Don't Forget About Myanmar
“How’s the current situation in Myanmar?”
“It’s been a while since I last heard about Myanmar in the news. Are things getting better?”
“How are your family and friends doing back home? Are they okay?”
These are the questions I get asked whenever I meet someone new or catch up with friends from other countries. I have had a lot of practice in answering them over the past year. But that doesn’t mean I have become any better at it. I still fumble around for a response that would do justice to the people back home, who are fighting for their lives and futures – one that could convey not only their pain and suffering but also their resilience and hope. I don’t think I always do a good job but I keep trying.
More than a year has passed since the military staged a coup on February 1, 2021. Global attention has shifted away from Myanmar to emergencies in other parts of the world. After all, we live in an age of “permacrisis”, seamlessly going through one crisis after another (Zuleeg, et. al, 2021). Although Myanmar has fallen out of the media spotlight, what’s happening in the country still deserves attention and support from the international community – perhaps now more than ever – as the long-term consequences of the coup have sent the country into a downward spiral and have placed millions of lives in jeopardy.
A lot has happened since the early days of the coup. A parallel government called the National Unity Government (NUG) has been formed with a majority of representatives from the NLD party which won the 2020 elections and members of different ethnic groups (see Moe Thuzar & Htet Myet Min Tun, 2022 for more information). Since its establishment in April 2021, the NUG has led the resistance movement while enjoying widespread domestic support. However, both the NUG and the military regime have made limited progress in gaining international recognition. This competition for legitimacy on the international stage is evident in who gets to represent Myanmar at diplomatic forums convened by the United Nations and ASEAN (Moe Thuzar, 2021). Within the country, the fight against the military dictatorship continues while socioeconomic conditions worsen as a result of political instability (Nachemson & Fishbein, 2022).
Escalating violence and conflict
Peaceful protests have now evolved into a permanent armed struggle. The military has continued to use increasingly violent tactics, including arbitrary arrests, tortures, killings and air raids, to suppress resistance movements (Horsey, 2022). According to official statistics, approximately 1,800 people have been killed by the military and more than 10,000 remain in detention, although the actual numbers are said to be much higher (Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 2022). Hundreds of young people under the age of 24 were among the casualties of the coup and the military has detained more than 1,000 children in an attempt to coerce wanted members of their families (Wa Lone et. al, 2021). The military’s brutal crackdowns have led to the formation of civilian armed groups known as People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), as normal citizens are forced to take up arms as a form of self-defense and to keep the resistance alive.
According to some media headlines covering the conflict in Myanmar, it might seem like the coup has caused a civil war in Myanmar (Deutsche Welle, 2022; Nichols, 2021). However, even before the coup, Myanmar was home to the longest-running civil war in modern history, with ethnic armed groups fighting against the Tatmadaw in border states. What the coup has actually done is that it created “new conflict patterns” through which armed conflict and violence have spread to many parts of the country, including major cities, increasing the risk of an “omnipresent civil war” (Tønnesson, 2021).
In the aftermath of the coup, people in Myanmar had to go through many hardships in their daily lives: queuing for hours at the bank due to cash shortages (Paddock, 2021), trying to survive with decreased income and job losses (UNDP, 2021), and dealing with a deadly pandemic when the public health system has collapsed (The Irrawaddy, 2021). The latest addition to their struggles is living through a scorching summer as the country faces one of the worst power outages seen in over a decade (Frontier, 2022), with irregular power cuts disrupting businesses and the daily lives of many people, causing water shortages, driving up operation costs, fuel and commodity prices.
The dual impact of the pandemic and the coup have set back any economic progress the country had made since its democratic transition in 2011. The UNDP estimated that by early 2022, approximately 25 million people, nearly half of Myanmar’s population, will be living below the national poverty line, worsening to a level that has not been seen since 2005 (UNDP, 2021). According to the most recent World Bank report, Myanmar’s economy has shrunk by 18 per cent and remains “critically weak” (The World Bank, 2022). These setbacks have dealt a devastating blow to people’s livelihoods. Today, 14.4 million people in Myanmar are in need of humanitarian assistance, compared to approximately 1 million before the coup (United Nations, 2022).
Impact on youth
Living under conditions of violence and instability, many young people in Myanmar have reported feeling angry, sad and helpless. Faced with an uncertain future, mental health issues for the country’s young generation have been on the rise since the coup (Mendelson, 2021). Nonetheless, young people have played and continue to play a central role in the resistance movement. Some have refused to go back to university and finish their degrees as a defiance against military education. Some have quit their jobs as public servants by taking part in the civil disobedience movement. Some have joined the PDF to take part in the armed resistance, even though they have had no prior training in armed combat (Reuters, 2021). These are just some of the ways in which young people in Myanmar are resisting military dictatorship. When they should be studying at universities, building their careers and enjoying their youth like many of their peers in other countries, youth in Myanmar are sacrificing their lives and futures to fight for their rights and freedom.
Humanitarian assistance for the most vulnerable population has been provided by international and regional organizations such as various UN agencies, the European Union, and ASEAN, as well as through bilateral aid. Such life-saving support is crucial and welcome. However, Myanmar currently needs a much more effective intervention by the international community. There has been a lack of unified response and political will by world leaders when it comes to addressing the crisis in Myanmar. Some parallels can be drawn between the international responses toward Myanmar and Ukraine. Most countries in the West and Asia have been quick to impose tough sanctions on Russia but many of them have been more reluctant to do so with the Myanmar military.
While Western countries such as the U.S., the EU and the UK have imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s generals and military-owned businesses, some of Myanmar’s key development partners such as Japan, South Korea and ASEAN countries have refused to do so, preferring to take a more cautious, diplomatic approach towards the military regime (Abuza, 2022; McDonald 2021). The impact of Western-imposed sanctions are also likely to have a limited impact while countries like China, Thailand and Singapore continue their significant investments in Myanmar’s economy (McDonald, 2021). Furthermore, the UN Security Council has so far failed to impose a global arms embargo. This comes as no surprise as its two permanent members, China and Russia, have been supplying the Myanmar military with weapons since the coup (The Associated Press, 2022).
Meanwhile, other international actors have stepped back to let ASEAN take the leadership in diplomatic efforts toward the resolution of the crisis in Myanmar. Last year, ASEAN agreed on a five-point consensus plan, calling for (1) an immediate end to violence; (2) constructive dialogue among all parties; (3) the appointment of a special envoy; (4) the provision of humanitarian assistance; and (5) a visit by the envoy to Myanmar. However, the military has been unwilling to comply and there has been no concrete progress so far. Clearly, ASEAN’s non-interference policy and internal divisions limit its capacity to fulfill its role. Rather than leaving ASEAN to take the lead on the political front, other international actors can strengthen concerted efforts with ASEAN in terms of targeted sanctions, a global arms embargo and accountability (Sullivan,2022). Furthermore, they can assist ASEAN in its role as mediator to the Myanmar crisis both by providing advice and expertise in diplomatic and humanitarian engagement, as well as by helping member states overcome their differences (International Crisis Group, 2021).
There is another question I tend to get asked, although not as frequently as the questions I have listed at the beginning of this article.
“How do you think the situation is going to get resolved?”
I don’t think anyone has the answer to this question, not the experts in the international community, not the people in Myanmar, not even the generals themselves. Will the military regime be able to hold on to power? Will the resistance movement succeed? Only time will tell. What I do know though is that it is a testament to the will and strength of the people that the military hasn’t been able to consolidate its control over the country after more than a year. I hope that when the international community hears about Myanmar, they think of a country where people have not given up their fight for freedom against all odds.
Abuza, Z. (2022, March 3). On Ukraine, the world acts; on Myanmar, it waits. Radio Free Asia.
Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.(2022, April 29). Daily Briefing in Relation to the Military Coup. https://aappb.org/?p=21303
The Associated Press. (2022, February 22). UN expert criticizes China, Russia for arms sales to Myanmar. ABC News.
Deutsche Welle, (2022, February 1). Civil war in Myanmar a year after military coup?
Frontier. (2022, April 29). ‘All I want is a shower’: all-day blackouts make life miserable in Myanmar. Frontier Myanmar.
Horsey, R. (2022, January 25). One Year On from the Myanmar Coup. International Crisis Group. https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-east-asia/myanmar/one-year-myanmar-coup
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The Irrawaddy. (2021, July 26). Myanmar’s Third Wave COVID-19 Deaths Now Exceed Fatalities in First and Second Waves.
McDonald, T. (2021, April 9). Myanmar coup: Could sanctions on the military ever work? BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-56248559
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Moe Thuzar. (2021, December 6). Myanmar: Recognition is the name of the game. Fulcrum.
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Nachemson, A. & Fishbein, E. (2022, February 1). Myanmar's coup: a year under military rule in numbers. The Guardian.
Nichols, M. (2021, October 21). Outgoing U.N. envoy says Myanmar has spiraled into civil war. Reuters.
Paddock, R, C. (2021, August 28). They Wait Hours to Withdraw Cash, but Most A.T.M.s Are Empty. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/07/world/asia/myanmar-cash-coup.html
Reuters. (2021, November 14). The Young Generation Risking All to Topple the Myanmar Junta. VOA.
Sullivan, D. (2021, October 21). Dire Consequences: Addressing the Humanitarian Fallout from Myanmar’s Coup. Refugees International.
Tønnesson, S. (2021, December 1). The New Pattern of Conflict in Myanmar. PRIO Blogs.
United Nations. (2022, May 3). Conflicts that don't make the headlines.
UNDP. (2021). Socio-economic Impact of the events since 1st February 2021 on households in Myanmar.
Wa Lone, McPherson, P., Bhandari, A. & Shoon Naing. (2021, August 27). "Protests drove a generation to Myanmar's streets." Reuters.
The World Bank. (2022, January 26). Economic Activity in Myanmar to Remain at Low Levels, with the Overall Outlook Bleak.
Zuleeg F., Emmanouilidis J.A. and Borges de Castro, R. (2021, March 11). Europe in the age of permacrisis. European Policy Centre.