A Year After the Coup, Myanmar Mired in Conflict and Catastrophe

Feb. 1, 2022 — marks a year since the military of Myanmar, popularly known as Tatmadaw, orchestrated a coup to seize power after rejecting the results of a mostly free and fair general election overwhelmingly won by the National League for Democracy (NLD). One year later, the Southeast Asian nation is mired in chaos, the economy is crippled, conflicts have spread to every part of the multi-ethnic nation, and public institutions are in a state of collapse. The pro-democratic protesters have been hunted down, suspects have been scourged, thousands of civilians have been killed, and scores of citizens have crossed the border to take shelter in neighborhoods, mostly in India, Thailand or forced to hide in the makeshift jungles, where they are prone to vulnerabilities, hunger, and illness.

Tatmadaw and the bloodbath

Soon after the coup, protests emerged and turned out as a civil disobedience movement against the putsch to restore democracy in Myanmar, thanks to the undying and firm determination of Myanmar’s ‘Generation Z’ or ‘Five Twos’. This unprecedented pro-democratic movement by all the walks of people has tormented the junta, and it responded with its old characteristic of force and intimidation. During a year of protests and political turmoil, the Tatmadaw has killed more than 1,500 civilians and detained 9,160 politicians, healthcare workers, journalists, activists and others, and more than 200 reportedly tortured and killed in custody, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a rights group based in neighboring Thailand. In addition, since the coup, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Office estimates, the junta has launched indiscriminate attacks, rocket assaults, and airstrikes on opposition-held areas that have driven more than 406,000 people from their homes, which Tom Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, amount as ‘crimes against humanity and war crimes’. Human Rights Watch, further, accuses the military of blocking humanitarian aid to millions to throw its citizens to face off a man-made disaster.

To quell the pro-democratic movements, the military junta also relied on draconian surveillance measures. The introduction of the provision Section 505A has allowed the Tatmadaw to arrest more than 120 journalists, and among them, 15 have been convicted and 50 more are waiting for their trial in the name of national security and terrorism. The junta has also suspended licenses of seven media outlets and satellite televisions operating in Myanmar. The military has mishandled the COVID-19 situation and used it as a political tool to suffocate the pro-democratic movements by hoarding oxygen and vaccines to silence them. Yanghee Lee, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar aptly demonstrated in his article on the Time Magazine, “Tatmadaw has weaponized COVID-19 for its own political gain by suffocating the democracy movement and seeking to gain the legitimacy and control it craves by deliberately fuelling a humanitarian disaster and then co-opting the international response.”

A Dangerous impasse

Amid the extreme crackdown, CDM has been transformed into a civil war after the formation of the armed resistance group the People’s Defense Force (PDF) and its political wing, the National Unity Government (NUG). The NUG, composed of the ousted lawmakers, ethnic minority parties and other opposition groups, has been formed to topple the junta and usher in a federal democracy in Myanmar. Although the political entity has been trying to pull together the disparate strands of the armed and civil resistance into a parallel, with most of its leaders in exile or hiding its existence, the NUG lacks severe international legitimacy. On the other hand, PDF, serving as NUG’s armed wing, is far behind, without international assistance, in terms of military, financial and tactical resources to win a battle against the military junta.   

However, experts opine that the junta’s attempts to gain full control are being frustrated by the ethnic armed groups and pro-democratic protesters, who are unleashing one of the most unified resistance movements in Myanmar’s decade long history of democratic struggle. A Yangon-based security analyst Min Zin, executive director of Myanmar’s Institute for Strategy and Policy, said “the military has largely consolidated control over central Myanmar and most towns and cities but is struggling to hold and control much of the countryside in the northwest, where the new militias have put up some of the stiffest resistance.” More recently, the junta has lost control over more territory, including in Chin and Rakhine states, the Sagaing region and the Magway division.

An economic apocalypse

Today, the economic future appears further bleak for the poorest Southeast Asian country. Since the February putsch, its currency has dropped at least 60 percent and the growth has contracted nearly 20 percent. Currency depreciation and retreat by foreign firms have crippled the growth of Myanmar’s economy. Amid the political turmoil and ongoing violence, foreign investors and companies have withdrawn their business and investment. For instance, Amata Corporation (Thailand’s industrial real estate developer), Toyota (Singaporean Sembcorp), French energy giant EDF (Électricité de France), Oil and gas giants Chevron and TotalEnergies have suspended and withdrawn their multi-billion dollar projects whose total worth is more than $6 billion (9.4 trillion Kyat).

Diplomatic inertia and looming catastrophe

Despite severe human catastrophes in Myanmar, the crisis is battling for attention with wars in Ethiopia, Yemen, and Ukraine crisis. The endless conflict is worsening, without the world noticing, as the Tatmadaw is shielded by China, Russia at the United Nations and, by India, Cambodia and Thailand in the regional forums. The diplomatic efforts of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which counts Myanmar as a member, have been largely divided in stopping the violence in Myanmar. The military regime is exploiting polarization and divisive trends on international fronts. The United States and European sanctions are a good start to deprive the junta of its economic resources, yet they are far from efficient. There is an urgent need for the international community to cut the supply of arms reaching the military, eliminate the flow of cash to the Tatmadaw and end the military junta’s impunity by prosecuting the alleged generals in the International Criminal Court (ICC). Therefore, the international community should come up with stringent measures to weaken the military and support the inroads of democracy in Myanmar. Otherwise, the endless conflicts that sprung up in Myanmar are unlikely to show signs of abating, which will push the Southeast Asian nation in the volatility of political catastrophe, civil war, and state collapse in the coming days. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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