If you've been following our recent emails, you'll know there was a military coup in Burma on 1st February. You can catch up on it all here. This is our weekly update on the situation.
Myanmar may have permanently left the Western media, and some level of normality is resuming in Yangon, but part of this is that we have all normalised what is happening. 16 people have been killed by the military since last week and another 308 arrested. Imagine if these were stats from the UK: 16 Brits killed by the British Army, and 308 in Pentonville Prison for peacefully protesting. That alone would be cause for some sort of revolution, let alone the 756 killed before this, and the 4809 behind bars. However, seen in the context of the coup so far, things do seem to be calming down.
That said, people continue to be found dead in their homes; the medical superintendent of one of the larger hospitals was one victim. Having been charged with section 505A of the penal code just days before for taking part in the Civil Disobedience Movement, he was found dead late last week. Family members of those evading arrest are being held hostage until they come forward for detention. Security forces also allegedly raided an HIV/AIDS treatment centre run by a member of the civilian interim government, detaining twelve patients, including three children.
Protests continue, but they’re manifesting slightly differently. They’re now more like flash mobs, with a great wave of people emerging out of nowhere with banners and placards, running through the streets for 10 minutes, then dispersing again.
COVID is back in the news having taken a back seat since the coup, partly to make way for the more salient headlines, but partly because nobody has been tested during the chaos. However given the mass strikes from healthcare workers and the proximity of India which runs for 1500 km along the northwestern border, Myanmar may be in for a dangerous resurgence.
There have been new, huge disruptions to trade, with crop exports to China coming to a complete halt due to new Chinese restrictions on the border. Thousands of melons are stuck at the barriers, alongside mangoes, onions, beans, pulses, rice and fish. This seems to be COVID related rather than coup related, but there will likely be some overlap in reasoning.
In another economic blow, a group of Hong Kong investors are looking to relocate their garment factories from Myanmar to Cambodia due to the instability in Myanmar. In fact, in a recent survey conducted by ten foreign chambers of commerce, 33% of businesses reported a reduction in activity of at least 75% and 13% of companies were found to have ceased business entirely. Only 5% said that the coup had had no impact on their business. The biggest problems cited were problems with banking and payments, internet cuts and staff being unable to travel.
The United Nations Development Programme have warned the Myanmar may “backslide towards levels of poverty not seen in a generation” due to the coup and COVID. They report that 25 million people, which is almost half the population, could be living below the poverty line by next year. This roughly doubles the current rate of poverty and wipes out 15 years of progress.
Meanwhile, universities officially resumed classes on Wednesday, but unsurprisingly very few students turned up. Most education administrators and teachers remain on strike, and students are wary of legitimising the military government. One student said she “cannot receive an enslaved education under the military dictatorship” while her friends remain behind bars. “I will return to the classroom only when the people’s government is in charge”. It’s hard to see how this ends. Students are so furious, that they’re willing to sacrifice their education for democracy.
Fighting continues between the army and ethnic armed groups, with the army sustaining increasing casualties. The Kachin Independence Army managed to shoot down a Tatmadaw helicopter on Monday. Reports conclude that it was taken down by an FN-6 portable missile, a Chinese export which has increasingly been finding its way into the hands of ethnic armed groups. Separately, an army-appointed local administrator in Sagaing region was apparently beheaded with a machete by armed civilians. So there is now hideous violence on both sides in some areas. Added to this, the casualties on both sides are likely underreported in rural areas, so it’s difficult to assess what’s really going on. Remember that there has been conflict between the army and ethnic armed groups for over 70 years, so this is not new.
The interim government (NUG) is still working away at establishing themselves, but still have not been recognised internationally, and have unsurprisingly been labelled an illegal government by the military. All legalities are quite clearly out the window at this point so the accusation is moot. Either way, the NUG is struggling with mixed messages about the 2017 Rohingya crisis, with their members failing to agree on whether the crisis was handled correctly. Currently, the NUG lacks any Rohingya representation, undermining its pro-democracy message. The Rohingya crisis has been back in the forefront of people’s minds since the coup, with many who had backed the military’s stance that there was no genocide at the time, now reconsidering the truth of the brutality. There have been mass apologies from protestors for not standing up for the Rohingya at the time, and it will be high on the agenda of any civilian government that successfully establishes power.
This seems unlikely, however. The military has either detained or filed charges against most members of the NUG, who in turn have announced the military constitution abolished; the environment is not exactly conducive to dialogue. So stalemate continues while the new “normal” takes hold for every day people.