Hundreds of protesters hit the streets of Myanmar’s largest city on Tuesday, the 100th day after the military seized power, flashing the three-finger salute of anti-junta defiance, while some analysts said the Southeast Asia nation was at risk of civil war or becoming a failed state.
Mass protests drawing hundreds of thousands in Yangon and other cities in the weeks after the Feb. 1 military putsch – which were met with army gunfire, killing nearly 800 civilians – have given way to smaller flash protests voicing opposition to the ouster of Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically-elected government.
But the State Administration Council (SAC), as the junta calls itself, also faces a determined Civil Disobedience Movement of striking workers, professionals, and civil servants that has crippled banking, business and government activities across the complex, multi-ethnic country of 54 million people. A shadow government of former ministers and respected ethnic leaders was launched in mid-April and is trying to form an army.
Away from the cities, the feared Tatmadaw – Myanmar’s armed forces, one of Southeast Asia’s strongest militaries – is taking casualties from ragtag local militias with homemade hunting rifles, and from well-equipped ethnic armies that have been fighting the central government for more autonomy for decades.
“Myanmar is heading toward a full-blown civil war and becoming a failed state,” said a prominent political analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity for his personal safety.
“I think the armed conflicts will intensify soon. Business will completely shut down. The country is almost collapsing,” he added.
The death toll since the Feb. 1 coup reached 783 as of Tuesday, while 3859 civilians have been arrested or charged, according to a Thailand-based NGO called the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
With as many as 75 percent of nearly 20,000 government medical workers now joining the CDM, state-owned hospitals and local clinics are shut down, and the military has said some hospitals are still operational with army doctors and nurses.
Education is also paralyzed, with about 80 percent of educational staff staying off the job in support of the CDM, and only ten percent of students, most opposed to the junta, having returned to school as the school year resumes.
The “coup d’etat has succeeded, but it is not successful,” Yangon-based journalist Sithu Aung Myint told RFA. “They cannot calm down the country in the face of people’s widespread protests.”
“The military council is trying to force its departments to be operational, but they are not operational,” added Sithu Aung Myint.
Fear and hunger
Fear and hunger haunt many people in Yangon, which had already been on lockdown for many months in an effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
“It has been 100 days. I feel unsafe in my own home. I feel the same way when I am going out,” said a Yangon housewife. “In terms of livelihood, I have no income at all.”
She told RFA that 30,000 kyats (U.S. $19) used to buy groceries for a week, but now stretches only three days.
“Our lives are difficult, and the situation makes it hard for me to go out and work,” she said. “I don’t want to live under military rule.”
The Asian Development Bank says the coup has shrunk GDP by 10 percent, the U.N. World Food Programme says that 3.4 million urban residents could go hungry in the next six months, and the U.N. Development Program warns that junta rule and the COVID-19 pandemic together could drive nearly half the population into poverty in 2022.
Families in and around the commercial center and former capital Yangon, home to 7.3 million people, were “skipping meals, eating less nutritious food and taking on debt to feed themselves” after losing jobs and incomes, a recent U.N. report said.
Junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun has not answered RFA telephone calls for weeks, while Nandar Hla Myint, spokesman for the military proxy Union Solidarity and Development, declined to comment.
But Thein Tun Oo of Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies, a pro-military think tank made up retired military officers, said “the military has handled the unrest calmly and steadfastly, although the protestors have been engaging in violence and provoking the authorities in many ways.”
“There is no chance that the situation will develop into a civil war. It is more likely that there will be war against terror,” the analyst said, echoing junta accusations against the protest movement, without offering supporting evidence.
Some hours before the army pundit offered his optimistic view, however, three junta soldiers were killed and at least 10 others were injured in a shootout Monday night with the local People’s Defense Force in Sagaing division. The northwestern Myanmar region bordering India is where dozens of security forces have been reported killed by local fighters with homemade hunting rifles since March.
“No civilians were injured but three died and about 10 wounded on their side during the incident,” said a resident of Sagaing’s Taze town, describing a half-hour-long clash.
Cheering for ethnic armies
In Kachin state, in far northern Myanmar, the junta faced opponents with far bigger guns Tuesday, as local residents reported fresh clashes with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of the many ethnic armed organizations operating in the country’s border regions.
“We could hear the explosions of heavy weapons since morning. The fighting died down around 10 a.m. and just now around 12 noon, a jet flew overhead and dropped some bombs,” said a resident of the town of Mansi, areas around which were evacuated.
The fighting in Kachin state, which borders China, has intensified since the KIA captured a junta military camp in April. On Friday, local witnesses said 30 regime troops were killed when the junta tried to retake the camp, but RFA was unable to confirm the figures.
Similar reports emerged this week of high casualties from intensified fighting in Kayin state in eastern Myanmar near the Thai border. Fighters from the Karen National Union killed 11 troops of the pro-military Karen Border Guard Force on Sunday, according to local witnesses.
The KNU says there have been 407 clashes between KNU and junta or supporting forces since the coup on Feb 1, with 104 people killed and 216 wounded. RFA could not confirm the casualties.
Tay Zar San, an anti-coup protest leader in Mandalay, said the only upside to 100 days of junta rule has been increased understanding between the majority Bamar (Burmese) people and ethnic minority groups. Bamars, who make up two-thirds of the country’s population, are now on the receiving end of military brutality.
“Ethnic groups like Karen, Kachin and Shan have been fighting against the military regime for the last 70 years. Now, we Bamars have gotten a better understanding about their fight,” he told RFA.
Human rights activist Nicky Diamond agreed, saying that the military has seen its popular support fall “down to zero” since the coup, when in the past fights against ethnic armies had some backing in the Burmese heartland.
“The people are now supporting their enemy ethnic armed groups instead. They are happy when the military troops lose battles or their outposts are captured by the ethnic armed groups,” said Diamond.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane and Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Paul Eckert.