The tragedy of Myanmar one year after the coup
Almost 1,500 protesters killed. 11,000 citizens arrested, 8,000 of whom are still in prison. On 400,000 refugees, of which more than 100,000 are children. Aung San Suu Kyi has already been convicted twice in controversial trials, with the former state councilor facing more than 100 years in prison. A year has passed since the military coup in Myanmar.
It was the morning of February 1, 2021 when Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other leaders of the National League for Democracy (the party that had clearly won the November 2020 elections) were arrested. Since then, Myanmar has been in the hands of the armed forces which, after the declaration of a state of emergency, announced the transfer of political power to their leader, General Min Aung Hlaing. A year later, there is still no common solution to a crisis that continues to have serious consequences for Myanmar and above all for its citizens. A political drama that has also become economic and social, any protest action or simply no respect to the line of the junta can be punished with violence.
A tremendous year for Myanmar, 365 days in which eleven years of hard-won gains made possible by a transition to democracy that had finally illuminated the future of a country historically divided for ethnic, religious and obviously policies. The clashes become increasingly violent and begin to look like a civil war involving numerous armed ethnic militias. There are reports of punitive actions by the Tatmadaw, as the Burmese army is called, which has been repeatedly accused of burning down or razing entire villages or neighborhoods inhabited (even partly) by protesters, massacring civilians. A fierce repression, with promises of elections and a return to democratic transition for the moment totally unfinished. UN says military junta commits crimes against humanity, which among other things cause a mass exodus. According to the UN, there have been at least 405,000 refugees since the coup, more than one in four of them minors. According to Save the Children, however, “children in transit are at greater risk of trafficking, abuse, recruitment into armed groups, injury and death.” On Christmas Eve, a military raid left the charred remains of more than 30 people in Kayah state, including two staff from the charity Save the Children.
Repression continues in remote towns and provinces but also in the courts. Suu Kyi was recently sentenced to four years in prison for illegally importing two-way radios and violating anti-Covid restrictions during the 2020 election campaign. Phyo Zeyar, Suu Kyi’s teammate, was sentenced to death along with the activist Kyaw Min Yu, both charged with sedition. The junta denies wanting to dissolve the National League for Democracy before the elections it intends to “grant” in the summer of 2023, but in fact the party no longer has the possibility of expressing itself. The digital space is also in the crosshairs of repressive action. The junta has prepared a new law on cybersecurity aimed at prosecuting those who access blocked sites by circumventing the blocking using a vpn (virtual private network).
The drama is also economic. Over the past decade, the economy has grown at an average annual rate of 6.6% at a rate that has enabled the middle class to emerge. Opening up to tourism had put Myanmar on the world map, with the hope that it would become a success story. The shadows, in truth, had returned to the Southeast Asian country a few years ago. Especially because of the repression of the Rohingya minority, which Suu Kyi had failed to stem. Indeed, in 2017, villages of ethnic Muslim origin were stormed, with some 700,000 people seeking refuge in Bangladesh. However, the progress of the dialogue with the different ethnic groups has been remarkable.
In just one year, the generals have destroyed all the achievements of the past decade. The number of citizens living below the poverty line has doubled and is expected to even triple by the end of 2022 for the urban population. The local currency, the kyat, has lost more than 60% of its value against the US dollar. The World Bank estimates growth of just 1% in 2022, all after a real slump of 18% in 2021. And as jobs and wages fall, inflation could shoot to 9% with prices rising and fuel shortages that have already led to the closure of many stations, while power outages are on the rise. There is also a cultural drama as most schools effectively remain closed.
The Burmese case, however, seems to have dropped a lot in the list of priorities. The world first worried about Afghanistan, now Ukraine. Myanmar remains behind. Despite the coup and the violence, a number of multinational corporations continue to operate in the country. Not only that. The flow of arms and funding to the Burmese military never completely stopped. As the group Justice for Myanmar denounces, there are still many companies that sell weapons and surveillance systems to the military junta. “Myanmar’s 55 million people cannot endure another year of silence and inaction from many governments around the world,” Amnesty International said in a note. Ming Yu Hah, the organization’s deputy director of Asian campaigns, said that as the anniversary of the coup approached, the Burmese military resumed indiscriminate airstrikes in the southeast of the country, blocked the flow of humanitarian aid needed to save lives and launched a bloody campaign of repression against activists and journalists.
While the world is busy on other fronts, it would be up to ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) to try to figure out if and how to intervene on the Myanmar issue. At the end of 2021, during the rotating presidency of Brunei, the Tatmadaw had been excluded from the official meetings of the Association. With the start of the Cambodian presidency, however, differing views emerged on what stance to maintain towards Naypyidaw. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar in early January sparked controversy. Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia reacted negatively to the decision of the political leader in Phnom Penh. Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said Kuala Lumpur would not support any attempt to invite political representatives from the Burmese junta to ASEAN meetings. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recalled that currently there has been no progress in implementing the five-point peace plan proposed by the bloc months ago. An essential program, according to Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Hun Sen responded by saying that his visit to Myanmar was to “plant trees, not cut them down”.
In recent weeks, the military junta, if possible, has further tightened its grip in anticipation of the anniversary of the putsch. Authorities recently announced that not even a peaceful way to protestwhich had been popular in the first days and weeks following the coup, will be tolerated. Those who honk their horns or bang pots and pans could be charged with treason or terrorism.
Lorenzo Lamperti, China Files