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.
Last week marked the 100th day since the coup, and this week, it feels like the military dictatorship may be here to stay. People are starting to get on with every day life where they can, although that life is far from the one most wanted. Shops and restaurants are open and many people have gone back to work. But spirits are low and hopes are shattered.
Predictably, nobody turned up at school when they reopened last week. Students are spearheading the protests, so they’re the last people likely to bow to the will of the junta. The few who did go were stopped and searched by soldiers when they arrived - not exactly a warm welcome back. In a new tactic, the junta are trying to entice students and teachers back by offering them the vaccine if they do. There aren’t many teachers left in significant posts as most have been fired, which seems rather counterintuitive, but there you go.
Clashes between the military and civilian fighters continue to take place all over the country. This is no longer a one-sided conflict: the most passionate protesters have become the People’s Defence Force, or PDF, and they, alongside the ethnic armed groups, are doing their best to fight the military. The Tatmadaw are now facing violence from all angles; Rakhine and Chin States in the West, Kachin and Sagaing States in the North, the central Magway Region, Kayin State in the South and now Shan State in the East, which has been relatively peaceful since the coup until now. However, the military’s strength is still proving to be difficult to beat.
Following weeks of truce in the Chin town of Mindat, heavy clashes broke out again on Wednesday and the junta seized total control of the town on Saturday using helicopters and heavy weaponry. Remarkably there were very few civilian casualties, and the civilian fighters eventually fled, but it gave everyone a feel for what things look like when the Tatmadaw are worried about significant resistance. It also showed the relative insufficiencies of the recently created PDF who simply cannot compete with Asia’s second largest territorial army.
Similarly, a town called Myingyan near Mandalay had been putting up a good civilian resistance with homemade firearms, but the military eventually responded by sending in 500 troops, arresting 35 men, women and children, and publishing a bizarre propaganda story in their national newspaper about farmers from the area “enjoying fruits of cultivation” and benefiting from the fact that “their income for daily life is higher” because they now grow a variety of crops.
Members of the ousted NLD party continue to be abducted. The wife and newborn baby of one protest leader were detained when they couldn’t find him. Violence is still extreme in some areas. Since our last update, bodies have been returned to their families with all their organs removed. One man was reportedly pushed off the top of his building to his death. A mentally disabled man was shot in the head despite his parents begging the soldiers not to shoot as he was mentally ill. There have been multiple reports of Tatmadaw troops using women and children as human shields during clashes. A poet who was prominent in the 1988 student uprisings doused with gasoline and set on fire. And an ousted MP hacked to death in Shan State. And these are just the stories which make it to the media.
Reporting them is risky business, even for those who are no longer in Myanmar. Some journalists who fled to Thailand have been arrested in Chiang May this week, so crossing the border is seemingly no longer guarantee of safety.
Those who have managed to evade arrest have been able to tell their stories. Some fascinating interviews have come out this week from defected soldiers. One reports that information and internet access is strictly regulated within the military and that there is growing silent resentment among rank-and-file soldiers over the atrocities being committed against civilians. Another said that until he escaped, the only death he had heard about was the very first protestor killed back in early March, and that the 800 who have died since were news to him when he got out.
Similarly, a released Japanese journalist who arrived back in Tokyo on Friday has told reporters about what’s going on in prison. He said “many Burmese are being tortured. Some are deprived of meals for two days, others are threatened with weapons and beaten”.
Even for those keeping their heads down, life in Burma is far from fun at the moment. The passport office reopened for the first time since February and was totally overwhelmed by people desperate to leave the country. Those with options have left or are leaving. Those who remain say that life has become functional, but that the concept of fun is becoming a distant memory.
The banking crisis continues to escalate. The local currency has, unsurprisingly, plummeted to record lows, and withdrawal limits at banks are getting smaller and smaller, with the queues getting longer. People are literally camping outside banks to withdraw the equivalent of $130, the current maximum. There’s an app for booking a slot, but every time slots are released, the app crashes and you miss your opportunity for another fortnight. Agents and brokers are charging as much as 13% for cash in exchange for electronic deposits into their accounts.
Banks have also been ordered to submit detailed lists of all transactions made at banks between 1st February and 7th May to the Central Bank of Myanmar. The rumour mill worries that this will be an attempt to track funds that have been donated to support striking civil servants or the parallel civilian government.
Internationally, while targeted sanctions from the West continue to pile up, ASEAN have affectively bowed out of the situation, with Singapore’s Foreign Minister announcing on Tuesday that they are there to “help facilitate” dialogue, but that it will be down to the people of Myanmar to resolve the crisis. He passed the buck to the more “considerable influence” of China, the US, India and Japan.
Meanwhile, H&M has announced it is resuming orders from suppliers in Myanmar, claiming they are doing so to prevent unemployment for tens of thousands of garment workers. At the beginning of this coup, the majority in Myanmar wanted to destroy the economy in order to derail the military, regardless of the hurt that would inflict on normal people. But as the crisis drags on, with many on the brink of debilitating poverty, people are starting to go back to work, and reluctantly, to function under the new dictatorship. It feels like those who aren’t on the front lines are starting to put themselves and their families first, and that the military may now be in charge for some time.
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.
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.
Image by @hanreality