BANGKOK – The prospects for peace in Myanmar, much less a return to democracy, seem dimmer than ever two years after the army seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, experts say.
On Wednesday, legions of opponents of military rule heeded a call by protest organizers to stay home in what they termed a “silent strike” to show their strength and solidarity.
The opposition’s General Strike Coordination Body, formed soon after the 2021 takeover, urged people to stay inside their homes or workplaces from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Photos posted on social media showed empty streets in normally bustling downtown Yangon, the country’s largest city, with just a few vehicles on the roads, and there were reports of similar scenes elsewhere.
Small peaceful protests are an almost-daily occurrence throughout the country, but on the anniversary of the Feb. 1, 2021, seizure of power by the army, two points stand out: The amount of violence, especially in the countryside, has reached the level of civil war; and the grassroots movement opposing military rule has defied expectations by largely holding off the ruling generals.
The violence extends beyond the rural battlefields where the army is burning and bombing villages, displacing hundreds of thousands of people in what is a largely neglected humanitarian crisis. It also occurs in the cities, where activists are arrested and tortured and urban guerrillas retaliate with bombings and assassinations of targets linked to the military. The military, after closed trials, have also executed activists accused of “terrorism.”
According to the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a watchdog group that tracks killings and arrests, 2,940 civilians have been killed by the authorities since the army takeover, and another 17,572 have been arrested — 13,763 of whom remain detained. The actual death toll is likely to be much higher since the group does not generally include deaths on the side of the military government and cannot easily verify cases in remote areas.
“The level of violence involving both armed combatants and civilians is alarming and unexpected,” said Min Zaw Oo, a veteran political activist in exile who founded the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security.
“The scale of the killing and harm inflicted on civilians has been devastating, and unlike anything we have seen in the country in recent memory," he said.
When the army ousted Suu Kyi in 2021, it arrested her and top members of her governing National League for Democracy party, which had won a landslide victory for a second term in a November 2020 general election. The military claimed it acted because there had been massive electoral fraud, a claim not backed up by objective election observers. Suu Kyi, 77, is serving prison sentences totaling 33 years after being convicted in a series of politically tainted prosecutions brought by the military.
Shortly after the military seized power and quashed nonviolent protests with lethal force, thousands of young people slipped away to remote rural areas to become guerrilla fighters.
Operating in decentralized “People’s Defense Forces,” or PDFs, they are proving to be effective warriors, specializing in ambushes and occasionally overrunning isolated army and police posts. They have benefited greatly from supplies and training provided by the some of the country’s ethnic minority rebels — Ethnic Armed Organizations, or EAOs — who have been fighting the army for decades for greater autonomy.
"That’s not only a very brave thing to do. It’s a very difficult thing to do,” Richard Horsey, an independent analyst and adviser to the International Crisis Group, told The Associated Press. “It’s a very challenging thing to do, to take on, you know, a military that’s been fighting counterinsurgency warfare (for) basically its whole existence.”
David Mathieson, an independent analyst with over 20 years' experience in Myanmar, said the opposition’s combat capabilities are “a mixed picture in terms of battlefield performance, organization and unity amongst them.”
“But it’s also important to remember, two years in, that no one was predicting that they were actually going to be as effective as they are now. And in certain areas, the PDFs have been taking on the Myanmar military and, in many respects, besting them on the battlefield in terms of ambush and pitched battles, taking over bases.”
He says the military’s heavy weaponry and air power push the situation into a kind of a stalemate in which the PDFs are not necessarily taking over large swaths of territory, but fighting back and prevailing.
“So no one’s winning at the moment,” Mathieson said.
The military government of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has an advantage — not just in arms and trained manpower, but also in geography. Myanmar's main neighbors — Thailand, China and India — have geopolitical and economic interests in Myanmar that leave them satisfied with the status quo, which largely secures its borders from becoming a major supply route for weapons and other supplies for the resistance. And while much of the world maintains sanctions against the generals and their government, they can rely on obtaining arms from Russia and China.
Min Aung Hlaing’s government is also nominally pursuing a political solution to the crisis it caused, most notably in its promise to hold a new election this year. Suu Kyi’s party has rejected taking part, deriding the polls as neither free nor fair, and other activists are employing more direct action, attacking teams from the military government who are conducting surveys to compile voter rolls.
“The regime is pushing for an election which the opposition has vowed to derail,” said Min Zaw Oo. “The election won’t change the political status quo; instead, it will intensify violence.”
The planned polls “are being run by a regime that overturned the popularly elected government. They are clearly being seen by the Myanmar people for what they are: a cynical effort to overwrite those previous election results that gave a landslide victory to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, so these are not elections in any meaningful sense of the word," Horsey said. "They have no legitimacy or credibility.”
In what amounted to an admission that it does not exercise enough control to stage the polls, the military government on Wednesday night announced it is further extending a state of emergency imposed when it seized power two years ago. That means, under Myanmar's constitution, that it will be impossible to hold the election in August, a date that Min Aung Hlaing earlier said was under consideration.
State-run MRTV television said the state of emergency has been extended another six months because the country remains in an abnormal situation and time is needed to prepare for a peaceful and stable election. It did not offer a date for when the polls might be held.
On the diplomatic front, the military government has thumbed its nose at international efforts to defuse the crisis, even those from sympathetic fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, whose harshest response has been to not invite Myanmar’s top military leaders to its meetings.
Myanmar's army government rejects virtually all efforts at peacemaking as interference in its internal affairs.
The resistance, by contrast, has actively reached out for international support. It won small new diplomatic victories Tuesday as the United States, Australia, Britain and Canada announced new sanctions meant to squeeze the military’s revenue and supply lines. The British and Canadian sanctions are especially noteworthy, as they target the supply of aviation fuel, a move activists have been seeking to counter the increasing number of airstrikes that pro-democracy forces and their allies in ethnic minority rebel groups have been facing in the field.
“Currently, both sides are not ready to seek a political solution,” said Min Zaw Oo. “The military stalemate won’t shift significantly this year, despite more deaths and violence.”