On Sept. 7, 2021, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military junta) — that took over the government via a coup on Feb. 1, 2021 — announced it will intensify its response to rebels, causing a wave of concern within the state that is already in the midst of a humanitarian crisis due to the junta’s tactics.
In 2020, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won the parliamentary elections with an 80% majority. Accusing the NLD of corruption and using fraudulent means to secure such a victory, the Tatmadaw invoked Article 417 of the 2008 constitution to declare a state of emergency, subsequently dismissing the State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb 1, 2021.
The condemnations of the military coup were swift and widespread. The European Union along with the US were categorical in rejecting the military coup. Neighboring India, however, preferred to balance its stance seeking restraint in violence and insistence on release of detained leadership. Likewise, China was also reluctant in condemning the changed political realities due to its economic investments and vetoed the UN Security General Council statement on Feb. 3, 2021. Several international rights organizations, such as the UN, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, objected to the mass arrests of activists, unionists, and political leaders. Yet, despite the global outrage, the Tatmadaw remains in power — and the humanitarian crisis in the country has persisted.
The momentum against the coup first picked up when the teachers and civil servants refused to work for the military, which was followed by medics and workers in sectors such as railways, construction ministries, and social welfare. The Tatmadaw, however, did not back down, and instead began a brutal campaign of state repression. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), over three million people remain in need of protection and assistance across Myanmar. Tens of thousands of dissenters, especially labor unions, activists, teachers, government officials, doctors, and other sections of the society continue to actively participate in street demonstrations against the military junta.
The Tatmadaw have killed approximately 1120 people and detained around 8000 since it took over the country. Yet, the people keep dissenting and resisting. The various sanctions imposed by the UN, ASEAN, EU, and states like the US, UK, etc. have not deterred the junta from their repressive ways. Even the UN Special Rapporteur Tom Andrew acknowledged that the current international efforts are failing: “The 2021 UN Myanmar Humanitarian Response Plan has received only 46% of requested funds to date. We can and should do better.”
He is right, but does the international community have the will to do better? While that remains unclear, one thing is certain: The people of Myanmar are constantly being displaced, and the international community is standing by.
MYANMAR’S TROUBLED PAST
For the past five years, the questionable role played by the Tatmadaw, with implicit support of the NLD, has been repeatedly called out by global rights organizations. The UN accused the military personnel of being involved in committing war crimes against the minority Rohingya population. The crimes with genocidal intent against Myanmar’s military as per UN investigations included “widespread theft, extortion, forced labor, arbitrary arrests and sexual violence which culminated into mass exodus of Rohingyas from Myanmar.” Currently, over a million Rohingya are displaced.
The people of Myanmar are constantly being displaced, and the international community is standing by.
Ever since its independence in 1948, Myanmar has struggled with military rule, civil wars, and ethnic violence. The Tatmadaw has managed to hold on to its power despite public resistance. About a decade ago, in an attempt to seem quasi-democratic, the Tatmadaw brought in its proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party. The NLD has been its main opponent. Yet, even during the tenure of the Suu Kyi-led government, the military’s intervention in the country’s domestic affairs never waned. The Tatmadaw continuously held the cabinet portfolios for defense and home affairs prior to the February coup. In the lower house, 63 out of 224 seats and 125 out of 440 seats were appointed by the military, making the total ratio one in four seats in the cabinet nominated directly by the military. As such, many analysts have interpreted the military snatching power on Feb. 1, 2021 as “both a coup and not a coup.” After all, the Tatmadaw never really handed over the power to the civilian government in its entirety after the democratic reforms of 2010.
The Tatmadaw’s recent violence, however, has polarized Myanmar’s population. Many activists, including 53-year-old Khin Ohmar, have questioned the “rationale” of the coming together of former members of parliament, ethnic and civil society leaders, and representatives of the Civil Disobedience Movement to form a shadow government — called the National Unity Government — led by Duwa Lashi La. Activists are concerned about the National Unity Government and wonder if it will pressurize the NLD to come clean about its own mistreatment of the people of Myanmar, especially the Rohingya communities. For these activists, without accountability, past injustices may repeat themselves.
THE LATEST CYCLE OF VIOLENCE
It is difficult to determine when the latest cycle of state repression began, but the Tatmadaw have stooped to a new low. In an attempt to squash the rebellion against it, Myanmar’s junta has begun abducting the relatives of protestors, including children and infants. On Oct. 4, 2021, Save the Children reported that at least 206,000 people have been displaced in Myanmar, of which around 76,000 are children. Within September 2021, approximately 22,000 people fled their homes in the country’s southeastern Kayah State. Most displaced people, deemed by the humanitarian agencies, remain in need of “tents, food, clean water, medical care and sanitation.”
On Sept. 13, the Tatmadaw set at least 14 houses on fire after storming inside the Gangaw Township’s village of Hnan Khar. The invasion of the military, led by General Min Aung Hlaing in the Thantlang village, has left behind a trail of debris and bloodshed. The palpable fear in the region was so intense that hundreds of residents of Hnan Khar fled for their security without food and necessities. Dozens of them reportedly have been infected with COVID-19. Even doctors including volunteers delivering medical suppliers and helping internally displaced persons have faced prosecution.
Several reports of junta forces involved in gross violations in Myanmar’s western Chin State and elsewhere have also emerged after the declaration of a defensive war by “defence volunteers.” A 50-year-old taxi driver was allegedly picked up on Oct. 1, 2021 and detained at an interrogation center in Yangon’s Mingaladon Township from where he was later declared dead. Besides the accusations of extrajudicial killings and torture, the junta forces have been blamed for intentionally torching villages. On Oct. 5, the junta soldiers set two villages in Sagaing Region’s Pale Township on fire. According to the locals, the resistance has responded to the Tatmadaw’s torching of villages and civilian homes by burning down police outposts in the Sagaing region, which is located in northwestern Myanmar, such as the two police outposts that were damaged on Oct. 6.
The incidents of junta forces storming different towns and burning down houses has persisted throughout November, when dozens of homes were damaged by the Tamatdaw in Chin State town of Thantlang as violent clashes between rebels, specifically the Chinland Defence Forces, and military escalated in the region. The frequency of military carrying out airstrikes against armed rebel groups has also spiked.
Government officials in the northeastern Indian state have claimed that over 20,000 refugees from Myanmar have temporarily taken shelter in Hnahthial, Champhai, Lunglei and other parts of Mizoram, a number of refugees the officials claimed were “moving back and forth” depending on the evolving situation. Giving the overview of a crisis situation, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelot lamented the Myanmar troops had used weapons against civilians that were intended for military conflict and carried out indiscriminate airstrikes and artillery barrages: “The national consequences are terrible and tragic — the regional consequences could also be profound. The international community must redouble its efforts to restore democracy and prevent wider conflict before it is too late.”
Considering the proportionality of offenses of junta forces against those opposed to the military coup, as per Human Right Watch, it amounted to both a “widespread” and “systematic attack against the population,” which is a violation of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. As per this definition, “widespread” refers to the scale of the acts or number of victims and a “systematic” attack indicates a pattern or methodical plan.
In addition to those fleeing the Tatmadaw, the Rohingya population has been displaced for four years. Currently, there are at least 740,000 Rohingyas who were forcibly evicted from Myanmar. Suu Kyi, who is frequently appreciated by mainstream media for bringing democracy in the country, as per Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Fortify Rights, facilitated the persecution and eviction of the minority group, exposing them to mass killings, looting, rape, and death in 2017. A huge number of them are surviving in the congested camps in Bangladesh with strict restrictions on their mobility. The UN reported that their plight has further worsened with the repeated occurrence of “floods and landsliding,” besides new hardships brought in by the COVID-19.
This March, shelters of nearly 10,000 refugees were turned into ashes when a makeshift cylinder exploded and engulfed the congested Kutupalong Balukali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. At least 11 Rohingyas lost their lives in the massive fire incident. That tragedy was followed by monsoon flooding in July and August inundating more than 400 local villages, washing away shelters and triggering landslides in Bangladesh leaving at least 20 killed, 10 out of which were found to be Rohingya refugees. The fear of flooding and fire incidents prompted some 24,000 refugees to flee their temporary shelters and belongings.
On the eve of May Day, the Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar demanded global support to “starve and drive out the regime” using comprehensive economic sanctions against the junta. Ever since, Myanmar’s trade union movement has emphasized how a combination of internal resistance and external solidarity and pressure is necessary to remove the regime from power. However, amidst the ongoing clashes and political crisis, the ground situation in Myanmar seems to be worsening with each passing day.
THE “LOOMING” CATASTROPHE
In its latest statement, the Civil Disobedience Movement group stated: “The young people of Myanmar have no choice but to fight back with what they have.” The activist group added that “the international community needs to understand that it is the lack of any meaningful outside intervention that has led to armed revolution.” In July, the UNOCHA estimated that at least 16 aid organizations are operating in Myanmar, and issued a statement warning of a “humanitarian catastrophe.”
In order to prevent the humanitarian crisis from becoming a full-fledged civil war, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ five-point plan should be implemented. The plan calls for a collective approach that focuses on peaceful dialogue, a humanitarian aid package, and close cooperation with ASEAN’s special envoy. For the sake of Myanmar’s most vulnerable, it’s important for the international community to move quickly.
Umer Beigh is a journalist from Indian-administered Kashmir. He is a graduate of the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, India.