In this image provided by the Military True News Information Team, supporters of the military government hold nationalistic banners and portraits of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, chairman of the State Administration Council.

Myanmar revolutionaries seek $1 billion frozen by the US

Zin Mar Aung is the minister of foreign affairs for Myanmar's revolutionary National Unity Government. She spoke to The World about her government’s quest for recognition, no-fly zones and parallels between Myanmar and Ukraine.

The World

In this image provided by the Military True News Information Team, supporters of the military government hold nationalistic banners and portraits of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, chairman of the State Administration Council, during a rally on Feb. 1, 2022, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. 

Military True News/AP

Zin Mar Aung is Myanmar’s minister of foreign affairs. One of them, at least. 

The country has two governments: a military junta that seized power in the February 2021 coup — as well as a revolutionary government, set up by elected officials who have escaped the army’s clutches.

Zin Mar Aung serves the second one, known as the National Unity Government or NUG. Hunted by military forces, she and fellow Cabinet members work from undisclosed locations and manage affairs over encrypted apps. 

Related: From bookworm to bomb maker: The evolution of a Myanmar revolutionary

An armed uprising in Myanmar’s plains, towns and jungles intends to create a new Myanmar, rid of the dictatorial military that has hovered over the country since the 1960s. Realizing that dream is the job of guerrillas. Zin Mar Aung’s job is convincing other countries that there is one true government of Myanmar, and it is not the one with tanks and fighter jets.

The revolution’s top diplomat is particularly keen for the United States to recognize the NUG as the rightful government. This would unlock aid and assistance, as well as a whopping $1 billion. The money was stored in the US Federal Reserve back when Myanmar had only one government. 

Now that it has two, the US is fidgeting over the cash — even though it decries the junta and, for three decades running, praised Myanmar’s pro-democratic movement.

White House favorite Aung San Suu Kyi, though now imprisoned, is nominally among the NUG’s leaders. Zin Mar Aung, a former political prisoner, is a twice-elected parliamentarian under Suu Kyi’s party.

Related: US journalist jailed in Myanmar for nearly six months is freed

Minister Zin Mar Aung spoke to The World about her government’s quest for recognition, no-fly zones and parallels between Myanmar and Ukraine.

The World: Minister, when you speak to US officials, what reasons do they give for not accepting your government?
Zin Mar Aung: Their diplomatic reasoning is “We’ll engage with the state, not necessarily its government.” But even if the US government doesn’t recognize us officially as the government of Myanmar — at least not yet — they do recognize our struggle to restore democracy. I must admit, their position is not very clear. But they acknowledge our efforts.
If you received official recognition from the US, how would that help your revolution?
Official recognition will bring benefits that go beyond moral support. We could get real help — like humanitarian assistance. And real funding. It would give us access to the roughly $1 billion that has been frozen in the US. That could bring us closer to a turning point in the revolution.
I’m glad you brought up the $1 billion in the Federal Reserve. Would that be a real game-changer for you? What would you do with that money?
Our revolution has gotten zero funding from any other country. None. Only the public is supporting us as we forge ahead. Not just in terms of war but with strikes and demonstrations. Maybe you’ve seen that we sell government bonds now. The Myanmar diaspora across the world has raised millions of dollars so we can provide real services on the ground and finance the revolution. Look, people in Myanmar have to set up their very own defense forces to fight the military, which is slowly killing them. But if we access that billion dollars, we’ll be able to really provide more humanitarian assistance — and logistics for the defense forces.
Some of the revolutionary fighters on your side are asking for a “no-fly zone.” Outside forces actually shooting down fighter jets over Myanmar. What do you think of this idea?
This idea comes from the fact that the terrorist military uses air strikes to target our ground forces. It’s clear they can’t win by fighting on the ground. So, they launch indiscriminate attacks from the air. They hit civilians. And medical facilities and schools and religious sites. They’ll bomb villages and hit women, children and elderly people. This is why many on our side talk about a no-fly zone. The air force is the terrorist military’s only advantage. Without air support, their troops can’t win against our revolutionary fighters.
You are pretty well known for activism. You’ve met Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. Are any famous political figures helping you out behind the scenes?
To be open with you, I get some moral support. But there’s really no one like that helping us behind the scenes.
Everyone is focused on Ukraine right now. But your country has something in common with Ukraine. Russia sells weapons to the Myanmar junta. So does China. What is your message to countries that provide weapons to your enemies?
We’ve requested a total arms embargo from the UN. And from individual countries, too. There are many countries selling weapons to the military. My message to them is very clear: You are part of the killing. You’re part of every civilian life that is taken away.
What type of relationship does the National Unity Government want with China?
We seek engagement with China but they seem very prudent. Our message to China has been clear: democracy in Myanmar is not a threat to China. It’s a benefit to China. Democracy will mean we are stable. And able to offer sustainable investment. The coup has only made Chinese investors less interested in Myanmar. To be clear: for this revolution, we’re not requesting Chinese help. We just ask China to not support the terrorist junta and not legitimize them.
Imagine your side wins this civil war. Tell me about the new Myanmar you would try to create.
We believe our democratic forces will remove this military from power. We’ll rebuild the nation and start a new chapter. We will extract the military from the political sphere. And we’ll resolve the problems of ethnic inequality and ethnic self-determination. We have something called the Federal Democracy Charter. It’s our road map for rebuilding Myanmar after the revolution. We want to avoid a political vacuum. Armed groups, people who have led strikes against the regime, parliamentarians — we will come together and transition into a federal democracy. That’s our open door to a future Myanmar.
Minister, what else would you like to add?
I’d like to make a comment about Ukraine and Russia. When you have a big powerful nation using military might to invade a sovereign nation, naturally that grabs the world’s attention. In Myanmar, weapons are also used to attack, torture and persecute civilians — all the way up to our president, who is in prison. But we notice how the world’s response differs. You know, International Women’s Day is happening [March 8] and we all know about domestic violence and the need to help people who are hurt in a domestic environment. Other countries hesitate to support us because they think, unlike Ukraine, Myanmar’s problem is “domestic.” But don’t we deserve the same consideration? We are victims of domestic violence. Countries should take a stand and say, no, we won’t let them be victimized any longer.

This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.