‘I don’t want our people to have false hope, we have to depend on ourselves’ – NUG foreign minister 

Nine months after the military seized power in a coup, the underground National Unity Government (NUG) that was set up to challenge the junta’s legitimacy is making progress in its efforts to be internationally recognised as the rightful administration of Myanmar. 

While coup leader Min Aung Hlaing was barred from attending a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) earlier this week, the NUG’s acting president Duwa Lashi La and foreign affairs minister Zin Mar Aung held a virtual talk with a top US national security advisor. 

We spoke to Zin Mar Aung about the NUG’s diplomatic progress so far, about what can be expected from the US, and the shadow administration’s relationships with China, Russia, and ASEAN. 

Myanmar Now: Min Aung Hlaing was barred from the ASEAN summit while the governments of several countries criticised the military council. What would you like to say about that on behalf of the NUG?

Zin Mar Aung: Given that they did not let the military generals represent our country, I think that the people of Myanmar believe that ASEAN is listening to their voices and that they are standing with the people of Myanmar. This decision to not let the generals attend the summit was such a brave action. This will also set an example to show that [the international community] can no longer approach the issues of coups and dictators all over the world with outdated tactics and mindsets.

The NUG also asked to attend this summit but the request wasn’t approved. What would you like to say about that?

We requested two things: for them to invite the NUG and for them to not let the coup regime attend the meeting. Therefore, you could say that half of our request was approved.

The NUG appointed an ASEAN ambassador on the day that the summit started. Was it another attempt to get representation?

We just wanted to let them know that if they were going to allow a ‘non-political’ representative, we had an ambassador ready. Even if we did not get to attend this summit, we’d still need an ambassador for future engagement work. 

One of the five agreements that ASEAN made regarding Myanmar’s situation was to meet with representatives from all concerned parties. Has the NUG met with the special ASEAN envoy yet?

We haven’t officially met yet but there were situations where he sounded us out on certain things. The reason we haven’t met officially is because the person that is the most responsible for those five agreements is General Min Aung Hlaing. He himself attended the meeting where they came to these five agreements.

There are many more requests beyond those agreements. Some countries called for the release of the detained leaders. But there was no consensus about those requests, so they came to those five agreements. The coup leader himself agreed after a thorough negotiation. 

What is the relationship between the NUG and China, which is not only a powerful neighbour but also has numerous economic and military ties with Myanmar?

We have been told that China is closely monitoring the political situation, political stakeholders, and the opinions of the people of Myanmar. This is something I know for sure. China is our neighbour and the interests of our country and theirs are bound to each other. Therefore, the political stability of our country is also of great importance to their country.

There were several investments made with China under the NLD government. I think they are now starting to realise that they can’t play out this situation where they consider only business interests but ignore the political system in our country. No investor can do business in Myanmar if there is no political stability.

UN peacekeeping forces take part in a military training exercise in China on September 13 (CGTN)

Does that mean you are in talks with China? What is being done to build a good relationship with China and seek its support?

The reason the country is undergoing political instability is because the military believes that they have to be part of our country’s political leadership. As long as the military holds this supreme saviour mindset, there will still be political instability in the future, and the current problems stem from this mindset. We need to understand that this is the source of all these problems. We are talking about this matter with China.

Although we haven’t received much of a response, we needed to tell them that this is what the country needs and that they shouldn’t worry about us opposing them or any country leaning towards any other countries. We are revolting against the dictatorship out of necessity for the people and the country itself. We are not threatening any of our neighbouring countries nor are we leaning towards any powerful country.

Our country has become unsafe for anyone to live in. Nobody wanted this. So we need to get to the bottom of the problem. As long as we can’t deal with the root of the problem, even if the situation calms down right now, the crisis will always come back. We are trying to explain this to our neighbouring countries and other countries that we have been engaging with.

And what about your relationship with Russia, a country the military council is dealing with in both business and military matters?

Russia has always been an ally to the military council. However, if you think about it, Russia is not our neighbour, either geographically or in business matters. They also have their own political goals.

It appears that after the coup, Russia is more interested in military ties than diplomatic engagement with the Myanmar military. As for us, we have always included Russia when we try to engage with foreign countries. However, you could say that Russia has been slow and cold in responding compared to other countries.

Pantsir missiles, which Russia plans to sell to the coup regime, seen during a Victory Day ceremony in Moscow in May (EPA)

You spoke with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on Monday. What did you talk about?

He told us that they are against this military coup and on the side of the people of Myanmar and that they recognised the political leadership of the NUG in this revolution and the Myanmar people’s struggle. He said that the US was ready to support us on the international front.

Some saw this meeting as being more than a diplomatic engagement. What can you tell us about this?

Because he is the security advisor of their president, he directly reports to the president, and this means this was engagement from the White House. The message we got is that the United States regards the military council as responsible for not only the coup but also all the arrests, oppression and violations of human rights, and all the consequences that followed the coup.

Right now, the people of Myanmar are taking up arms to revolt against the dictatorship in any way that they can. We, the NUG, had to form the People’s Defence Force out of necessity. This is not the path we wanted to take, this is the path the coup pushed us onto. In other words, the United States saying that the military council is responsible for all these violations is progress in terms of diplomacy.

The highlight of that meeting would be that the government of the United States of America is taking great interest in the people’s fight for freedom, justice and democracy. It’s very uplifting to hear such news, I believe.

The US and NATO held their annual joint military exercise last month under the name Burmese Chase. Has the US offered anything besides diplomatic help? 

I have not heard any particular news regarding this matter. I only know what everyone else knows. This was just a name and it is not necessary to misinterpret that name.

I don’t want our people to have false hope, to be honest. The international community has begun to recognise our struggle because we are engaging in the struggle ourselves. Nobody would have recognised our struggle if we had just hoped for someone else’s help without doing anything ourselves. Therefore, we must not have such hopes at times like these.

Only we, the people, can change the political situation of our country. We’ve only made it this far because we depended on no one else but ourselves. However, it is true that we need good allies. We can’t win this fight without any allies. Therefore, we need to continue this fight ourselves without having false hope.

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