In Myanmar, prospect of hunger and civil war
Anti-coup protesters in Myanmar prepare to fight the military as battles wage in ethnic areas and the country teeters toward economic collapse
The military coup in Myanmar on Feb. 1 completely upended the life of 23-year-old Nann. At that time, she was working in digital marketing in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, but within a week she joined the Civil Disobedience Movement, a nationwide strike to paralyze the country in protest of the military junta’s rule. Almost every day for two months, she took to the streets with other youth protesting the coup. Peaceful marches soon gave way to increasingly dangerous demonstrations as security forces opened fire on participants.
The protesters’ handmade shields, barricades, and Molotov cocktails were no match for the guns and tanks of the well-trained Myanmar military, known as Tatmadaw. To date, soldiers have killed at least 827 people—including children—according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, although the association says the true total is likely higher. Nighttime raids on the homes of activists, protest leaders, and members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party—the party of the civilian government’s detained leader, Aung San Suu Kyi—have resulted in more than 5,400 arrests.
Since late March, Nann and many of her fellow protesters have largely stopped protesting on the streets. “Because of the brutality and cruelty of the military, citizens aren’t encouraged to go out,” said Nann, who asked me not to use her full name due to security concerns. She noted that not only protesters but bystanders are getting hurt and killed.
“Most people believe the protest does not work at this time,” Nann said. “The people have to fight back.”
In preparation to “fight back,” students and professionals from the cities are heading to Myanmar’s borderlands for basic military training from ethnic militias that have faced off against the Tatmadaw for decades in a struggle for greater autonomy. Myanmar’s National Unity Government, composed of groups that oppose the military, said in early May it formed a people’s defense force to protect civilians from military attacks.
Currently fighting has intensified between government forces and the local militias in ethnic regions, especially in the Karen and Kachin states, where the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) has swelled to 40,000 and 15,000 respectively.
At the same time, the country stands at the brink of collapse: In an informal meeting of members of the United Nations Security Council on Myanmar on April 9, Richard Horsey of the International Crisis Group pointed to five areas of concern: The banking system is at a standstill, supply chains are breaking down, the healthcare system has collapsed, the armed conflicts with ethnic groups are increasing, and illicit trade is poised to increase.
THE COUP ENDED A DECADELONG democracy experiment in Myanmar, also known as Burma, that saw the release of political prisoners (including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi), greater freedoms, and free elections after 50 years of iron-fisted Tatmadaw rule. Yet the constitution created by the military allowed it to continue wielding a large amount of control. As the NLD party tried to bring the army under the control of the elected lawmakers, tensions rose.
When the NLD won a landslide victory in November elections, the military claimed election fraud and urged NLD leaders to reexamine the election results. They refused, and in response, the Tatmadaw arrested Suu Kyi and other elected leaders on Feb. 1 as tanks rolled through the country’s capital of Naypyitaw. The army was back in power, but the people refused to accept the military’s illegal takeover.
Now instead of spending her days protesting, Nann is busy coordinating finances to support resistance movement members who left their jobs to participate full time in the “Spring Revolution.” She’s also working to provide education to children in Myanmar through homeschool projects. Students have been out of school for more than a year due to the pandemic and the coup.
Nann noted how difficult it is to obtain cash now: Banks limit the number of people who can enter to around 20 per day, leading to long queues starting at 4 a.m. Those who can’t make it in the bank doors wait in long lines at ATMs, which place limits on withdrawals. Nann walked around for two hours and visited about 30 Wave Money shops to withdraw a little over $60 from her mobile wallet.
At the beginning of the coup, many bank employees joined the Civil Disobedience Movement, causing 2,000 bank branches to close, according to Frontier Myanmar. The bank shutdowns hit the country’s economy hard. By late April, banks under pressure from the regime threatened to fire staff who didn’t return to work, leading to the return of tens of thousands of bank workers.
Distrust of the banking system led people to rush to withdraw cash from their accounts, and subsequent bank withdrawal limits made it difficult for businesses to pay employees and traders. The military’s shutdown of mobile internet has also incapacitated mobile financial services that are popular in rural areas. Amid the chaos, the Burmese kyat has dropped 20 percent in value.
Others fear food insecurity. Pwint Htun, a telecommunications policy expert that advised the NLD, told The Straits Times that normally around this time farmers would get loans to buy seed and fertilizer to begin planting. But the banking collapse could prevent that.
By next year, more than half of Myanmar’s population of 54 million could be living in poverty, predicted an April report by the UN Development Program. Even before the coup, 83 percent of Burmese households reported their incomes had dropped almost in half due to the pandemic.
FOOD SECURITY IS AN EVEN BIGGER PROBLEM in ethnic areas where fighting has intensified. In Karen state, the military began conducting airstrikes in March for the first time in 20 years, retaliating for Karen attacks on a military outpost. The Tatmadaw’s airstrikes and ground attacks in ethnic-controlled areas have forced 40,000 people—including children and the elderly—to flee into the jungles.
Setting up makeshift camps in jungle clearings or rock crevices, many people are unable to return to their villages for fear of more attacks. Workers with the Christian aid group Free Burma Rangers are passing out rice, tarps, and medical supplies to those who have fled their villages. They’re also providing walkie-talkies to different groups of IDPs so they can warn each other of military attacks.
Steve Gumaer of Partners Relief & Development, another group providing aid to IDPs in the area, said that for the first time in more than a decade locals in Karen state have asked for pre-positioned rice: plastic containers of rice buried near a village that villagers can dig up while on the run from military attacks.
A staff worker with Partners noted the IDPs are so afraid of airstrikes that when they hear the rumble of a motorcycle or car engine, they run and hide. The fear of airstrikes also prevents farmers from planting crops.
In Kachin state near China, the Kachin Independence Army has been attacking army outposts while the military is busy dealing with protests in the cities. The Tatmadaw has responded with airstrikes, destroying Kachin villages. China has closed its border and set up a fence to keep out fleeing Kachin, cutting off a vital route for food supplies for existing Kachin IDP camps from previous bouts of fighting. Many of the refugees are digging bunkers to prepare for possible airstrikes.
In Chin state, civilians from the town of Mindat took up hunting rifles and homemade explosives to fight against the military. According to local media, clashes began in late April when a soldier reportedly shot into a crowd while it demanded the release of detained protesters. Since then the militia has killed dozens of soldiers.
The military quickly retaliated—flying in reinforcements by helicopter, firing heavy artillery at civilians, and cutting off the water supply. Human rights groups said soldiers fired into the streets, arrested young men, and destroyed and looted homes. The military also reportedly used townspeople as human shields. The bombardment forced many of the 12,000 residents to flee into the hills, where they lack food, water, and medical care. The National Unity Government said thousands are trapped inside as the army has blocked access to the town.
“Our Chin state used to be peaceful, but this is a new experience for us,” a resistance fighter told The Washington Post. “We are running and hiding in the middle of these bullets and bombs.”
The United Nations called on the military to end its siege of Mindat, noting it was leading to a humanitarian crisis.
THE TATMADAW’S BRUTAL RESPONSE in Mindat and on the streets of Yangon and Mandalay has precedence: It used the same tactics on Rohingyas in Rakhine state in 2017 after militants targeted 30 military posts. Since then, more than 750,000 Rohingya have fled into neighboring Bangladesh.
Due to animosity between Rohingya Muslims and Burmese Buddhists, most Burmese didn’t believe the reports of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas widely reported by Western media. Instead they cheered Suu Kyi as she defended the Tatmadaw’s action at the International Court of Justice. Yet as more people see the military’s true face, their view of the Rohingya and the other ethnic conflicts around the country is changing.
“For the first time we had Burmans say, ‘We want to apologize for how we treated the ethnics, how we didn’t care about their suffering. Now we know what it’s like being under attack by our own leaders,’” said Dave Eubank of Free Burma Rangers. “That’s a whole new relationship.”
In a departure from the past, the newly formed National Unity Government includes not only NLD leaders but representatives from ethnic groups including Karen, Karenni, Kachin, Chin, and Ta’ang.
Several ethnic groups have pledged their support of the Civil Disobedience Movement with not only words but actions: Both Karen and Kachin armed groups have said they are sheltering protest leaders, activists, and NLD leaders who would otherwise face arrest in the cities. They are also teaching basic military training to thousands of young people. Videos released by the ethnic groups show young men army-crawling, running in formation, and practicing firing rifles in dusty jungle clearings.
Maj. Gen. Nerdah Bo Mya, the chief of staff of the Karen National Defense Organization, told CNN he heads up a free basic training program for the anti-coup protesters, none of whom had ever held a gun before.
“We have heart for these kind of people, because we have gone through this ourselves and we know what kind of pain, what kind of suffering ... what kind of atrocities they’re going through, so we can put ourselves in their shoes,” Nerdah Bo Mya told the network.
In late April, unidentified militants fired rockets at two air force bases in central Myanmar and set off explosives at a Myanmar army weapons storage facility near Bago city. While no one has claimed responsibility for these attacks, analysts say they are likely the work of an alliance of protesters and armed ethnic groups.
The National Unity Government’s new defense force could be a precursor to a proposed federal army that would bring together various ethnic armed organizations, as well as the majority Burmese protesters from central Myanmar, with the goal of challenging the Tatmadaw. But the creation of such an army faces an uphill battle: The ethnic groups have differing political agendas, distrust the NLD, and lack experience and resources, and most don’t have control over their land even after more than 70 years of fighting.
Forming a federal army would require a large number of defections from the military who could bring experience and weapons with them. As the fight in Mindat shows, there’s only so much a ragtag militia can do against machine guns, long-distance artillery, and rocket launchers.
Several ethnic armed organizations are sitting out this fight, including the United Wa State Army, the largest and best-resourced group. The Wa army is closely aligned with China, which is avoiding involvement with the anti-coup resistance. The Arakan Army, which engaged in some of the fiercest fighting before the coup, has reached a cease-fire with the Tatmadaw, leading the junta to remove its terrorist designation and restore internet in the region after an 18-month shutdown.
In the jungles of Karen state, Free Burma Rangers is also equipping anti-coup protesters with the practical skills of emergency medical aid, information collection, and communications. Most importantly, Eubank says, the group is giving spiritual hope by telling people about the gospel.
He tells the protesters to “help people and build networks of love and trust across Burma. ... It’s not just about standing up against a wicked regime, but it’s about building a new country.”
INTERNATIONALLY, THE EUROPEAN UNION, the United States, and other Western countries have sanctioned Burmese leaders and military-owned businesses in response to the coup. Yet Western sanctions have little impact on the junta as most of the country’s trade is with its Asian neighbors: China and Thailand make up more than half of its trade volume, and Singapore is its largest foreign investor.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations met in April with Myanmar army chief Min Aung Hlaing, calling on him to end the violence in the country, allow humanitarian aid, and allow an association envoy to visit the country and facilitate a dialogue between all parties. The general said he was not opposed to those suggestions.
However, the association has not placed any sanctions on the military leaders. The UN Security Council has also been unable to place an arms embargo on the country due to vetoes from China and Russia.
When I asked Nann in March what she thought would happen in the future, she said protesters would keep demonstrating, defending their country, and telling the international community what is happening in Myanmar. “That’s why we are going to win very soon.”
When I asked her the same question again in mid-May, her answer was more pessimistic: “There will be a civil war.”
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