The Human Cost of Myanmar’s Coup Continues to Mount

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ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

The Human Cost of Myanmar’s Coup Continues to Mount

A new survey from UNDP reveals the impact of the coup on everyday life in Myanmar, and the desperate steps people are taking to survive.

The Human Cost of Myanmar’s Coup Continues to Mount
Credit: Flickr/Jason Eppink

In the nine months since the Myanmar military’s seizure of power, the country has spiraled into an incipient nationwide civil war between the junta and a host of opponents, which has now seen nearly 1,300 people killed and many times more detained. Accompanying this deterioration in the political situation, and exacerbating its human impacts, has been Myanmar’s swift move toward economic collapse.

Since the overthrow of Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected civilian government, millions have been cast out of work. The value of the kyat has plummeted amid the uncertainty, and the country’s banking sector is in deep crisis. These are a direct result of civil disobedience work stoppages, violent crackdowns by the military junta, and the attendant disruption to critical services like telecommunications, banking, health, and education.

The World Bank previously projected that Myanmar’s economy would contract by a breathtaking 18 percent in the year to September 2021, and with no clear end to the country’s political turbulence in sight, there is good reason to believe that the downturn will drag into 2022 and beyond.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) predicted in April that the combined effect of COVID-19 and political turmoil could push up to 12 million people into poverty in Myanmar. That could result in as much as 25 million people – nearly half of the country’s population – living below the national poverty line by early 2022, “a level of impoverishment not seen in the country since 2005.”

A new survey from the UNDP, which claims to be the first with nationwide coverage to be conducted since the coup, reveals in more granular detail the impact that the political crisis has had on Myanmar’s population, and how people are attempting to cope with it.

The Myanmar People’s Pulse Survey, which interviewed 1,200 respondents across the country during May and June 2021 and the results of which were released today, points to the severe impact that the crisis, in tandem with the COVID-19 pandemic, has had on people’s day-to-day lives.

“The data shows that the coup has had a massive economic impact on households, with people being stripped of their livelihoods,” the report states. “This situation will worsen as the economy stagnates, spiraling downwards.”

According to the UNDP survey, nearly three quarters of households in Myanmar have reported a drop in income under the combined impact of the coup and pandemic. Nearly a quarter of respondents reported losing a job or ceasing a business activity since the COVID-19 restrictions prior to the coup. The losses have been greatest among those living in urban areas, which have also seen families reduce their consumption of food in response, and households in proximity to conflict zones.

Remittances from abroad have also dried up. While 19.5 percent of families received remittances in 2017, these fell to just 2.4 percent this year, a likely result of the shutdowns implemented to control COVID-19 across the region. Almost one in 10 respondents reported that their household “currently did not have any money coming in from any sources.”

Amid high levels of job losses, households have adopted a range of strategies to make up a shortfall in income. More than a quarter of households have drawn on their savings, with two-fifths of respondents having spent all of their savings since the coup.

The UNDP found that respondents have attempted to meet the straitened circumstances in a variety of ways. More than two-thirds have reduced their non-food consumption. Others have sold assets to make up the shortfall; according to the survey, one third of rural households have sold livestock, while 27 percent of urban households have sold a motorbike. Smaller numbers have also sold gold and jewelry. An entrepreneurial minority has even earned an income by lending money; 3.4 percent of respondents reported earning income from loans made to those in more serious need.

The coup has also prompted a significant number of people to pick up and move. About 3 percent of surveyed households have moved since the coup. With approximately 11 million households in Myanmar, this translates to around 300,000 households having moved. A small percentage (3.3 percent) of respondents said that someone in their household had plans to move abroad over the next 12 months, perpetuating the exodus that characterized Myanmar under the junta that ruled prior to 2011. As one woman respondent in Magwe Region put it, “I was upset and wanted to be abroad because of political instability.”

The report’s findings perhaps understate the true impact that the coup has had on Myanmar society, not least because the survey interviews were conducted back in May and June, and that the situation if anything has grown more febrile and intractable since. But it makes abundantly clear that nine months on, the human toll of the military’s disastrous putsch continues swiftly to mount.