After only five years of democratic rule, the Southeast Asian nation Myanmar – formerly known as Burma – has fallen to a military dictatorship once again.
A British colony from 1886 to 1948, the country suffered under military rule from 1962 until the first democratic, multiparty elections held in 2015. In that election, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a resounding victory, which was no surprise, given that she was the most popular person in the country. Having been held under house arrest for most of the previous three decades, she became a symbol of democracy and freedom for the Burmese people.
In November 2020, the country held its second democratic election, which the NLD won, taking over 80 per cent of the vote and beating out the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). But on February 1, 2021, the Myanmar army, the Tatmadaw, launched a coup, placing the country’s leaders, State Counselor Suu Kyi, 75, and President Win Myint, 69, under house arrest, where they await trial. General Min Aung Hlaing, 64, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s military, became the country’s de facto leader when he installed himself as Chairman of the State Administration Council.
After the Coup
Millions of Burmese took to the streets in protest, demanding the release of Suu Kyi. The Tatmadaw declared a nationwide state of emergency for one year, after which it claims an election will be held. Civilian leaders were removed from office and replaced
with military personnel at most levels of government. In mid-March, the Tatmadaw declared martial law in several townships in Yangon. Internet service has been effectively shut down, but local citizens have been posting cellphone videos and reports, using broadband services, to document the violence in the streets. Democratic Voice of Burma and other dissident and exile media are struggling to let the world know what is happening inside the country.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, as of April 1, 2021, more than 500 civilians – including children – had been killed by state security forces, with more than 100 victims slaughtered in a single day. The actual number of deaths is difficult to verify, although most observers believe it to be much higher. Protesters have been holding candlelight vigils for the slain, defying an 8 pm curfew, which has been imposed in much of the country.
The Tatmadaw is occupying many of the largest hospitals, causing civilian doctors to boycott the facilities, meaning wounded protesters are often being treated in makeshift clinics and hospitals where the probability of succumbing to gunshot wounds and secondary infections is much higher.
At night, the Tatmadaw conducts raids on homes, arresting those who have been targeted, many of whom die shortly after being taken into custody. As an act of psychological intimidation, the army also fires bullets in the air and detonates stun grenades, frightening civilians who remain cowering in their homes. According to US human rights groups, more than 2,600 civilians have been detained, including activists, government officials, journalists, trade union leaders, protesters, writers and students.
As justification for the coup, the military-backed USDP claims to have proof of over 10 million irregularities in voting, but it has not produced the evidence. In addition, the army has not claimed these irregularities were votes that had been flipped from the army to Suu Kyi’s NLD. But even if this were the claim, and even if the claim were correct, there would still be no mathematical path to victory for the army’s party. Myanmar has nearly 38 million voters and Suu Kyi’s party took over 80 per cent of the votes. Even with an additional 10 million votes, the army would still have lost.
It is of note that Suu Kyi has not been charged with election fraud, which further suggests that either the military has no evidence of election fraud or that it has motives other than the preservation of a fair and free democracy. Suu Kyi has been charged with four crimes: violation of import and export laws; a violation of the national disaster law; a charge, based on a colonial-era penal code, which prohibits the dissemination of information which may ‘cause fear or alarm’ and violation of a telecommunications law, which requires licensing of all telecommunications equipment. Apparently, the NLD had imported some walkie-talkies, which were not properly registered.
Burma has nearly 38 million voters and Aung San Suu Kyi's party took over 80 per cent of the votes. Even with an additional 10 million votes the army would still have lost
Enemies of the Movement
Salai Maung Taing San – Myanmar’s special envoy to the United Nations, who is known honorifically as Dr. Sasa – escaped Myanmar on the morning of the coup. He is now in exile, condemning the coup to international media and observers. He has also accused the military of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims, making him one of the first NLD officials to bring such harsh allegations against the military. The Tatmadaw has accused him of treason, a charge he said he is proud of, because it means he is standing with the people.
Journalists in the capital have been threatened, jailed or otherwise inhibited from reporting. The ethnic states and rural areas are often off-limits to foreigners and not as closely covered by journalists to begin with, but even less so since the coup. News from these regions is reported by exile and dissident media, who use networks of citizen journalists to report by cellphone or internet. Shan civilian Sai Sai (not his real name), reported the Tatmadaw had killed two people outside his village. He explained that villagers are also suffering economically and said, “For one year, lockdown, we could not sell anything. Now, we are afraid to leave our houses.”
In Hlaing Tharyar, a township in Western Yangon, six civilians were reported killed in a single day. Protesters told exile media if any protesters were killed, they would burn Chinese factories. True to their word, they attacked at least 32 Chinese factories, prompting the Chinese government to tell state firms to begin evacuating nonessential personnel. Meanwhile, most Chinese projects have stopped operations, and Beijing refuses to outright condemn the military’s violence against protesters.
After years of military repression – and the brief reprieve following the 2015 elections – the country’s economy was hit hard by coronavirus lockdowns. Tourism ground to almost nothing, while retail and services were dealt a major setback. Now, after a year of coronavirus economy, the coup has served as one more nail in the coffin of one of the least developed economies in Southeast Asia.
The country is at an economic standstill as millions of workers have joined a general strike, protesting the coup. Sadly, the people are suffering in order to cripple the military’s economic support. Prior to the coup, a third of the country lived below the poverty line, now, with so many unemployed and salary payments stopped, even more of the population is slipping into economic despair. The military is arresting or firing employees of various companies and state enterprises, who they feel are loyal to the NLD. Five deputy directors and 200 employees of the central bank have been fired. Financial transactions are not being completed and taxes are not being collected. Imports and exports are at a standstill, as are money flows into and out of the country. Companies still operating are unable to pay their employees because of the cessation of banking services.
Around this time of year, major agriculturalists would be preparing to withdraw large sums of money to begin planting crops. The military has ordered private banks to transfer this money to the military banks. Private banks, however, have not complied. Yangon is now suffering from shortages of food, toothpaste, gasoline and other products. There are long lines for groceries, as well as for ATM machines. On any given day, civilians have to choose between joining the protests or waiting in line for food and other necessities. A Burmese Facebook group recently raised money to support protesters in Mandalay, the country’s second largest city, so they would be able to take to the streets, but still be able to feed their families.
Seven Decades of Ethnic Conflict
In a Zoom interview, from a military base in the jungles of Karen State (Kayin State), Padoh Saw Taw Nee – Head of Foreign Affairs for the Karen National Union (KNU), one of the largest ethnic resistance armies – gave insight into the country’s long-simmering conflicts by saying, “The military dictatorship started in 1962. I was born in 1964.” Like 90 per cent of Burmese, he was born into a war, which has lasted longer than his natural life.
At 68 per cent of the population, the Burmans, or Bamar ethnic group, are a majority in Myanmar, holding nearly all of the political and military power.
The remaining 32 per cent of the population is composed of 135 ethnic minorities. Recently, the ethnic cleansing against the Rohingyas has made international news, but for decades most of the ethnic minorities have suffered similar campaigns of rape, torture, murder, forced labor and displacements. At various times, ethnic insurgent groups have risen up to combat the Tatmadaw. Some of the larger ethnic resistance armies, with thousands of troops each, include the Arakan Army, Kachin Independence Army, Karen National Union, Shan State Army North, Shan State Army South and United WA State Army.
Former US Special Forces officer David Eubanks, director of the Free Burma Rangers, a faith-based aid organisation that brings relief to people in war zones around the world, has been working inside Myanmar for many years. He explained just before the coup took place the Rangers had noticed an increase in attacks on the ethnics, in spite of a ceasefire agreement being in force. This renewed fighting drove roughly 2000 civilians from their villages. At the same time, the Tatmadaw sent a flurry of messages to the ethnic armies, effectively saying, in Eubanks’ words, “We are having this coup. It has nothing to do with you. Don’t do anything.”
Saw Taw Nee similarly reported that leading up to the coup, his units had observed the Tatmadaw sending provisions to the frontlines in Karen State, as if preparing for an offensive.
Eubanks said ethnics were not fooled by the Tatmadaw’s offer to renegotiate with them later, if they stayed out of the fight.
They understood “this was just a delaying tactic, especially when they were already under attack by the army. So, they disregarded it.” When the coup happened and the Tatmadaw sent reinforcements to the hills, the Karen leaders said, “The ceasefire is over.” Consequently, the Karen people have increased their fighting. Eubanks, who is in contact with many of the insurgent armies, stated the Mon ethnic group has said it will fight, although it has not yet begun, while the Shan, comprising two of the largest armies, has increased its fighting.
In recent years, the Arakan Army has become the largest and most powerful ethnic resistance force. It has not joined the fight, however, and most observers believe it is because it, along with the United WA State Army, has been paid by China to stand down.
Eubanks feels certain the coup had been planned for years and explained, “I think they were planning it from the minute they let Suu Kyi have any power.” In his estimation, the Tatmadaw was allowing Suu Kyi certain latitude, but when it felt she had gone too far, it lashed out violently.
“Attacks increased in frequency. We went from 2000 to 6000 civilians displaced, and then by mid-March it was over 8000,” said Eubanks. The displaced civilians are now being cared for by the KNU, which is feeding and protecting them. Among the displaced are also a number of police officers and soldiers who have deserted, refusing to serve the military government. Saw Taw Nee explained arranging refugee status for the civilians, either with the neighbouring Thai government or with international organisations is not difficult, but the deserters pose a special problem.
“We need to discuss that with international organisations and Thai authorities,” Saw Tee Nee said. “We are not sure what to do with them, and we cannot keep them in our area for a long time.”
Eubanks expects the situation to worsen and added, “I wouldn’t call it a full-scale offensive. I would call it a limited offensive for the Burma army to project its power, expand its road network, prepare the roads to cut through Karen State and resupply all of its camps, including the new ones they built. So, it is a limited offensive but it has driven 8000 people out of their homes. And we expect it to get worse.”
Internet service has been effectively shut down, but local citizens have been posting cellphone videos and reports
Aung San Suu Kyi and Ethnic Cleansing
“Nothing improved for the Karen during the five years of NLD rule. She [Suu Kyi] said many good things, but never took action to implement,” said Saw Taw Nee.
During the several decades Suu Kyi was under house arrest, the vast majority of Burmese, including the ethnic minorities, hoped she would eventually bring democracy, freedom and an overall improvement to their situation. After she was elected, however, nothing changed for the ethnic minorities. In fact, the Rohingya genocide, which has been condemned by the world community, occurred during her administration. One reason that Suu Kyi may have been unable to bring about significant changes was that, under the 2008 Burmese Constitution, the army appoints 25 per cent of the seats in parliament, which is enough for a veto.
Much of the violence against the ethnics stems from the fact that the ethnic minorities live in the resource-rich areas of the jungle. The Tatmadaw often kills, displaces or enslaves ethnic minorities in order to extract minerals, jade or gas, which is then sold to China. A moratorium on this violence would decrease the Tatmadaw’s income. Consequently, the army would never have allowed Suu Kyi to enforce legislation ending the violence and protecting the rights of ethnic minorities.
According to Eubanks, “Suu Kyi very much cares, and very much wanted the fighting to stop, but was not willing to sacrifice or risk her position to do it. And that, I think is what made the ethnics disappointed.”
United Against a Common Enemy
The one positive byproduct of the coup is that it has brought the Burman majority to understand the ethnic conflict, uniting them with the ethnics against a common enemy, the Tatmadaw.
Saw Taw Nee, speaking for the KNU, said, “We strongly support the people’s movement, but it is getting harder for them because the military dictators are getting more brutal but we are certain the movement will continue.” During the past 30 years, there have been more than 80 uprisings, none of which have resulted in a permanent improvement of the people’s lives and freedoms. Saw Taw Nee explained that, although the Karen want to find a democratic and political solution for this crisis, it has been in this exact situation before, and places no faith in the army’s empty promises of negotiations. This time, the Burmans and the ethnics realise they will have to fight until they win, rather than fight until they reach a negotiated settlement.
“If we have to, we will flee, but we will not capitulate,” Saw Taw Nee said gravely, as if speaking for the entire population.
Since the beginning of the ethnic conflicts in 1949, the Tatmadaw has framed the ethnic resistance armies as terrorists. Now, it seems that Burmans are beginning to understand why the ethnics took up arms. According to Saw Taw Nee, “The people inside of
our country didn’t see our objectives or understand our movement. They only understood military propaganda that the KNU were terrorists –
Fortunately, this time, they have the chance to understand – there is a difference between good rebels and bad rebels. And now all people in Burma know we are standing on the right side, because we are standing with the people.”
Dr. Sasa told international media all of the people of Myanmar need protection, including the ethnic minorities. He is possibly the highest-ranking Burmese official to have spoken on behalf of the ethnic minorities. This seems a significant turn toward the people of Myanmar, all of the ethnicities of Myanmar, standing together, against the Tatmadaw.