On Feb. 1, the Myanmar military, formally known as Tatmadaw, seized power in a coup d’état. After taking control, the military rounded up democratically elected officials and replaced their positions with military leadership.
In the chaos that followed, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing filled the power vacuum and consolidated much of his power in the newly formed caretaker government. The interim body aimed to act as the ruling force in the country that only recently emerged from previous decades of military rule in 2011. This swift and violent change in power resulted in widespread backlash both domestically and from the broader international community.
The following days, chaos spread throughout the country. Millions of locals gathered in the streets of Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, to protest military rule. Furthermore, healthcare professionals, already strained by the COVID-19 pandemic, initiated a labor strike, resulting in much of the Burmese medical system going underground. The anti-military movement spread across the country in the following weeks. In 50 different towns and nearly 110 hospital administrations, displays of civil disobedience were carried out as local populations resisted military rule. The protests were met with a violent response from the Tatmadaw.
Over one year after the coup, tensions between local populations and the military government remain strained. Continuous bouts of gunfire between military personnel and rebel groups still rage across the country. On April 10, the Myanmar military launched a new series of airstrikes against rebel forces close to the Thai border.
As it stands, the Burmese military force has nearly 300,000 to 350,000 soldiers at its disposal, compared to the nearly 50,000 in the People’s Defense Force (PDF). The PDF is the armed wing of the National Unity Government, NUG, which is composed of the ousted democratically-elected leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi, who led the democratic government until the 2020 coup. In September, the National Unity Government encouraged the people of Myanmar to fight against the “people’s defensive war” and to take back the country. Since then, anti-military groups have stepped up the resistance, leading to more violence.
Despite the ongoing violence, the Tatmadawhas have started laying out plans for shifting the country to a “true and disciplined democracy,” under the condition that Myanmar is no longer in a state of emergency. This message from the military government hints at an issue seemingly more pressing than that of the violent warfare between the government soldiers and members of the PDF; amid the fight for control of the country, Myanmar is witnessing a growing humanitarian crisis.
Relief World estimates that nearly 14.4 million people in Myanmar are living in extreme poverty., further exacerbated by a mass exodus of nearly 405,000 people from the country. In addition to destabilizing society, the alarming crisis in Myanmar has contributed to the ability to consolidate power within the central military government.
These latest numbers come amid the ongoing Rohingya crisis that has plagued Myanmar since 2015, when the government began a campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing against the Muslim Rohingya in the Northwest of the country. As Myanmar has descended into open fighting since the military coup, the plight of the Rohingya has taken a backseat but continues to represent a pressing humanitarian concern. With new issues arising from continued fighting in the country, the whole of Myanmar could soon be experiencing widespread poverty and displacement.
As it stands today, the Burmese military leadership seems to have a powerful grip on Myanmar. Without a major change in the status quo, such as an internationally enforced no-fly zone as has been suggested, the country does not seem poised to see a real power change or a return to democratic governance.
Despite this, rebel activities and campaigns should not be discounted. Across Myanmar, citizens have banded together to endure the violent crackdown by military leadership. In spite of their numerical inferiority, PDF forces continue to launch a fierce resistance to military control.
The future of Myanmar may be unclear, but the resilience of the local population should not be underestimated.