Shouldering People’s Hopes and Fighting the Legitimate Battle: Interview with an NUG Minister

In one year of resistance, we have discovered who our real friends and foes along the way. Alliances and friendships are formed. Old friends part their ways for different beliefs, but new friends work together with the common goal of defying the military regime. In the 2020 General Election, policy reform advocate Laphai Maw Htun Aung ran for a seat in the parliament, representing Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) and competing against some of his current colleagues from the National Unity Government (NUG). A few months after the military coup, Laphai Maw Htun Aung joined the civilian-elected NUG, took the position of Deputy Minister for the Ministry of Electricity and Energy (MOEE) despite political differences with the National League for Democracy (NLD) members who are majority in the NUG. This month, we talked with Deputy Minister Laphai Maw Htun Aung; from his decision to join the NUG to milestones that his ministry has achieved, and the future of our revolution.

MM: We’ve known you from your candidacy in the 2020 Election representing Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD). What made you join the National Unity Government (NUG)?

MHA: It’s simple. I want to take part in this revolution from any way that I can. And this may be the last chance for our generation to move towards the path of federal democracy. I see that this is the real chance to be free from military dictatorship, and that’s why I joined NUG. As you know, I contested in 2020 Election from SNLD, but my work has always been about policy reform and governance reform for the past 10 years, regarding natural resources, extractive industry, and public financial management. In 2020, I decided to run in the election with the SNLD, but I did not consider NLD because looking at its track record, I did not like some of their policies, and I didn’t feel that they were committed to federal democracy. That’s why I contested in Northern Shan State, representing the SNLD. I didn’t win the seat, and only ranked as first runner up because election frauds took place in my constituency. Not committed by NLD but by other political parties. So I was in the middle of the reporting process for election fraud. Just one week before the first court hearing for my case, the military coup took place. Since then, I’ve been explicitly rejecting the coup both in Northern Shan State, and on my personal Facebook page. When CRPH and NUG were formed, I was advising them.

Like I said before, I don’t agree with the NLD in many policy areas but I have had good relations with the Central Executive Committee and Central Committee members, and MPs. So I was advising them from the outside after the coup, before I officially took NUG position. I did not see any other platforms emerged after a while, so I thought, by taking an official position at NUG, I will be able to do something, speak something at least. The main reason, above all, is that I want no regret in the future about what I could have done. In this critical time of our country, I want to give it my all, using all my capacity and doing all my best, despite what kind of result we will get at the end of the day. So with that spirit, I joined the NUG.

MM: When you joined the NUG, we thought you would be working in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation (MONREC), considering your background. But some of us were surprised that you took a role in MOEE. So why is that?

MHA: Yeah, many people saw me in MONREC. Actually, oil and gas as a part of the extractive industry, is also one of my expertise so I do not have a problem working in this ministry. Also, in terms of responsibility-sharing among the ministries, NUG focuses more on the collective effort in winning this revolution, rather than formalities in respective ministries, and that’s fine with me. So I accepted the position of Deputy Minister of MOEE at the NUG.

MM: What kind of success have your ministry have carried out since its formation?

MHA: I’d rather call them as small milestones, but we can also take these as success. First of all, the public is more enlightened than ever. I’ve always been an advocate for public financial management, like how the authorities have been using the public funds. If we want to cripple the military regime, we have to cut its income sources, and they have three sources of income. The first one is its income from natural sources such as selling of oil and gas, jade and gemstones, forests and lands, etc. The second source is tax and revenues such as income tax, commercial tax, municipal tax, and electricity bills. The last one is international aid and support such as development loans. We need to stop these incomes for the military. Based on these, our ministry has done a lot, and the public willingly has joined the boycotts such as boycotting the electricity bill, tax payments as a form of civil disobedience. The public showed the illegitimacy of the State Administration Council (SAC), and showed disobedience. These are our milestones of course. In terms of cutting income sources from sales of natural resources, TotalEnergies has withheld a part of the payables, not all, to the SAC, and recently both Total and Chevron decided to suspend their operations in Myanmar due to the deterioration of human rights situations. This is, yet again, another milestone. Internally, our ministry has also managed to reform and worked together with People’s Administration Teams as well. Besides, we were able to do other things which cannot be said publicly.

MM: Regarding the boycott of electricity bills, some people are frustrated because the regime used force to collect electricity bills. So what would you advise to these people?

MHA: If the household’s electricity bills are more than 10 lakh Myanmar Kyats, we advise the household owner to switch to a solar system. For families that can afford, if they can spend about 20 lakh, they can switch to a solar system which can run the water mortar as well. But this solution is for the households that can afford, of course, with their own compound and all. For those with apartments, we understand there are limited options for them. Our main strategy in this boycott is 1) to not pay the bill, 2) to delay the payment as long as possible and 3) to disrupt the regime’s cash flow as much as we can. So, we encourage the public to not pay the bill until soldiers come in and cut the cables at their homes. It’s still very difficult for those who live in apartments. In those cases, we advise the public to negotiate and pay electricity bills but only for like three months, then stall for a few months to delay the payment. So these are the tactics we encourage the public to use.

MM: We have heard reports about the military regime’s environmental crimes such as extracting natural resources, illegal logging, etc. Regarding these, does your ministry take records and then report to international organizations? Like the way the Ministry of Human Rights does to the regime’s crimes against humanity.

MHA: No, we haven’t done anything like that. But under the MONREC, people’s defense forces (PDFs) have been providing security for nature reserve areas. Under MOEE, we have been trying to protect the artisanal oil wells in a more systematic way. But no, we do not have a reporting system for environmental crimes yet.

MM: As far as we know, NUG doesn’t really have strongholds, so how will MOEE operate its service provisions?

MHA: Actually, we do have control of some areas in Sagaing, Chin, Karenni states. In those areas, NUG has started providing services for education and healthcare by working together with People’s Administration Teams and local PDFs, but they are only operating on townships basis, and not on a large scale though. The SAC is also using aerial attacks so they have to operate discreetly, but what we can say is that there is a growing number of contested areas, and NUG is able to work in semi-operated areas as well. So in the future, MOEE will try to provide services in these areas depending on the situations.

MM: Does NUG have an overall strategic plan? How do you see the NUG’s management practices? Are you satisfied with it?

MHA: Each ministry has strategies – both long and short terms, and NUG has a common strategy as a government, led by the prime minister and the president office. We have been putting more effort in strategic coordination. The thing is that we do not have an office, so that is a bit of a setback. Still, I think our strategic implementation has improved a lot more than before, and it has become measurable – better prioritization and coordination. While we are able to mobilize more revenues on one hand, the implementation has also improved. In particular, we can see more recognition on the international stage. This is my personal view on current NUG’s operations. Honestly, I’m not fully satisfied but we must not forget we are a government that started from zero. Having to start a government organization out of nothing, and now, although not very visible, there are operations starting on ground, impacting the public. So this means that our hard work has been slowly paid off.

MM: In last month’s issue, we collected some opinions from our readers. Some genuinely believe that a significant change will take place in 2022, and the SAC will be removed. Others think that this year will not be so much different from 2021 because the SAC has more firepower although our armed resistance has grown. So what do you see for our revolution this year?

MHA: I personally believe that the people who put their faith and work their best will win. The public has been very explicit about where they stand. They no longer accept the military and its bullying culture. People have reached a point where they do not care if the country has collapsed, as long as they do not have to live under the military regime. This is the most intense thing. The military can longer threaten the public with the notion such as federalism means collapse of the country, etc. At this point, the public is ready to live in chaos, which they think is even better than military rule. Sure the SAC has better firepower than us, no doubt. But considering the increasing international recognition, the growing strength of PDFs, and the most important thing is the people’s spirit, we have a very promising chance. There were people who publicly said the protests would disperse in three months, and some so-called “experts” even said by June, July (of 2021) the CDM movement will also be shattered, but the people have proved them wrong. My view is that the side that commits to the cause and puts more effort both mentally and physically will dominate 2022, and it is our side. There is no one who supports SAC with his/her income. It is us, the NUG and PDFs that the public is supporting. I believe that the side that receives support from the people will get the upper hand in the long run. So I can’t say we will definitely win in 2022, but this year, we will see more clearly which side actually has a higher chance to win this.

MM: It’s been a year since the coup. The country is in a chaotic situation, and the economy is free falling. I’m sure you are well aware. But the people keep on resisting the junta despite all the hardships. So what would you like to say to them?

MHA: We have invested so much in this revolution that we are at the point of no return. Moving and pushing forward with the revolution is the only answer to overcome the current political and economic problems. We must all come to terms with this inconvenience because it’s the truth. It’s inevitable that we will suffer a lot this year because whatever policies that SAC imposes, they negatively impact the country, such as increasing the price of internet packages this month, blocking the cross-border trades etc. These policies negatively affect small and medium enterprises. So it’s inevitable that we will encounter more hardships because of the SAC. But like I said before, we have invested so much in this revolution, so once we make up our mind to fully commit to the revolution, we will be strong enough to face all these hardships.

MM: Since our content is distributed in English, we have readers from the international community. As a minister of the civilian-elected National Unity Government (NUG), what would you like to say to them?

MHA: Our Spring Revolution is unique. Our enemy is someone who is ten times more ruthless than Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi. The way Min Aung Hlaing and his fascist army have been killing their own people in cold-blood, and committing various forms of atrocity is beyond what al-Assad did or Gaddafi did. Against this regime, our resistance is legitimate, and it is a necessary resistance. Because if we don’t fight, the civilians will not have any protection against this regime. As you know, the United Nations Security Council has been ineffective, and so has the ASEAN. When you look at the bigger picture, the resistance force inside the country is extremely important to win the revolution. So it is important for the international community to work together with the NUG, whether in terms of humanitarian assistance or democracy/federal affairs. We are facing problems that the Western countries have faced decades before, such as the emergence of fascism, Nazism, Italian fascism etc. How did the West solve these problems? Not by negotiation. When one side was using extreme force and weapons, leaders of the Allies did not think of negotiation as an answer for democracy and human rights. They responded with military actions to restore democracy, human rights and humanity. Maybe we can say history repeats itself. Looking at Myanmar’s situation, it is the same. So don’t just support us with lip service. Because on SAC’s side, Min Aung Hlaing’s allies provide support physically. So the international community which has been reiterating peace and democracy must understand Myanmar’s unique situation very well, and support the NUG and other resistance forces such as Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) effectively. This is my message to the countries in the West who have consolidated democracies.

MM: Would you like to add anything?

MHA: Uprisings and revolutions are not new for Myanmar because we’ve seen 1974 U Thant funeral crisis, the workers’ protests, protests that emerged after the banknote cancellations, the 8888 Uprising, students’ protests in 1996-97, then 2007 Saffron Revolution, and even as recent as 2015 Students protests. We have witnessed different forms of uprisings and protests. But this time is different. We see that all ethnic groups, all religious groups, people from all social classes join this revolution. This unity shows that this is the turning point for our country. While our citizens are taking part in this revolution in any way they can, the international community must recognize this unique characteristic and support the people.

Mohinga Matters

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