Myanmar, whose agony has slipped from the world’s front pages as violence in other regions has caught attention, has witnessed a flare-up as many armed ethnic groups have begun a massive offensive against the Burmese military junta starting in the last week of October, with the current conflict differing because ethnic armies are no longer on the defensive perhaps for the first time.
By now, some parts of the nation have come under the control of pro-democracy and anti-junta rebels vowing to throw out the military dictators from the administrative capital Naypyidaw. The intense fighting has continued, lately expanding into new, densely-populated areas. From the states of Shan, Kayah (formerly Karenni), Mandalay & Sagaing divisions, battles against the junta forces, known as the Tatmadaw, have expanded into Rakhine and Chin States.
Amazingly, public demonstrators in Yangon recently dared retribution to chant slogans against China, a major source of arms and other support to the junta, assembling in front of the Chinese Embassy on November 19. The agitators, understood to be pro-junta, claimed that Beijing is behind the recent offensive against the military regime and is supporting the people’s defense forces (PDF), the armed wing of the National Unity Government (NUG). Speculation is now being raised that Beijing has had enough of the current batch of Burmese military dictators, who are enormously unpopular across the country.
The odds that the rebels could bring down the government are slim, however. Both Russia and China are supplying the Tatmadaw, or military, and as far as can be determined there is no major arms supplier to the rebels, who nonetheless have made major arms seizures from fleeing government troops. Singapore is also alleged by rebels to be a major arms supplier. No Western democracy has formally recognized the shadow NUG as Myanmar’s legitimate government, although none has recognized the junta either.
The country had enjoyed some progress toward normality following the 2011 cession of some of the military’s power to civilian rule and the creation of a semi-democratic government under the 2008 constitution. More than 27 million Burmese of a population of 55 million participated in November 2020 polls that humiliated the junta, with the National League for Democracy (NLD) nominees winning more than 920 of 1,117 available constituencies. The military-supported Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) succeeded in only 71 seats.
The junta alleged vote fraud although domestic and international observers found the polling to be free and fair, ousting the democratically elected government under the leadership of Nobel peace laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in February 2021. The country slipped into conflict soon after the military, led by Min Aung Hlaing, the chairman of the State Administration Council, took over.
When outraged citizens responded with huge rallies, banging pots and pans to signal their displeasure, the military responded with overwhelming force. Suu Kyi was detained and later imprisoned by the military-controlled courts for many years on trumped-up charges alleging her involvement in electoral corruption. Along with Suu Kyi, who had functioned as state counselor in the previous government, President U Win Myint and many NLD officials and elected ministers were booked as well.
Some 141 elected NLD lawmakers, both in parliament and various states, and more than 1,900 NLD activists were arrested after the coup, with half of them still behind bars. Many elected representatives fled the country and at least 18 have died of illnesses from inadequate medical care during the days in hiding. The military rulers seized properties belonging to 182 elected representatives. The junta shocked the world by executing former lawmaker Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw following trials in the military courts.
According to Progressive Voice, a participatory rights-based policy research and advocacy organization, at least 2,940 civilians were killed by the military authorities within 1,000 days of the coup. More than 17,550 people were arrested from different localities across Myanmar. At least 150 journalists and media personnel were also detained by the military council, with 25 still inside various jails. At least three journalists died from injuries in military atrocities in separate incidents. The Geneva-based global media safety and rights body Press Emblem Campaign expressed serious concern over the imprisonment of working journalists in Myanmar and urged the authorities to ensure fair trials for them.
A recent statement issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees revealed that more than 333,000 civilians have been rendered homeless in the ongoing fighting between the junta forces and ethnic armed organizations along with the PDF. More than two million have been displaced across the country since the last military takeover.
The recent wave of fighting broke out on October 27, when three ethnic minority groups, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and Arakan Army (AA) coordinated an offensive in the northern Shan locality, which is adjacent to China. Named ‘Operation 1027’, the offensive had cost the Tatmadaw nearly 200 military camps and nine towns by the third week of November. The AA rebels recently launched an offensive in Rakhine State, killing many junta soldiers and even forcing some to surrender with arms and ammunition.
A Burmese political activist who asked to remain nameless told Asia Sentinel the Rakhine region has descended into a full-blown civil war, with junta soldiers indiscriminately shelling, delivering air strikes, and blocking humanitarian assistance to people in distress. Khin Ohmar of Progressive Voice said that although the junta authorities continue laying landmines in various parts of Rakhine and using airstrikes on populous villages, lately the soldiers have been forced to retreat from various strategic points to avoid the AA offensives.
The UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs recently stated that the fresh clashes in Rakhine localities displaced over 26,000 people. The AA forces continue to press demands for the restoration of democracy with a collective desire to safeguard the lives of civilians, assert rights for self-defense, and maintain territorial integrity. The UN office asked that individual soldiers be treated with humanity when they are captured.
The troubles in various western Myanmar localities have increased the influx of refugees into Mizoram in northeast India. Even many Burmese soldiers have deserted, crossing the porous boundary to arrive in the state but were later sent back by the Indian agencies. The government in Aizawl has extended necessary support to the refugees. The hilly state is now giving shelter to thousands of Burmese asylum seekers, mostly Chin refugees, who enjoy ethnic proximity to Mizo people. Many of their children have enrolled in the government-run schools.
New Delhi has recently directed Indian nationals in Myanmar to register their names with the embassy in Yangon and to avoid non-essential travel in view of the evolving security situation. Earlier India, which shares a 1,643 km land border and a 725 km maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal with Myanmar called for cessation of fighting between the junta forces and rebel groups near the international border. It maintained the call for the return of peace and stability as well as democracy in the country.
Supposing, just supposing, “civil war” ends a few years from now — not because the next-to-incompetent ASEAN managed to bring it to an end, or because the Xi Jinping dictatorship in China has stopped financing the corrupt, murderous, pro-China junta — there won’t be, I think, a “Myanmar” to speak or or even a Burma. The whole place will be balkanized worse than it had happened to the old Yugoslavia. Either autonomous regions will sprout or that such a situation will lead to another round of a “civil war” over access to key resources that are vital to each one’s long-term survival. Once again the next-to-incompetent ASEAN will balk (guaranteed), the United Nations too will balk (because it too is next-to-useless), and India and China will try to peddle their influence over this place or warring regions. And since India might try to thump its chest at Chinese bravado, the US will back New Delhi to the hilt, not because it wants to restore peace in this part of the world but because — principally — it wants to thwart China’s geopolitical ambitions that might encroach upon control of the seas on the western side of the isthmus.
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