The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why the Biden administration should recognize Myanmar’s shadow government

People demonstrate against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, on Wednesday. (Str/AFP/Getty Images)

This column has been updated.

Michael Haack is consultant at the Campaign for a New Myanmar. SiuSue Mark is a political economist who worked on Myanmar’s democratic transition during a stay in the country from 2008 to 2019. Both are members of the U.S. Advocacy Coalition for Myanmar.

President Biden responded to the Feb. 1 military coup in Myanmar with an executive order issued just a few days later. It described the military power grab as an “extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” The administration followed that move with a series of sanctions targeting the military’s top brass, military-owned companies and Myanmar’s State Administrative Council itself.

Yet there is one more step the Biden administration can take if it wishes to send a powerful message of support for democracy: recognizing the underground government established in opposition to the junta.

The National Unity Government (NUG) emerged from the massive protests against the coup that have involved almost every element of Myanmar society. The NUG consists of elected officials who managed to avoid arrest, representatives of the minority ethnic groups and prominent members of the protest movement. It is the closest entity the country has to a legitimate representative body embodying the popular will. The detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto head of the civilian government toppled by the coup, as well as much of her National League for Democracy’s leadership, has opened the door for the next generation of leaders to step up.

Since its formation on April 16, the NUG has called on the international community to recognize it as the only legal and legitimate government of Myanmar. Internally, the NUG is setting Myanmar on a path toward inclusive, federal democracy, which is all the more significant given the country’s seven-decade history of civil war among its various ethnic groups.

In practical terms, recognition would grant the shadow government much-needed resources, including the ability to borrow money. It would also be a necessary step for taking control of the $1 billion the Biden administration froze in the days after the coup. Such an action could tip the balance of power in favor of the democratic opposition, encouraging other governments to follow suit. Perhaps most importantly, this could give China a reason to soften its support for the military junta.

Unfortunately, State Department officials have responded with moral support while withholding full recognition, hinting that they might recognize the NUG once it addresses the country’s pervasive ethnic divides. In particular, various members of Congress, supported by human rights lobbyists, have expressed their outright refusal to grant this recognition until the underground government fully rectifies the injustice suffered by the Rohingya people, the Muslim ethnic minority group targeted by a vicious military ethnic cleansing campaign in 2017.

By imposing these conditions, Washington leaves the NUG with little space to maneuver. U.S. officials refuse to grant the underground government the full political and financial resources needed for it to comply with the criteria for recognition, then hold the NUG responsible for not meeting the same criteria. Moreover, this position demonstrates that the U.S. government does not appreciate the significance of what the NUG has achieved in the context of Myanmar’s tortured and fragmented history.

The NUG is the most representative governing body ever formed in Myanmar. This refers not only to its diversity in age, ethnicity, gender and religion, but also to its commitment to safeguarding human rights for those groups that have historically been marginalized. For the first time, the NUG has established a Ministry of Human Rights headed by Aung Myo Min, a prominent human rights advocate and Myanmar’s first openly gay minister.

The underground government’s cabinet members have reaffirmed their commitment to the rights of all ethnic minority groups, including the Rohingya, referring to them for the first time in official communication as “Rohingya citizens.” (Successive Myanmar governments have tried to efface a distinct Rohingya identity by claiming that they are actually ethnic Bengalis from neighboring Bangladesh.)

The NUG has vowed to abolish the 1982 citizenship law that formed a basis for the exclusion of the Rohingya and to pay reparations to those who have suffered violence and displacement from military campaigns, agreeing to comply with any future rulings from the International Court of Justice. Given the country’s history of ethnic strife since its founding in 1948, the international community should acknowledge the NUG’s remarkable achievement in adopting such unprecedented positions (not to mention its success in forming a broad-based government just a few weeks after the coup).

Myanmar is at a critical point. With each passing day that the U.S. government fails to take decisive action to recognize the underground government, Myanmar moves closer to becoming a failed state — consider the rapidly rising poverty rate or the ballooning number of covid-19 cases amid a collapsing health-care system. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet recently warned that the country could plunge into all-out civil war if nothing is done.

Unless the U.S. government shows stronger leadership to the rest of the world by fully backing the NUG politically and financially, it runs the risk of condemning Myanmar to decades of authoritarianism and immense human suffering.