“This is Burma. It will be quite unlike any land you know about.” — Rudyard Kipling.
More than a century after they were written, the British poet’s words hold true.
This year, far from celebrating, many Myanmar citizens saw in the new year defiantly—even reluctantly. Few were in a festive mood. Why? They hate the regime and they know that 2022 will bring fresh turmoil. It is not a happy new year.
Those who did gather on New Year’s Eve marked the occasion with shouts of, “Our revolution must prevail!” in defiance of the junta, and cursed coup leader Min Aung Hlaing.
It has been 11 months since the military coup, but Myanmar people continue to show unwavering opposition to the regime that overthrew the country’s elected civilian government.
It is safe to say that the Myanmar military’s attempted coup is not yet a fait accompli. The regime, known officially as the State Administration Council (SAC), has so far failed to consolidate its grip on the country. Opposition to the coup—including armed resistance—remains fierce and is only likely to strengthen in 2022, leaving the outlook for the coming year bleak.
The regime has turned Myanmar into a killing field and continues to murder and detain activists and other civilians across the country, with tens of thousands displaced from their homes by the junta’s campaign of terror in the countryside.
Images of smoldering corpses, some with their limbs tied, have shocked the world but there has been little action to match the expressions of concern.
The junta continues to act like an occupying force, much like the British and Japanese forces during the colonial period, who with total impunity implemented a scorched-earth policy in which anything that might be of use to the enemy was destroyed. Last year, the Myanmar people experienced these same horrors at the hands of their own military; they resisted and they are not giving up now.
Having realized that their early hope of international intervention was misplaced, Myanmar’s people have decided it is time to take up arms to oppose the brutal regime. Loosely coordinated People Defense’s Force (PDF) groups have sprouted up across the country; many have taken up training in ethnic insurgent-controlled territories. It is expected that in 2022 Myanmar will see more clashes in Sagaing Region and Kayah, Chin and Karen states.
The PDF forces and the people as a whole know that they are fighting a powerful army, so why do they keep fighting? Because if the coup leader has his way, Myanmar will remain a slave to the military forever.
In the cities, Myanmar people are boycotting products and services linked to military-owned businesses, including the once hugely popular state lottery, and many are refusing to pay taxes, donating the money to armed resistance groups instead. The Myanmar diaspora, from migrant populations in neighboring countries to wealthier residents of countries further afield, have showered the resistance forces with donations. Wealthy families have sold properties and companies—even their prized collections of vintage automobiles and motorcycles—and headed into the jungle to set up their own armies to fight the regime. The determination of the Myanmar people is truly remarkable.
The regime has few friends abroad and is recognized by only a handful of countries. During Myanmar’s Independence Day celebration on Jan. 4, the junta’s mouthpiece newspapers printed felicitation messages from Russia, Belarus, Serbia, North Korea and Cambodia. The first three of those are key sources of weapons for the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw). Most countries in the region and around the world have denied the regime the legitimacy it craves. Even ASEAN, which has historically upheld a policy of noninterference in members’ affairs, has refused Min Aung Hlaing a seat at its table, though questions have arisen over the regional group’s solidarity on the issue now that Cambodia has assumed its rotating chair.
Over the past few months, officials from China, India, Thailand and Cambodia have all made visits or diplomatic overtures. These governments would do well to keep in mind the consequences of endorsing or appearing to favor the regime. Myanmar saw a wave of anti-China protests soon after the coup, including attacks on China-funded factories.
If the PDF groups and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) can develop a more coordinated plan and a more effective military strategy to sustain the fight, the regime will likely suffer more casualties and see more defections. And if opposition forces can offer incentives including security, resettlement and insurance, it is expected that even mid-ranking officers will defect. Infantry forces are already heavily reliant on air support and heavy artillery. The “liberated area” in Sagaing Region and Chin and Kayah states is set to expand. If the armed resistance can be sustained throughout this year, we could expect to see internal rifts appear within the junta. So far, however, neither side has victory in its grasp.
The country’s economy—already badly damaged by COVID—has been in freefall since the coup and experts predict more illegal trade and zero growth in 2022. Still, the regime is hoping Myanmar’s small economy can return to a recovery track with some assistance from China and other regime-friendly countries in Asia. But other than China, no one is going to invest in Myanmar in the near future.
It has become clear that the regime leaders will struggle to hold the country together. Their families are now kept in secure locations and don’t dare go out in public. The regime has no public support and the army is at war with the nation.
The military has dominated the diverse and complex country since independence in 1948. Its self-serving 2008 constitution gives it vast institutional powers, maintained with the help of proxy political parties including the Union Solidarity and Development Party, and through constitutional provisions. The coup was the latest attempt by the military to reassert control over those aspects of society it deems essential to preserving its own interests, and its perception of state interests. In reality, this institution has been nothing but a source of division, destruction and disunity in the country.
Holding the military accountable is a must, despite all the huffing and puffing by defenders of the junta, who contend that the military is the only institution capable of holding the country together. This argument has now been definitively exposed as a falsehood.
The UN, the superpowers China and the US, and other Western powers must all give up once and for all the notion that the Tatmadaw is the only institution that can deliver stability and unity, which will only embolden Min Aung Hlaing and his group. For many Myanmar citizens, the question long ago ceased to be about how the current military can be reformed, and became one of finding a way for Myanmar to be rid of it so that it can return to being a genuine and inclusive democracy.
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