Unrest in Myanmar after the coup of 2021

This paper is dedicated to my beloved father, Ri Tang (Late)

 

Introduction

Myanmar is characterized by great ethnic and religious diversity, and the government officially recognizes 135 ‘races’ or taingyintha. The country came under direct control of the military in 1962, after which the Ne Win regime held power until 1988. A bloody coup on 18 September 1988 brought a new military regime to power: the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Seekins 1992: 246). In the early morning hours of 1 February 2021, the Tatmadaw staged a coup and arrested President U Win Myint and other civilian officials. A yearlong state of emergency was ordered under section 417 of the 2008 constitution, with a promise that new elections would take place one year after what they labeled as ‘fraudulent elections’ in November 2020. This coup transferred all legislative, executive, and judicial power of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar to the Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Services by Vice President U Myint Swe, who had been appointed by the military. In response, nationwide protests broke out, and the military junta has used systemic and arbitrary violence against anti-coup protesters. One year after the coup, the Myanmar junta continues to use violence against, pressure, detain, beat, arrest, and kill the demonstrators. It has killed more than 2,000 demonstrators across the country. The people of Myanmar have strongly rejected and continue to resist the coup. Despite the COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings, anti-coup protest groups have formed on the streets. With the military’s extreme escalation of violence on demonstrators, civilians have formed local militias and taken up arms to resist the coup.

Background and context of Myanmar

The British occupied Burma in 1825, 1852, and 1885, and the country (named Burma was changed into Myanmar in 1989 by the military regime) gained independence from British rule in 1948 (Ghosh 2000). In this paper, I will use the term Burma and Myanmar interchangeably. I will also use the term Burmese means to all nationalities in Union and in language Burmese means Bamar language. U Nu became the first prime minister of Burma, and the country had a parliamentary government from 1948 to 1958. The country faced various problems, including issues of federalism and civil wars along ethnic and ideological lines. After the military seized control in 1958, and U Nu appointed Ne Win to several cabinet posts, both the military and police presence increased substantially. The new Burmese (Bamar) political system became unitary, and non-Bamar ethnic groups felt uneasy in a Bamar-dominated political system (Topich, William and Leitich 2013). Myanmar has adopted three different constitutions: in 1947, 1974, and 2008. According to the 1974 constitution, Burma is divided into seven states and seven divisions for administrative purposes. The states were mostly hill ethnic groups, and the ethnic Bamar groups were predominant in the divisions. The 2008 constitution renamed these divisions as ‘regions.’ Mutual distrust between the successive majority-Bamar-led central governments and the country’s ethnic minorities has been a continuous source of problems. All major ethnic minorities have engaged in some form of violent or non-violent protest against the central government to achieve equal rights and autonomy under a federal government (Kipgen 2015: 20–21).

Following independence in 1948, Burma’s government was based on a parliamentary democracy characterized by weak internal and external sovereignty. U Nu was opposed by the armed communist groups, which viewed his civilian administration as a continuation of Western colonialism and capitalism. The government also faced armed rebellions by various ethnic groups seeking greater autonomy or even independent statehood. In 1962, Ne Win staged a military coup to reinforce the central government’s hold on power in response to these countervailing forces. Under successive military regimes, the country’s human and physical resources were exhausted through political repression, isolationism, mismanagement, and corruption. Ne Win nationalized private businesses, established state ownership of most enterprises and industries, expelled foreign companies, and restricted foreign trade. He also banned all political parties (except for the Burma Socialist Program Party), imposed strict controls on political and economic activity, controlled government officials, farmers, and workers through their respective organizations, and restricted people’s movement and contact with foreigners (Thawnghmung 2019). The principle of the military playing a continuous role was incorporated into the draft constitution that emerged from the National Convention (James 2005).

All the country’s state leaders – from U Nu, Ne Win, and Than Shwe to Thein Sein, Htein Kyaw, and Win Myint – have made attempts to favor, protect, and promote Buddhism in defense of the national religion, and the constitution of 2008 favors the nation’s Buddhist monks over other religions in the country, especially Christians and Muslims. In the 1950s and 1960s, U Nu used his executive power to create the Ministry of Religious Affairs, employed the state treasury to promote Buddhism, and made Buddhism the state religion, against the expressed will of ethnic groups like the Chin, Kachin, and Karen, who represent the overwhelming majority of Christians in the country (Pum Za Mang 2016). U Nu brought religion into national politics and changed the 1947 constitution that had already been approved by Aung San and other ethnic leaders. Eventually, these actions led to the collapse of the democratic federal system of secular governance in the country. For many decades, the central government developed Burmanization toward other ethnic nationalities in the country. With the support of the central government and Bamar ethnic nationalities, U Nu made Buddhism the state religion (Pum Za Mang 2016). After the military government took power, equality and justice no longer prevailed in Myanmar. The Burmese language, spoken by the Bamar, was made compulsory in all educational institutions and government offices. Students were required to learn Burmese in schools and colleges, and it was made the only official language for raising formal agenda items in Parliament. For several reasons, ethnic groups other than the Bamar majority were apprehensive about the gradual changes in the government’s policies. The changes went against the principle of the Panglong Agreement on local autonomy based on equality and unity in diversity. Bamar culture and religion were imposed on non-Bamar groups. The non-Bamar population construed the changes as a mischievous Burmanization policy to promote Bamar chauvinism (Kipgen 2016). The Ne Win regime actively suppressed diverse social groups, particularly non-Bamar cultural and political identities, by banning minority languages from state schools (South 2008).

From 1948 to 1958, Myanmar was a parliamentary democracy, but political events between 1962 and 2011 isolated the country from the world. Under the military dictatorship, there was a restriction on contact with the outside world. Only a few journalists were accepted but faced restrictions when traveling (Lintner 1989). After almost 50 years of military dictatorship, the Tatmadaw created a new constitution in 2008, held multiparty elections in 2010, and transferred power to a nominally civilian government led by Thein Sein and the pro-military party USDP in 2011. These actions transformed Myanmar into a formally democratic state, but the substance of democracy was constrained by constitutional provisions that gave the military control over national security, as well as strong positions of power within Parliament, government, and public administration (Stokke 2019). In February 2021, the Tatmadaw again seized power and arrested the country’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as other political leaders. Since then, as of July 4, 2022 more than 2,057 people have been killed and 11,393 people detained, according to AAPP (2021), which has been met with massive civilian protests. Ethnic minorities in Myanmar have long been targets of the military. Thousands of ethnic minorities have been displaced from their homes due to the ongoing conflict between the Tatmadaw, local militias, and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), which can be traced back to the 1950s (Smietana 2021).

Reform in Myanmar (2010–2020)

Myanmar experienced civil wars after 1948 and has been under military control since 1962. Under these conditions, the military has been maintained by the central and Bamar governments. From the very beginning, the military was deeply embedded in politics and government, which continued under Aung San, Ne Win (Cook and Minogue 1993), Than Shwe, Thein Sein, and Min Aung Hlaing. In 2011, political power was transferred to a civilian government after almost 70 years of brutal dictatorship; however, there was still a military-backed government under the leadership of President Thein Sein, and the military continued to have major political and economic sway over the country. The new government (National League for Democracy, or NLD) carried out a series of political and economic reforms, as detailed below.

Political reforms

Perhaps the most significant changes were made in the political sphere in 2011. In his inaugural address in March 2011, President Thein Sein reached out to critics of the military junta, which in one form or another had ruled the nation for 60 years, and emphasized the need for people to put their differences aside and collaborate for the good of the country. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. In January 2012, the NLD became a legally registered political party and in April of that year contested elections. It won 43 out of 45 seats – a result the military accepted (Chalk 2013). Myanmar became the darling of the world after its reforms in 2010. Not only the world’s top leaders like US President Barack Obama but also film stars like Jackie Chan, Angelina Jolie, and others visited the country. The new democratic government in Parliament enacted a series of socio-political, economic, and administrative reforms.

Economic reforms

In the early 2010s, Myanmar was in the midst of an astonishing transformation from dark dictatorship to peaceful and prosperous democracy. Trade embargos were rolled back, and billions of dollars in aid were promised to make up for lost time. Several top businessmen were investing in Myanmar (Thant Myint-U 2019). In 2014, the country’s economy was the fastest growing in the world (Thant Myint-U: 14). In the 2010 census figures, 25.6% (i.e., 16 million people) had been living below the poverty line, and of the total employed, 31% (i.e., 9 million) were earning less than USD 1.25 a day based on 2008 census figures. The rural areas had twice the level of poverty of urban areas, particularly in the Chin and Rakhine states (Bhasin 2014).

Myanmar had witnessed major economic growth over the previous several decades – in particular, since moving towards a more market-oriented economy in 2010. As new industries were emerging and greater foreign direct investment entered the country, urbanization and rising incomes led to greater opportunities for rural populations to seek out income diversification (Müller, Schmidt and Kirkleeng 2020). Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD came to power in 2016, bringing high hopes for positive change in the country. However, the new government also faced major challenges. The military influence continued in public institutions and over the economy. The business environment in Myanmar was becoming better but still faced some big challenges. For ease of doing business, Myanmar improved from 182nd out of 189 countries in 2014 to 170th out of 190 countries in 2017. Between 2011 and 2016, an average of 46 reforms were implemented annually to make it easier to set up a business (DFAT 2016). The Union-level government played a strong role in economic development in Myanmar, including responsibility for managing licenses in the lucrative natural resources sectors (Chandra 2021). After decades of isolation from the Western nations and limited interaction with its neighbors to the east, Myanmar embarked on a series of socio-economic reforms across all sectors in 2012 (Kandiko Howson and Lall 2019). International economic sanctions were also eased, and this transition caused various changes. After the democratic transition started, the manufacturing industry expanded its share from 20.4% of GDP in 2007 to 32.1% in 2012 (JICA 2013). The military government announced a referendum in May 2008 to approve a new constitution for the country and a general election in 2010. They already controlled the new parliament with an allocation of 25 percent of seats and veto power over parliamentary decisions. The proposed constitution guaranteed people’s right to form political organizations, including unions (Paul 2010).

The military coup 2021

In the early morning hours before Myanmar’s newly elected parliament was to convene on 1 February 2021, the military detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Win Myint, cabinet ministers, NLD central executive committee members, the chief ministers of Myanmar’s states and regions, and members of other political parties and representatives of civil society. As the military carried out these targeted raids, it also cut off Internet and mobile telephone networks in the country’s political capital, Naypyitaw, and its economic capital, Yangon, and took the state television channel off the air. In a statement read out on a military-owned channel, the army said it had detained NLD leaders and officials and was invoking the state of emergency provisions in the 2008 constitution, thereby transferring all executive, legislative, and judicial powers to Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing for one year (ICG 2021a). The claimed justification for these actions was serious election fraud, which represented an act or attempt “to take over the sovereignty of the Union by insurgency, violence and wrongful forcible means” in contravention of Article 417 of the Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. Articles 418 and 419 provide that, once a state of emergency has been declared under Article 417, the “legislative, executive and judicial powers of the Union (shall be transferred) to the Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Services” (Centre for Law and Democracy 2021).

After the coup, the people of Myanmar faced a triple crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and the military coup itself. The State Administration Council (SAC) arrested the country’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other political leaders (Smietana 2021). After a few days, many politicians, civilians, and government workers started protesting by beating pots and pans in Yangon every night from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. During the day, many civilians, politicians, civil servants, healthcare workers, religious leaders, and government workers peacefully protested in every corner of Myanmar. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Yangon and across the country. The day was known as the 22222 Revolution this name immediately calls to mind the 8888 Uprising of 1988 in Myanmar. Military groups brutally killed people and arrested and tortured many civilians (mostly youth) protesting in the streets. They lost their lives for resisting the military coup. The military ordered the arrest of civilians participating in demonstrations without a permit. Civilians lived in fear, anxiety, and insecurity after the coup.

Barbed-wire roadblocks were set up across Yangon and in other cities. Residents gathered at ATMs and food stalls, while some shops and homes removed the symbols of Aung San Suu Kyi and the flag of the NLD party, which typically decorated the streets and walls of the city. International organizations and governments condemned the takeover, saying it is a setback for the limited democratic reforms Myanmar had made (Milko 2021b). Interreligious religious groups like Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus joined together in peaceful anti-coup protests nationwide. Pastors, monks, priests, nuns, and seminarians from various places showed solidarity with the people of Myanmar by holding up placards calling for democracy at the entrances of churches, and there was interreligious prayer in Yangon. Hundreds of Christians, mostly young people from cities like Yangon and Mandalay, joined other protesters. Generation Z also played a key role in the anti-coup protests.

On 16 April 2021, politicians and activists in Myanmar announced the formation of the National Unity Government (NUG) and several key positions in the new government, which (besides the elected officials from the NLD) included several members of Myanmar’s ethnic nationalities. In June, the SAC officially canceled the results of the election that had been held on 8 November 2020. The SAC announced the formation of a new caretaker government with Min Aung Hlaing as prime minister and Soe Win as deputy prime minister (Ray and Giannini 2021). In a televised second speech on 1 August, six months after the coup, Min Aung Hlaing promised to hold a “free and fair multiparty general election” by August 2023 at the latest, after the two-year state of emergency expires (Kyodo News 2021). Following seven months of instability, Myanmar’s parallel government, the NUG, declared nationwide resistance to the military regime.

The rise of the Civil Disobedience movement

The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) was formed just two days after the 2021 coup. Refusing to work under military rule, doctors left their hospitals, railway staff stayed home, banks closed, and school teachers and many others refused to work. Medical workers across Myanmar began a civil disobedience protest to show their disapproval and express their desire not to work for the new military government. Health workers in government hospitals and facilities issued a statement against the coup. Photos showing workers with red ribbons pinned to their clothes or holding printed photos of red ribbons were shared on social media. Others used a three-finger salute as a symbol for the pro-democracy protests. Some of those on strike began volunteering at charity health clinics, many of which had been shut down as a precaution against a surge in COVID-19 cases. To combat the outbreak of COVID-19, donated medical equipment had arrived in Myanmar and the government increased bed capacity with new quarantine centers, clinics, and hospitals, but the lack of staff was a continuous problem. The coup came just a few days after Myanmar had launched its vaccination campaign with some 1.5 million doses of a two-shot vaccine from India (Milko 2021a). It is unclear how many people in Myanmar have received this vaccine. Many civilians are fearful of this particular COVID-19 vaccine because they distrust the military regime. Some say the COVID-19 vaccine donated by India was the only vaccine the military families, and the rest are already expired without vaccinating its own people.

Civilians from all walks of life have joined civil servants in a wider CDM by boycotting products and services from military-owned businesses. They have also boycotted the state lottery and stopped putting advertisements and death notices in state-run newspapers. In addition, they are withdrawing their savings from government- and military-owned banks. However, civil servants refusing to work under the military regime are facing repression as the regime has threatened striking government employees with suspension, dismissal, and eviction from staff quarters; and yet, the civil servants are continuing their strike (Irrawaddy 2021b). Since the coup, the people of Myanmar have not only faced a political crisis but also battled the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, conflict, and a refugee crisis.

COVID-19 becomes a political crisis

The WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on 11 March 2020, and Myanmar identified its first confirmed case on 23 March in Chin State (World Bank 2021). The country’s testing capacity is still very limited. It has only four COVID-19 laboratories – three in Yangon and one in Mandalay – with a combined ability to test 1,000 people a day at most. Since February 2021, many healthcare workers and other civil servants have stopped working as part of a peaceful, non-violent CDM against the coup. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the country’s fragile existing health systems and affected its many health services. The CDM has spread throughout the healthcare workforce, resulting in the closure of public hospitals and leading to a health crisis. While the global community has been fighting COVID-19, Myanmar’s citizens have also been fighting for freedom from oppression. This is a necessary response to protect human rights against risks that increase the spread of COVID-19 at a time when coordinated efforts to manage COVID-19 are frustrated by political restrictions. Since the coup, many peaceful protesters have been threatened, injured, or killed, and the planned COVID-19 vaccination program has been thrown into uncertainty because of the coup. The coup threatens the health and human security of Myanmar and beyond, due to the danger of a possible COVID-19 pandemic wave. Without help from the global community, the people of Myanmar risk losing the battle against the disease and their long fight to emerge from military rule and oppression (Su Myat Han, et al. 2021).

Most civilians distrust the military regime, which has reversed the country’s hard-won progress in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. While COVID-19 data has gone unreported since the military seized power, the shortage of staff, military violence against medical staff, and the widespread lack of trust in authorities have weakened Myanmar’s already under-resourced healthcare sector, rendering it less capable to manage care and carry out vaccinations (Wittekind 2021: 2). The COVID-19 vaccination campaign is the latest example of the political use of the pandemic in post-coup Myanmar. The country received its first shipment of vaccines from India a little more than a week before the coup. While healthcare workers lined up to receive the vaccine at the end of January, they refused to receive their second doses after the coup (Wittekind 2021: 4).

The people of Myanmar have shifted their attention from the deadly virus to the pro-democracy movement. They have taken to the streets in protests across the country to show their opposition to the military overthrowing an elected government. Although the protesters wear facemasks, there is no social distancing as they chant slogans, sing songs of defiance, and hold up placards. The low rate of testing comes after thousands of health workers, including doctors and nurses, walked out of hospitals, clinics, and laboratories to join the CDM. The strike by health workers has stopped COVID-19 testing and shut down state-run hospitals across the country (UCA News 2021b). Myanmar’s banking system has been paralyzed since the coup as hundreds of branches of at least 31 local and 13 foreign banks have closed their doors due to staff strikes. All banking services have been halted in the country, except for mobile banking and ATM services. As a result, almost all trading companies, especially those engaged in sea-bound trade, have been forced to halt operations, as the banks are unable to issue the documents needed to import and export goods. Companies are struggling to pay salaries because the banks are not providing payroll services. Businesses are also suffering from a cash shortage as bank branches are closed, and the regime has ordered limits on cash withdrawals for both individuals and companies (Irrawaddy 2021a).

Local armed resistance to the coup

Since the coup, Myanmar has seen massive displays of resistance across the country. A core element of this opposition has been the CDM, comprising public and private sector workers who refuse to work under the military regime. The military has responded to the peaceful protesters with violent crackdowns, arrests, intimidation, and the killing of civilians. As a result, the resistance has gradually shifted from being exclusively peaceful to becoming partially armed, with a focus on defending civilians and targeting the military’s personnel and property (Kyed and Ah 2021). In this shift, civilians have formed defense groups – mostly young men and women with handmade guns (known as tu mae in Burmese). The Chinland Defense Force (CDF) was formed on 4 April 2021 from all nine townships of Chin State before the People’s Defense Force (PDF), which was formed by the NUG. On 24 April, CDF members in the Mindat township clashed with security forces for the first time after the officers had refused to release seven people – three men and four women – detained for putting up anti-regime strikers in town. The protesters had demanded the detainees be released, and when a police officer fired into the crowd, the defense force retaliated, reportedly killing three of the security forces. The situation rapidly escalated, and the army attempted to bring troops by road to reinforce the overwhelmed local battalion in Mindat. On 26 and 27 April, CDF fighters ambushed military convoys on the roads leading into town, reportedly killing more than 30 troops, destroying army trucks, and looting weapons (ICG 2021b).

In the week after the coup, as the Tatmadaw began its campaign to suppress protest and other forms of dissent, many communities and groups of protesters across Myanmar began forming militias to protect themselves from regime violence and launched an armed resistance. Some 250 groups emerged over the past 10 months and have carried out regular attacks on regime targets. The resistance groups, many of which have the words “defense force” in their names, range from underground urban cells consisting of a few people to large, well-organized militias with hundreds of fighters equipped with modern light arms. All the resistance groups rely mainly on asymmetric warfare tactics, including assassinations, and have been killing several people per day, including regime-appointed local administrators, USDP members, security force personnel, and alleged informants (known as Dalan in Burmese). In addition, there have been hundreds of explosions across the country. Targets include government and local administration offices and houses, businesses owned by the military, homes or businesses of alleged informants, police, and military posts. The local resistance forces have received better training, mostly from ethnic armed groups, and managed to supplement their makeshift arsenals with more modern firearms. They have also been conducting more deadly attacks on security forces. In various cities, the militants have done drive-by shootings to kill policemen and soldiers manning security posts and checkpoints. And in rural areas, resistance forces have regularly hit military convoys with roadside bombs, including as part of complex attacks where the fighters follow the explosions with small arms fire, causing death tolls in the double digits (ICG 2021c).

Regime’s blockade of humanitarian aid

Myanmar’s military junta is blocking desperately needed humanitarian aid from reaching millions of displaced people and others at risk. The United Nations, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and concerned governments should press the SAC to urgently allow aid to reach everyone in need. The junta and its security forces have imposed new travel restrictions on humanitarian workers, blocked access roads and aid convoys, destroyed non-military supplies, attacked aid workers, and shut down telecommunication services. Since the coup, it has carried out a nationwide crackdown on anti-coup protesters and the political opposition, which amounts to crimes against humanity and other abuses. Fighting in some ethnic minority areas has expanded, resulting in war crimes. The crisis has displaced over 284,000 people, with an estimated 22,000 refugees fleeing to India and Thailand. The military has imposed new restrictions, creating a nationwide humanitarian catastrophe (HRW 2021). While Myanmar authorities have long impeded access to aid for vulnerable groups, the military junta has established new restrictions, creating a nationwide humanitarian catastrophe. The UN estimates that the number of people needing assistance will grow from 1 million before the coup to 14.4 million by 2022, including more than 5 million children. About 25 million people, or half the population, could be living below the national poverty line (HRW 2021). The Tatmadaw is using its long-established “four cuts” counter-insurgency strategy in these areas – a cruel approach that deliberately targets civilians to deprive insurgents of food, funds, recruits, and intelligence on troop movements. Attacks on populated areas are an integral part of this strategy, along with the looting of food stores and denial of relief supplies, in clear violation of international humanitarian law (ICG 2021b). Between 1 February 2021 and 7 May 2022, the military and its affiliated groups burned down approximately 18,886 civilian houses to crush a growing resistance after the coup. Chin state alone is 1,130 numbers of houses burned down, according to Data for Myanmar (Datawrapper 2022).

ASEAN’s response

Myanmar became a member of ASEAN in 1997 (Renshaw 2013: 37). Since the coup on 1 February 2021, what role has the association played in Myanmar amid this political crisis, especially given the violent acts committed by the junta against the pro-democracy protesters, which have sparked international criticism? World leaders have strongly condemned Myanmar’s security forces for their deadly actions against the peaceful anti-coup protesters. Several Western countries have expressed condemnation because the military junta’s actions against the pro-democracy protesters conflict with the principles of universal human rights (Hidriyah 2021: 8).

The current crisis in Myanmar is the most serious challenge ASEAN has ever faced. It also threatens ASEAN’s long-standing foreign policy goal of keeping the region free of external intervention and promoting regional peace and stability. Therefore, a failure to resolve the current Myanmar crisis will pose a long-term existential threat to ASEAN by weakening the organization’s international unity and decreasing its relevance and centrality in shaping regional affairs and order. ASEAN is the only actor that can play a meaningful role in this respect (Ryu, Minn and Myat Myat Mon 2021). Its member states are far from united, however: Thailand has promised not to interfere, saying the coup is none of its business. Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines have essentially said the same. Brunei has called for a return to Myanmar’s previous semi-democratic system, while Malaysia and Indonesia have expressed “disgust at the continuing deadly violence against unarmed civilians,” per the former prime minister, and called for the restoration of democracy. On the whole, however, no ASEAN member state has been willing to truly stand up to the Tatmadaw or for the NLD government (Dunst 2021: 38). The member states allowed junta chief Min Aung Hlaing to join the ASEAN meeting on 24 April 2021 but excluded him from the summit in Brunei a few months later.

Although the military has little support among the population beyond direct profiteers and Bamar nationalists, the majority of Burmese resistance has not stopped. International reaction has condemned the coup, but China and ASEAN have proceeded with limited accommodation of the junta, often under the label of non-interference. Russia supports the junta directly, while several Western countries have invoked the UN’s responsibility to protect (R2P) (Drechsler 2021: 2). The ASEAN Charter’s principle of non-intervention has not made any difference to Myanmar’s political situation over the past few decades. The position of ASEAN, which calls for collective steps to overcome the political crisis in Myanmar, is that the political crisis in Myanmar is no longer an internal affair (Dugis 1992). The people of Myanmar are hoping that ASEAN and the international community will take action, but these hopes have not been realized. After the political crisis in Afghanistan that followed the end of the US withdrawal in August 2021, the eyes of the world turned to Afghanistan and away from the Myanmar crisis. The people of Myanmar have little hope left that the international communities and ASEAN would resolve the crisis, but humanitarian aid is desperately needed in Myanmar, especially by those who have been internally displaced.

International reaction

Almost 10 years of democracy in Myanmar ended on 1 February 2021, when the military overthrew the government and arrested President Win Myint, State Counsellor Suu Kyi, and others. The coup drew strong condemnation from the United Nations and world leaders, including Pope Francis, who has called for the release of detained leaders and dialogue. The UN Human Rights Council held a special session on the Myanmar crisis (UCA News 2021a). The United States imposed mostly personalized sanctions, frozen Myanmar assets in the United States, and stopped official developmental assistance to the government (not humanitarian aid to NGOs), but these actions have had a minimal effect. The EU has followed suit (Steinberg 2021).

On 1 February, US President Joe Biden called for the nations around the world to unite in support of defending Burma’s democracy. On 10 February, he announced targeted sanctions against Burma’s “military leaders who directed the coup, their business interests, as well as close family members.” Biden signed Executive Order 14014 on the same day, authorizing new sanctions and export-control restrictions on Burma. He also announced that the United States would maintain its “support for healthcare, civil society groups, and other areas that benefit the people of Burma directly.” On 11 February, the United States Agency for International Development announced it was immediately redirecting USD 42.4 million of assistance toward programs that would “support and strengthen civil society” (Congressional Research Service 2021). The UN issued a statement condemning the military’s actions as “crimes against humanity” and imploring the International Court of Justice to bring the military to trial (Sarma and Kapur 2021).

Two types of groups claim to represent Myanmar: the SAC and the National Unity Government (NUG). The United States and the European Union regard the SAC as illegitimate. Now the NUG hopes to win international recognition and aid, oust the military, and return some form of democracy to Myanmar (Dunst 2021). In the meantime, while the people of Myanmar wait for the international community to intervene in the crisis, the situation in the country continues to deteriorate (conflict between Tatmadaw, civilian resistance, and EAOs).

Conclusion

Sadly, the crisis in Myanmar is nothing new. Despite popular resistance, the military seized power from the civilian government before in 1962 and 1988. Starting in 2011, Myanmar was in a partial transition toward democracy, and a civilian government came to power in 2015. But the military took power again from the civilian government by force in 2021. The protesters are calling for civil disobedience, a stop to work under the junta, and mass demonstrations. The strike has already paralyzed the banking and healthcare systems at a time when the economy, hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, is struggling to stand on its feet. The military is also facing international sanctions and condemnation (The Hindu 2021). Since the coup, the country has been in dire straits, and people are killing each other. Humanitarian assistance and help from the international community are urgently needed for the people of Myanmar. The military (SAC) and the NUG are struggling to control the situation, and civilians are losing their lives through armed resistance. More than 200,000 people within Myanmar, adding to 370,000 existing internally displaced people is in urgent need of humanitarian assistance like shelter, food, and clothes. There are more and more internally displaced people in Myanmar, and some have had to flee to neighboring countries like India and Thailand because of the conflict between armed groups. There are 1.1 million refugees from Myanmar, according to UNHRC (UNHCR 2022), and nearly 100,000 internally displaced ethnic Chin in western Myanmar, according to Radio Free Asia (RFA 2022).

The military junta has burned down civilians’ homes and properties and turned religious buildings to ash. These political crises will not end without help from the international community. ASEAN, the UN, and the international community have failed to act and meet their goals of supporting the rule of law and human rights. Instead, they are pushing sanctions, raising toothless concerns, and condemning the coup with words instead of action. The measures thus far have been ineffective at producing any change, and citizens feel abandoned by the international actors. To support the youth of Myanmar, who are leading the charge against gross injustice, the international community has to do more than sanctions and condemnations.


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- (2021b), “The long history of Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement,” 15 May. Available online at: https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/long-history-myanmars-civil-disobedience-movement.html.

- (2021b), “Religions unite behind anti-coup protests in Myanmar,” 12 February. Available online at: https://www.ucanews.com/news/religions-unite-behind-anti-coup-protests-in-myanmar/91392#.


 

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