In February 2021, Myanmar’s army ended its decade-long, grudging tolerance of limited democracy by launching a coup, detaining Aung San Suu Kyi and other elected civilian politicians. Since then, its ruthlessness has only increased. The number of political prisoners has soared to more than 13,000. The junta has resumed executions for the first time in decades. The UN human rights chief, Volker Türk, said last Friday that the regime was using the death penalty to crush political opposition, expressing shock that 130 people have been sentenced to death by military courts behind closed doors. Many of the 1,700 people who have stood trial have been denied access to lawyers or relatives. Not one has been acquitted.
The pandemic, war in Ukraine and uprisings elsewhere have meant that the world has largely stopped paying attention to events in Myanmar, where the military is literally pursuing a scorched earth policy. It has razed villages that it accuses of supporting the opposition and has bombed hospitals, schools and even a concert. An estimated 1.3 million people are displaced and living in horrific conditions. It continues to add to the raft of convictions and prison terms for Aung San Suu Kyi. Rights groups report extrajudicial killings by soldiers and militias.
The assumption at first was that the military, long expert in suppressing stirrings of dissent and democracy, would soon reassert control. Even when some protesters took up arms – and the pro-democracy national unity government backed a “defensive war” – it seemed a hopeless endeavour, given their lack of money, equipment and training. Yet the resistance has been not only remarkably protracted but – under the circumstances – surprisingly effective. Civilian militias, working alongside some of the ethnic armed groups that were already battling the state, are carrying out attacks on military bases and in previously untouchable central areas. Soldiers are said to be quitting or defecting. The junta has also relied on Russia for much of its weaponry – though it can still count on China, India and others.
Each fresh abuse by the regime gives opponents reason to fight on – no one believes it will compromise. Elections are promised next year, but the power seizure resulted from the military’s repeated failure to win at the ballot box, and opponents are all locked up. The regime made a vague attempt at PR by releasing 6,000 or more prisoners last month, including a former British ambassador, Vicky Bowman. But some were detained again on the same day, and the total number of those held soon rebounded. The junta remains grotesquely self-serving, with its chief, Min Aung Hlaing, spending a reported $33m on honours to keep its friends on side – in the process awarding himself two titles, one of which comes with an elaborate gold and ruby medal.
Sanctions should remain carefully targeted at those in the regime and their families. Though supporters of the democracy movement praise the UK for taking the lead internationally, they believe much more must be done. They make a strong case for cutting off the supply of aviation fuel – used by the military even when it has supposedly been destined for civil flights. The junta’s increasing brutality, however, is a sign of fear as well as further evidence of its viciousness. Some of those struggling for democracy now speak not of a coup, but an attempted coup; thanks to the resistance, they say, it has not yet succeeded. They need more support to ensure that it does not.