March 29, 2021


MYANMAR: Risks increase as junta seems set on breaking protest movement

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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( 4 mins)
  • Security forces have intensified their use of force, possibly to break the back of the protest movement.
  • However, there are no signs the standoff will end soon, and a successful crackdown by the junta will result in more isolation.
  • The degradation in the country’s Covid-19 response generates risks.

Media reported that more than 100 people were killed on Saturday in the worst weekend of violence since the 1 February coup. Nonetheless, protests are still being reported across the country, alternating with so-called silent strikes that leave streets and commercial areas empty. Barricades are constantly set up by protesters in various parts of Yangon and then dismantled by police. Many workers and managers in both state and private enterprises are not reporting for work or doing so only in the most essential sectors.

Meanwhile, the available reports paint a picture of increasing violence by security forces, including directly targeting protesters with live ammunition, arrest and detention of local leaders and random destruction of property — all of which indicate a broad campaign to suppress dissent. As the economic and political cost of the coup increases for the junta, so does its incentive to use more violence to end the dissent.

The number of those killed and detained nationwide are certainly higher given the regular mobile and fixed internet outages and media suppression. In addition, fighter jets bombed areas near the Thai border controlled by the Karen National Union, an armed ethnic group. Bangkok may see more refugees attempting to cross the border, not only from the ethnic areas, but also those who may be fleeing the government as pro-democracy activists.

There are no signs that this stand-off will end soon, however, even with the increased repression. The EU and the US are ramping up sanctions, but these are unlikely to have an immediate effect on the government and the military. Indonesia and Malaysia continue to lobby for an ASEAN summit to discuss Myanmar, and may be getting some support from Singapore, but the proposal has not gained traction with the other countries in the group.

But aside from the question of how to get to some — or any — process for dialogue between the junta and the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, the more intractable issue is whether there is room for compromise. The coup and the escalating violence make it likely that there will be pressure for the military leadership to suffer consequences that are more than a slap on the wrist if ever the National League of Democracy were to agree to any return to political normalcy and participate in elections. As we had written, the coup and the violence have undone the goodwill of the military and public resentment across Myanmar is high, which has in turn led to the now-intense polarization with large segments of the citizenry that is manifesting in continued protests.

A compromised Covid-19 response

The general turmoil has affected a wide range of public and private services, from banking and rail transportation to the country’s Covid-19 response, with soldiers attempting to take over some public utilities. Prior to the coup, Myanmar was running about 30,000 Covid-19 tests per day and starting the administration of Covishield, the AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured and donated by the Serum Institute of India. The country has an estimated 3.5mn doses, but it is unclear now how many have been administered. Testing is also down to a few thousand a day. Given the unrest and breakdown in public services, especially with healthcare workers among those joining the protests, it is likely that only minimal progress has been made in the vaccination program. Second jabs have not been administered, according to reports. In addition, among those who have joined the civil disobedience movement is Dr. Htar Htar Lin, who was in charge of the country’s vaccination program. She has been charged with corruption and gone into hiding.

Although there are no reports of visible increases in cases or highly-stressed hospitals due to serious Covid-19 infections, the risk of a more serious outbreak will be among the key concerns as the political crisis continues — especially since families fleeing arrest or government raids are seeking shelter at monasteries. This could also become a humanitarian challenge for Bangkok if the violence continues and refugee flows at the Myanmar-Thai border increase.

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