According to the Karen National Union, a rebel group in the eastern state bordering Thailand, the Myanmar Air Force shelled, bombed and bombed villages, schools and rice barns for four nights, killing 19 people and displacing 30,000 people. The army struck after the armed wing of the KNU overrun one of its bases and killed 10 soldiers on the day the ruling junta celebrated Armed Forces Day in the capital, Naypyidaw.
The Karen minority is no stranger to violence. They have fought against the Tatmadaw, or Myanmar’s military, for most of the past seven decades since the country gained independence from Britain. But the fighting had diminished, if not ended, from a ceasefire in 2012, to the airstrikes – the first in the area in a quarter of a century.
The military sought prompt retaliation, but another factor in their decision was the presence in Karen of activists who had fled the cities – the main protest centers since the February 1 military coup – and sought refuge in the state.
The bombing that started on March 27 was brutal. Thousands of people, mostly women and children, fled the shelling on boats across the Salween River to Thailand, where authorities pushed them back. It was also a very explicit sign that the conflict in Myanmar is spreading.
What started as a domestic political crisis caused by the overthrow of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government by the military has rapidly escalated. First in a human rights emergency when troops shot and killed unarmed protesters, and more recently in what appears to be a civil conflict, as protesters begin to arm themselves with crude improvised weapons and forge alliances with better-armed ethnic groups in minority areas.
Michelle Bachelet, the UN human rights commissioner, warned last week that she feared Myanmar was “headed for an outright civil conflict”.
“There are clear echoes of Syria in 2011,” said Bachelet. “There too we saw peaceful protests with unnecessary and clearly disproportionate violence. The brutal, sustained state repression of its own population led some individuals to take up arms, followed by a downward and rapidly expanding spiral of violence. ”
Karen leaders want urgent action: sanctions against the junta and a no-fly zone to protect their people from air strikes. Fighting has also broken out in other regions, including the northern state of Kachin, where another armed group has overrun police and military outposts, and the military has responded with deadly air strikes.
“The world needs to put in place very strong and effective sanctions to block dollar and euro transactions so that the coup makers can no longer use them,” said Padoh Saw Taw Nee, the head of the KNU foreign affairs department. “But the world is still hesitant to do it.”
The growing violence is worrying Myanmar’s close neighbors – China, India and Thailand. Asean, the Southeast Asian regional group to which Myanmar belongs, convened a summit of leaders in Jakarta on Saturday to discuss the crisis. But the invitation to Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the coup, while not making an offer to representatives of the deposed government, has angered many.
Anti-coup politicians – many loyal to the detained Suu Kyi – who have escaped arrest and are now in exile or in hiding have formed a government of national unity seeking international recognition and foreign aid. The parallel cabinet includes Karen, Kachin and other minority groups in senior positions.
“We will serve and honor all as brothers and sisters, regardless of race or religion, or community of origin or walk,” said Sasa, the shadow government’s minister of international cooperation.
But the emergence of a shadow government is adding a new layer of complexity as the international community tries to lure Myanmar away from the conflict. While foreign diplomats look at the legal implications of recognition, the anti-coup camp says it needs the world to isolate the junta. In response to Min Aung Hlaing’s Asean’s invitation to the summit, Sasa accused the bloc of involvement in what he called the “main killer.”
Even before the coup, Myanmar was widely described as a “fragile” state due to its institutional dysfunction and persistent conflict, but some analysts are now speaking more bluntly about the risk of it becoming a failed state. “It’s a huge problem for the region and a problem for the international community,” said Richard Horsey, senior adviser to the International Crisis Group. “It’s a human catastrophe, and one that is directly affecting Myanmar’s neighbors.”
Protest camp members dislike the rhetoric of the ‘failed state’, which they see as fatalistic and comes from an outside world whose support can still help them reverse the coup and build a ‘federal democracy’ to address the chronic divisions in Myanmar.
“All the states in Myanmar will be united – you will see it very soon,” said Sasa, the representative of the parallel government. “We just have to overcome this period of darkness. . . it won’t take that long. ”
However, the signs of trouble are increasing. China – Myanmar’s largest trading partner and arms supplier – has raised concerns about the safety of its oil and gas pipelines that pass through the country after anti-coup activists threatened to attack them in protest at Beijing’s failure to end the coup. condemn.
The general strike triggered by the Civil Disobedience Campaign has paralyzed public corporations, paralyzed the banking system and suppressed output in what was one of the fastest growing economies in Southeast Asia under democratic rule. International trade has stopped with tens of thousands of workers in logistics, transportation, ports, customs clearance and government agencies responding to the call to strike. Factories are closed.
Long lines have formed at banks’ ATMs in recent weeks, according to businessmen, caused by a shortage of central bank cash. Strikes by health workers and their subsequent imprisonment by the regime have hampered the country’s already inadequate medical system. Schools and universities will remain closed.
Several foreign investors have announced plans to leave Myanmar or shut down their business. A few – including Japanese beer group Kirin and South Korean steelmaker Posco – bowed to long-standing calls to end partnerships with military-controlled companies, but a more widespread flight from foreign capital has begun. Trade unionists opposing the coup have urged foreign clothing chains to halt purchases from Myanmar, and some have done so, at the cost of around 200,000 jobs, according to an estimate.
The World Bank estimates that Myanmar’s gross domestic product could decline by 10 percent this year. Fitch Solutions’ prediction is even worse: a shrinkage of 20 percent. Both could be optimistic if more companies close and foreign investors move elsewhere.
An internal research note commissioned by a domestic bank suggested that in the worst case scenario, “ Myanmar’s name could be added to a list of countries from Argentina to Zimbabwe, or Bolivia to Yugoslavia, experiencing high or hyperinflation, mass poverty and a currency. collapse. ”
Air strikes versus homemade guns
Min Aung Hlaing’s junta has attempted to stop the flow of news and information by shutting down the internet, first ordering telecom companies to block social media sites, and then cutting mobile data and wireless connections. Still, it has failed to stop all reports via independent and social media.
The violence has so far disproportionately come from the government camp. In closing a protest in Bago, northwest of Yangon, authorities killed 82 people two weeks ago, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights organization. The AAPP estimates that 739 people have been murdered by the junta since February 1 and more than 3,300 people have been arrested.
In response, some protesters have started to arm themselves and hit back. Such actions, the anti-coup camp says, are a justifiable response to a regime that has used battlefield weapons against urban protesters, including automatic weapons and missile grenades.
While these reports cannot be independently verified, they do indicate a rising wave of retaliation. In April alone, protesters reportedly killed five police officers in an attack in Tamu, near the Indian border, and three more soldiers died after being ambushed by people armed with homemade rifles. In a separate incident, three ethnic groups from northern Myanmar, including the Kachin Independence Army, have claimed responsibility for an attack on a police station near Lashio in northern Shan State. Up to 14 police officers were killed and the building set on fire.
Security analysts are now downplaying the protest camp’s ability to do lasting damage to the Tatmadaw. There is a huge difference in capabilities between one of Southeast Asia’s largest armies and those armed with air rifles and petrol bombs, although Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups do have access to weapons stores. This means that the possibilities for violence are much more limited than in Syria, say analysts, where Russia, Turkey and other countries intervened and where, according to some estimates, as many as 500,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in a decade of war.
“The only way urban guerrilla warfare could gain any traction would be if ethnic groups were willing to provide weapons and explosives to even semi-educated children and encourage them to go back,” said Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst. at IHS-Jane’s, the defense research group. Even then, a quality army like the Tatmadaw would be able to crush it.
Officials are warning of other consequences of the worsening conflict that could spread to neighboring countries. The UN reports growing hunger in Yangon’s poorer neighborhoods, rising narcotics production in Shan State and what they see as an inevitability of more people fleeing or trafficking across national borders.
Armed groups are undoubtedly looking at what is happening with the conflict in Karen and Kachin, said Jeremy Douglas, regional representative for the UN Drugs and Crime Service. “If they want to secure themselves and strengthen their position, they need funding – and the fastest way to do that in Shan and border areas is drug trafficking.”
Before the coup, Myanmar’s jungle drug laboratories – almost all of which are in Shan State – were considered one of the world’s greatest sources of methamphetamine. According to UN and police officials, the narcotic is sold across borders in Thailand and even traded as far as South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Defense analysts say the Tatmadaw has a history of tolerating drug trafficking by Allied militias and “taxing” cuts in proceeds. They expect trade to increase as ethnic armed groups seek sources of income to rearm.
At the same time, the UN World Food Program says the trade disruption has caused rice prices to rise 5 percent since January and cooking oil up 18 percent, hitting poor city dwellers the hardest.
“We remain deeply concerned about the impact of the ongoing political crisis, particularly on the ability of the poorest populations to purchase both adequate and nutritious food on a daily basis,” said Stephen Anderson, country director of the bureau for Myanmar. . He says WFP is particularly concerned about food insecurity in 10 districts of Yangon, home to about 2 million people, who are either under martial law or have a high prevalence of housing in slums.
On Thursday, the UN agency estimated that an additional 1.5 to 3.4 million people will be at risk of food insecurity in the next three to six months due to the economic slowdown caused by the political crisis.
While Myanmar has so far grown enough rice to feed itself, the trade disruption threatens to bankrupt more farmers and deepen a growing food crisis.
“The time frame of particular concern is June, when the planting season begins,” said Nyantha Lin, an independent political analyst and agribusiness expert. “Raw materials such as fertilizers and seeds for commercial crops are generally imported and international trade has been severely disrupted.”
“A Patch Reaction”
Those who see Myanmar unravel say the international community’s ability to influence developments is finite. “The outside world has limited influence, especially the west,” said ICG’s Horsey. “That doesn’t mean the West should sit on its hands and do nothing, but it means that their actions have no decisive effect on what is happening.”
Since the coup, the UN Security Council has passed three resolutions, all backed by Russia or China – which are usually at odds with Western members on human rights – calling for an end to violence and the release of detained prisoners. Neither requirement has been met.
The US, UK, Canada and the EU have imposed sanctions on military leaders and the companies they control. Some countries have halted foreign aid or, like Japan, have frozen new approvals for aid to the junta.
But even supporters of the sanctions say they will have little effect. While China, arguably the country that has the most to lose from the instability, was guarded in its public statements, Russia was ready to publicly support the generals.
The resource the generals lack most, analysts say, is legitimacy. This poses a challenge to Myanmar’s diplomatic partners in seeking solutions. Asean has spoken of the need for “dialogue,” an idea that has angered the junta’s opponents, who describe it as a brutal and illegal regime.
The unity government also seeks recognition. Members have held online meetings with officials from the UK and other countries. Analysts say the international community urgently needs to work with those opposing the coup, not least to channel emergency aid into the country.
Proponents of this approach point out that the military has not only unlawfully seized power, but also has no effective control over the country. However, it would require cooperation from Thailand or India to open the logistics corridors needed to reach the shadow government, said Philipp Annawitt, a governance specialist and adviser who has worked in Myanmar.
“From a humanitarian perspective, you have to build structures that keep people afloat,” says Laetitia van den Assum, a former Dutch diplomat. “You have to work with the government of national unity, the ethnic armed organizations and others to make sure there is a safety net.”
Analysts say the outside world’s ability to influence events in Myanmar is limited, to begin with, diminishing due to the rapidly changing realities on the ground. “Sanctions are not going to have any impact for the foreseeable future – they are at best a patch reaction, at worst symbolism,” said Davis of IHS-Jane’s. “What will happen is an economic collapse in the midst of an escalating conflict.”