Zin Mar Aung is the foreign minister of the shadow National Unity Government, or NUG, that represents the civilian administration that was ousted in last year’s military takeover in Myanmar. The former democracy activist and political prisoner is in Washington, D.C., for meetings on the sidelines of the summit of U.S. and Southeast Asian leaders, seeking greater diplomatic recognition for the NUG. She spoke Thursday to RFA’s Managing Editor for Southeast Asia Matthew Pennington about the need for the United States to support democracy forces against the Myanmar junta, and for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to step up engagement with the NUG.
Zin Mar Aung spent 11 years as a political prisoner under a previous military regime in Myanmar, including years in solitary confinement. She was released in 2009. She was elected in 2015 as a member of the House of Representatives for Yankin township, Yangon, for the National League for Democracy – a position she lost in the Feb. 1, 2021, military coup. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
RFA: Can I ask you first about your meetings with Biden administration officials? Do you have any more confidence now that the United States might consider giving formal diplomatic recognition to the National Unity Government?
Zin Mar Aung: Yes, I feel that because, you know, the way the Biden administration has engaged with me and the way they treat me is really very good and very much welcome and very much supportive. Very friendly discussions. This trip is really encouraging to me.
RFA: So who have you met from the administration?
ZMA: I met this morning with the Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and (State Department Counselor) Derek Chollet and also the president's adviser for human rights.
RFA: Have you asked them directly whether they are going to recognize the National Unity Government as being the rightful government of Myanmar?
ZMA:So this trip, you know, I didn't directly address them (on this), but we usually ask them to recognize and engage and to support our struggle. So today what they have said is that by welcoming us to Washington, D.C., they are very much consistent, you know, supporting our struggles and they appreciate what the NUG is doing and and also our commitment. So they are also showing their commitment to support us.
RFA: What's the single most important thing you think for the United States to do, to support what you're trying to do in Myanmar?
ZMA: The United States as a leading, powerful and democratic country, has not just this time, but also previously, continuously supported our struggle (against military rule), whether Democrats or Republicans … And it's very important, as by getting support from the United States, with its allies, it is very encouraging for our movement, both diplomatically and politically and in terms of, for example, economic sanctions. (The United States) has a lot of allies.
RFA: Now it's been about one year since the Association of Southeast Asian Nations adopted its Five-Point Consensus to try and bring about a resolution to the crisis in Myanmar. And there's been very little progress during that past year. Now, I understand that you're meeting with some ASEAN foreign ministers while you're here. Can you tell us a bit about who you've met or who you're due to meet and whether you're any more confident now that ASEAN can help resolve the situation in Myanmar?
ZMA: Yes, I met a few ASEAN foreign ministers. You know, publicly I'm about to meet with the Malaysian foreign minister. So regarding the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus, we already issued a statement. The coup leader didn't follow, didn't keep his promise (to meet with all stakeholders in Myanmar) … That is why the Five-Point Consensus is not enough to solve the problem. We very much support the Five-Point Consensus. It needs to be implemented. But the problem is that there is no accountability mechanism. Now it is time for ASEAN to move forward, whether the coup leaders implement it properly or not. If not, what happens next? This is the question for the ASEAN leadership.
RFA: Have you had the chance to meet the Cambodian foreign minister (Prak Sakhonn), who is ASEAN's envoy to Myanmar?
ZMA: No, I haven't met (him).
RFA: And do you think you're going to meet him on this trip?
ZMA: Not sure. I also sent a request letter to meet during this trip, but, you know, (he) hasn't replied yet.
RFA: So what do you see are the prospects of ASEAN actually engaging directly with the NUG? It seems like you're meeting with ministers from some countries, but not from others.
ZMA: Yes, like I said before, some member states are willing to engage. It (engagement) is actually in line with the Five-Point Consensus. The ASEAN envoy needs to meet with different stakeholders. We are very huge stakeholders supported by the people. So why doesn't the ASEAN envoy meet with us (Myanmar) except the SAC (ruling military State Administration Council)? What we are asking for is in line with the Five-Point Consensus. So that is why I would like to encourage the ASEAN member states and leadership to follow through and to engage with different stakeholders in Burma, not just only with us.
RFA: It's been about 15 months since the military coup led by Min Aung Hlaing. Can you summarize for me what is the situation inside Myanmar now in terms of the extent of the conflict in the country and the impact that it's having on civilian population?
ZMA: It has had a very huge impact for the daily life of civilian populations. Also on the military, actually. There are a lot of defectors in the military. Military personnel themselves, you know, do not believe their leadership. So it has a very huge impact (on them). It's one of the indicators how much impact the military coup has on its own institutions. Even the military, soldiers, officials do not support the military coup .. And people now very much realize why we need the military out of politics; why we need the military to be professionalized … how important it is for the military not to intervene in politics. Another thing is that this is a generation, new generation, not from 1988 or the 20th century, it's 21st century. This generation are now more hungering for individual freedoms. They know very well, even though in the past we thought that they are not that much interested in politics … it was so surprising for us. The new generation are very much anchored in freedom and justice.
RFA: There's been a major displacement of civilian population. Many people have died in the conflict … What sort of impact has it had on you personally?
ZMA: It is heartbreaking. (Conflict) has happened (in the past) in the ethnic minority-controlled areas. This time it's happening in Burman-majority areas like Sagaing, Magway, Rangoon and Mandalay. There is a lot of violence committed by the military, bluntly. So it's very heartbreaking seeing that people are being killed by their own military. So that is why many people are joining this movement and are very much resilient even after, you know, 15 months: still strong against the military coup and they are asking for their freedom and justice back in their daily life. So, yeah, this is my personal assessment. It's really totally different since I spent 11 years (as a prisoner) around 1996 and 1998. This is totally different, this age of Generation Z. They are very brave and very inspired.
RFA: Do you think that the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) can be beaten militarily because they are one of the biggest militaries in Southeast Asia and very battle-hardened. I know they've suffered defections that you talked about, but do you think it's possible for People's Defense Forces to defeat the Tatmadaw?
ZMA: Actually, our revolution doesn't depend just on military. People's Defense Forces are like additional forces for our own political and diplomatic and economic pressure on the military. We are not just choosing the way of armed struggle. We just initiated the People's Defense Forces to exercise their right to self-defense and that will definitely be an initiative for security sector reform.