🇲🇲 Two years on in Myanmar
Death, desperation and 'democracy'
Today is two years since tanks rolled into Naypyidaw, caught on film by Khing Hnin Wai as she exercised. It marked the end of Myanmar’s brief moment of heading towards democracy and saw National League of Democracy cadres locked up and thousands killed in protests against Min Aung Hlaing and his junta.
Yangon is commemorating the day with one of the city’s spectacular ‘silent protests’ in which everybody stays at home, boycotting city life.
The moment is also being marked across the region. In Bangkok, Myanmar nationals and supporters are demonstrating at the embassy.
And in Manila, activists have gathered at the embassy there in solidarity with the country’s people.
Today, we’ll look at where Myanmar’s at two years in, what’s next with these so-called elections and, finally, what the world is saying and doing to help.
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Life is getting harder and harder
The political crisis begat an economic one which, on top of existing pandemic pressures, has flung much of the country into desperation. In this jarring report, Frontier Mynamar spoke with people who had or are planning to sell organs in an effort to make ends meet. Selling organs has been illegal in Myanmar since 2015, but where unscrupulous medical teams meet desperate people there’s always a way. One person FM spoke with sold his kidney in India — where the 2015 law does not apply — for just $2,500. U Than Myint from Arriyan, an organisation connecting donors with those in need, told the outlet there had been a marked increase in donors since the coup.
Similarly, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has noted a nine-year high in opium production in parts of the country motivated in large part by economic insecurity. The combination of internal economic issues and the general international shake-up in 2022 acts as a “strong incentive” for farmers to ditch their previous crops for poppy cultivation.
Shutting down drug production in the golden triangle faces a hell of a lot of challenges that cannot be addressed until the economic question is answered: “At the end of the day, opium cultivation is really about economics, and it cannot be resolved by destroying crops which only escalates vulnerabilities. Without alternatives and economic stability, it is likely that opium cultivation and production will continue to expand,” Benedikt Hofmann, UNODC's country manager for Myanmar, told BBC.
The overall economy has bounced back somewhat, recording a 3% growth in 2022 compared to the enormous 18% contraction the year before. It’s still far short of pre-coup growth, the World Bank notes in a report issued this week. The World Bank isn’t taking a middle road in its analysis: "Myanmar's economic potential has been diminished over the last two years. Households and firms continue to suffer from insecurity and conflict. The business environment remains heavily constrained and there is little appetite to invest. Funding for critical health and education services is falling and trust in public services is lacking,” World Bank Myanmar country director Mariam Sherman said, as per Nikkei Asia.
There are no small shoots of growth and room for optimism, as Soe Nandar Linn lays out here for East Asia Forum. Every factor of economic life in the country has been affected by the coup and the most vulnerable — children and those living in regional areas with poor services to begin with — are really struggling. It goes beyond coins in the pocket and will see run-on effects for years to come, Soe Nanda Linn writes, with children missing education and an all but destroyed preventative public health system.
And then there’s the death toll. The violence in the immediate aftermath of the coup two years ago never ended. This from Jonathan Head at the BBC shows the military moving towards air strikes as its preferred form of terror. It is very harrowing and includes some truly devastating quotes from the survivors and families of victims of the Let Yet Kone air strike that killed and maimed children in central Myanmar. A phenomenal piece that should be read — but slowly.
I’ve been deeply impressed by the scope of reporting from Myanmar Now in the last two years (the site has the option to donate, please do!). The publication has tirelessly reported violence across the country, especially in areas that are difficult for non-local publications to reach. A report earlier this week is a great example: fighters from a coalition of Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and People’s Defence Force (PDF) militia teamed up to launch an attack on junta forces in Kachin State. It gives an idea of the frequency of these comparatively lower-level attacks.
So, what will the year ahead bring?
Sham elections, for one.
Min Aung Hlaing has not set a date yet for the elections — though he does plan to make a statement at some stage today — but political parties were given a two-month deadline to register last week, according to AFP.
Htwe Htwe Thein at Australia’s Curtin University told AFP that for many potential voters there will be no choice: “In areas they do control, it is possible that people could be forced to vote, and vote for the junta-affiliated party or parties. People would certainly assume that they are being watched and there could be punishment for not voting or voting against the junta,” she said.
The Irrawaddy ran a fantastic analysis piece earlier in January that lays out some of the moving parts. The National League of Democracy, which was of course ousted by the coup, will be boycotting but smaller, regional parties are likely to contend.
“They have been unsuccessful in securing legitimacy,” Tom Andrews, UN special rapporteur for Myanmar, told VOA of the junta. And, as a result, are trying to use elections as a way to gain that legitimacy. It won’t work, Andrews warned: “These are not the conditions for a free and fair election, these are conditions for a fraud that is going to be attempted to be perpetrated against the people of Myanmar, and a fraud the junta hopes that the international community will buy into.”
The response of civil society once more details emerge and in the lead-up will be one of the larger stories in the region this year and one Dari Mulut ke Mulut will be following closely.
Similarly, what Asean does next under the leadership of the current chair Indonesia will be intriguing. It’s off to a jumpy start with revelations that the Myanmar junta will participate in table-top exercises with militaries from across the region and the US. The US Department of Defence moved to absolve itself of any endorsement, telling Myanmar Now that “attendance at Asean forums is determined by Asean member states.”
American analyst Hunter Marston shed some light on the possible US motives in a short Twitter thread here:
I’m very curious about the Indonesia position here. Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto has the ultimate say in the exercises. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi earlier announced the opening of an office specifically to address Myanmar, though I doubt this is indicative of a split on the issue within President Jokowi’s cabinet. Truly, I think keeping the junta inside the Asean tent but maybe at the worst seat in the house (to mix metaphors) tracks with Indonesia’s foreign policy approach.
The US introduced a new wave of sanctions on high-ranking officials to mark the anniversary. Election officials as well as those in energy and mining have been targeted. I’ve never been one for security affairs so am perplexed by the seeming disparity here. Very keen to read further analysis from the war studies nerds.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, told Reuters that the sanctions still fall short of those slapped on by the European Union, particularly in the energy sector: “As a result, the measures taken so far have not imposed enough economic pain on the junta to compel it to change its conduct.” Canada and Australia also announced new sanctions.
Susannah Patton took a look at the Australian moves for Lowy Institute’s Interpreter this week. Australia has a bit more room to move now that Sean Turnell is thankfully home, but what a new approach would look like raises some interesting questions about how best to address the junta.
Singapore is under renewed pressure for its alleged connection with the junta after a report from the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar revealed the city is one of the countries that has facilitated weapons. Kirsten Han took a look at the implications in her We, the Citizens newsletter (subscribe!) including comments from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the report will be followed up on and the government will not “hesitate to take action against those who contravene our laws.”
I’ve found little so far from Japan, where continuing business links in Myanmar have undermined efforts to take a stand on the world stage. “Japan will continue to urge the military to work on finding a peaceful solution that is acceptable to people in Myanmar and the international community,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters today in Tokyo.
Globally, it’s become increasingly difficult to stomach the divergence in responses to the Myanmar conflict and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. “While the two conflicts are not completely analogous, it is nonetheless striking how much Ukraine has galvanised the international community, while Myanmar has almost completely been ignored,” Nicholas Farrelly and Adam Simpson write.
Even before Russia’s invasion last February, there was marked criticism from Myanmar activists in the country and abroad that the world was seemingly forgetting about the conflict. Farrelly and Simpson have some ideas for why this is the case. With Aung Sann Kyi in detention, once the icon for democracy world over, a central leader/figurehead has not emerged to be a focal point a la Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Similarly, it’s complicated! In Ukraine, Russia is the bad guy and Ukraine is the good. In Myanmar, the junta are the bad guys but there’s an enormous range of ethnic groups with other conflicts far predating the coup. And, the pair point out, the Rohingya crisis really muddied the waters. That the call is also coming from inside the house, so to speak, adds to the confusion.