At least 82 people were killed on Saturday in Myanmar during a crackdown on anti-coup protesters in a city in southern Myanmar, a sign of the military junta’s willingness to use violence to put down the increasing organized armed resistance to its rule.
The killings took place as the security forces attempted to crush persistent resistance in Bago, a city around 100 kilometers south of the commercial capital Yangon. According to some reports, soldiers deployed weapons like rocket propelled grenades to clear barricades erected by protesters, after which they piled up the corpses in the grounds of a Buddhist temple.
In its extent, the bloodshed in Bago comes second only to the events of March 14, which saw the killing of more than 100 protesters and bystanders by the security forces in Yangon, and March 27, which witnessed upward of 120. The toll of 82 was established by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a civil society group that has published daily counts of those killed, detained, and sentenced since the beginning of the political crisis. On Sunday, AAPP said at least 706 protesters and bystanders have now been killed by security forces since the army’s takeover on February 1.
According to the Associated Press, the attack on Bago was the junta’s third attempt in the past week involving the massive use of force to try to crush organized opposition, including increasing instances of armed resistance.
Some of the strongest and most persistent resistance has been seen in Sagaing Region in northern Myanmar. According to the indispensable Frontier Myanmar, there have been numerous reported incidents since the start of the month, including a striking police officer who reportedly killed five of his counterparts before being gunned down in Tamu Township, and a separate grenade attack that claimed four soldiers’ lives, also in Tamu.
On Saturday, Myanmar Now carried a report that locals in Tamu had ambushed the junta’s armed forces with home-made hunting rifles as they entered the town to suppress protests on Saturday. At least three soldiers and one local were killed in the incident, residents said.
In Kalay Township of Sagaing Region, activists calling themselves the Kalay Civil Army have reportedly built barricades across the city streets and equipped themselves with rudimentary hunting rifles. According to Frontier, protesters in Kalay last week even managed to get security forces to agree to a prisoner exchange, releasing nine civilians in exchange for seven police officers who had been captured by residents.
In response, there have been widespread allegations that the security forces have graduated to the use of heavy weapons in Sagaing and elsewhere, including rocket propelled grenades to disperse protesters. While confirmation is difficult, given the ongoing internet blackout in large parts of Myanmar, images have surfaced on social media showing images of rocket propelled grenades and mortar fragments.
The increasing unstable political situation that has emerged from the military’s stupendously ill-considered coup has helped push Myanmar’s economy close to the point of total implosion.
At the start of the month, Fitch Solutions, an affiliate of the global rating agency Fitch Ratings, revised its forecast for the financial year to September, published a briefing predicting that Myanmar’s economy would shrink by an astonishing 20 percent, from a pre-coup forecast of 2 percent growth. Even then, it said, amid the crackdown by security forces against civilians and fighting with ethnic armed groups, risks to the revised forecast of a 20 percent contraction are “still heavily weighted to the downside.”
“We believe that the elevated social instability in the country will cripple all aspects of gross domestic product by expenditure,” Fitch stated in the briefing. “There is no worst-case scenario on the economy which we can rule out.”
In its most recent economic forecast, the World Bank predicted an economic contraction of 10 percent in 2021. “The economy will collapse, destroying the lives of millions of people,” the writer and historian Thant Myint-U told Bloomberg. Whichever way the political situation goes, he added, “it will be impossible for Myanmar to recover for many years.”
The dire economic situation reflects in part the impacts of COVID-19 on the economy, and in part a conscious strategy on the part of the Civil Disobedience Movement to squeeze the military junta by urging civil servants and private sector employees not to turn up for work.
Yet while the economy and much of the state administration has ground to a halt, the junta still has a lifeline in the form of its control over the country’s natural resources, which include gas deposits and rich deposits of jade, gems, and teakwood.
A sign of its importance was made clear on Saturday, when Nikkei Asia reported on a 10-day auction of gems, jade, and pearls in the capital Naypyidaw that netted the junta government tens of millions of dollars in revenue. The report, citing Myanmar state media, said revenue from sales of gems, pearls, and jade in the auction had amounted to millions of dollars per day, with jade sales alone reportedly amounting to $6.4 million on Thursday.
The reported auction came as the U.S. Treasury Department added a Myanmar state-run supplier of jade to its financial blacklist. The Biden administration has also blacklisted three gem companies linked to the military, as well as two tentacular military-controlled conglomerates – Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and Myanmar Economic Corporation – that are heavily involved in the extraction and trade of natural resources, as well as virtually every other sector of the Myanmar economy.
The latest sanctioning marks an intensification of the U.S. government’s pressure on the junta, but armed with its rich bounty of natural resources, it remains uncertain when – or even if – these sanctions will begin to alter the junta’s calculus.