The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The battle for Myanmar is far from over

Protesters hold banners as they make a three-finger salute against Myanmar's recent military coup, in Yangon in May. (AFP/Getty Images)
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This week, Myanmar’s generals marked 100 days of self-declared junta rule. But even though the military ousted the country’s democratically elected leaders in a coup more than three months ago, the generals do not have full control of the country. And given the scale of the movement against them, it is not clear they ever will.

Reports from inside Myanmar paint a picture of persistent resistance and a struggling military government. On the hundred-day benchmark on Tuesday, “demonstrators took part in marches, motorcycle convoys and flash protests to evade security forces, some making three-finger gestures of defiance,” Reuters reported, adding that hundreds of people were on the streets of Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, carrying a banner that called for “complete removal of the enemy.”

The Associated Press reported that, in a marker of failed authoritarianism, the trains weren’t even running on time. “State railway workers were among the earliest organized opponents of the February takeover, and they went on strike,” the Associated Press wrote, noting that disobedience was also found in the civil service, banking sector, health-care system, universities and schools and more. “Myanmar’s ruling generals maintain just the pretense of control.”

This resistance to the coup, while undoubtedly brave, comes at a terrible price. Though outside reporting in the country is limited, monitoring groups estimate that 785 people have been killed by the junta and more than 3,800 arrested, charged or sentenced. On social media, images of ongoing protests under hashtags such as #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar are mixed with photographs of dead or missing loved ones.

More pain seems likely to come. Security forces said Wednesday that they had arrested 39 people suspected of being behind explosions and arson attacks, Reuters reported, citing junta-aligned media. Meanwhile, a group called the Tamu People’s Defense Force, operating in the town of Tamu in the northwestern Sagaing region, said it had killed 15 security personnel on Tuesday evening and Wednesday.

The Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar sparked an immediate wave of global condemnation. Though the reputation of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s democratic leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, had been deeply tarnished by her handling of the Rohingya crisis, the arrest of her and her allies seemed to mark a return to the dark days of international isolation for Myanmar.

But as the early days of the coup turned to weeks, and now to months, that wave of outrage has drifted into resignation. In a story for the Atlantic late last month, Timothy McLaughlin wrote that within the Myanmar protest movement there was a “sense of intense anger, betrayal, and despair at the United Nations, and the international community more broadly, for doing too little to help the country.”

McLaughlin pointed to a protest sign widely shared on social media with the stark message: “Just ‘700’ people killed in ‘70’ days. Take your time UN. We still got ‘millions’ left.”

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member, has been singled out for its lack of action, with Philippines-based analyst Richard Heydarian writing this week that the body had not just turned a blind eye to violence in Myanmar, but was “partly responsible for it” after having legitimized Myanmar’s military leadership.

There are some signs of renewed focus. U.N. human rights office spokesman Rupert Colville said Tuesday that the Myanmar military was “showing no sign of letting up in their brutal crackdown on opponents in a bid to consolidate their hold on power.” A spokesman for U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said he “renews his call on the country’s military to respect the will of the people.”

Representatives of the anti-junta National Unity Government (NUG), meanwhile, a coalition that has declared itself Myanmar’s legitimate authority, met with Atul Keshap, principal deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, the State Department said Tuesday.

The United States, the European Union and others have imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s military. Some Western companies have already backed away from investment — the BBC reported this week that international organizations were leaving a high-end office block in Yangon linked to the country’s military leaders.

But analysts say the Myanmar military is surprisingly sanction-proof. The economy of Myanmar, a closed country under a dictatorship from 1962 to 2011, is still isolated. In an article published by Bloomberg News this week, K. Oanh Ha, Khine Lin Kyaw and Jin Wu reported that with the military controlling so much of Myanmar’s economy, international sanctions may have little effect.

“The cake is shrinking but they will have bigger slices of it,” Romain Caillaud, an associate fellow focused on Myanmar at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, told the outlet, adding that the military could come out of the turmoil “a winner.”

A festering conflict in Myanmar runs the risk of turning into something far bigger. Last month, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet warned that Myanmar had “clear echoes” of Syria, where a ruthless response to calls for democracy turned into a bloody civil war that killed hundreds of thousands.

That’s a worrying concern in Myanmar, where roughly a third of the population is made up of ethnic minorities with conflicts that date back decades. The coronavirus had already proved disastrous for the economy. The U.N. Development Program has warned that an additional 26 million in the country could end up living in poverty in 2022.

“We were not starving during the pandemic,” Daw Than Aye, a 57-year-old in Yangon’s outskirts, told Frontier Myanmar, an English-language magazine. “Now we are starving.”

There are bright spots for Myanmar’s democratic movement. Myanmar’s protesters, most young and many of them female, have resisted the divisions of the past. And so far, minority groups have been able to unify under the face of military pressure, with some apologizing for remaining silent during the persecution of the Rohingya in 2017.

The opposition movement has attracted passionate support from high-profile figures who were previously apolitical, such as former beauty queen Htar Htet Htet. The 2013 Miss Grand Myanmar posted photographs this week that showed her holding an assault rifle and dressed in combat fatigues.

“Whether you hold a weapon, pen, keyboard or donate money to the pro-democracy movement,” Htar Htet Htet wrote to her 324,000 followers on Facebook, “everyone must do their bit for the revolution to succeed.”

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