BANGKOK: The takeover of Aung San Suu Kyi by the Burmese army a year ago has not only unexpectedly halted the country’s fledgling democratic return: it has also brought about a surprising amount of popular resistance that has grown into a low-level but persistent insurgency .
On the morning of February 1, 2021, General Min Aung Hlaing, commander of the Myanmar Army (known as the Tatmadaw), seized power and arrested Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, her government and senior members of the ruling National League for Democracy party November 2020 A landslide victory in the election.
The military’s use of lethal force to retain power has escalated clashes with civilian opponents to the point that some experts say the country is in a state of civil war.
The cost was high, with around 1,500 people killed by security forces, nearly 8,800 detained, an undisclosed number tortured and disappeared, and more than 300,000 displaced as the army levelled villages to root out resistance.
Other consequences are also significant. Civil disobedience hampered transport, banking services and government agencies, slowing an economy already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic. The public health system collapsed, leaving the fight against COVID-19 abandoned for months. Higher education stalled as faculty and students sympathetic to the revolt boycotted school, or were arrested.
The military-installed government was not at all anticipating the level of resistance that arose, Thomas Kean, an analyst of Myanmar affairs consulting for the International Crisis Group think tank, told The Associated Press.
“We saw in the first days after the coup, they tried to adopt a sort of business-as-usual approach,” with the generals denying they were implementing any significant change, but only removing Suu Kyi from power, he said.
“And of course, you know, that unleashed these huge protests that were brutally crushed, which resulted in people turning to armed struggle.”
The army has dealt with the revolt by employing the same brutal tactics in the country’s rural heartland that it has long unleashed against ethnic minorities in border areas, which critics have charged amount to crimes against humanity and genocide.
Its violence has created new sympathy for ethnic minorities such as the Karen, Kachin and Rohingya, long-standing targets of military abuse, with which members of Myanmar’s majority are now forging an anti-military cause .
David Steinberg, a senior scholar in Asian studies at Georgetown University, said people were opposed to military takeovers because they had come to enjoy representative government and liberalization after years of military rule.
Despite the risks, young people protested in droves because they had neither a family nor a career to lose, but saw their futures at stake, he said.
They also enjoy a tactical advantage that previous generations of protesters have lacked, he noted. Myanmar has caught up with the rest of the world in technology, and despite efforts to limit communications, people have been able to use cell phones and the internet to organize strikes and demonstrations.
The impetus was a civil disobedience campaign by healthcare workers that encouraged boycotts of military products and actions such as people not paying their electricity bills or buying lottery tickets.
Aung San Suu Kyi was detained by the military and did not take an active part in these developments.
Ruling generals have said they could hold new elections by 2023, tying her to various criminal charges widely believed to be fabricated to prevent her return to political life. Aung San Suu Kyi, 76, has been sentenced to six years in prison, with more to come.
But in the days after the army took over, elected lawmakers from her party laid the groundwork for continued resistance. With the military preventing them from being seated, they rallied themselves and in April formed the National Unity Government, or NUG, which it claims is the country’s legitimate executive and has won the loyalty of many citizens.
The NUG also seeks to coordinate armed resistance, helping to organize “People’s Defence Forces” or PDFs, indigenous militias formed at the local and community level. The military considers NUG and PDFs “terrorist” groups.
With urban demonstrations mostly reduced to flash mobs to avoid crackdowns, the battle against military rule has largely passed to the countryside, where the badly outgunned local militias carry out guerrilla warfare.
The army’s “Four Cuts” strategy aims to eradicate the militias’ threat by cutting off their access to food, funds, information and recruitment. Civilians suffer collateral damage as soldiers block essential supplies, take away suspected militia supporters and raze whole villages.
When the military enters a village, “they’ll burn down some houses, maybe shoot some people, take prisoners and torture them — the sort of horrific abuses that we’re seeing on a regular basis,” said analyst Kean.
“But when the soldiers leave, they lose control of that area. They don’t have enough manpower to maintain control when 80% to 90% of the population is against them.”
Some ethnic minority groups with decades of experience fighting the Myanmar military offer critical support to the PDF militia movement, including supplying training and some weapons, while also providing safe havens for opposition activists and others fleeing the army.
“We never accept a coup at all for whatever reason. The position of our organization is clear,” Padoh Saw Taw Nee, the chief of the Karen National Union’s foreign affairs department, told the AP. “We oppose any military dictatorship. Therefore, the automatic response is that we must work with those who oppose the military.”
He said his group began preparing immediately after the takeover to receive people fleeing from military persecution and noted that it played a similar role in 1988 after a failed popular uprising.
There is a quid pro quo — the NUG says it will honor the minority ethnic groups’ demands for greater autonomy when it takes power.
The military, meanwhile, keeps the pressure on the Karen with periodic attacks, including by air, that send villagers fleeing for safety across a river that forms the border with Thailand.
The support of the ethnic groups is seen as key to sustaining the resistance, the thought being that as long as they can engage the army, its forces will be too stretched to finish off the PDFs.
No other factors are seen as capable of tilting the balance in favor of the military or the resistance.
Sanctions on the ruling generals can make them uncomfortable — U.S. actions, especially, have caused financial distress — but Russia and China have been reliable allies, especially willing to sell arms. The U.N. and organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are seen as toothless at best.
“I see the stage sort of set for a prolonged conflict. Neither side seems willing to back down or sees it as in their interest or a necessity to back down or to make concessions in any way to the other,” said analyst Kean.
“And so it’s just very difficult to see how the conflict will diminish, will reduce in the near term, even over a period of several years. It’s just very difficult to see peace returning to many areas of Myanmar.”