Melbourne, Australia – Aung Myo Min, the human rights minister of Myanmar’s parallel National Unity Government (NUG), has urged the world to hold the military to account for possible war crimes since seizing power more than two years ago.
Visiting Australia, where he met advocacy groups and NGOs, and spoke at universities, the minister also aimed to win support for the civilian government’s movement to overthrow the military regime.
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Since the military removed Myanmar’s democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) party from government in February 2021, the ethnically diverse country has fragmented into numerous civil conflicts, exacerbating unrest that, in some areas, had been rumbling for decades.
In a shift away from overthrown leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s stance on nonviolence, the NUG instead has entered the fray by establishing the so-called Peoples’ Defence Force (PDF) of civilians, sometimes training and fighting alongside established ethnic armed groups.
The various civil conflicts are peppered by worsening human rights abuses committed by the military, including the alleged bombing of civilians, which the minister described as “crimes against humanity and war crimes”.
“We are not only highlighting what is going on in the country, but we are calling for international accountability by all means possible in the international judicial system,” Aung Myo Min told Al Jazeera.
Last month, Cyclone Mocha ripped through low-lying areas of northwestern Rakhine state, destroying camps where many Rohingya have lived for more than a decade, adding to concerns about military control over humanitarian assistance in the rapidly splintering country.
The NUG – formed out of the ashes of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD – has maintained diplomatic relations with foreign governments, but it has yet to secure official recognition – coveted also by the generals who led the power grab.
On this occasion, the first of any NUG representative to Australia, Aung Myo Min also met the adviser to Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong.
“We have to do our best to get the recognition of the NUG as the legitimate government because we are the legitimate government,” he said.
The NUG’s PDF groups have also been accused of some human rights abuses, with three members facing allegations of extrajudicial killing and rape of suspected military sympathisers in central Sagaing’s Chaung-U township last August.
The alleged perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice.
In response, the minister told Al Jazeera that the case was “in process for legal action” and that the NUG was “doing a lot of things to prevent this kind of thing [from happening] by adopting the military code of conduct that applies to every single member of the Peoples Defence Forces: to obey and to respect.”
Further hampering the NUG’s efforts to create sustainable support is the diversity of ethnic groups that make up Myanmar, many of which were fighting against the military long before the latest coup.
Officially, there are more than 135 ethnic groups in the country of more than 55 million people, which – formerly known as Burma and part of British India – was established at the end of British colonisation in 1948. The mainly Muslim Rohingya are not counted among ethnic minorities because successive Myanmar governments have depicted them as “interlopers” from Bangladesh. They were deprived of their citizenship under a 1982 law.
Despite the nation’s diversity, the majority Bamar (also known as Burman) ethnic group has dominated both the military and major parties, such as the NLD, exacerbating ongoing ethnic tensions.
But the human rights minister told Al Jazeera it was vital for the leadership to be inclusive of other ethnic groups, including in both civil society and Ethnic Armed Groups (EAGs).
“The NUG is a composition of the different stakeholders, including the members of parliament from 2020 elections, and also representative of ethnic backgrounds,” he said.
“It is important to bring trust, and also proof that the NUG [is] collaborating with the different ethnic groups.”
In the interview with Al Jazeera, Aung Myo Min acknowledged the failure of Aung San Suu Kyi, who the military has jailed, to adequately address the 2017 military crackdown, which forced nearly a million Rohingya into southern Bangladesh.
Many, Rohingya included, had thought the Nobel Peace Prize winner would be their champion. Instead, in December 2019, while still the country’s de facto leader, she went to the international court in The Hague to defend the military against charges of genocide.
“The first thing [the NUG] did was recognise and acknowledge the crimes taking place against the Rohingya people. This is not a hidden agenda any more,” he insisted.
“We strongly recommend and are committed to bring[ing] justice for the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities who experience many forms of crimes by the military.”
Rual Thang, from the predominantly Christian Chin state in the west of Myanmar above Rakhine, now lives in Australia and met the minister during his trip.
He told Al Jazeera that it was vital that the NUG successfully engage with diverse ethnic groups, not only in Myanmar but in the international diaspora.
“Engagement with the diverse tribal and ethnic communities is necessary,” he said. “Otherwise, their legitimacy among the people, especially for the ethnic minorities, could be affected.”
Rual Thang, who migrated temporarily to Australia in 2019 to study, is now reluctant to return due to the escalated fighting since the 2021 coup and the repression of political activists such as himself.
Armed groups such as the Chinland Defence Force (CDF) and the Chin National Defence Force (CNDF) have emerged since the coup and are allied with the longstanding Chin National Army (CNA), which was established in the aftermath of a major political uprising in 1988.
Rual Thang told Al Jazeera that in his view, the Chin did not want to secede from Myanmar, but instead be equally represented in a federal cabinet.
“The Chin people have their own political agenda. The first priority is [a] federal state. But not necessarily succession [or] disintegration from mainland Burma. That’s not the political goal of the Chin people,” he said.
While acknowledging the minister’s efforts to create unity between the ethnic groups, he also remained sceptical about the NUG’s claims of diversity and believed that the NUG continued to represent the Bamar-dominated NLD.
“From my perspective, the NUG is an exile shadow government that basically represents the NLD party, not necessarily all the ethnic communities,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Right now, the goal is how to overthrow the military dictatorship. We need coordination among different ethnic communit[ies] as well as strong coordination with the NUG. But I think we haven’t seen that much between the NUG and the ethnic community leaders.”
In an indication of potential differences, representatives from more than 170 PDFs from Sagaing who remain unaligned with the NUG held a two-day strategy meeting at the end of May without inviting NUG officials, Radio Free Asia’s Myanmar service reported this week.
Need for ‘trustworthy alliances’
Some Rohingya are also sceptical of the NUG’s motives.
“[The NUG] have not let any Rohingya representative to be involved in their political administration,” Habiburahman, who is living in exile in Australia, told Al Jazeera.
“We don’t know whether [the NUG] are using us for political scapegoat or whether they are genuine and they are sincere.”
Further compounding the complex situation in Rakhine state, where most of the country’s remaining Rohingya live, is the separatist Arakan Army (AA), who Habiburahman believes controls about 70 percent of the area.
Caught between the military, the AA and the NUG, Habiburahman told Al Jazeera the situation was a waiting game to see who would take control of the area.
“We [the Rohingya] don’t know whether the NUG will be successful or [if] the AA will be successful,” he said.
Still, some analysts argue the NUG has made progress.
The NUG has “a deliberately diverse cabinet, compared to the blatantly Burman-dominated NLD”, Nick Cheesman, from the Australian National University’s Myanmar Research Centre, told Al Jazeera.
“The NUG cabinet has a lot of non-Burman members, including its acting president [from Kachin], and acting PM [from Pwo Karen], federal union minister [from Chin], labour minister [from Mon], women’s affairs minister [from S’gaw Karen], international cooperation minister [from Chin] and natural resources minister [from Kachin],” he said, adding that while there is no Rohingya minister or deputy yet, the human rights minister has promised there will be.
Cheesman also acknowledges the immense challenges the NUG faces with respect to building trust and uniting the varied aspirations of the ethnic groups.
“There is no way that the NUG can or will unite all armed groups against the Myanmar military. Different groups have different interests,” he said.
“The NUG needs trustworthy alliances with militarily and politically formidable groups. Mainly, it needs to be able to form its own command structure out of the PDFs. As many of them don’t want to be ordered about, and the NUG is not able to offer them much, if anything, by way of support, this is a difficult task.”