Governments should recognise the National Unity Government in Burma
By Ambet Yuson, BWI General Secretary
Obtaining power through military adventurism permits murder of citizens, torture and the detention and harassment of all who dare to disagree. However, power is not the same thing as authority. The military tyrants of Myanmar have no authority. If they did, the thousands who risk their lives in civil disobedience, strikes, and massive protests would not have reacted to the 1 February coup.
Rulers born out of a coup have no legitimacy. Legitimacy comes from the people, not from the barrel of a gun. On 8 November 2020, a popular mandate was given to leaders, in a landslide, in a free and fair election.
The military cannot extinguish that mandate any more than they can crush the hopes and dreams of the Burmese people for freedom and democracy. The keepers of that mandate, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, a body of elected lawmakers from the ousted civilian government, reached out to leaders of ethnic minorities to create the National Unity Government (NUG).
If governments wish to respect that popular mandate, they must recognise the National Unity Government.
Most governments are careful not to consider the thugs who seized power to be a real government. Many have informal contacts with the NUG. The government of the United Kingdom has gone so far as inviting NUG officials to attend the G7 summit on 11-13 June in Cornwall, England.
Informal recognition and contacts are important. However, formal recognition of the NUG by governments and by international organisations would further isolate the military junta and place the global community on the side of legitimate leaders. It could speed the return to the path of democracy in Burma.
The NUG submitted to the ILO the names of their delegates to the 2021 International Labour Conference. So did the military junta that had seized power. Having received conflicting delegations, the Office has sent the issue to the ILC credentials committee, which will make a recommendation to the full Conference. This is an opportunity for governments, but also representatives of workers and employers, to tip the scale to recognise the mandate of the people over the mandate of weapons.
Credentials of an illegitimate government have been refused in the past by the ILC. The tripartite delegation from Hungary was not seated at the ILC in 1958 and 1958 in a rejection of the puppet regime installed by the Soviet Union after it crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956.
On 26 May 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO) excluded both delegations from its annual World Health Assembly. The issue has been referred to the UN General Assembly, which deals with credentials disputes in the UN system.
Credentials disputes and NUG recognition provide a direct way for trade unions and other forces of democracy, though intervention with their governments and with international organisations, to participate in the struggle of the Burmese people to defend their decision at the polls, their lives, and their futures.
It has happened before
This is not the first time that a legitimate government has been ousted by military forces, domestic or foreign. Some of those chased from power have been formally recognised by national governments and at the international level.
On 1 January 1942, 26 nations signed the Declaration by United Nations in Washington, DC. Between that gathering and the adoption of the UN Charter in 1945, 20 more nations signed the Declaration. The original signatories included governments in exile from eight countries in Europe that had been occupied by Axis powers. They were Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, and Yugoslavia.
There are several recent examples of government authorities that were recognized by States and international bodies as the “legitimate governments” of their countries. They include the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea - CGDK (1979-90), the Delvalle Government of Panama (1988-89), the Sabah Government of Kuwait (1990-91), the Aristide Government of Haiti (1991-94), the Kinigi Government of Burundi (1993), and the Kabbah Government of Sierra Leone (1997-98).
Time to act
The courageous people of Burma have not recognised the military authorities as their representatives. They have imposed the most effective sanctions against the junta.
BWI and other Global Unions strongly support Burmese trade unionists and others who fight for democracy. BWI has set up a strike support fund to help sustain their struggle.
Some governments have imposed sanctions on the military and their companies. Those measures are welcome, but it is past time for governments to have a sense of urgency that reflects the gravity of the situation on the ground. Every day that passes adds to the suffering of the Burmese people.
A rapid and effective measure would be recognition of the NUG. The Global Unions have called for it. BWI has urged affiliates to contact their governments to that end.
There is another reason that action is urgent. Prolonged despotism will not only deprive the people of their present, but of their future. Democracy is not the only issue in Burma. That is why it is so important that, in the formation of NUG, ethnic groups that have been in armed conflict with the central government for decades have decided to participate.
Seeking national unity and the return of democratic reforms gives hope. However, hope that is not nourished will die. National governments and international organisations, by recognising the NUG, can feed that hope and help make a bright future possible for the people of Burma.