Yesterday was the start of Thingyan, Myanmar’s annual holiday and the start of the Burmese New Year. Usually there would have been festivals in all the streets, huge water fights all over the country, and a week’s holiday to recover with friends and family. But this year nobody is celebrating. People are purposely avoiding anything which acknowledges normal life, as life is currently so far from normal. The clay pots in the above photo are usually placed on thresholds to welcome in the new year. But yesterday, people marched in the streets with them full of flowers and painted with revolutionary slogans, peacefully protesting for the 72nd day in a row.
Since February 1st, the death toll now stands at 714, with 3054 detained or sentenced, and 717 in hiding from arrest warrants. My Twitter feed is full of horrendous images: children trying to sleep in the mud having fled to the jungle to escape airstrikes, a vegetable seller slumped over her blood-strewn cabbages having been shot dead whilst seated, unarmed civilians on their knees with their hands behind their heads, inches from the muzzle of a soldier’s rifle.
Last weekend saw a massacre in Bago, a city an hour outside Yangon (where all of our woodwork is made). Over 80 people were killed on one day, with witnesses reporting soldiers stacking bodies inside a pagoda, some of them apparently not quite dead. Their brutality seems to know no bounds.
In retaliation, the military sustained their first major attack by three aligned ethnic armed groups on Saturday. The Three Brotherhood Alliance allegedly killed at least 14 police officers in Lashio, northern Shan State, and burned a police station to the ground. This is a mere fraction of the damage they have caused. More damaging to the military is dissension in their ranks; some soldiers and police have defected, sickened by their orders, but it’s not an easy move as it puts their families at huge risk.
Civilians have also started to fight back in some regions. Residents in Tamu, in the northern Sagaing Region, ambushed a military convoy on Saturday and killed three soldiers with homemade hunting rifles. “We want to protest peacefully and weapons are only for self-defence,” a Tamu resident told Frontier. “I want to be clear that if we had a choice then we would not be using weapons.”
This is risky business; 19 people have been sentenced to death for allegedly killing an associate of a captain from the army. The last time anybody on death’s row was executed in Myanmar was 1988; complicated legal processes mean it rarely happens, but given the military’s form over the past two months it is not inconceivable that they will push these through.
Meanwhile, a notoriously violent army division has stationed itself in a school for the blind in Yangon. 100 soldiers have taken over the school which is full of young children, many who are autistic, frightened and helpless.
The junta is getting away with doing whatever they like. Even in London, the UK embassy is now in the hands of the military, the military attaché having locked out the ambassador last week. The UK were unable to do anything about it due to diplomatic protocol which they claim gave them no choice, saying they cannot interfere in a Burmese affair. Germany, on the other hand, has resisted the removal of three of the seven diplomats in the Burmese embassy in Berlin after they posted their opposition to the coup on Facebook. They have had their passports cancelled by the military, but are currently being protected by the German government.
People continue to be charged for posting anything that the military don’t like on social media. This means up to three years in prison. Meanwhile, high profile members of the NLD, the ousted government, have also started to be hit with corruption charges by the military. One has been accused of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from sand mining. Another of taking huge bribes while in office. The accusations include personally banking funds of around £3.5 million from private businesses which were destined for government projects. They also allege lending around £350,000 to 19 individuals who did not repay the funds. For now, the accusations are slightly vague, but if charged under the anti-corruption law, these individuals could find themselves with a 15 year prison sentence.
The military’s spokesperson held a press conference on Friday in which he qualified the military’s violence as a reaction against the behaviour of “extremist” supporters of the ousted government (NLD). He accused them of using arson to divert attention from voter fraud, which was their initial excuse for taking power on February 1st. He also denied the use of automatic weapons (something which has been widely documented), claiming that “if automatic rifles were truly used against the protesters, the number 500 you guys are saying [have been killed since February 1st] could be killed within hours”. Given the scenes of the last few weeks, this is easy to believe.
Connectivity continues to be disrupted, with the remaining fibre connections often failing. Only 0.5% of the population still has access to the internet, and many fear access may be cut off entirely in the coming weeks. In a move which takes us back to the 70s, people are having to turn to the radio for news.
Having been closed for 72 days, the banking system continues to crumble. Limits on cash withdrawals have seen middlemen stepping in to fill the void. Cash agents are charging 3% to people who can’t get enough money out of the bank. The assumption is that they are selling those deposits to businesses who need to make loan repayments, or who don’t want to hold cash.
The military has announced that schools will be reopening in early May. However, they have also fired most of the education ministry for participating in the CDM, so may struggle to manage the administration of opening schools without a functioning ministry. And presumably people will refuse to send their children to school under the military anyway.
The UN Security Council continue to be lobbied for more concerted action in the form of further sanctions and an arms embargo, but the US and European allies have faced opposition from Russia and China which has blocked any action. There is little the EU or US can achieve given China and Russia’s position. The UN special envoy for Myanmar continues to be denied entry to Myanmar to meet with military leaders, so is instead on a regional tour meeting to appeal to senior officials of ASEAN nations for coordinated action. An ASEAN crisis meeting is planned for April 20th, but this is unlikely to garner much action given Cambodia and Laos’ usual allegiance to China on international relations.
So for now, the situation looks set to continue. The military will not stop their brutality until the people stop protesting, and the people will not stop protesting and return to work until they have their democracy back. In the meantime, as laid out in this article, conditions are being set for “state failure” in which the country could become ungovernable. Many are talking about civil war, but the truth is that the country has been in a civil war for decades. The military and ethnic armed groups across the country have been fighting for over 60 years. The difference now is that their opposition is the entire country. Terrifyingly, they are probably strong enough for this not to bother them: "This is the only army on planet Earth which for seven decades has never stopped fighting," Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based defence analyst, told Nikkei Asia. "That does something to men's heads, and at the rank-and-file level what it does is it brutalizes."
The only thing they fear is China, but China is very unlikely to speak out against them. All China needs is access to Myanmar’s ports, regardless of the moral implications. So while analysts and international leaders work out how on earth to fix this horrendous situation, the hideous daily reality will remain.
How can you help?
The single best thing you can do is to stay up to date with what is going on. We will continue to update you weekly, but for daily updates follow our Instagram stories here.
To learn more about what it is like on the inside of the military, read this article which interviews four defected officers.
Here is a link to the controversial CNN report which aired this week. It has been criticised for failing to unearth anything new, for putting those interviewed at risk (11 were arrested straight after speaking to the reporters), and for "parachute journalism".
This episode of the NY Times's Daily Podcast is a good summary of the situation.
Beyond that, if you are looking to make a donation, Doh Eain's I Donation goes directly to families struggling to feed themselves at the moment and is being run and managed by our friend Emilie, so we can personally vouch for where the money is going. And here is a list of various ways you can donate, put together by other friends of ours, who are constantly verifying that the money is being channelled to the right places.
You can also subscribe to Frontier Myanmar, a brilliant independent local news organisation, who are bravely covering the stories every day. They are fantastic and we would urge you to consider signing up for membership.
As ever, buying from our makers is a totally direct way to help. We are continuing to place orders with them to replace our daily sales, which will be providing some stability amongst the chaos. Thank you to all of you who have been buying recently; you have almost emptied the UK warehouse, but there are lots of lovely things left if you would like to support. Our Yangon warehouse is full to the brim (as is our Yangon office and home which are housing the overflow...) so as soon as the ports open we will ship them over. If you're waiting for something in particular, sign up to the back in stock update and you'll be the first to know when they hit the shelves. For now, it's difficult to say when this will be, but we will keep you updated every week with any progress.
And if you want to specifically support our woodworkers in Bago (the city that sustained 80 deaths in one day on Saturday), you can meet them below, and see the beautiful things they make.