We may never know what prompted the power grab by the Myanmar military, but the chaos that followed suggests that its architect – General Min Aung Hlaing – did not foresee the consequences and wrongly assessed people’s reactions.
This is the first article from the series MYANMAR INSIDER UPDATES which focuses on the events unfolding in Myanmar immediately after the military’s takeover. The author, who is based in Myanmar, has to remain anonymous due to security reasons. The author’s identity is known to CEIAS.
Rumors about a potential coup that had surfaced during the last week of January proved to be true. Tatmadaw, the Myanmar military, seized power in the early morning of 1 February 2021, just hours before the new parliament was set to convene. The country leaders and members of the winning party were arrested, the military presence strengthened and, in the major cities, roads in front of the strategic buildings, such as the Yangon Parliament, Mandalay Palace, and the National Parliament in Naypyitaw, were closed and heavily guarded. The army chief reasoned that his repeatedly stated allegations of fraud in the November 2020 Elections had not been considered, and thus the military needed to invoke the right to impose the state of emergency and temporarily take over the country’s government.
Since the elections, in an attempt to prove that fraud occurred, the state newspapers have been publishing daily charts of registered voter numbers and alleged mistakes in various townships and states. According to their statements, the country was in danger. To many ordinary people, on the contrary, it was the time when everyone started to feel hopeful about their future again – with COVID-19 retreating, nationwide vaccination plans being in place, and strict measurements to limit the movement around the country relaxing.
With the military taking power, COVID-19, among other issues was sidelined, plans for economic revival put on hold, and many hopes crushed.
February: The country awakens
For a few days following the army’s announcements about the government takeover and the state of emergency, the whole country went quiet. On Monday, 1 February, all phone and internet lines were down and the only way to get the news was to talk to the people in the streets. Nobody knew what’s going to happen; from similar events in the past — the 2007 Saffron Revolution or the 1988 Student Revolution — people remembered the military brutality suppressing opposition. Long queues soon formed in front of the ATMs and markets to stock up on essentials: rice, oil, and garlic as people logically prepared for the potential economic shutdown. A couple of days later, people’s frustration spilled to the streets: at 8 PM, the loud sounds of everyone banging pots and pans in line with the ancient Myanmar tradition to expel the evil echoed through many cities. Then, Mandalay doctors went on strike.
The first weekend in February was tense with a few close standoffs between the police and the people who gathered on the streets to protest the military coup. Back then, the police force was still being called ‘People’s Police’ and the protesters provided water and snacks to the officers guarding the streets, pleading with them to join their side. Not many did, though, as it is nearly impossible to defect the security forces in Myanmar without facing arrest, torture, or even death.
Even though the military imposed a curfew, restricted the internet, and banned gatherings of more than five people as an immediate reaction to the first peaceful protests, it did not stop the people from all walks of life from joining in all corners of the country. The demonstrations, led by the young Generation Z, grew in size and creativity. The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) began and millions of civil servants — doctors, teachers, railway technicians, bank clerks, and administrators at various levels – walked off from their jobs, refusing to serve under military rule. The whole country was paralyzed and schools, universities, banks, and most hospitals were closed. National government activity stopped, administrative offices were empty, nobody paid taxes or electricity bills.
Nothing like injustice and hardship brings people closer together. Whole neighborhoods provided free food and drinks to the marching protesters, taxi drivers offered free rides to strangers, and celebrities started raising funds for people joining the CDM. Yangon (and many other cities as well) became impossible to drive through, as long columns of people moved through the streets. People marched for kilometers from Hledan Centre through the residential neighborhood of San Chaung to the Yangon downtown area in front of the golden Sule Pagoda. The atmosphere was joyous, people had hopes that this effort would bring a quick end to this attempted power grab.
March: The military strikes back
Then came the expected military response. Shots were fired and protesters suppressed. During one of the state television announcements, the dull-sounding commentator requested parents to stop their children from protesting, otherwise, they’d risk being shot in the head. The first martyr of the Myanmar Spring Revolution — as she became to be known — was 19-year old Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, a bystander killed by a bullet shot by a police officer in Naypyitaw. The internet-savvy Gen-Z was quick to share almost real-time footage of the incident, with the journalists and news agencies doing their job to spread the news. The whole country was shocked at the brutality and even more determined to fight. Street signs were painted to show the desire of people for democracy, justice, and freedom and to ask the international community to exercise the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) or pay tribute to the people who lost their lives.
On 22 February 2021, the 22222 General Strike was organized, with millions joining the protests across the whole country. On that day, around 200 people were arrested, but there were no deaths. Soon after, the number of people killed by the security forces started increasing as the military began cracking down in various places. March was the bloodiest month — over 500 people died, with 50% of the victims being between the age of 16 and 35, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma – AAPP). In one of the industrial outskirts of Yangon, at least 50 people were killed during one of the most brutal military crackdowns. On the day when the junta leaders celebrated Armed Forces Day on March 27, at least 114 people were killed across the country by the junta’s forces.
April: Alternative government takes shape
With the formation of the State Administration Council (SAC) with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Services, as the chairman, the military announced the state of emergency would take one year, with two possible extensions, each for another six months, and a promise of a free and fair multiparty democratic elections upon accomplishing the provisions of the state of emergency. SAC began replacing ministers with military generals, reached out to China and Russia for support, and engaged with ASEAN leaders who agreed on a Five-Point Consensus to cease violence and promote peaceful dialogue in Myanmar. SAC, however, has since then repeatedly stated that it would not act upon the plan until the country had reached “stability” for which it is following its own Five-Point Road Map. The international community, including many Western countries and major international organizations, condemned the coup and refused to engage with SAC.
To counter the SAC governance, in early February, the parliamentarians elected in the November 2020 Elections formed a 15-person committee called Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), with two more ethnic representatives joining it later. In April, the CRPH announced the formation of the National Unity Government (NUG) — a government more inclusive of ethnic minorities and gender-balanced than any other in Myanmar’s history. A government that’s striving to reconcile the discriminatory past and establish true federal diplomacy. High-profile Myanmar representatives abroad broke ranks and expressed support to CRPG/NUG, essentially putting their lives and their families at risk of prosecution. But with many of the NUG ministers hiding or on the run, the NUG is still struggling to find its foothold within international diplomacy and has yet to make significant progress in governing the country. Especially when all the resources are in the SAC’s hands.
May: People defending people
As the security forces responded to peaceful protests with violence and brutality, young people started erecting barricades and using homemade weapons, such as Molotov cocktails and slingshots to protect their neighborhoods and act as a defense line for the protesters who continued to strike on the streets. Residents formed night watches to guard their communities during curfew time. In several townships that had seen soldiers’ senseless ransacking and repression, the civilians created local defense forces. People’s resolute resistance, however, prompted more crackdowns by the army and continuous arrests. So to avoid the destruction of living quarters and urban areas, many young protesters chose to go into hiding or fled to the border areas guarded by the country’s ethnic armed groups.
Following the announcement by the NUG about the establishment of the People Defense Forces (PDF) as a precursor to the Federal Democratic Armed Forces, ordinary civilians all around the country began forming local PDF groups. Multiple areas in Chin, Kachin, and Kayah States and Sagaing Region that have seen decreased fighting in the past decades, have become active fighting zones between the military and local PDFs, displacing thousands of people. There, with little media coverage, the army attacked without limits — using heavy artillery, burning people’s houses, looting private properties, and destroying places of worship. The local PDF fighters using simple hunter guns stood no chance against the sophisticated arsenal of weaponry and retreated to protect the civilians. In a few successful cases, both sides have managed to negotiate a temporary ceasefire to allow humanitarian assistance to the newly internally displaced people (IDPs).
June: A lawless state
At the time of writing, more than 5000 people have been arrested, charged, or sentenced; nearly 2000 have been issued a warrant and in hiding, and over 200 have been arbitrarily accused and sentenced to years in prison without a fair trial. Attorneys who defend the arrested civilians are being arrested too.
The civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi is facing a wide range of charges, which, if convinced, would mean decades in prison and banning her from participating in Myanmar’s politics ever again. Many observers believe this is the main goal of the military. The trial — closed to the public and media — started in June and with Aung San Suu Kyi being held incommunicado at an undisclosed location since February, she was allowed to meet with her lawyers only twice. Many of her colleagues from the National League for Democracy (NLD) are also awaiting trials or have been sentenced for various offenses by military-controlled kangaroo courts. The military-appointed Union Election Commission (UEC) announced that they aim to change the current electoral system and will examine all political parties’ links to unlawful associations or terrorist organizations. The CRPH, NUG, and PDF were all proclaimed ‘unlawful associations’ by the SAC and it is expected that the UEC will soon proclaim links to many NLD members regardless of evidence proving so.
The military has tried to limit the flow of true information. The imposed nighttime internet restriction, as well as the complete shutdown of all the mobile internet in the first couple of months aimed at preventing the people from mobilizing and isolating the soldiers who were beginning to question their orders. Since then, the military chose to whitelist some internet apps to enable business as usual, while keeping many social networks restricted, but people learned to bypass the restrictions by using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). It has become more difficult to receive and verify news and the military continues to suppress all free press and media reporting by revoking the licenses of independent news agencies (some continue reporting regardless). So far, 90 journalists have been arrested, including four foreign nationals (three have since been released), with more than half still in detention and at least three of whom have been sentenced. Hundreds more have gone into hiding or fled the country in fear of being arrested for simply doing their job.
Meanwhile, in cities, random bombings are increasingly frequent, targeting government buildings occupied by the army, houses of junta-appointed administrators, and military-linked informants. Late-night arrests have become common and the soldiers march on the streets and threaten to arrest those who continue banging pots and pans. Even with the tightened security in urban areas, people still organize flash mob protests. However, due to the increasing presence of plainly clothed police and informers, arrests of protesters are on the rise.
Arrested people are being kept in the country’s notorious Insein Prison with little contact with the outside world and no access to legal representation. The most common charge faced by protestors is ‘incitement’ under the post-coup amended Section 505 (a) and (b) of the Penal Code that aims to sentence anyone ‘for spreading misinformation that could incite unrest’ — a charge that criminalizes free speech and carries a maximum imprisonment time of 3 years. Protesters are tried behind closed doors, making public oversight of the judiciary impossible. Anyone can be arrested anytime for having a social media post against the military, supporting the CDM, or having a photo with an anti-military meme. The internal legal structure put in place by the military allows the Tatmadaw to act with impunity as they are subject to no law whereas everyone else is subject to all laws written, interpreted, and enforced by the Tatmadaw on an arbitrary basis.
In rural areas, incidents of human rights violations on civilians are increasing on both sides. In addition to thousands of IDPs fleeing their villages due to the eruption of conflicts between the PDFs and some ethnic armed groups on one side and the Tatmadaw on the other, reports of intentional murders, massacres, and arsons by both sides escalate violence, distrust, and animosity amongst the communities.
What’s next: Military script or another way?
During the few months since the coup, the military has tried to control the country by the means they understand well: using violence and weapons, instilling fear, reviving the network of informers, revoking laws protecting human rights, and arresting civilians. The people reacted through the nationwide leaderless uprising, aligning with a more structured opposition: the alternative government and opposition armed forces later.
People are determined to resist and end the Tatmadaw’s role in Myanmar’s politics for good, striving for genuine federal democracy, even if it means many would face hardships due to the looming economic and health crises. The NUG has made significant progress towards a more open, transparent, and credible governance system (in theory), addressing sensitive issues including citizenship rights for the displaced Rohingya minority. It is, however, still limited in what its members in hiding and pending warrants can achieve.
The military is equally resolute to preserve its role as the guardian of the nation, solidify its position above all other institutions, ideologies, and political parties and protect its Three Main Causes. They claim to be prepared to withstand the international isolation and want to rely on trusted allies for business relationships. But Myanmar is much more connected than during the previous military rules and the continued withdrawal from the global market and public boycotts of the military products are already affecting the profits of the numerous military-linked businesses and thus funding of the military operations.
Other variables will influence the situation in the following months. Once the fastest-growing in Southeast Asia, the economy is predicted to contract by as much as 10%, with half of the population at risk of falling into poverty. With the internet cut for most of February, March, and April, the digital economy, telecommunications, and tech companies struggled to operate; Telenor wrote off its entire business in Myanmar for the first quarter of 2021.
Industries that were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, such as tourism and the garment industry, employing millions of people, are unlikely to recover, with borders closed and export to the Western countries halted. The junta imposed an import ban on ready-made coffee and drinks from Thailand, as well as on soap and other goods, citing the need to boost local production. The Central Bank introduced strict regulations on money circulation, including for transactions and withdrawals, causing the local banks to limit the cash withdrawals and people queuing for hours to get an equivalent of 100 EUR out of their bank accounts. This has resulted in the total drop in people’s confidence in the country’s banking system, a significant shortage of liquidity in all sectors with informal moneylenders charging as much as 10-15% fee for providing cash to ordinary citizens.
With many areas in Myanmar recording an increase in COVID-19, the pandemic spiraling out of control is a dangerous threat. The military’s ability to test has decreased to 10% from pre-coup rates, from 15000 tests a day to 1500 – 2000 tests, and the doctors and volunteers who had put long hours and effort into stopping the last wave of the pandemic under the civilian government, are still on strike. Lifesaving medicines and treatments for preventable diseases are in short supply, and almost a million children will not receive the vaccines that they would normally get for diseases such as tuberculosis and polio. People are willing to die rather than being treated by the military. The decades of military rules in Myanmar show a complete disregard of human life and people’s wellbeing in the past, so the question now is whether the future will follow the script written by the previous generals.