As crowds began amassing across Myanmar’s towns and cities a year ago to protest the military’s brazen power grab on February 1, there was a widely shared sense of enthusiastic defiance. In a carnival-like atmosphere, youths marched, chanted slogans, and held up witty placards while cars blared the upbeat protest songs of an earlier era. Elder Burmese, seeing themselves from decades back, urged the youths to push forward while also warning of the military’s self-stated practice of “never shooting into the air.”
There was indignation but also hope that Myanmar’s decade of reforms, flawed as it was, could continue. Supportive statements from major ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), supposed prophecies and soothsayers predicting imminent victory, and claims that the international community was mobilizing an intervention all helped build further momentum. Millions marched peacefully demanding the release of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, and for an end to the military’s political meddling. Health workers walked out of public hospitals and COVID-19 centers to launch the widespread Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), echoing the view that military rule was the root of all of Myanmar’s ills.
Yet after a painfully long 12 months, the sounds of jubilant defiance have been replaced with that of gun fire, explosions, and immense suffering as the country enters an almost unprecedented period of violence and nationwide civil war. At least 1,560 protesters have been killed by the forces of the State Administration Council (SAC), as the junta styles itself, and some 12,000 have been arrested. There have been credible reports of torture as well as summary executions as the military has unleashed wanton violence onto its own citizens.
Violence Begets Violence
Peaceful protests in major cities have all but disappeared, save for small pop-up protests that remind the people and the world that the struggle continues. The People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) and Local Defense Forces (LDFs), a motley assortment of militia groups formed by youths fleeing the junta’s suppression, trained and armed by sympathetic EAOs and nominally loyal to the parallel National Unity Government (NUG), are now taking the fight to the regime. Estimates vary on their actual number and efficacy, but the NUG claims tens of thousands of fighters. While still relying on handmade guns and ambushes, the PDFs in their months of existence are punching well above their weight with the help of 3-D printed guns, IEDs, homemade mortars, bomb drones, jerry-rigged missiles, and reportedly even a suicide bomb.
Often in coordination with local EAOs, PDF attacks have been reported with increasing frequency in once peaceful corners of Myanmar, particularly northwestern Myanmar. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) project, almost 12,000 fatalities have occurred since February 2021, with coup-related violence concentrated in Sagaing Region (40 percent of fatalities) and Magwe Region Region (11.8 percent), as well as Chin State (7.3 percent), Karenni State (6.3 percent), and Karen State (6 percent). Macabre massacres have been reported all over, mostly perpetrated by junta forces, such as the Christmas Eve butchering of women and children in Hpruso, Karenni State. A local think tank has reported that there has been nearly 2,300 clashes in the past 12 months that have displaced at least 550,000 people, and the military increasingly resorting to airstrikes that have killed at least 50 civilians.
The NUG’s Defense Ministry claims in regular “battle updates” that dozens of junta troops have been killed each day by PDF units since the launch of the “National Defensive Revolution” in September. By its tally, over 7,000 junta soldiers and police have been killed while PDF units have reportedly only sustained a few hundred deaths. Pro-NUG and PDF platforms regularly claim that entire Tatmadaw battalions, widely believed to be understrength, have been wiped out and senior commanders killed.
In return, the junta has claimed that PDF units have killed nearly 2,000 civilians, including ward administrators, civil servants, monks, and members of military-affiliated parties, and that it has arrested nearly 5,000 “terrorists.” In recent weeks, even pro-military platforms once snarky at PDF outfits have grown increasingly alarmed at the latter’s expanding operations in parts of Sagaing Region that have seen NUG-aligned schools open, local administration rolled out, and taxes being levied.
The Tatmadaw’s organized brutality, such as its burning of villages, rape, massacres, and use of human shields, are well established. Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing yaps about “rules of engagement” but based on the Tatmadaw’s conduct, the rules seem to not have been updated since its predecessor was founded in 1941 as an Axis collaborationist force.
However, there has also been a trickle of independent claims made against PDF units. These include the placing of bombs near the Cambodian embassy ahead of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar in early January, and the killing of a range of civilians, including civil servants who did not participate in the CDM, family members of alleged informants (dalans), and retired military personnel. It has also been reported that the PDFs and their allies have mislabeled attacks on non-junta targets as being against military personnel. In addition to these reports, the junta has also accused the PDFs of targeting fire services, utility offices, and COVID-19 vaccination sites, as well as schools, bridges, trains, planes, and ferries.
While these incidents and accusations pale in comparison to the junta’s excesses, they nonetheless highlight the NUG’s difficulties in effectively controlling PDF units and guiding their overall strategy. Supporters claim that the NUG has successfully incorporated most of these nominally-loyal units into a coherent fighting force, but many in fact operate independently and are indebted to EAOs that have differing views on the pecking order of the anti-coup resistance.
The NUG has published a Code of Conduct for the PDFs but the terms are vague and enforcement is questionable. Firebrand supporters have expressed flexible views with not just the ends justifying the means but also intentions absolving outcomes, including blaming victims for the increasing collateral toll. The scope of who qualifies as a dalan has also expanded disturbingly beyond people connected to the junta, to encompass those not participating in anti-regime activities, youths continuing schooling, or even independent, foreign journalists asking critical questions, quoting junta sources, or not expressing optimistic outlooks. Amid the confusion, some have used accusations to settle personal scores.
Health and the Humanitarian Nightmare
Humanitarian organizations have mostly been in limbo since the coup. Even as humanitarian needs surge, the junta has drastically reduced the operating space for humanitarian and civil society organizations citing the deteriorating security situation and claims that PDF units have smuggled people and weapons using ambulances and oxygen canisters. Lacking any international recognition, the SAC has resorted to bureaucratic obstruction and threats to force aid groups to acknowledge the regime as the country’s de facto government. Aid deliveries have been held up as checkpoints choke the main transport corridors and entry points.
The killing of two Save the Children employees in the Hpruso Christmas Eve massacre sent a chilling message to all aid groups and medical workers of the risks they face. The junta has violently targeted medical workers, who have spearheaded the CDM efforts and have been among the most vocal of those resisting the coup. Despite these challenges, many CDM doctors still treat COVID-19 patients through underground networks and online. Some have also fled to EAO areas and treat patients, internally displaced people (IDPs), and local communities, as well as PDF members.
Some aid groups have sought to establish a working relationship with the SAC in order to prioritize aid delivery but have been denounced by anti-junta platforms for doing so. Agencies would prefer not to lend legitimacy to the SAC but see very few alternative options for delivering much-needed humanitarian aid and resuming health projects. Even then, there is no security guarantee from or against junta forces.
Privately, some aid groups confess that engaging with the military administration could also make them and their staff targets from anti-junta groups including PDF units. Local Red Cross groups have also complained of being caught up in between with similar safety concerns. Firebrand anti-junta voices have called for a complete cessation of all activities, including health and livelihood projects, in order to deny the junta any opportunity to claim a return to normalcy.
This humanitarian disaster is occurring against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a devastating third wave taking place in mid-2021. While the junta-controlled Ministry of Health (MOH) has reported 15,000 deaths; the death toll is likely magnitudes higher but will never be known for certain. The junta has been accused of occupying hospitals, hoarding oxygen, and even using electricity cuts against COVID-19 patients, many of whom sought treatment at home after much of the public health system collapsed. The public was also urged to boycott the remaining government and military facilities as well as COVID-19 centers run by military-affiliated charities.
Despite launching one of Southeast Asia’s earliest vaccination drives days before the coup, Myanmar has significantly lagged behind its neighbors. To date, MOH has reported 44 million doses delivered, with around 40 percent of the population having had at least one dose. Some have refused the junta’s vaccines, instead forking out $20 to $50 out of their own pockets to buy vaccines from the private sector.
Prior to the third wave, there was strong stigma against COVID-19 vaccinations as people swore on Facebook to refuse vaccines until Aung San Suu Kyi was freed and democracy restored. Non-CDM healthcare workers and Red Cross volunteers manning vaccination centers as well as vaccinated people were labelled dalans. As people dropped dead like flies during the third wave, many rushed to get vaccinated. Coverage remains patchy, especially in places like Chin State, Karen State, Karenni State, and Sagaing Region due to the spiraling conflict as well as stronger impact of the CDM on the health sector. EAO-run health organizations have launched their own vaccination programs with supplies donated by the Chinese government. Supporters have also claimed that the U.S. supplied the NUG with Pfizer vaccines that were reportedly given to PDF units, though this appears improbable.
Shrinking Media Space and Online Echo Chambers
The media landscape has shrunk dramatically since the coup. According to UNESCO Myanmar, 146 journalists were arrested over the past 12 months, of whom 52 remain in detention. A large number have also fled the country before the junta’s nets closed in. The junta has specifically targeted journalists, continuing an ugly tradition that continued to a large extent during the decade of reform. Some foreign journalists were detained but their plight was much better than their local colleagues, at least three of whom were killed by security forces or died in custody. Ten media agencies had their licenses revoked but continue to operate underground. The combination of repression, the pandemic’s multifaceted fallout, and hyper-polarized sentiments mean that other agencies have had to fold.
Some media platforms have taken a decidedly activist position, posting gory details of PDF attacks, the military’s many crimes, and intentionally or unintentionally also helping obfuscate the collateral damage of PDF attacks. Citizen journalists from all corners of the country feed information to these platforms to document the junta’s atrocities for future prosecutions and to keep the population enraged and ensure they don’t “cool their blood”. This development has created its own host of problems as different platforms race to attract audiences and are unable or unwilling to devote resources for fact-checking or analysis. Many have earned Facebook’s blue check marks, which are perceived by netizens to mean that all of their content is verified.
The junta’s information blackouts have given rise to a “share now, verify later” attitude among netizens unsure whether they will still have internet access the next day. Furthermore, the military’s long practice of disinformation has led to its opponents adopting the very same tactics, or “psywar” as it is widely known, to demoralize and further delegitimize the junta. A social media culture of accepting all anti-junta information at face value has understandably taken root. In such an atmosphere, platforms or individuals voicing deviations or nuances, including foreign journalists, have been summarily dismissed as junta lackeys. Observers warn that these factors risk the creation of toxic echo-chambers that could undermine the pro-democracy struggle.
As most anti-junta platforms including the NUG’s media arms are hosted online, the junta has moved to choke the country’s internet access through internet shutdowns, firewalls, and fee hikes. There are reports of peoples’ phones and social media profiles being searched by soldiers at checkpoints to see if they have any interactions with anti-junta media platforms, with the risk of hefty fines or confiscations. PDF attacks on cell towers have also left at least 700,000 people without internet access, especially users of military-owned telco Mytel.
Do Negotiations Have a Chance?
There was some hope of a negotiated solution to Myanmar’s crisis when ASEAN laid down its Five-Point Consensus late April, at least within the international community. Domestically, the entire episode was seen as a farce, as it lent the SAC some legitimacy. With the world preoccupied with COVID-19, domestic problems, and bigger geopolitical confrontations, the plight of 55 million people in a semi-failed state hurtling towards civil war has faded from most countries’ radars. Currently, both the junta and the NUG see military victory as the only way to settle the conflict. The NUG has justified its resort to armed revolution as a result of the international community’s failure to intervene.
Judging by social media sentiments, de-escalation and negotiations appear impossible at present. When United Nations Special Envoy Noeleen Heyzer said that the military must be part of any negotiations, she was roundly condemned and activists demanded her dismissal. The NUG has said there is no room for negotiations, promised to overthrow the junta in 2022, and urged citizens to prepare for war, while supporters claim that global fundraising activities have transformed the PDFs into effective fighting units. Widespread coverage of PDFs’ exploits, often facsimiles of their statements, has sanitized and romanticized conflict even as casualties mount and more flee for their lives. The SAC for its part pays lip service to negotiations but also aims to outkill and outlast the NUG and PDFs. Min Aung Hlaing, with no sense of irony or shame, proclaimed that 2022 will be a “year of peace” and announced a unilateral ceasefire against EAOs that exists solely on paper.
Since the coup’s first day, there have been regular predictions that victory for the anti-coup movement was around the corner. The most improbable or overly-optimistic of claims are eagerly accepted. The junta’s brutality, coupled with the involvement of celebrities and influencers, ensure that resistance remains very much alive. Even as hardships mount, firebrand opponents of the junta urge people to endure the difficulties and stake their livelihoods for the country’s democratic struggle and are lashing out at a broadening list of alleged collaborators.
Yet, there is also a slow-growing disconnect between the fiery online rhetoric and the on-the-ground realities in many parts of Myanmar. As a result of the economic impacts of COVID-19 and the post-coup turmoil, many are struggling to make ends meet. A falling currency, inflation, and a cash crunch are cutting deeply into peoples’ pockets and the Burmese people’s once-famed generosity, as manifested by donations to religious institutions and charities, and now for the CDM, is rapidly drying up. Virtually everybody despises the coup and people speak optimistically of a post-junta near-future, but there is little appetite for a fight to the bitter end. In the lead up to the most recent silent strike, small business owners and taxi drivers privately confided to the author that the silent strikes were problematic, eating into their ever-shrinking margins. Nonetheless, the junta’s ham-fisted threats, as well as fears of being labelled a dalan, made the event a resounding success for the anti-coup effort.
The previous 12 months have arguably been among the most tumultuous in Myanmar’s modern history. As an inhumane tyrant and his over-zealous opponents hurl words and bullets at each other, the people are increasingly trapped in between. Regardless of who actually “wins” this senseless conflict, at no matter how short an interval, the people of Myanmar will be paying for the events of 2021 for generations to come.