Cost of war: Myanmar rebels crowdfund resistance to military coup

National Unity Government has launched fundraising schemes to support its campaign to overthrow the military government.

Protesters take part in a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on July 3, 2021. (Photo by STR / AFP) (AFP)

Bangkok, Thailand – ​​From a small city in Northeast Asia, the woman known only as Burmese Beast is crowdfunding the resistance to the Myanmar military government.

Working on her iPad while listening to podcasts like the BBC’s You’re Dead to Me, the assistant professor in her 30s organises fundraising campaigns on social media, offering to draw portraits in exchange for money she then donates to the cause of opposing the military government.

“It’s quiet, peaceful, and safe here – everything Myanmar is not at the moment,” the woman, who requested that her identity and exact location not be identified, told Al Jazeera.

Burmese Beast, who left Myanmar more than a decade ago, has sent funds to humanitarian aid workers, striking civil servants and, more recently, the People’s Defence Force (PDF), the armed wing of the National Unity Government (NUG), the parallel administration formed by politicians removed from power in February’s military coup. Both groups have been labelled terrorist organisations by the military regime in Naypyidaw, which is officially known as the State Administration Council (SAC).

“As a fundraiser, I have been in touch with a lot of young people who joined the PDF and they are doing it because they feel hopeless about their futures, not because they are violent or have thirst for blood,” said Burmese Beast, who insists people have been left with no choice but to take up arms against the coup leaders and the forces backing them up.

“I do not condone violence, nor do I feel happiness when I read news about SAC soldiers dying.”

The initial opposition to the coup, which saw Senior General Min Aung Hlaing depose Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically-elected government, was overwhelmingly peaceful, with millions taking to the streets to protest or going on strike at state-run firms.

When the military responded by violently cracking down on protesters, killing more than 1,300 civilians, the resistance movement embraced armed rebellion.

The National Unity Government in September declared a “people’s defensive war” against the military government [File: STR/AFP] (AFP)

In September, after months of skirmishes, the NUG declared a “people’s defensive war” to overthrow the military. But launching a civil war and a rival administration has raised thorny questions about funding and navigating an ethical and legal quagmire.

The financial needs of the NUG’s revolution are considerable. The parallel government has pledged to provide “continuous support” in the form of $60 payments to some 200,000 striking civil servants, but estimated in August that about 410,000 government employees were still refusing to work.

The NUG has targeted a budget of about $800m, not including defence spending, but has been coy about how it’s funding the costs of war. The NUG did not respond to requests for comment.

A number of formal fundraising efforts, however, have proven immensely popular with the general population.

In August, the NUG launched a Spring Lottery to support striking civil servants. The pilot scheme raised about $8m, according to NUG representatives, who projected it could raise about $11m per month once expanded. In a further indication of the NUG’s popular support, local media reported that 55 of the 78 lottery winners donated their prize money back to the administration.

Another popular campaign has been to sell so-called bonds that pay no interest and are unlikely to be repaid unless the effort to overthrow the military government proves successful. The NUG claims to have sold more than $2m worth of bonds in the two hours following their launch, with plans to raise $200 million in total.

“The numbers provided by the NUG for the funds they have raised from the Spring Lottery, raffle, and now bond sales suggest that these have been pretty successful, each raising millions of dollars,” Richard Horsey, Myanmar adviser to the International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera. “It shows that there is a large number of people in the Myanmar diaspora willing to donate significant sums in support of the resistance movement.”

One Europe-based NUG supporter, who purchased $2,000 worth of bonds, told Al Jazeera he didn’t expect to be repaid any time soon.

“The only motive, I think not just for me but for most of the people, is to fund the NUG because people believe it is the only mechanism that will lead us to victory,” the supporter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said. “The bond has no monetary incentive for people who buy it.”

Crackdown on financial sector

The military has responded with crackdowns on the financial sector, limiting ATM withdrawals, attempting to monitor online transactions, and threatening legal action. Shortly after the bonds went on sale, a military spokesman warned that “those financing the terrorist groups” faced “heavy sentences”.

Anthony Davis, a regional security analyst for Janes, said it was “very difficult to gauge” how effectively fundraising had translated into armed resistance, but the fact the military had imposed strict limits on ATM withdrawals indicated “obvious concern”.

“It is probably fair to say that it has had some positive impact on the NUG’s ability to fund training, organisation and some arms purchases,” David said. “In order to make fundraising sustainable in the longer term, the NUG would arguably need to demonstrate a greater capacity for coordinating resistance activities and exercising a degree of command-and-control over a plethora of ‘People’s Defence Forces.’”

Filling the NUG’s gaps are scores of grassroots fundraisers such as Burmese Beast. She said she asks for $100 per portrait, but her “very generous customers” often pay more. She estimated that she raises $800-$1,000 on average during each call for donations, with $7,000 the most raised in a single campaign.

Another independent fundraiser is Spring University Myanmar, which offers paid courses to students and donates the proceeds to striking teachers and civilians. Schools in Myanmar have been largely shuttered for the past two years due to COVID-19, with many teachers and students then boycotting a recent regime-led attempt to reopen.

A Spring University representative told Al Jazeera the organisation, which operates nine schools, had raised $70,000 so far.

“There are a lot of students who joined armed groups and are fighting for freedom,” the representative, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said. “That’s motivating me and reminding me every day, I need to try harder and harder.”

In the town of Laiza, home of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), ethnic Kachin activist Zaw Tu Hkawng raises money for art classes for children displaced by conflict. The KIA has long fought for greater political rights in Kachin state and threw its support behind the pro-democracy movement after the coup.

“I came here and saw thousands and thousands of internally displaced children and I wanted to do something,” Zaw Tu Hkawng told Al Jazeera.

Zaw Tu Hkawng said there are constant fundraising campaigns in Laiza to support the KIA.

“We donate supplies like mosquito nets, raincoats and some food,” he said.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government was deposed in February in a military coup [File: Bria Webb/Reuters]

All of the independent fundraisers admitted to having concerns about the military’s legal threats related to financing terrorism.

“I have concerns but I also have confidence that SAC has no more leverage,” the Europe-based fundraiser said.

In 2019, Singapore deported six Myanmar nationals accused of helping to fund the Arakan Army (AA), which fights for greater political autonomy in Rakhine state and was at the time labelled a terrorist organisation by the Myanmar government.

While this designation has since been lifted, it was always controversial; many observers argued the AA had legitimate political grievances, and the United Nations special rapporteur accused the Myanmar military of committing rights abuses in Rakhine that may have qualified as crimes against humanity.

But Horsey, the International Crisis Group adviser, said the military’s post-coup international isolation makes it unlikely that a similar scenario would develop now.

“I doubt there is much risk at the moment of donors outside Myanmar being caught up in terrorist financing legislation, as it’s hard to see most countries acting on any request in this regard from the SAC,” he said.

Davis, the Janes analyst, pointed out that AA supporters had taken a much more public stance than fundraisers in the current resistance, adding the “more discrete approach” would “almost certainly go undisturbed”, even in countries sympathetic to the military government like Thailand.

While foreign countries may turn a blind eye to fundraising, they’ve shown little appetite to help fund an armed revolution. Countries like the United States have donated money for humanitarian uses but have continued to call for a nonviolent solution, even as the military massacred civilians.

A retired UN humanitarian worker with more than a decade of experience working in Myanmar told Al Jazeera that one diplomat he spoke to expressed concern that supplying weapons could contribute to a “situation like Syria or Afghanistan” developing. But the aid worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Myanmar was a “vastly different context” with the public almost completely united against the coup leaders.

“They talk about their support of the resistance to the junta over expensive gin and tonics but will not help arm those fighting for the freedom and democracy they purport to support,” he said. He added that after the resistance forces were “slaughtered”, the international community would “wipe away a tear” and provide humanitarian assistance for a massacre they could have prevented.

Nonetheless, there are ethical concerns to funding conflict. Sagaing region, in western Myanmar, was one of the first areas to see sustained armed rebellion and has emerged as a hotbed of violence.

The Myanmar military has allegedly carried out multiple massacres of civilians, while dozens of regime-appointed local administrators and alleged informants have been assassinated. In September, gunmen targeted the family of an alleged military collaborator, killing him along with his wife and three children, the youngest of which was 12-years-old.

There’s no evidence the NUG or militias under its control have been involved in such atrocities, and the NUG has urged resistance fighters not to target civilians, “especially children,” and to follow internationally-recognised rules of war.

Burmese Beast said she carefully vetted the groups that receive her funds, verifying recipients through several layers of an “incredibly complex network of people”, which only works with groups that abide by the Geneva Convention.

“I know for a fact that people in my circle want the same – no one wants violence,” she said. “Every time I fundraise, all I think of is how these funds can save the lives of our people.”

Source: Al Jazeera