On October 29, the Pakokku People’s Defense Force (PDF), an anti-regime militia based in Magwe Region’s Pakokku township, carried out an attack targeting a local village administrator accused of collaborating with the military-led regime. The militia’s “ground operations team” killed the administrator’s wife and father, while the administrator himself managed to escape. In a statement issued on social media following the incident, the Pakokku PDF’s “officer of information and external relations” warned other administrators and supporters of the regime that should they fail to immediately cease their activities and cooperate with “the people,” they would be similarly targeted.
Just one week prior to this incident, the National Unity Government (NUG), the shadow government to which the Pakokku PDF owes its allegiance, issued a statement urging the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to recognize it as the legitimate representative government of Myanmar. One key reason the statement gave for recognizing the NUG over the military was that unlike the military, the NUG insists that “all defensive actions must respect international norms,” indicating its commitment to preventing atrocities against civilians amid its conflict with the junta. Yet, in the days following the October 29 operation carried out by the Pakokku PDF, no condemnation was issued by the NUG, nor were any condemnations issued for the numerous bombings and assassinations of regime-affiliated civilians carried out by other elements within the anti-regime movement.
This contradiction between the anti-regime movement’s portrayal of itself to foreign observers and its actual operations on the ground is a significant obstacle in the NUG’s quest for international recognition. Some analysts, such as veteran Myanmar watcher Andrew Selth, have issued warnings to this effect, arguing that most governments would find it impossible to endorse the anti-regime movement’s actions. Yet, while it may be tempting to call the NUG out on its failure to prevent attacks on civilians, it should be noted that the NUG is simply in no position to enforce its aspirations of civilian immunity upon the movement’s actions. Rather, the onus may fall on the international community to empower the NUG in such a way that it can incentivize and enforce international norms.
Desperate Tactics Amid Global Inaction
The anti-regime movement did not resort to violence immediately following the coup of February 2021. Rather, the movement began as a series of widespread but non-violent protests that bore greater resemblance to similar pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and Thailand than they did to other armed insurgencies in the region. But violent escalations by the military soon forced the movement to adopt progressively harder-line tactics: as non-violent mass protests became unviable, they gave way to more radical forms of opposition. Today, much of the anti-regime movement consists of localized militia cells conducting bombings and assassinations targeting both the military and regime-affiliated civilians.
Amidst this escalation to violence, the anti-regime movement has continuously appealed for foreign countries and institutions – particularly the United Nations and ASEAN – to intervene on its behalf. These appeals have changed in tenor over the course of the conflict: the earliest iterations were hopeful calls for strong intervention, such as the deployment of U.N. peacekeeping forces under the aegis of the U.N.’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle. Following months of perceived global inaction despite the regime’s lethal response, this hopefulness has since turned into anger, as highlighted by trending social media hashtags such as “#UselessASEAN.” The expectations of the movement have also been tempered, with the calls for military intervention having been replaced with calls for foreign governments to recognize the NUG and withdraw economic support for the regime.
The uncharacteristic decision by ASEAN in October to exclude Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s military chief and de facto head of the current regime, from its annual summit was seen by the anti-regime movement as a step in the right direction, rekindling hope in the possibility of the NUG being recognized in the military’s stead. But even if ASEAN were to overcome its established stance of non-interference in order to recognize the NUG, it would then have to justify its recognition of a government that has enabled attacks on civilians. This is particularly difficult given that ASEAN’s exclusion of Min Aung Hlaing from its summit was predicated upon the regime’s failure to commit to ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus, which includes the requirement for all parties to cease violent activities and to “exercise utmost restraint.”
Attacks on Civilians and Insufficient Guidelines
The difficulty ASEAN faces in recognizing the NUG is shared by all members of the international community: the prevalence and frequency of attacks against civilians carried out by the anti-regime movement, which the NUG represents, cannot be ignored. According to data published by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), at least 1,098 attacks against regime-affiliated civilians were carried out between February 1 and December 3 of last year. The targets of such attacks range from pro-regime administrators and civil servants to workers for electricity companies collecting bills on behalf of the regime. Family members of these individuals are often also targeted or treated as collateral damage. Most of the attacks are carried out via bombings of targets’ residences and workplaces, as well as assassinations. Some members of the anti-regime movement have claimed that these attacks are false-flag incidents carried out by the military to frame the movement for terrorism. Yet, the fact that various militia groups have claimed responsibility for most of these attacks renders such an explanation unconvincing.
The NUG itself has indirectly enabled these attacks via the vague military guidelines it issued following its symbolic consolidation of affiliated militia groups last May. While these guidelines demanded that affiliated militia groups “must respect and practice the military ethics and codes of conduct with civilians under any circumstances” and that they had to comply “with the international military laws including Law of Armed Conflicts,” the NUG did not in fact provide any concrete guidelines on the definition and treatment of regime-affiliated civilians such as informants. Nor did it provide any guidance on whether the killings of targets’ family members were justified under its guidelines. In fact, the “Law of Armed Conflicts” that the NUG promised to comply with is a field of study rather than any specific treaty or international agreement to which its militias could be held to account, rendering its promise aspirational but vague to the point of uselessness.
The NUG’s Dilemma
It is unlikely that the NUG is unaware of either the actions of its affiliates, or of the role its vague guidelines play in enabling these actions. Why, then, does it not define and enforce its stance on civilian immunity further, especially when its international recognition as the legitimate government is at stake?
Firstly, the NUG does not possess an operational command structure capable of regularly overseeing actions carried out by the militias. While some joint attacks have been organized between multiple militia groups allegedly under the oversight of the NUG, most attacks are planned and carried out by the individual groups. For example, an announcement issued by the Pakokku PDF on January 7 specifically stated that it only “occasionally” follows the military directives issued by the NUG. This, combined with the vague guidelines issued by the NUG, allows for the groups to determine for themselves the limits of their actions.
Secondly, the anti-regime movement is not an ideological monolith led by the NUG. There is a disconnect between the aspirations declared by the NUG, and the on-ground realities faced by the militia groups. For example, on September 9 of last year, the NUG’s foreign minister stated in an interview that “targeting civilians is not the policy of the NUG or the PDF’s.” Yet, while the Pakokku PDF’s announcement on January 7 stated that it would do its “best not to tarnish the image of the revolution and to bring it into line with international law,” it did include the caveat that civilians such as “administrators, informants, and pro-regimes [sic] will have to be eliminated,” albeit “only when it is inevitable.” Furthermore, while the group seems to agree with the NUG’s aspirations not to target civilians, it opts instead to specify that it would only avoid targeting “innocent people” in its attacks.
Given the role that civilian informants play in disrupting the operations of anti-regime militia groups, especially when such informants directly lead to arrests and killing of militia members, it is unsurprising that these groups are unwilling to sacrifice their operational effectiveness for the sake of presenting a sanitized image to the international community – especially an international community that has yet to substantially intervene in the conflict. It is thus likely that the NUG understands that such a demand would lead to widespread resentment amongst its affiliates, and possibly fracture the anti-regime movement.
Recognition with Conditions: A Potential Solution
One potential solution to the NUG’s dilemma is to provide a concrete incentive for the militia groups. But such an incentive cannot be provided by the NUG alone. Rather, such a solution may have to rely on an ostensibly neutral international institution – namely ASEAN – to promise a roadmap towards recognition of the NUG, on the condition that its affiliate militias adopt concrete guidelines on civilian immunity. Given the urgency with which members of the movement have appealed for international recognition, it is likely that the legitimacy and support afforded by such recognition will outweigh the operational effectiveness militias would have to sacrifice in exchange.
Such a solution does not necessitate that ASEAN plant its flag firmly in favor of the NUG. Rather, it highlights that following the failure of the military-led regime to comply with its Five-Point Consensus, ASEAN can pursue other avenues to promote the exercise of restraint in the ongoing conflict. Such a move can be used as leverage to pressure the regime into taking its commitment to the Five-Point Consensus seriously, lest it loses its seat at the table to the NUG.
Such a solution is of course rife with obstacles. For one, there is no guarantee that even with the promise of international recognition, the NUG will be able to enforce guidelines on civilian immunity upon the larger movement. Furthermore, it would require that ASEAN member states present a unified front on the issue – a unity that has been called into question following Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s unilateral visit to Myanmar. However, it may also be the only way for the NUG to persuade the anti-regime movement into adopting concrete guidelines on civilian immunity. Failure to do so is likely to lead to further escalations in violence against civilians on both sides of the conflict.