What’s going on in Myanmar

History of Myanmar / Burma

Myanmar is a Southeast Asian country and has an estimated total population of approximately 53.55 million inhabitants. (Statista 2021) It has been a British colony until 1948. In 1962 the first military coup happened and 1995 the leader of the democratic movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, was taken under arrest until 2010. Even though the military did not rule for the whole time, until today, Myanmar has been under its dictatorship for most of the time since the colonizers left.
Nevertheless the democracy movement achieved an opening of Myanmar in 2010. A civil parliament was installed, and Aung San Suu Kyi became the „de facto head of state”. This was due to a law enacted by the Junta, according to which people whose children have a foreign citizenship cannot be the official head of state. Aung San Suu Kyi has a son with a British citizenship, so she could not become the president. But when she was put under arrest again in February 2021, she had been the de facto leader of the country for the past five years. Even though Win Myint was the official president.
Regardless of the fact that there was a civil parliament after 2011, the military still reserved 25 percent of the seats for itself. But the market started to open up, for example in the telecommunications sector, and the governmental control decreased. In 2012 media censorship was abolished. (Jørgensen 2019)
The country is divided in rural and urban areas. Since the British colonizers founded „Burma“ before they left the region, ethnic groups – which had been independent before – now belonged to Burma and became a minority in the country. The strong tensions between the Burmese and „Non-Burmese“ ethnic minorities also did not decrease after the reforms starting in 2011. There have always been armed conflicts between the Burmese majority and ethnic minorities who mostly live on the borders of Myanmar. (ibid.) The best-known ethnic group might be the Rohingya: Many of them fled to Bangladesh in the past years and now live in big refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar.

Current situation

Over 3,400 dead, uncounted injured and nearly 22,000 arrested, charged or sentenced – that are the statistics after more than two years of military dictatorship in Myanmar. (AAPP 2023)
Following allegations of electoral fraud in the lost elections in November 2020, the military launched a coup on February 1st, 2021. In the process, the army under military commander Min Aung Hlaing secured control over all branches of the government, arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of the civil parliament and declared a state of emergency.
A few days after the coup, thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the military. In the following days, protests spread throughout the whole country. Work stoppages quickly occurred among railroad, health, education, mining and textile workers, public servants, truck drivers, and many others. These initiatives continued to spread, leading to a nationwide general strike in March and the founding of several initiatives like the „Civil Disobedience Movement“. (The Guardian 2021)
The workers wanted to make the dictatorship impossible. (Ratcliffe 2021) Since a general strike did not help to make the Junta give up, a broad alliance of unions in Myanmar started a call for “comprehensive economic sanctions” – they hope to bleed the Junta dry with their demand for sanctions. (IndustriALL 2021) Especially big corporations in the oil and gas industry are requested to stop their investments in- and businesses with Myanmar. (Justice for Myanmar 2021)
During the first weeks, big demonstrations had still been possible. The first protestor was shot by the military only three weeks after the coup happened. Later, killings happened more frequently. So, big demonstrations are not possible anymore, but the protest got more creative: People bang on pots and pans or other things that make noise and they organize smaller, quicker flash mobs. (The Guardian 2021)
But if they get the chance, soldiers with vans drive into those flash mobs, they shoot random people in the streets or burn down whole villages.
Also on the other side, violence becomes an increasingly common tool: More and more people go underground. Activists hide and some even join armed groups like the „People Defense Forces“. (ibid.) (The Straits Times 2021)
The armed groups of the different ethnic minorities now are interacting more than ever: While every group fought on its own so far, they now start to network among each other, also with the „People Defense Forces“.
The situation in Myanmar develops towards a civil war: Sexual violence is used by the army as a weapon and a tool for intimidation. To intimidate the movement, even children get killed in front of their parents eyes. The Junta cuts the internet from time to time, mostly in regions where the protests are especially strong. Since most people do not have a landline, mobile internet is shut down sometimes for weeks. (Lau 2021) (Funakoshi/Januta 2021)
In an article for Al Jazeera, the author describes the situation as follows: „In response to the increase in armed resistance, the Tatmadaw has launched indiscriminate air and ground strikes on civilian areas, displacing 230,000 people since the coup. Security forces have also looted and burned homes, blocked aid access and the transport of relief items, restricted water supplies, cut telecommunications networks, shelled places of refuge, and killed and arrested volunteers seeking to deliver humanitarian assistance.“ (Fishbein 2021)
Journalists and critics of the regime are imprisoned, like the example of the US-journalist Danny Fenster shows. He was imprisoned for more than six months, one of the main allegations were „encouraging dissent against the military“. He had been sentenced to 11 years of jail before he was released surprisingly. But there are many more journalists and political opponents still in jail with no chance of getting out because they are not the citizens of another country and hence of interest in the foreign relations. (BBC 2021)

  • References
  • AAPP (2023): Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Assistance              Association for Political Prisoners. https://aappb.org, 08.05.2023
  • BBC (2021): Danny Fenster: US journalist freed from Myanmar jail. In: BBC            News.
  • Fishbein, Emily (2021): Myanmar military adopts ‘four cuts’ to stamp out coup    opponents. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/7/5/the-people-hate-them-more-indiscriminate-attacks-on-civilians, 31.01.2022
  • Funakoshi, Minami/Januta, Andrea (2021): Myanmar’s internet suppression. Reuters. https://graphics.reuters.com/MYANMAR-POLITICS/INTERNET-RESTRICTION/rlgpdbreepo/, 02.08.2021
  • IndustriALL (2021): IndustriALL supports campaign for comprehensive economic sanctions against Myanmar junta. IndustriALL. http://www.industriall-union.org/industriall-supports-campaign-for-comprehensive-economic-sanctions-against-myanmar-junta, 07.12.2021
  • Jørgensen, Karen H. (2019): The Meaning of Internet Access in Myanmar
  • Justice for Myanmar (2021): How oil and gas majors bankroll the Myanmar military regime | Justice For Myanmar. https://www.justiceformyanmar.org/stories/how-oil-and-gas-majors-bankroll-the-myanmar-military-regime, 07.12.2021
  • Lau, Jessie (2021): Myanmar’s Women Are on the Front Lines Against the Junta. Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/03/12/myanmar-women-protest-junta-patriarchy-feminism/, 15.11.2021
  • Ratcliffe, Rebecca (2021): Myanmar protesters hold general strike as crowds push for “five twos revolution.” In: The Guardian.
  • Statista (2021): Myanmar – total population 2016-2026. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/525781/total-population-of-myanmar/, 16.08.2021
  • The Guardian (2021): The nights of pots and pans are back, on Myanmar’s fearful streets. In: The Guardian.
  • The Straits Times (2021): Hundreds of Myanmar activists hold flash mob protest against military rule. In: The Straits Times.