On February 1, 2021, it was announced that Aung San Suu Kyi won Myanmar’s general elections. Aung San Suu Kyi previously served as Myanmar’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Since 2011, she was the chairperson of the National League for Democracy (NLD) where she worked with the military to establish a democratic regime. However, the military which had backed another party during the general elections asked for a re-run of the votes, accusing the National League for Democracy of cheating. The election commission rejected the request and justified its decision by stating that there was no evidence to support the military’s claims.
In retaliation, the military surrounded the houses of Parliament, and detained leaders of the NLD, cabinet ministers, activists, journalists, and politicians from the opposition. Later, the coup was announced and broadcasted publicly on a military-owned TV channel. The reporter covering the news explained that the military has the right to declare a national emergency, citing the 2008 Constitution. Shortly following the announcement, Myanmar’s military took action by stopping all television broadcasts and blocking internet and telephone access. They also canceled all international and domestic flights.
The public immediately reacted by rushing to ATMs to collect as much cash as possible to stock up on provisions at supermarkets. In the weeks following the coup, people began peacefully protesting in the streets. However, the situation changed entirely when — on February 20 — the military killed two unarmed protesters, one of these protesters being 16 years of age. The killing caused a wave of outrage throughout the country. Within two days, millions of Burmese from across the country gathered and took to the streets. This time it was not just a protest, but a strike that froze the banking system. During the second month of the protests, the Burmese military started to be more violent, as they started firing at the crowds and in some cases even running them over with vehicles.
What Has Happened Since Then?
In reference to the actions of the military, United Nations’ human rights spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani explained that within one year following the start of the coup at least 1,500 protestors were killed, thousands more entered the armed conflict, and at least 11,787 people were unlawfully detained. As of February 2, 2022, 8,792 out of these 11,787 people were still in custody. Tom Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar explained in a report that the attacks by the military constitute probable crimes against humanity. Specifically, the military actions could be characterized as “crimes of murder, enslavement, forcible transfer, torture, rape, and sexual violence.” Tom Andrews also explained that as of April 2022, the UN reported more than 500,000 displacement cases since the beginning of the coup. This increases the number of internally displaced persons in Myanmar from 300,000 to 800,000 in a mere 13 months. These internally displaced persons have sought safety in the neighboring countries of India, Thailand, and Bangladesh. The junta is currently blocking access to aid and assistance for more than 500,000 internally displaced people across many regions.
Furthermore, the Myanmar military junta has been using the “four cuts” strategy to weaken any possible opposition. The “four cuts” is a military strategy that was established in 1962 by the former dictator General Ne Win. The idea centers around killing, burning, and destroying everything. Essentially, the military is responding by destroying and burning villages, including important structures such as homes, schools, and hospitals. Between the start of the coup and March 7, 2022, the military burned more than 6,719 civilian structures. They also implemented the “four cuts” strategy by cutting the population off from any internet access and destroying food, medical aid, and needed supplies that were destined for internally displaced people in the Karenni and Chin States.
Numerous primary sources testify to this violence used by the Burmese military. In June 2022, a video was leaked on social media showing the enactment of alleged war crimes in the Sagaing region. The video, filmed on the phone of a Burmese national soldier, shows 30 men that were captured the military. Out of these 30 men, at least five of them appear to have been killed. The video records the soldiers discussing among themselves how many civilians they have killed so far. A sergeant explains that he has killed 26 people, while another soldier says that for now, he has managed to kill five people by slitting their throats.
The video was recovered by a villager who saw the soldier drop their phone while leaving the village. The video was later verified by the media outlet “Radio Free Asia (RFA)”, however, it is necessary to note that, as of now, the evidence has not yet been independently verified by other organizations. The content of the video coincides with reports of NGOs which explained that since the coup, the military and their allies have executed civilians and destroyed villages during military operations. Furthermore, this is not the only video that testifies to the brutality of the military forces; on July 1, a video of a woman being decapitated by the junta went viral.
Worsening Circumstances for the Rohingya People
While the situation of most Burmese citizens has worsened since the coup, the Rohingya ethnic minority has been suffering for more than 10 years. The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group located primarily in the region of Rakhine. In June of 2012, guard officials began to move Rohingyas by force to camps. These camps are surrounded by barbed wire and military checkpoints. The military has also restricted their access to medical and humanitarian aid. The situation became even worse for the Muslim ethnic group since the coup, as there are now more aid blockages to their camps. Moreover, there have been rising tensions between the Myanmar military junta, their allies, and the ethnic Arakan Army which also resides in the Rakhine region. These tensions have put Rohingyas in an even more dangerous situation, in the middle of a possible crossfire between the two groups.
Involvement of Foreign Nations in the Myanmar Conflict
In order to have a more complete picture of the impact of international actors, this article will look at Myanmar’s neighbors, as well as regional and international organizations.
Firstly, this article will analyze one of Myanmar’s neighbors and ally of the military junta: China. Tom Andrews explains that China — along with Russia and Serbia — has continued to supply Myanmar’s junta with weapons. These are the same weapons that have been used to attack civilians. However, China’s involvement is more multi-faceted; Beijing has pressured Pakistan to get involved as its proxy to supply arms. Allegedly Myanmar’s military junta plans to buy various Chinese-upgraded JF-17 Block III fighter jets from Pakistan.
Although numerous, one of the main reasons behind China’s involvement includes its geographic proximity. China has always influenced Myanmar. The country’s influence is economic, seeing that it is Myanmar’s largest trading partner, as well as diplomatic. If the rebels were to win this would create instability, which is the last thing that China wants for its neighbor and economic partner. Moreover, as long as the junta is in power, Beijing has allies in power. Conversely, the rebels are not allies of China, and this year insurgent groups attacked China-backed oil and gas pipelines which had been guarded by members of the junta. The attack continued for a few days, during which approximately 32 Chinese firms were vandalized by the groups. The rebels’ largest operation against China was an attack on the Letpadaung copper mine where a Chinese company operates. The actions of the rebels explain why it is in Beijing’s interest to remain an ally of Myanmar’s junta.
Stability is not the only reason why Beijing needs to keep an ally in power in Myanmar. This alliance could help harm Beijing’s rival, India, in the process. Both countries have been trying to increase their influence on Myanmar. The reason behind this: it would give them more access to the Bay of Bengal. The bay is situated between South and Southeast Asia and is the largest bay in the world. It is essential for trade because one-fourth of traded goods cross this bay. Furthermore, it is possible that the bay contains 200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This would make the Bay of Bengal the largest supply of natural gas in the Asian Pacific region.
Gaining access to these resources is a key motivator for both China and India. These two countries are heavy consumers of energy and their dependency on gas and oil will increase exponentially in the upcoming decades. Securing a new source of natural gas will help their economies flourish in the future. Rivalry in the region between China and India is the highest in Myanmar. This is because both nations have been using Myanmar to transport goods from their landlocked regions. Whichever country manages to gain more support from Myanmar’s government will gain more influence in the country and therefore access to the coveted bay.
This article will also look at the regional organization of ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations). In April of 2021, the organization had a meeting in Indonesia. During this meeting, all member states signed the “Five-Point Consensus.” The consensus called for an immediate ceasefire and an end to violence in the country. It also focused on starting a dialogue among all parties and appointing a special envoy. This special envoy would be sent to Myanmar and would set meetings with all of the parties. However, none of this has yet happened.
The lack of progress is attributable to multiple different factors. Firstly, it is important to note that at the start, nine out of ten of the ASEAN members banned the junta from high-level meetings. This has changed. Last month, Myanmar’s defense minister attended the ASEAN defense meeting despite the call of some countries to exclude the junta. Out of the 10 member countries, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines asked the current chair of the organization to exclude the military junta. This change can be traced back to the change of chairmanship from Cambodia at the beginning of the year. In fact, in January of 2022, Cambodia’s prime minister flew to Myanmar’s capital to meet with junta leaders. This meeting resulted in the disapproval and consternation of some of the other members. This division impedes ASEAN members from taking any decisive decisions. Due to these circumstances, Myanmar’s situation cannot change and the violence cannot be stopped.
ASEAN is not the only divided organization. The United Nations suffers from the same fate. Since the coup, the United Nations has come out with various statements against the violence perpetrated by the junta. However, the UN’s Security Council has not taken any resolution. This can be explained by the fact that two out of the five security council members, China and Russia, are allies of Myanmar’s military junta.
Myanmar’s situation is extremely complicated with an important number of groups fighting in the region. The lack of progress in improving the situation can be explained by the lack of a decisive response from international actors.
Featured Image by: EURACTIV