Myanmar’s armed resistance groups are asking the U.S. government for over half a billion dollars in humanitarian and nonlethal aid to help them oust the country’s military regime, including money for drones, armored vehicles and radar jamming gear.
Using another name for Myanmar, the U.S. Congress passed the Burma Unification through Rigorous Military Accountability Act, or BURMA, Act, in December as part of a sweeping defense budget for the 2023 fiscal year, which runs through September. The act authorizes the U.S. government to help armed groups resisting the junta with nonlethal assistance but did not assign any funding.
Some of those groups are now asking Congress to appropriate $525 million for Myanmar for the next fiscal year, including $200 million for nonlethal aid. The total would be nearly four times the $136 million approved for Myanmar last year for general aid and development.
The request comes from Myanmar’s National Unity Government, a shadow administration run from hiding and exile vying to oust the junta, and a trio of allied ethnic minority rebel armies. Along with hundreds of smaller, local militias, they are believed to have full or contested control of roughly half Myanmar’s countryside.
The NUG told VOA it has sent its proposed appropriations language, seen by VOA, to the appropriations committees of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives but would not elaborate on their response. The chairs and senior minority members of the committees either refused VOA’s request for comment or did not reply.
Everything but arms
The groups have been asking Western countries for military aid but so far been denied.
That has left them heavily outgunned by a military that has reportedly imported some $1 billion in arms and arms-making material since toppling the country’s elected government in a February 2021 coup. Most of it has come from Russia, China and Singapore.
Still, a big boost in humanitarian and nonlethal aid to the resistance would go far in helping it gain ground, said Sasa, the NUG’s minister of international cooperation, who goes by one name.
With the $525 million they are asking for, “that means [the] pro-democracy movement will be hugely advanced” and that “we will weaken the military junta in a very, very big way,” he told VOA.
The draft language would allocate most of the $525 million to helping the more than 1.5 million people displaced by the fighting and to setting up a new government on the ground to replace the junta, the State Administration Council.
The drones, vehicles and radar gear would come from the $200 million in proposed nonlethal aid, along with telecommunications hardware, real-time satellite data, engineering and construction equipment, and military medical supplies.
Sasa said the figures were carefully calibrated to be both “realistic” and “strategic” in helping them achieve their top three goals of ousting the junta, creating a representative federal democracy and helping displaced people.
“It’s impossible to divert from those three main priorities because that is the reason why the people of Myanmar are fighting, that is the reason and the main objective that we are giving our life [for], that is to remove the military from power so that we can establish a federal democratic system,” he said.
From farm to front
More than 30,000 people are estimated to have died from the fighting since the coup, including over 3,000 civilians.
“Marwi,” a militia leader in eastern Myanmar’s Karenni state who uses a nom de guerre for his and his family’s safety, is especially keen for military-grade telecommunications and drones.
An organic farmer before the coup, he is now second secretary and deputy chief battalion commander of the Karenni National Defense Force, a volunteer militia fighting the junta.
The commercial-grade telecommunications equipment his units use now is easily jammed by the military during attacks, Marwi said.
“When they … jam, we cannot communicate with each other, so we cannot send our information to our teams who are on the front line or who are in the middle or who are in the back. Sometimes very important information cannot reach them very quickly,” he told VOA.
“If we have good communication devices and also services, that would be really helpful for this revolution, not only for [armed] forces but also for the community like villages, because SAC, they are striking [with] artillery and air force everywhere, not only the war active zone but also local people residence areas such as village, church, school, marketplace.”
He said more and better drones and satellite data would help them detect military troop positions and movements, to avoid attacks on their own positions and to clear civilians out of harm’s way. Body armor and ballistic helmets, he added, could help save their lives in a firefight.
Sasa also stressed the need for early-warning radar equipment to help them spot and avoid oncoming air strikes, which the junta has been using to increasingly devastating and deadly effect as the fighting grinds on.
Tilting the balance
The U.S. Congress is still in the midst of the appropriations process for fiscal 2024.
Whatever amount it settles on for Myanmar, it is unlikely the final appropriations bill will dedicate a specific dollar amount for the BURMA Act and nonlethal assistance, Michael Martin, an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, told VOA.
He said those details are more likely to be left to the executive branch, mainly the State Department.
While U.S.-supplied body armor, radar gear and military vehicles have gone to Syria and Ukraine as nonlethal aid, Martin said, sources familiar with the State Department’s discussions over Myanmar have told him they were still debating how to apply the term to the BURMA Act.
“Everything on that list is dual-use, so it really comes down to the willingness of the provider and their risk tolerance and how much they’re hoping to tilt the balance in the battlefield,” said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington.
The same radio gear that helps a village evade a military attack, for instance, could help militias coordinate an attack of their own on the military.
It is unclear how successful the push will be.
Both Abuza and Martin said the groups are unlikely to get most of what they are asking for. Abuza said Myanmar’s resistance has no powerful champions in the White House, State Department or Congress to push hard for its cause and that the U.S. was anyway preoccupied with the war in Ukraine and competition with China.