Days after the military in Myanmar seized power last February 1, millions took to the streets to protest against the takeover, leaving their jobs in what has become an enduring nationwide civil disobedience movement and resistance to the junta’s bloody violence.
A year later, the Southeast Asian country is mired in conflict, the economy is undermined, war has engulfed all regions, and state institutions are in a state of collapse. Peaceful demonstrators were shot, suspects were tortured, thousands of civilians were killed.
The initial daily protests, loud and colorful, gave way to an eerie silence.
To mark the anniversary of the coup, protest leaders called for a “silent strike” on Tuesday, urging people to stay at home, close their shops and stop outdoor activities for six hours. The junta distributed leaflets warning that the participants would be charged with terrorism, incitement and violating the law on electronic communications. Dozens have already been arrested.
“The regime has generated such hatred that it has failed to consolidate control. Hundreds of armed rebel militias sprang up across the country, and a shadow government of national unity, led in part by ousted elected officials, was formed to help lead the opposition to the junta.
“From the early days of the coup, when the protests were concentrated in the cities, the conflict has spread to the rest of the country,” said Khoo Ri Du, a spokesman for the Karenni Defense Forces, one of the many armed groups fighting against the military. “The shape of the conflict will be more intense in the coming year because what the Myanmar military has done is unforgivable.”
As part of the coup, the military arrested more than 100 elected officials, including the country’s top civilian leader, 76-year-old Do Aung San Suu Kyi. She faces up to 173 years in prison on 17 charges that her supporters say are trumped up. She has been convicted on five counts so far.
But Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the army’s chief and leader of the coup, appears to have underestimated the public contempt for him and his generals, who responded with brutal reprisals.
Junta forces have killed at least 1,500 civilians who fell victim to peaceful protests or raids on homes and businesses, according to the UN Human Rights Office. According to the Office of Human Rights, almost a fifth of the deaths – at least 290 – occurred while the victims were in custody, and often as a result of torture.
Thousands more civilians died in remote areas during military raids on towns and villages, sometimes with heavy weapons, artillery and airstrikes. More than 8,800 opponents of the regime were imprisoned.
“The Myanmar military used extreme force and carried out airstrikes in many areas,” said Padoh So Hla Htun, a spokesman for the Karen National Union, another ethnic group seeking autonomy. “They are targeting civilians. Now they are at war with the whole country and are trying to rule the people with fear. The military turned Myanmar into a failed state in a year.”
In a statement Monday, President Biden denounced the regime’s “untold violence against civilians, including children” and its denial of humanitarian access to millions of people in need of life-saving assistance.
Addressing the people of Myanmar, Mr. Biden said: “We have not forgotten your struggle. And we will continue to support your valiant determination to establish democracy and the rule of law in your country.”
For decades, the military has fought numerous ethnic groups in Myanmar, but has never been able to gain full control over areas in the northern periphery of the country. Fighting has now spread throughout the country, with newly formed anti-government militias fighting alongside armed ethnic groups in some areas.
In recent months, the junta has lost control of even more territory, including in the states of Chin and Rakhine, the Sagain region and the Magwe division. In a recording leaked to local media, the Magway region’s security minister told junta officials last week that the army had lost control of half a dozen districts in the region. He blamed popular support for the rebels and their effective use of guerrilla tactics.
“As you all know, the government should be able to impose its power on the people,” said the official, Colonel Zhuo Zhuo Ling.
Yanghee Lee, a former UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, called the overthrow of the civilian government by the military a failed coup because the regime failed to consolidate power. According to her, a “nationwide democratic revolution” is now taking place in the country.
“Min Aung Hlaing tried to seize power in Myanmar on February 1 last year,” she said. “A year later, he was not successful. Why did he fail? Because the people of Myanmar resisted.”
Understanding the coup in Myanmar
More than 400,000 people have been displaced from their homes as a result of military attacks on civilian targets in rural areas. Save the Children International Relief Group says at least 150,000 children are among the displaced, and many of them live in makeshift jungle shelters where they are vulnerable to starvation and disease.
Weeks after the coup, pro-democracy protesters turned to the international community for help. Many carried signs reading “R2P” or “Responsibility to Protect”, referring to a 2005 United Nations doctrine affirming the responsibility of nations to protect populations from egregious crimes.
But they soon became disillusioned.
The UN Security Council, which includes Myanmar’s allies Russia and China, has taken no steps to intervene. And the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member, has been ineffective in stopping the violence.
Human rights groups have called on the international community to stop arms supplies to the military, cut off the flow of funds to the regime and end the junta’s impunity by bringing the generals to justice at the International Criminal Court.
In January, oil giants Chevron and Total bowed to pressure and announced plans to withdraw from a natural gas field off the coast of Myanmar, the regime’s main source of cash. But U.S. sanctions on military leaders have not proven to be a significant deterrent.
On Monday, Britain, Canada and the United States imposed new sanctions on senior judicial officials and others helping to supply arms to the junta, including Wu Jonathan Zhuo Taung, a descendant of a prominent business family.
“How many more Myanmar soldiers have to be detained, tortured and shot,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, “before powerful governments cut off the flow of money and weapons to the junta?”