Three years after coup, Myanmar crisis in ‘freefall’

Rebel gains suggest conflict may be at a turning point.
By RFA Burmese
2024.02.01
Three years after coup, Myanmar crisis in ‘freefall’ Coffins are lined up at a mass funeral for victims of a military strike on a camp for displaced people near the northern Myanmar town of Laiza on Oct. 10, 2023.
AFP

Myanmar’s coup and ensuing civil war – now entering its fourth year – have torn apart Phyo Phyo Aung’s family.

Her husband Lin Htet Naing – a longtime activist also known as Ko James – is in Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison, where inmates are routinely tortured. He was sentenced to eight years for protesting against the military junta’s takeover on Feb. 1, 2021.

Some 16 months ago, 36-year-old Ko James’ mother was killed in a bomb blast while waiting to visit him at the prison – an attack that an anti-junta group claimed responsibility for.

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Detained Myanmar student leaders Phyo Phyo Aung, left and her husband Lin Htet Naing are seen at the courthouse following their trial in Yangon on April 4, 2016. (Romeo Gacad/AFP)

Since then, Phyo Phyo Aung, 35, and her two young sons have fled Myanmar, where they get little news about Ko James’ fate – and yet she hasn’t given up hope that the junta will collapse.

“We will never accept the military coup. We will never accept military rule,” she told RFA from an undisclosed location.

As Myanmar’s bloody conflict drags into its fourth year, the fighting has taken an enormous toll on civilians like Phyo Phyo Aung’s family – including children. 

More than 2.6 million people have been displaced, the United Nations says, and at least 4,423 civilians have been killed since the coup – nearly doubling the 2,826 deaths during the first two years, according to Thailand’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).

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People rest at a temporary shelter for displaced people in Mong Yang in Myanmar's northern Shan state on Nov. 15, 2023. (AFP)

Some 459 of the dead were minors, up from 265 at the end of February last year, the group said, and 159 of them were under the age of 10.

Earlier this week, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk warned that Myanmar’s human rights crisis is now in “freefall,” noting that the abuses had “deteriorated even further” in recent months as the military has grown desperate amid a series of battlefield defeats.

Turning point?

Those rebel advances have put the military on its heels and suggest that the conflict may be at a turning point. 

Since the end of October, the Three Brotherhood Alliance – a coalition of three ethnic armies in Shan and Rakhine states – has made rapid advances in the western and northern parts of the country, seizing control of more than 200 military camps, capturing 15 cities and prompting the surrender of about 4,000 junta troops, including a number of officers.

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Members of the Mandalay People’s Defense Forces head to the frontline amid clashes with Myanmar's military in northern Shan state, Dec. 10, 2023. (AFP)

In November, junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing said the rebel offensive could “break the country into pieces.”

The success of “Operation 1027,” named for its Oct. 27 start date, is presenting “an existential threat” to the military, said Jason Tower, the Burma country director at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace.

The defeats and large-scale surrenders of hundreds of troops at a time have led the military to “lose any legitimacy that it might have ever had within the ranks of its own people,” Tower said.

The junta has responded with devastating raids on villages that include the use of airstrikes and heavy artillery. The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, said that more than 554 civilians have been killed since October alone.

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Myanmar forces fire a missile from a base in Lashio township, northern Shan State, Oct. 28, 2023. (AFP)

The military also continued to use arson in raids on villages and towns during its third year in power. Junta troops have torched nearly 79,000 houses across the country, according to Data for Myanmar, an independent research firm that tracks the impact of conflict on civilians.

“Pitched battles between the military and armed opposition groups have resulted in mass displacement and civilian casualties,” the U.N.’s Turk said in a statement ahead of the third anniversary of the takeover. “As the military have suffered setback after setback on the battlefield, they have lashed out, launching waves of indiscriminate aerial bombardments and artillery strikes.”

No criticism allowed

As in the case of Phyo Phyo Aung and her family, the junta has also stepped up its response to any criticism of its rule.

Since the 2021 coup, junta authorities have arrested nearly 26,000 people on political grounds – of whom almost 20,000 remain in detention, where they face torture and few legal protections. In several cases where activists have evaded arrest, the military has detained relatives to use as leverage.

The OHCHR says at least 1,576 people have died in military custody over the past three years.

The military regime failed to hold elections in 2023 as planned as its control of the country slipped. Opponents had dismissed the planned election as a sham because it appeared likely to exclude parties ousted from power by the coup.

A fifth extension of emergency rule announced Wednesday would postpone the election. Myanmar’s Constitution mandates that elections must be held within six months after a state of emergency is lifted.

In the meantime, experts say, junta mismanagement has decimated the economy, the value of the kyat has plummeted, and foreign investors have fled the country. 

In April, the junta announced that it had increased military spending to 5.6 trillion kyats (US$2.7 billion), or more than one-quarter of the 20 trillion kyats (US$9.5 billion) allocated to the overall budget, for the 2023-2024 fiscal year, up from 3.7 trillion kyats (US$1.7 billion) a year earlier.

By comparison, 2 trillion kyats were allocated for education (US$953 million) and just over 800 billion kyats (US$381 million) for health, while around 680 billion kyats (US$324 million) were earmarked for electricity, despite Myanmar’s power grid suffering regular power cuts and calls by the junta for the public to save energy and fuel.

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Amid fuel shortages, motorists queue for fuel at a gas station on the Yangon-Mandalay Highway near Pyu township on Dec. 6, 2023. (AFP)

Turk, the U.N. rights czar, urged member states to consider imposing further targeted sanctions on the military to “constrain their ability to commit serious violations and disregard international law,” by limiting access to weapons, jet fuel, and foreign currency.

To that end, on Wednesday the U.S. Treasury announced sanctions against four individuals and two entities it said are linked to the military regime, to add to its growing list, while the Australian government imposed additional sanctions on two banks it said enabled the junta’s activities and three firms that supply it with jet fuel.

Fighting for democracy

For Phyo Phyo Aung, three years of military rule is three years too long. She told RFA that a return to civilian government can’t come soon enough and vowed to keep fighting until the junta is removed from power.

She and Ko James have been activists going back to their youth and have been jailed several times and are accustomed to living in hiding. They met in 2005 as teenagers and later became members of the prominent All Burma Federation of Student Unions.

After joining the 2007 monk-led Saffron Revolution for democracy, the then-junta issued warrants for their arrests and they were forced to go into hiding. The following year, Cyclone Nargis devastated the country and they were jailed while taking part in student-led relief efforts. In 2015, they were again jailed for their role in protests of the National Education Law approved by Thein Sein’s quasi-military government. 

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Student leaders Phyo Phyo Aung, left, and husband Lin Htet Naing are seen before their Jan. 11, 2015 wedding in this photo provided by her parents. She is in hiding with their two children and her husband remains in prison. (Family of Phyo Phyo Aung/AFP)

After the 2021 coup, they were involved in anti-junta protests. Living in hiding in Yangon,  authorities arrested Ko James and one of their two young sons on June 18, 2022. Authorities tried to use the child as bait to get Phyo Phyo Aung to turn herself in, but she refused – and the child was released about a day later, to her great relief.

Now in hiding in a safe, undisclosed location with her two boys, Phyo Phyo Aung says she needs to keep a low profile for their safety. “We cannot live our lives conspicuously.”

She worries about her husband, but is deeply proud: “He is a defender of democracy no matter which government is in power.”

Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.

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