A Year After Coup, Myanmar Heads Nowhere
Despite violence and death, generals confront a defiant people
By: Nava Thakuria
Since Myanmar’s military staged its February 2021 coup, the Tatmadaw has been unable to return to the kind of overweening power it exercised prior to the 2010 return to partial democracy. It has wrecked the country in its attempt to do so, with an economy reckoned to have shrunk by 30 percent according to the World Bank, and earned continuing international condemnation.
When the coup occurred a year ago, hundreds of thousands of disaffected citizens took to the streets, banging pots and pans together furiously to express their disapproval. Rather than return to the sullen years of military dictatorships, they have continued to rebel, but at great cost.
It was a coup perpetrated by an out-of-touch military for no other reason than to protect their own power and wealth. The country, a mosaic of variegated ethnicities, continues to witness widespread public protests as counter-military operations force hundreds of thousands of villagers to leave their village and live in makeshift shelters with minor children in conditions ranging from hunger to illness to – in some areas – safety and security.
Incidents of killing of protesters and activists occur regularly as the country-wide Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) organizes flash mobs and protests in the cities and supports continued resistance against the junta. As many as 9,000 people remain in custody, with some 290 having died in detention, many through torture. Opponents of the regime estimate more than 1,500 people have been killed, with continuing detentions and arrests of anti-junta agitators including members of the media.
Some 125 journalists have been detained, with more than 40 still behind bars. At least three – photojournalist Ko Soe Naing, reporter Sai Win Aung and editor Pu Tui Dim, have lost lives, according to multimedia news portal Mizzima editor Soe Myint, who is functioning from hideouts. Thin Thin Aung, one of the founder members of the Women's League of Burma and Soe Myint’s wife, also has been arrested.
Many prominent political leaders including President U Win Myint, 70, and the 76-year-old State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, whose star had faded because of her refusal to condemn the military’s abuses against the ethnic Rohingya, are behind bars although Suu Kyi, through being jailed again, has regained her status as a democracy icon. More trials await her as the junta, led by general Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, believes she possesses the potential to unify the country behind her and so remains determined to keep her locked away.
“The military has intensified its repression in a desperate attempt to reassert control over a rapidly expanding resistance movement, setting off a tug of war between the security forces and the people,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Every day, the military and police are using excessive, and sometimes lethal force to suppress the supporters of the mass Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) which is conducting a mass strike and boycott to prevent support going to the authorities.”
This week saw a nationwide Silent Strike to mark the first anniversary of the coup in which businesses have all shut down to show their resistance. That has been met with arrests of business owners for refusing to open their shops. “Arresting people for not opening their own shops really shows how absurd the military's actions have become,’ Robertson said in an email.
Meanwhile, an increasing number are joining local armed resistance cells called People's Defense Forces (PDFs) whose campaigns of bombings, assassinations, and open battles in both cities and countryside against the military and police are unprecedented. The combined CDM and PDF pressure is by far the most systematic and sustained resistance to military rule in modern Myanmar history.
But international pressure on the military junta is still falling well short of what is needed, with failures to sanction oil and gas revenues which are some of the biggest cash cows for the junta, as well as a lack of action on an international arms embargo against the military. China and Thailand, which have invested in Myanmar’s oil and natural gas sector, have been asked vainly to rethink their business interests. Although western energy companies Chevron, Total Energy, and the Australia-based Woodside Petroleum have pulled out, the sad fact is that other international businesses are quietly re-entering the country, according to a country risk firm that asked to remain unidentified.
More than 150,000 children are homeless after fleeing their villages with ill-fated parents. As many as 25,000 have fled for neighboring countries like Thailand and India and 300,000 are believed internally displaced. Those figures exclude more than 700,000 ethnic Rohingya, who had already fled after a military crackdown in 2017, well before Covid-19 and the coup hit, most of them arriving in southern Bangladesh.
Unconfirmed reports claim that nearly 1,000 Tatmadaw personnel have also lost their lives during attacks by PDFs, supported in some cases by ethnic armed organizations like the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), who are long time opponents of the Tatmadaw. Incidents of armed clashes continue to grow with more intensity across the country. The military has even launched indiscriminate aerial offensives and continued arson in villages and areas where it believes the PDFs are operating.
The generals who grabbed political power last year, claiming the November 2020 general elections were fraudulent after the National League for Democracy (NLD) emerged victorious, initially declared an emergency, and then promised to bring back a multiparty democracy with fresh elections by 2023. Simultaneously, the generals have tried to gain recognition from various powerful and democratic nations around the world with little luck although China and Russia still back the regime.
On the ground, a National Unity Government of Myanmar (NUG), formed of ethnic group leaders, activists, and elected NLD lawmakers continues vainly to seek public support and assurance from the international community. Other outside political forums, however, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has failed to support the NUG. The Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, the current ASEAN chair, earned international disapproval by recently visiting and meeting with its dictator Min Aung Hlaing.
Charles Santiago, chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), asserted that the “joint statement released by Hun Sen with Min Aung Hlaing was a misguided and dangerous attempt to deceptively portray a breakthrough,” calling it “a brazen attempt by these two coup leaders to hijack ASEAN for their own authoritarian purposes, undermining the Myanmar peoples’ fight for democracy and human rights.”
An exiled Burmese activist pointed out that “Hun Sen should know better, having lived through the Khmer Rouge genocide, than to act as an accomplice to the Myanmar junta that is accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.”
Khin Ohmar, founder of Progressive Voice, questioned, “Has Hun Sen forgotten the millions of Cambodian people who suffered through their own genocide?” She called the joint statement “an attempt to deceive the world that they are making progress to resolve the situation (that) is blatantly dishonest, and Myanmar people are not fooled by it. Hun Sen’s hijacking of ASEAN through its chairmanship should not facilitate the continuation of the junta’s own killing fields against the people of Myanmar. This is unacceptable, asserted Khin Omar. She also emphasized on revamping the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, which is still functioning under the control of military generals.
The anti-junta agitators have urged the international community to impose a complete arms embargo along with restrictions on aviation support. They are also appealing to Japan, Australia, India, Malaysia, South Korea, and other democratic nations to cease what little economic engagement that supports the junta.
Myanmar’s powerful western neighbor India has only issued a lukewarm statement saying it is disturbed with the developments and the imprisonment of Suu Kyi. Many families from Myanmar’s Chin province have crossed into Mizoram in India’s far-east region. Mizoram has already given shelter to over 60,000 Chin refugees in various hilly localities and the local government in Aizawl continues supporting them for humanitarian causes.
“The UN Security Council never fails to disappoint on Myanmar, with calls to refer the Myanmar military's crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court falling on deaf ears along with other more intrusive demands, like a no-fly zone or invoking the Responsibility to Protection (R2P) doctrine,” said Human Rights Watch’s Robertson. “So the Burmese people are really on their own, once again, facing down a murderous military and demanding respect for their rights and restoration of democracy.