by Theo Guzman

Zaw Wai Soe (from X)

Zaw Wai Soe, a key figure in the National Unity Government, the secret body formed after Burma’s 2021 coup, is optimistic: “I’m sure we will win. We will see. 2024 will be a watershed for everyone.” The Minister of Education and Health (he is a specialist in spinal medicine) is convinced that things are changing fast in Myanmar. It is hard to blame him.

After a swarm of drones hit the capital, Naypyidaw, a few days ago, Myawaddy has fallen into the hands of the Karen National Liberation Army and the People’s Defence Force in recent days: it is the town on the border with Thailand that has essentially cut off commercial traffic to and from Myanmar. It is a strategic town whose encirclement from Mae Sot was reported in the Atlas of Wars last month. Cut off from supplies and supported only by the bombardment of the Burmese air force, the city surrendered to the ‘rebels’ and negotiated the evacuation of its officers. The periphery of the whole country, in Shan, Kachin, Chin, Rakhine and Kayah states, is basically in the hands of the resistance. They are surrounding the coup forces. We sat for an interview with Zaw Wai Soe, who explained what the joint strategy of the shadow government and its armed groups (Pdf-Nug) and the Eao (Ethnic Armed Organisation) is now based on.

Does the military victory make you optimistic?
Yes, if you compare the February coup with previous ones: we had them in 1958, 1962, 1988 and 2021, and the military was able to control the country within weeks. In ’88, after a month and a half, the country was calm and under total control. And now? Three years after the coup, they are losing and the revolution is winning. The process is linear: in 2021 we formed a government and a council that brought together the different revolutionary souls of the country and we began to consolidate an alliance with the different ethnic components (Ethnic Armed Organisation ed). In 2022 we prepared, organised and united for our revolution. In 2023, we began to implement our strategy for victory by working on internal political progress and coordinating our messages to the international community, the various financial aspects and, of course, military action. With Operation 1027 (joint military action launched in October ed), we moved from defence to attack. The year 2024 will see a decisive turning point in the coming months. You will see that we have won.

People wonder how solid the alliance is between such different groups…
Today we can read joint statements from the Nug and the different souls of the resistance. It was a long process of unity, but in the end, many groups decided to join the resistance: in Shan State, Karen, Karenni, Chin or Kachin areas. And we see this now with what is happening in Rakhine or Karen State. Just in Karen State, the Border Guard Force (BGF), who was previously allied with the junta, has decided to stop fighting the KNLA. These are the things that will allow the revolution to triumph.

Perhaps for the first time, there is a sense of unity among the various forces, and all borders are crumbling under the impact of what appears to be a coordinated operation. But many are worried about what will happen next. Will this unity last? Will it move towards some form of federal state, or will the momentum run out in many small secessions?
Some may be worried, but we Burmese are not. The unity process is a done deal and we are all working together, not just in the military aspect. There have been three years of continuous dialogue to understand each other, and that has led to the coordination of different forces, as we saw in Operation 1027. There was the brotherhood alliance (three armed ‘ethnic’ groups) but also the Mandalay prisoners of war. Of course, we hear the concerns of the international community about possible fragmentation, but I rule it out. Since the late 1940s, there has been talk of a federal form of government, but it has never happened because the military did not want it. But now the time has come to resolve the disputes and create a democratic federal state. This is now a common choice: a true federal state with a true democracy. We cannot negotiate this with the coup leaders. We have to build it ourselves. We can see how control of the Karen, Kachin, Chin and Rakhine states has now changed hands. From the periphery, we will also come together, united, because we have the people on our side: resilient people who have suffered for three years, who have lost everything, but who continue to participate and sacrifice their lives for the revolution.

What will happen to the coup army if you win?
We have introduced the concept of ‘transitional justice’ in what will be the new constitution. The people want justice. So that includes the military. Those who have committed crimes against humanity will have to answer to the national and international laws that govern these crimes. But beware, this will apply to all of us. In essence, those who have not committed crimes have nothing to fear, but those who have been guilty of serious acts will have to answer for them. We also apply international humanitarian law that states that before the army, the Nug, or the Eao, the people, the human beings, are first.

Will it also apply to the Rohingya (the Muslim minority expelled from the country in recent years)?
Of course, it does. The Rohingya are Burmese citizens in their own right and have suffered like other Burmese: expulsions, killings, rapes. We are all Burmese brothers and sisters. All Equal.

Will they be able to return?
Of course, they will. I also want to go back to my family home. And I will do it together with the Rohingya.

What do you say to the EU, which does not recognise the NUG?
To Europe, I say ‘thank you’. Europe has condemned the coup and moved. But that is not enough. We need political recognition and humanitarian aid. So I say to your government and to the Italian people: please be with us and support us.

Things are changing for China too, but I think the Chinese are afraid of a democratic Burma.

On the cover photo, rows of trucks at the land border between Mae Sot (Thailand) and Miawaddy (Myanmar), after rebel/military junta clashes © Alessandro De Pascale, March 2024