Myanmar will mark a bitter one-year anniversary of the military’s February 1, 2021, coup Tuesday amid a rising toll of dead and displaced from fighting between junta forces and a stubborn armed resistance that denies the regime complete control of the country.
Observers say the past year has already set Myanmar back a decade or more and that they see no imminent exit from the crisis as both sides dig in.
“There’s only one thing worse than a brutal military dictatorship, and that is a brutal military dictatorship that’s not fully in control, and that’s what we have essentially in Myanmar,” said Hervé Lemahieu, research director and Myanmar analyst at Australia’s Lowy Institute.
With an added push from the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations says the turmoil will push nearly half of Myanmar’s 55 million people into poverty by early this year, a level not seen since 2005.
“It’s a lost decade of development at least, probably a lost generation,” Lemahieu said.
After decades of military rule, Myanmar’s generals embarked on a series of democratic reforms in 2011 but took back full control of the state from a popular and democratically elected civilian government last year. The generals claimed, without evidence, that the 2020 polls its proxy party decisively lost to the ruling National League for Democracy were riddled with fraud.
Mass protests followed, with soldiers and police shooting and killing hundreds of civilians and arresting thousands to try and end them. That sparked an armed resistance from upstart local militias across the country, some now joining forces with older, well-armed ethnic minority rebel groups holding territory in the country’s rugged borderlands.
During a year of protests and fighting, junta forces have killed some 1,500 civilians, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a rights group based in neighboring Thailand. It says the junta has also arrested over 11,800 politicians, health care workers, journalists, activists and others, some reportedly tortured and killed in custody.
The junta claims the AAPP’s casualty numbers are overblown and that its arrests and attacks are targeting terrorists.
The U.N. and others say the military continues to launch indiscriminate ground assaults, rocket attacks and air strikes on opposition-held areas that have driven more than 400,000 people from their homes since the coup.
Tom Andrews, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said the junta is committing crimes against humanity and war crimes. He said he recently spoke with a father whose two teen daughters died in a military attack the week before.
“They were killed by a bomb that was dropped by junta military forces; they were sleeping. This is happening all over the country. Innocent people are dying because they’re identified by the junta as the enemy,” Andrews said.
Min Zin, executive director of Myanmar’s Institute for Strategy and Policy, a think tank, said the military has largely consolidated control over central Myanmar and most towns and cities but is struggling to hold and control much of the countryside in the northwest, where the new militias have put up some of the stiffest resistance.
“When you go up in the north, like Sagaing, Magwe, especially the northern parts of these regions, I think the rural areas are more or less being controlled by the resistance movement,” he said.
In the cities, too, people are resisting the junta by abandoning government jobs, ignoring their taxes and boycotting the military’s vast network of businesses, from breweries to cell phone networks, said Andrews.
In the weeks and months after the coup, tens of thousands of doctors, nurses and teachers left their jobs at state-run hospitals and schools to join a widespread civil disobedience movement aimed at crippling the regime.
Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a popular pro-democracy activist and protest organizer, said the movement was going strong and remained the “backbone” of the resistance.
“As long as the military terrorism mindset is there, there will be resistance everywhere,” she told VOA. “As long as the military don’t surrender what they are doing to the people of Myanmar, then this will continue.”
A so-called National Unity Government of ousted lawmakers, ethnic minority parties and other opposition groups has been trying to pull together the disparate strands of the armed and civil resistance into a parallel, shadow state to challenge the junta. But with most of its leaders in exile or hiding its existence remains largely virtual, and Min Zin said generations of ethnic tensions will make creating a truly unified armed wing “very challenging.”
He and other observers say neither the junta nor the armed resistance is likely to prevail over the other by force. But neither has either side made overtures for talks.
Diplomatic efforts have largely been left to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a 10-member bloc that includes Myanmar.
The other members convinced the junta to agree to a five-point peace plan for Myanmar in April that included an immediate end to violence and talks “among all parties concerned.” But they have so far failed to persuade the generals to follow through on any of it.
“Nothing that ASEAN has said or done has moved the needle an iota in the direction of a peaceful resolution of the crisis and they don’t appear able to sway the calculus of the generals,” said Lemahieu.
The generals have their own plan to hold elections in mid-2023, but few expect anything other than contest rigged to deny the NLD another win.
The party’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, arrested the day of the coup, has been convicted on charges widely seen as trumped up late last year and still faces several more.
With neither side poised to win by force or ready to give way, Lemahieu said there is more misery to come.
“You’ve got not enough violence to overthrow the state, but sufficient violence … to basically throw things into perpetual instability,” he said, “and I don’t see how we’re going to get out of it any time soon.”