the questionable quality of their policy design, or the hold they may have on senior officials. The menagerie of mendacious milquetoasts who advise the NUG, NUCC and in many cases the EAOs too, are millstones around the neck of real progress. It is ethically obscene that foreigners who enriched themselves during the several years of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement are still in advisory roles, when they were active agents of failure, especially those close to the pro-SAC Peace Process Steering Committee. There comes a point when international donor nepotism becomes criminal negligence.

Think too of an accounting of how many insiders to the NUG advisory complex were pro-military and peace ‘reformers’ and raked in hefty profits in maintaining the fiction that the security forces wanted to ‘change’ and have shapeshifted to a pro-NUG position. From the U Thein Sein administration, to an NLD government to the exiled movement illustrates a morally elastic outlook that deserves significant skepticism.

If, as so many younger resistance fighters and supporters in conflict zones, cities, towns and in exile have long ago realized, the people of Myanmar are alone in their struggle, then a foreign policy may be utterly pointless. However there is an open field, with Myanmar military foreign statecraft stuck in monosyllabic torpor and golf.

But we live in a dystopian post-Westphalian system of darker forces that no longer champion rights and democracy. Just as so many elements of the resistance are truly evolutionary, so too interaction with the world must help shape the future for reconstruction of a post-junta Myanmar, ‘A New Burma’ as some younger revolutionaries call it. The anti-SAC coalition can start now by facing the challenges of the real world and forging a new diplomacy.

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