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Myanmar resistance movement calls for more EU support

October 5, 2022

Myanmar's government-in-exile wants official recognition from countries around the world as it opposes a military junta accused of human rights abuses during a bitter civil war.

People hold signs reading 'we support NUG'
Demonstrators come out in support of Myanmar's shadow governmentImage: Str/AFP/Getty Images

There are growing calls for the European Union to bolster its assistance to Myanmar's government-in-exile, the National Unity Government (NUG), which is at the head of a resistance movement fighting Myanmar's military junta.

The junta overthrew Myanmar's democratically elected government in February 2021

But a report published last month by the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, a group of independent international experts, estimated that the junta has effective control over less than a fifth of Myanmar's territory, while the NUG and its allies, which include local militias, control 53%.

Brussels has stepped up its engagement and given more exposure to its meetings with the NUG in recent months "to send a strong signal to the junta," a European Commission official, speaking under condition of anonymity, told DW.

"We also carefully avoid legitimizing the junta in international organizations or through bilateral contacts," the official added.

According to a senior official at the NUG foreign ministry, particular attention has been paid to lobbying Germany and France. The NUG established a representative office, a de facto embassy, in France earlier this year. It also has an older one in the Czech Republic. 

A soldier stands above a man
Myanmar's security forces have been accused of human rights abuses during crackdowns on anti-junta protestersImage: AFP

What has the EU done so far?

Since the 2021 coup, the European Parliament has adopted three resolutions on Myanmar, with a fourth expected this week on the junta's crackdown on media freedom.

The European Commission has also adopted several rounds of sanctions targeting the military regime and its aligned businesses.

The EU's fourth and latest tranche of sanctions was announced in February 2022, and activist groups have recently been petitioning European governments with lists of military individuals they want to be sanctioned.

The chances of the EU imposing a fifth round of sanctions against the junta and its associated businesses have increased since late September when Aung San Suu Kyi, the ousted democratically elected leader, three former ministers, and the Australian economist Sean Turnell, were sentenced to three years in prison, ostensibly for violating a colonial-era Official Secrets Act.

Suu Kyi has already been convicted of several other trumped-up crimes. Additional charges could see her jailed for 100 years. 

"Concerned governments should take this as a clear signal that they need to take concerted action against the junta if they are going to turn the human rights situation around in the country," Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

An NUG official told DW that the government had submitted names of individuals it wants to be sanctioned to the EU. "We push all the time for more targeted sanctions and humanitarian assistance," the official said.

Although the EU does not discuss sanction plans, an EU spokesperson told DW that "should the situation continue to deteriorate the EU stands ready to apply a new package of restrictive measures."

Government-in-exile seeks official recognition

The NUG has also increased its demands for official recognition from the EU, arguing that this would be a game-changer amid the civil war

In October 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution "supporting" the NUG as the "only legitimate representatives of the democratic wishes of the people of Myanmar." However, critics say that this support does not amount to "official" recognition.


Myanmar opposition urges recognition for government-in-exile

"[EU officials] are still giving many reasons why they can't. They say they want to restore the status quo before the military coup. Their approach is totally wrong," said the NUG official.

However, late last month, Heidi Hautala, one of the European Parliament's vice-presidents, called on "international actors to fully acknowledge the NUG as what it is, the legitimate government of Myanmar, and to support it accordingly with funding, capacity building initiatives, and diplomatic recognition."

On September 25, she was part of a delegation of parliamentarians from Southeast Asia and Europe that traveled to New York to lobby the United Nations, the US State Department and the US Congress to support Myanmar's pro-democracy movement.

She also met with Saifuddin Abdullah, the foreign minister of Malaysia, the Southeast Asian country that has so far been the most supportive of the NUG.

Hautala told DW that the EU and its member states can and should help the NUG establish representation in EU capitals and also in international organizations.

"The EU can also help build the capacity of the NUG and promote good governance. The EU should also facilitate trust-building between the NUG and ethnic organizations to prepare the ground for a peaceful transition to a federal system," she added.

However, to officially acknowledge the NUG as the legitimate government of Myanmar would require unanimity among the 27 EU member states. This would be hard to achieve in the current climate and also because some member states have a policy not to recognize governments but countries, Hautala said.

Another unnamed EU spokesperson added that the bloc did recognize the NUG as one of the key stakeholders "who must be engaged [with] to determine the future of the country." 

They said that dialogue with all parties, including the NUG, the ousted National League for Democracy party, and the country's numerous Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) was "essential for restoring the path to democracy." 

A Myanmar PDF fighter poses with a large Suu Kyi tattoo
Members of Myanmar's People's Defence Force (PDF) control large pockets of the country, mostly in rural areasImage: REUTERS

Meanwhile, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is still trusted by much of the international community to take a lead in solving the Myanmar crisis, has its annual summit coming up in November. it might have to take a more decisive stance on whether to give the junta the cold shoulder and increase cooperation with the NUG.

In December, the EU is due to  host its first full summit with ASEAN states in Brussels. A European Commission official has said that there is likely to be greater European attention to Myanmar in the run-up to the meeting, which could prompt the bloc to actively discuss the question of recognition.

"The most important thing is to have recognition," said an NUG official. "Some European governments are willing to have silent diplomacy with us. But we don't want to be on the sidelines."

Edited by: Wesley Rahn