The Myanmar community in Bangkok gathered in front of the UN headquarters for the third anniversary of the coup. (Credit: Prachatai English). - Photo: 2024

MYANMAR: Three Years After the Coup, Hope Remains

By Jan Servaes

BANGKOk | 7 February 2024 (IDN) — Myanmar’s military junta has increasingly carried out unlawful airstrikes killing civilians in its military operations against a coalition of the People Defense Force (PDF) and ethnic armed groups (EAOs), Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on January 30, 2024, on the eve of the anniversary of the 2021 coup.

Three years since the February 1, 2021 coup, the junta’s widespread and systematic abuses against the population—including arbitrary arrests, torture, extrajudicial killings and cluster bombing of civilians – amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. There are particularly detailed reports of these in the Sagaing Region and Kachin State.

Governments that supply arms or equipment to junta forces or provide assistance risk being complicit in war crimes, HRW and Amnesty International said. “United Nations member states should urge the UN Security Council to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar, including sanctions on jet fuel that enable unlawful airstrikes on civilians,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

The human rights situation in Myanmar is now in “free fall”, according to the UN.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says the number of people displaced by the conflict in Burma now exceeds 2.6 million. “The battles between the military and armed opposition groups have led to mass displacement and civilian casualties. As the military faces setback after setback on the battlefield, they have launched waves of indiscriminate aerial bombardments and artillery strikes,” said Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Military tactics have consistently focused on punishing civilians who they believe support their enemies,” Türk added.

According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), at least 48,862 people were killed as a result of the 2021 coup. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) calculated that 4,477 people were killed by pro-military groups. Of the 25,951 people arrested by the military, 20,013 are still in prison.

The international community must redouble its efforts to hold the military to account, the UN human rights chief said, recalling the interim measures the International Court of Justice ordered Myanmar to “take all measures within its power” to protect the members of the Rohingya community from any future acts that may amount to genocide, and to take effective measures to ensure the preservation of evidence relating to the alleged acts.

“This crisis can only be resolved by insisting on the accountability of the military leadership, the release of political prisoners and the restoration of civilian rule,” Türk said. “I urge all Member States to take appropriate measures to address this crisis, including to consider imposing further targeted sanctions on the military to limit their ability to commit serious violations and disregard international law—by restrict access to weapons, jet fuel and foreign currency.”

“I commend the courage and resilience of Myanmar’s civil society and democracy movement, representing all ethnic communities, and urge their participation in any political process to restore democracy and respect for human rights in Myanmar.”

Operation 1027

The situation has worsened since the launch of Operation 1027 on October 27, 2023, by the so-called Three Brotherhood Alliance to “end the military dictatorship.” On that day, the anti-junta coalition of the Arakan Army (or AA, a predominantly Rakhine group), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (or MNDAA, a predominantly Kokang group of Han Chinese) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (or TNLA, a primarily Ta’ang group) launched an offensive that captured cities, cut off key overland trade routes to China, and overran dozens of military outposts in northern Shan. These attacks involved thousands of experienced, well-armed freedom fighters attacking multiple locations simultaneously. They represent the biggest battlefield challenge for the junta army, the Tatmadaw, since the February 2021 coup.

Recognizing that the regime may be at its weakest point to date, several other armed groups have gone on the offensive in other parts of the country. For instance, several resistance forces took part in attacks close to the country’s second-largest city, Mandalay, for the first time. Reinforcements the Tatmadaw wanted to send to Shan State were ambushed. On November 13, the AA then launched a new offensive in Rakhine State, in the west, breaking the informal ceasefire that had been in place for a year.

The operation has been swift, with regime forces having to abandon or surrender dozens of military outposts and bases. The junta was slow to respond to the initial losses. Although the military immediately launched airstrikes and long-range artillery bombardments, these have so far been ineffective in countering Operation 1027. However, they have caused civilian casualties and displaced about 60,000 people in Shan State and 200,000 people across the country, according to the UN.

The offensive also led to opposition attacks on security forces elsewhere in the country. For example, in early November, one of the country’s largest ethnic armed groups, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), began an attack on the northwestern city of Kawlin in the Sagaing region. The city, an important administrative center, fell after several days of fighting. On November 7, resistance forces in Kayah State launched what they called Operation 1107, first attacking the Tatmadaw military base in the south of the state and then, on November 11, the capital Loikaw. They claim to have shot down an Air Force plane. However, the regime says a mechanical failure caused the crash.

The junta responded to the attacks with military operations that violate the laws of war because the army routinely attacks civilians and institutions protected under international humanitarian law, such as medical facilities, churches and schools. “Indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes underline the lack of measures to protect civilians on the ground, including the disruption of basic communications that could help warn civilians before fighting begins so civilians can stay out of harm’s way.”

Communications and internet services in some 74 townships, including most of the 17 townships in Rakhine State, were partially, periodically or completely closed.

This state has been particularly hard hit since fighting resumed in November. Many communities, especially the Rohingya, were already suffering from the consequences of Cyclone Mocha and the military’s months-long restriction of humanitarian access and aid. There are now regular reports of Rohingya deaths and injuries during army shelling of Rohingya villages. For example, on Friday, January 26, fighting between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw reportedly killed at least 12 Rohingya civilians and injured 30 others in the village of Hpon Nyo Leik, where residents are trapped between the two warring sides .

Similarly, Rohingya refugees, trapped in dire humanitarian conditions in camps in Bangladesh and with no safe prospect of return, once again risk desperate and dangerous sea journeys, finding few ports or communities in the region willing to welcome them. Even Muslim brothers and sisters in Indonesia want to keep the boats away.

Sanctions must be more effective

Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States have imposed and expanded sanctions since the coup, but sanctions on jet fuel remain inconsistent. In 2023, the EU, UK and US introduced some additional sanctions targeting private actors supplying fuel, weapons and money to Myanmar. However, five British companies still provide insurance cover for the supply of aviation fuel to Myanmar.

Canada is the only country that has imposed comprehensive sanctions on the export, sale, supply or shipment of jet fuel to Myanmar.

Based on an analysis of satellite, trade and customs data from 2023, Amnesty International concluded that there have been “significant changes” in the way jet fuel enters Myanmar. The military was involved in multiple purchases and used middlemen and storage units, even in Vietnam, to obscure the origin and destination of the fuel, the report found. “The best way to prevent Myanmar’s military from carrying out deadly airstrikes is to halt all jet fuel imports into the country,” said Montse Ferrer, deputy regional director for research at Amnesty International.

On January 31, the US State Department announced more sanctions targeting revenue sources that support the regime’s military activities and support arms production in Myanmar. The sanctions concern the Shwe Byain Phyu Group of Companies, its owner Thein Win Zaw, and his wife and two adult children. Sanctions were also announced against Myanma Five Star Line, a shipping company. These two entities are said to have a relationship with Myanma Economic Holdings Public Co. Ltd., or MEHL, which is controlled by the Tatmadaw. The Tatmadaw has long depended on MEHL revenues to finance its own activities. The US Treasury Department said that through their ties to MEHL, these two entities facilitated the acquisition of foreign currency and the import of jet fuel and other materials by the military regime.

According to Human Rights Watch, governments in the region—particularly Thailand, Brunei, Laos, Singapore and Vietnam—continue to take unclear positions on ongoing human rights violations. Since the coup, this has also been the case for the position of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The European Union, whose foreign ministers met with ASEAN foreign ministers in Brussels on February 2, issued a meaningless ‘joint statement‘ after the meeting. “The ongoing acts of violence (were) strongly condemned and all parties involved (were) urged to take concrete action to immediately stop the violence. We called on all parties to create an enabling environment for the effective delivery of humanitarian assistance and an inclusive national dialogue.” But they also “continue to push for the implementation of the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus in its entirety, in line with the decision taken by ASEAN leaders at the 42nd ASEAN Summit.” According to most critical observers, the five-point consensus, which the Myanmar junta never accepted, is a dead letter. The EU is apparently happy with a dead sparrow.

According to HRW, the UN Security Council should meaningfully follow up on its December 2022 resolution on Myanmar by imposing an arms embargo, including aviation fuel, and referring the situation in the country to the International Criminal Court. Russia and China, which both abstained from the 2022 resolution, should not block stronger measures from the Council, HRW argues.

However, Russia and China have continued to sell weapons to Myanmar’s junta since the 2021 coup, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar said.

“The people of Myanmar have been suffering for years under a junta that has shown no respect for them,” said Elaine Pearson, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “A stronger international response is still needed to push for an end to the military’s abuses.”

Junta leader Min Aung Hlaing is also coming under fire internally

The situation for the junta regime has quickly changed from a worrying problem in one part of the country to a threat on multiple fronts. The Three Brotherhood Alliance’s attacks in northern Shan alone were a major blow to the army. Some units have lost many weapons to their opponents; some Tatmadaw soldiers and even some generals have surrendered or joined the resistance.

The new situation has caused grumbling, even within the pro-junta ranks. Military circles have been expressing dissatisfaction with the rule of the 67-year-old Min Aung Hlaing for months, but in recent weeks there have been open calls for the junta chief’s resignation. Online, pro-military journalists and bloggers responded immediately: “He should resign as commander-in-chief,” said Ko Maung Maung, a pro-military YouTuber, in a message.

In mid-January, the influential pro-military monk Pauk Kotaw also declared that the junta chief should resign. The crowd cheered in approval, according to videos of the event posted on social media.

Moe Hein, who runs the pro-junta news platform Thuriya Nay Wun and often appears on state television, also expressed doubts about the military’s senior leadership after the fall of the city of Laukkai in early January.

Such public statements against the powerful chief of the armed forces would have been unthinkable just a few months ago. But even now it is unclear whether and how Min Aung Hlaing can be deposed and who can replace him.

The army is also having difficulty deploying its mobile assault divisions due to opposition ambushes on main roads and the destruction of several key bridges.

The regime has extended martial law again for six months, but that does not change much in concrete situations. Much will depend whether the military can regain the initiative in parts of the country or deter its opponents with punishing air strikes. But there too, it must act more strategically with the use of aerial bombardments, partly in view of the shrinking capacity in that area.

It is not clear whether the military can effectively respond to these challenges with a counteroffensive. The army’s losses are there for all to see, encouraging other opposition groups to seize this moment of weakness.

Such attacks have already happened in several places. The junta has lost control of at least 35 cities so far, according to media collective Myanmar Peace Monitor. The rapidly evolving situation and the possibility of fighting breaking out on other fronts make developments difficult to predict. How the situation develops with the AA in Rakhine State will be of great importance, as large-scale fighting there would mean that the army can be used even thinner elsewhere.

Speaking from an undisclosed location in Myanmar, acting Government of National Unity (NUG) President Duwa Lashi La said the anti-coup forces have made “stunning gains.”

In a statement issued on January 31, the NUG, along with three affiliated resistance groups (the Karen National Union, Chin National Front and Karenni National Progressive Party), said they were open to negotiations with the military if it met six conditions. These include deploying the armed forces under the control of a civilian government and ending military involvement in politics. The NUG and other groups aim to establish a federal democratic union, the statement said.

There was no immediate response from the junta to the NUG statement.

Duwa Lashi La called on other governments to officially recognize the NUG. Any attempt at negotiations with the military should be treated with caution, he warned. “The military has no place in our politics,” said Duwa Lashi La. “It must be permanently subordinated to a civilian government. This is where the dictatorship ends.”Duwa Lashi La added that the army is facing growing desertions, which is a “deep humiliation for the junta.”

What is China planning?

China has always sought to maintain good relations with both the junta and the ethnic armed groups operating along the Shan state’s border. The latter date back to the period of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when most of the EAOs were part of the communist insurgency. Beijing has since continued to maintain close ties with these groups, allowing them to integrate their enclaves into China’s fast-growing economy and arm them directly and indirectly to deter Myanmar’s military from attacking these areas.

This is part of the “border management” approach that China has long taken in its relations with Myanmar to maintain stability along its border. For example, China has always been sensitive to possible flows of refugees or war entering its territory.

Although Beijing has publicly called for a halt to the fighting, the response has been limited and it appears to be largely waiting to see how events will play out.

This approach is partly based on the hope that the Three Brotherhood Alliance has pledged to help dismantle the online scam centers and illegal casinos in the Kokang zone run by criminal organizations for internet fraud and prostitution. The capital Laukkaing in particular is a hub for unregulated gambling and other illegal industries. Thousands of Chinese nationals, as well as Thai and Vietnamese, are held against their will in these crime syndicates and are forced to commit fraud, initially mainly targeting Chinese nationals.

As such illegal operations have spread across Southeast Asia in recent years, curbing these activities has become a key priority for Beijing. It has used its influence over groups like the United Wa State Army to end the scam operations in areas under their control.

But the biggest problem is in Kokang, which was controlled by a border guard post linked to the Myanmar military. Given the frustration that the Myanmar regime and the Kokang Border Guard did little to curb the illegal activities of these centers, Beijing would have been pleased to see the Border Guard under siege and scammers fleeing the area. Furthermore, given its long-standing relationship with the MNDAA’s Han Chinese and the significant influence it exerts over the group, China would benefit and can see the success of current actions.

What now?

A likely scenario at this point is that, for the first time in decades, Myanmar’s military will have to fight in multiple places simultaneously against numerous, determined and well-armed adversaries. But while this challenge will be enormous, the Tatmadaw can be expected to show some resilience.

While the NUG is of course delighted with the military successes achieved, there are others, such as the Crisis Group or Frontier Myanmar, that urge caution. After all, the opposition only has a limited time before fighting comes to a standstill in many parts of the country when the monsoon rains arrive around June.

According to them, a military collapse or capitulation of the regime is far away. The Tatmadaw is a well-trained and well-equipped fighting force, which has continuously fought various insurgencies since World War II, sometimes against even worse odds. Its endurance should not be underestimated. But the events have damaged both Min Aung Hlaing’s position and that of the Tatmadaw.

In addition, Myanmar’s economy, already weakened after decades of military-dominated rule, has been hit hard, with foreign investment drying up since the coup and Western sanctions. Power outages, frequent supply shocks of key commodities including fuel, and skyrocketing prices are hitting ordinary families, further eroding support for the junta.

It is likely that the regime will redouble its brutal efforts to maintain the upper hand on the battlefield, including scorched earth tactics and even more indiscriminate bombing and shelling. The result could be that the country finds itself in a new, even more violent equilibrium, where citizens will inevitably pay a high price.

But Frontier Myanmar remains hopeful: “This nightmare scenario can be avoided as long as the right choices are made and an open mind prevails. There is a lot to play for, but time may not be on Myanmar’s side.” [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: The Myanmar community in Bangkok gathered in front of the UN headquarters for the third anniversary of the coup. (Credit: Prachatai English).

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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