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Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, seized power on February 1, 2021. Since then, thousands of civilians and soldiers have been killed and many more arrested, including civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The military’s role in Myanmar

Myanmar’s military first seized power in a coup in 1962. A transition to democracy began in 2008 under a new constitution drafted by the military, and nationwide parliamentary elections were held in 2015.

The 2008 constitution still granted wide powers to the military, and it maintained its influence by controlling significant parts of the economy.

The 2021 military take over

The progress of democratisation was abruptly halted when the Tatmadaw seized power in the February 2021 coup, only three months after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party achieved a landslide victory in parliamentary elections. The military claimed there was widespread fraud in the election to justify the coup, claims not backed up by international observers. Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader, along with other senior members of the NLD were detained, and the internet and social media was shut down.

The military authorities claimed as part of a “five-point roadmap” published shortly after the coup that they planned to hold new elections by mid-2023.

Protest movement grows

Protests against the military takeover started within days of the coup, building to mass protests, as part of a wider peaceful civil disobedience movement that included strikes and blocking of roads.

In April 2021, ousted NLD members of parliament, protest leaders, and activists from several minority groups established a parallel government known as the National Unity Government (NUG).

A spokesman for the NUG said at the time its objective was to end violence, restore democracy and build a “federal democratic union”. They also said the NUG intended to form a federal army and were in talks with minority ethnic forces. In a July 2021 report, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee called for the UK Government to support to the NUG, and treat it as a “government-in waiting” (pdf).

Armed resistance

The opposition to the military regime has now morphed from protests into organised armed resistance.

In the months following the mass protests, which were largely ended by a crackdown by security forces, civilians, mostly young adults, started to take up weapons, joining local militia groups.

Many of these young people are from the Bamar ethnic majority from the central plains and cities. This is the first time in Myanmar’s recent history that the armed forces have faced violent opposition from young Bamars.

The Tatmadaw has been engaged in military operations against armed ethnic groups for decades in Myanmar’s border states, home to most of its minority ethnic populations. These include operations in Rakhine state, home to most of the Rohingya Muslims, nearly 900,000 of whom have fled to Bangladesh.

The civilian-led government initiated a peace process in 2011 that resulted in many armed groups signing ceasefires. Most groups suspended negotiations after the 2021 coup and now many have resumed attacks on Tatmadaw forces, which has escalated military operations in return.

National Unity Government declares war

In September 2021, the NUG declared war on the military junta and formed an armed division known as the People’s Defence Force (PDF), though when it was first formed it was mostly an umbrella organisation for the various militias.

The NUG and armed ethnic groups have a shared enemy in the Tatmadaw. However, the International Crisis Group (ICG) has said a united front comprising all of Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups joining the NUG against the military regime is “not a realistic prospect, given their diversity and the historical rivalries among them”. But, according to the ICG at least four groups have emerged as important partners of the parallel government, and another half-dozen or so have engaged with the NUG to some degree.

Such was the rise in violence, with over 2,000 people reportedly killed in December 2021 alone, that some observers, including UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said the conflict should be labelled a civil war that would “echo the Syria situation” if something wasn’t done. Though observers have highlighted the dynamics in Myanmar are very different to those in Syria.

Civil war

By 2022 as the conflict escalated most observers agreed that Myanmar was now in a civil war.

According to an analysis conducted in November 2022 by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), they estimated there are roughly 65,000 total PDF troops, and “approximately 20 percent of PDF troops are equipped with military-grade weapons and another 40 percent have homemade weapons”.

The USIP observed that the range of armed groups fighting the Tatmadaw military junta, including the PDF and Local Defence Forces (LDFs) and People’s Defense Teams (PDTs), which are more autonomous and smaller armed groups, are starting to become more military effective forces: “Eighteen months since the coup, the PDFs, LDFs and PDTs are undergoing a transformation from fractious, decentralized and localized resistance forces to a more organized and better equipped military force”.

The USIP assesses that the “junta is losing control of a wide swath of territory, particularly in rural areas. Moreover, resistance forces are making progress toward overcoming their weaknesses in command and control and weapons”.

An analysis by the Stimson Center in January 2023 however, stated that “resistance forces remain divided by ethnic and political differences”, and that “despite some on-the-ground success in military cooperation, alliance politics in the resistance movement remain fluid and unstable”.

Recent attacks by military cause large civilian casualties

On 7 April 2023 it was reported that around 10,000 Burmese people had fled to neighbouring Thailand to escape intense fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). The KNLA is one of the ethnic armed groups that has been fighting the military for decades, but since the coup has been coordinating some operations with the People’s Defence Forces.

On 11 April 2023, it was reported that over 100 people appeared to have been killed in an airstrike by the Myanmar military “one of the deadliest so far in the civil war”. According to a BBC analysis of data from the conflict-monitoring group Acled (Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project), “there were at least 600 air attacks by the military between February 2021 and January 2023”. The news organisation also reported that “the junta has been increasingly relying on its Russian and Chinese aircraft to bomb opposition-controlled villages, inflicting much higher casualties among non-combatants”.

Aung San Suu Kyi convicted

Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been in detention since the February coup, was convicted in December 2021 of inciting dissent and breaking Covid rules.

U Win Myint, President at the time of the coup, and U Myo Aung, the mayor of the capital Naypyidaw, were convicted of similar charges alongside her.

In January 2022, Suu Kyi was sentenced to another four years in jail for the illegal possession and import of walkie-talkies and breaking Covid-19 rules. These trials were widely condemned, Michelle Bachelet described the December 2021 hearing as a “sham trial”.

In December 2022, Suu Kyi was sentenced to an additional seven years in prison after being found guilty of the final five charges of a total of 19 she has faced since February 2020. These latest convictions take her overall jail time to 33 years.

Widespread arrests of civilians and activists

Thousands of civilians were also arrested in the months after the coup, as well as civil society figures such as trade union leaders, political activists, and journalists. The monitoring group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), state that as of 12 April 2023, since the coup a total of 21,348 people were arrested and among them 17,460 are currently under detention, 5,586 of whom are serving sentences. The AAPP state that numbers may be higher, as these figures only include cases they have been able to verify. The group has also recorded that there are currently 109 post-coup death row prisoners.

The AAPP state that “a total of 3,240 people, including pro-democracy activists and other civilians, have been killed through military crackdowns against the pro-democracy movement”.

High-profile cases of arrests include that of Australian Sean Turnell, an academic and former adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, who in September 2022 was jailed for three years after having been found by a military court of breaching the Official Secrets Act, charges he denied.

Earlier that month, former UK ambassador Vicky Bowman and her Burmese husband Htein Lin were sentenced to one year in prison on immigration charges. Bowman is the head of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, which advises companies on human rights issues in the country. She was the UK ambassador to Myanmar from 2002-2006. Her husband is a former political prisoner and prominent artist.

On 10 April 2023, the military authorities said they had arrested 15 teachers for reportedly teaching at an online school operated by the National Unity Government. In July 2022 at least 30 teachers were arrested for the same reason after a data leak that reportedly identified students enrolled at a private online school aligned with the NUG and those teaching them.

NLD dissolved

On 28 March 2023, the NLD was dissolved after it failed to register the party under a new election law imposed by the military leadership by the required deadline of that day. Tun Myint, the secretary of the NLD Yangon region executive committee, said they would not register with election authorities as such bodies had been established by the “illegitimate military council”.

39 other parties are reported to have been disbanded for failing to register under the new process also.

The law imposed higher hurdles for parties wishing to take part in elections, including requirements for national parties to “fulfil various criteria, including recruiting 100,000 members within 90 days of registration – far more than the previous requirement of 1,000 members.” Parties must also “open offices in at least half of all 330 townships within 180 days, contest at least half of all constituencies and hold funds of 100m kyat (£40,000)”.

The law is part of the process of preparing for new elections which the military government said they planned to hold by August 2023. However, on 2 February 2023, the junta announced a six-month extension of to its state of emergency, meaning they cannot be held during this period. The Guardian also reported that at the same time of the state of emergency announcement the military junta chief, Min Aung Hlaing, “acknowledged that more than a third of townships were not under full military control”.

Aung Kyi Nyunt, a former NLD parliamentarian, said in an interview in April 2023, that the movement behind his party “remains strong”, and asked what they will do next now they have been dissolved, answered “we will continue to do our job”.

Human rights situation

In its overview of human rights in Myanmar in 2022, Human Rights Watch gave this assessment:

Since staging a coup on February 1, 2021, the Myanmar military has carried out a brutal nationwide crackdown on millions of people opposed to its rule. The junta security forces have carried out mass killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, sexual violence, and other abuses that amount to crimes against humanity. Freedom of speech and assembly face severe restrictions.

In March 2023 Human Rights Watch called upon Bangladesh to halt plans to return Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar “where lives and liberty may be at grave risk”.

On 12 April, Human Rights Watch reported that Thailand had forcibly returned three opposition activists to Myanmar “putting them at grave risk of persecution and other abuses”.

In April, in response to the air attacks on civilians described above, Amnesty International stated that “The relentless air attacks across Myanmar highlight the urgent need to suspend the import of aviation fuel”. The UK Government announced sanctions on companies supplying the Myanmar Air Force with aviation fuel in January 2023.

Prospects for the future

The International Crisis Group warned in March 2023 that if the military junta went ahead with elections it “will trigger escalated violence” saying that “the regime is using the polls as a pretext for intensifying its counter-insurgency operations” and “it will likely respond to any boycott with repression”. The ICG also stated that “ethnic armed organisations and resistance groups have threatened to disrupt the polls, with some already killing voter list enumerators”.

The group proposed the following actions for international actors and the NUG:

Western and regional actors that have tools or channels for influencing Naypyitaw should press it not to impose elections by force. They should send a concerted message that polls are illegitimate and withhold electoral support. The parallel National Unity Government should unambiguously oppose resistance attacks on electoral targets.

The Brookings Institution also stated that the planned elections would add to uncertainty in the country and that “the civil war inside Myanmar is likely to only escalate in 2023” and that “there is no end in sight”.

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