When the army overthrew Myanmar’s elected government on Feb. 1, 2021, it looked like a walkover that could entrench the military in power indefinitely. Three years later, a poorly armed grassroots resistance movement has shaken the military’s grip in a modern-day David vs. Goliath conflict.
Overshadowed by the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, Myanmar’s civil war is no longer on the front pages, even as violence perpetrated under the military government has risen. Air strikes on villages have increased and civilian casualties have grown, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, and Myanmar Witness, a project headquartered in Britain.
The war has engendered a humanitarian crisis, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar said in an interview.
“Thousands and thousands have been killed, 2.3 million people have been displaced. 18.6 million in Myanmar are in need right now of humanitarian aid,” Tom Andrews said. “Half the country has fallen into poverty. The education system doesn’t exist for millions of children. The health care system is in shambles.”
Inside Myanmar, opponents of military rule called for a “silent strike” on Thursday’s anniversary, with people showing their solidarity by staying inside their homes or workplaces. The same tactic was employed on the two previous anniversaries.
Eight nations, including the United States, and the European Union issued a statement calling for the military government, led by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, to halt violence against civilians, release all political prisoners including ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and allow access for humanitarian groups and dialogue among all stakeholders.
The U.S. also imposed new sanctions against two companies and four individuals that it accused of providing revenue for the military. Opposition activists strongly support such sanctions, especially ones that restrict the supply of aviation fuel that enables the military government’s air strikes.
The 2021 military takeover was met by widespread nonviolent protests and civil disobedience. But the confrontations escalated into violence after security forces used deadly force against the protesters.
The many groups that make up the resistance share a determined opposition to military rule but are generally self-organized and act autonomously. An opposition National Unity Government was established by elected lawmakers who were barred from taking their seats by the 2021 army takeover. It claims to be Myanmar’s legitimate government and has tried to establish a local presence nationwide, gaining the loyalty of many people.
Groups belonging to its loosely organized armed wing, the Peoples Defense Force, rarely operate outside their home communities.
The opposition to military rule depends more on allies among armed ethnic minority organizations that have long fought the central government for greater local autonomy. They have provided weapons, training and safe haven for pro-democracy fighters and sometimes carry out joint operations.
Last October, a surprise offensive by an armed ethnic alliance captured towns and overran military bases and garrisons along the Chinese border. The operation by the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Arakan Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, who dubbed themselves the Three Brotherhood Alliance, was such a stunning success that it inspired resistance forces in other parts of the country to launch their own attacks.
The battlefield advancements have buoyed the fortunes of the resistance forces and represent a turning point, though victory for the opposition is still not in sight, experts say.
“We’re certainly looking at a moment of historic Myanmar military weakness, and many of its foes are recognizing that and deciding, therefore, that now is the right time to go on the offensive. And that’s why we’ve seen such an uptick in clashes and military operations by resistance forces across Myanmar in the last three months,” Richard Horsey, an adviser on Myanmar to the Crisis Group, said in an interview.
Moe Thuzar, a senior fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, agrees.
“The writing on the wall is just getting larger for the regime,” she said in an email interview. “The military has not managed to completely quell armed (or other) resistance against it in many parts of the country.”
“The harsh measures it takes to assert its messages of control, whether towards the communities that the regime views as supporting the resistance movement or to its own members (officers and rank-and-file on the ground), have not done it any favors,” she said.
The NUG said in a December review of military activity that the struggle has reached a critical tipping point, with the resistance transitioning “from strategic defense to strategic offensive.”
Andrews, the U.N. rapporteur, said the military’s losses could result in more suffering for civilians.
“They’ve lost thousands of soldiers, including to surrender and defections, hundreds of military outposts,” he said. “They’ve lost commanding generals. They control less than half of the country. So their losses are significant, and the losses continue. The problem is that they’re responding to these losses by attacking innocent people, civilians, villages with sophisticated military weapons.”
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which has tabulated arrests and deaths since the coup, at least 4,474 people have been killed by the security forces. Its figures do not generally include deaths of combatants and civilians in the remote rural areas that are the main combat zones, and where the number of casualties is believed to be much higher.
Horsey said it’s impossible to predict what may happen, even three months from now.
“I think what we can say with some degree of certainty is that the civilian population, the local people, will continue to pay a heavy price” for the army’s seizure of power, he said. “The economy is doing very badly, jobs and employment are doing very badly. There is enormous displacement, huge humanitarian needs in the country. They’re only going to increase.”
“The defeat of the junta or the Myanmar military is not inevitable at this point,” he said. “Their backs are to the wall. They know the only way out of this for them is to keep on fighting, and they will do so with great determination because of the costs of failure.”
Associated Press journalist Jerry Harmer contributed to this report.
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