Zin Mar Aung, foreign minister of Myanmar’s publicly mandated National Unity Government (NUG), attended a cabinet inauguration in Dili, Timor-Leste at the invitation of the country’s president last Saturday.
Timor-Leste, which achieved independence from Indonesia in 2002, is Asia’s most recently founded sovereign nation. Timorese president José Ramos-Horta invited Zin Mar Aung to a swearing-in ceremony for the country’s premier Xanana Gusmão and other cabinet ministers following their election in May.
Ramos-Horta, who rose to prominence in Timor-Leste’s independence movement before serving as the country’s prime minister and president, vocally condemned the military’s seizure of power in Myanmar in 2021 and has called for stronger international action against the coup regime.
Zin Mar Aung thanked Ramos-Horta on social media for the invitation and for his long-standing support for the cause of democracy in Myanmar.
“My deepest gratitude to President [Ramos-Horta] for his ongoing solidarity with the peoples of Myanmar. President Horta has welcomed me with hospitality and generosity recognising the shared struggle our nations have both faced for freedom, justice and peace,” she said.
The NUG is a cabinet formed under the mandate of elected members of parliament ousted in the February 2021 coup in Myanmar, and has since sought to lead a movement resisting the coup regime’s violence against its opponents.
The Myanmar military regime has classified the NUG and its armed wing, the People’s Defence Forces, as terrorist organisations. In a statement released by the military council on Wednesday, the regime expressed strong objections to the Timorese government’s hosting and recognition of NUG members.
According to the statement, junta officials sent a memorandum to the Timorese embassy in Yangon and “urged the the Timor-Leste Government to refrain from making any forms of contact with those terrorist groups and their representatives,” adding that such contact “could abet terrorism and encourage violence in the country.”
Moe Zaw Oo, the NUG’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, responded to the junta officials’ statement.
“The SAC has no right or legitimacy to object to the invitation of the legitimate government of Timor Leste to the legitimate National Unity Government, who truly represent the people of Myanmar,” he said, referring to junta by the acronym for its official name, the State Administration Council.
The military regime made similar objections in May of 2022 when Malaysia’s foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah met informally with Zin Mar Aung in Washington, D.C. and discussed closer coordination between the NUG and Malaysian government, including in the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
Malaysia is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a ten-nation regional bloc of which Myanmar is also a member. Timor-Leste is not yet a member of ASEAN, but is in the process of acceding.
While the NUG has been recognised by the European Parliament as representing the people of Myanmar, it has struggled to achieve broader international recognition and gestures of support for the group like the Timorese president’s invitation remain rare among Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbours.
“The next day after the objection of SAC, the Prime Minister of Timor Leste invited Minister Daw Zin Mar Aung to meet again,” said the NUG’s deputy foreign affairs minister Moe Zaw Oo. “That shows that Timor Leste will continue its relationship with the legitimate government of Myanmar no matter what. The other countries in the region should follow the example of Timor Leste.”
Despite initially urging an end to the violence in Myanmar following the 2021 coup and calling for dialogue with opposition groups in a “five-point consensus”, ASEAN’s nine other member states continue to allow Myanmar junta officials to attend most of their multilateral meetings.
Although the United States government does not recognise the Myanmar junta’s legitimacy and has sanctioned numerous entities and individuals within or connected to the regime, it has also not recognised the NUG as Myanmar’s legitimate government.