Violence, poverty haunt Myanmar one year after the junta takeover

One year after Myanmar’s military toppled the country’s elected government over unproven voting fraud claims, the nation of 54 million people is wracked by conflict and facing economic collapse.

The State Administration Council, as the military junta calls itself, faces international isolation over the Feb. 1 putsch and its brutal crackdown on peaceful opposition to the ouster of popular leader Aung San Suu Kyi. At home, mass defiance among ordinary citizens has ranged from banging pots and pans from kitchen windows, to street protests, to business boycotts and work stoppages that have crippled public services.

The civil disobedience campaigns were met with military force and widespread arrests by the junta, with nearly 1,500 civilians killed, including dozens by torture, and 9,000 in custody. Junta courts have condemned more than 100 people to death in the Yangon region alone since the coup, none of whom were given the right to defend themselves.

The crackdown has driven many citizens to take up arms in local militias that are part of a network of Peoples Defense Forces under the aegis of the National Unity Government, a parallel administration formed by ousted lawmakers and officials. Some civilian militias have received training from ethnic armies that have decades of experience fighting the military. Militia fighters across the country claim to have killed hundreds of regime troops in clashes since the coup, while hundreds of bombs have hit mostly regime targets in Yangon and other big cities.

Armed conflict across large swathes of Myanmar has added some 320,000 people to the country’s half-million strong population of internally displaced persons from previous civil wars, while repression and fighting since the coup have lifted the lid on long-simmering ethnic conflicts, sending thousands of refugees into neighboring Thailand and India.

The tide of refugees is driven by the junta military’s repeated use of air power in local conflicts and by its practice of torching villages it accuses of supporting anti-regime fighters–even burning civilians alive. Conflict monitors say that 1,963 houses in 90 villages across the country have been destroyed in arson attacks since the coup, and satellite images and citizen journalist photos show large sections of burned out settlements in conflict zones.

An economy already struggling under COVID-19 was knocked into freefall by the coup, with millions of people losing their jobs. Prices of essential foods have surged and power supply and other public services have deteriorated, plunging more and more people into poverty and food insecurity.

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Top photo: Myo Min Soe
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