Guest Column

Public Facing an Unprecedented Threefold Tragedy: Myanmar’s Shadow Govt Must Work With Ethnic Civil Groups

By Zaw Tuseng 9 July 2021

Myanmar is facing an unprecedented threefold tragedy: deadly violence, an out-of-control COVID-19 pandemic and economic collapse. The cost of saving lives will be enormous. The cost of containing COVID will be huge. The cost of fixing the economy will be massive.

The Myanmar military is the cause of these crises, and appears to have no intention of stabilizing them or preventing them from getting worse; this provides an opportunity for the National League for Democracy (NLD), the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw and the National Unity Government (NUG) to work to realize collective leadership with ethnic leaders and civil society. Many ethnic groups have governance structures or authorities that have systems in place to address the immediate humanitarian crises. By collaborating with these ethnic leaders, they can deepen the coalition so that it can put forth a new and sustainable political settlement once the military is gone. International actors—both humanitarian organizations and development organizations—must work through these actors to fulfill their mandate and act responsibly amid the present situation. Ethnic governance bodies such as the Karen National Union’s health department, known as the KDHW, and education department, or KED, will want to continue to care for their communities—this is an expression of self-governance within a federal system. They do not want to be seen as a temporary solution; they are part of a long-term solution for Myanmar.

Unrelenting violence

More than 1,100 violent acts of organized resistance against the regime have reportedly killed about 1,200 troops. The first gun battle erupted between regime troops and a local guerrilla group in mid-June in Mandalay, a major city in the heartland. At this point, it is unclear if this clash was just the first battle in all-out urban warfare in the country, but the NUG said it planned to announce a “D-Day” on which all local resistance forces will launch a war on the junta.

The military junta has become quicker and more aggressive in its responses to such incidents, and this is likely to continue. Social media discussion has been dominated by the aftermath of the clash in Mandalay. It has become apparent that the various People’s Defense Force groups (PDFs) that have sprung up lack a central command (such as the NUG) but are trying to adjust to local conditions. While some PDFs may look forward to a day of collective armed uprising, others seem to incline toward guerrilla warfare. A few are treading a fine line between guerrilla and terrorist tactics, as assassinations of unarmed pro-junta civilian administrators and members of the military proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party have multiplied.

Last week, residents of Demoso Township recovered at least 20 bodies after returning to the area after a ceasefire was agreed between the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) and local armed groups. Some of the bodies reportedly showed signs of extrajudicial execution. At least 30 junta troops were reportedly killed during two shootouts with civilian resistance forces in Sagaing Region.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs last week released a report stating that the number of people displaced by violence and fighting in Myanmar since the Feb. 1 coup had increased to around 230,000, and stressed that they need assistance. Meanwhile, attacks targeting the junta and its supporters persist in some parts of the country, as arms and ammunition supplies seem to have found their way into the hands of urban-based PDF members.

The Myanmar public is therefore very likely to experience more violence in the months to come.

Worsening pandemic

The Myanmar regime reported 1,580 new cases (with a 19.9 percent positivity rate) and 14 deaths from COVID-19 at the end of June, but there are worrying indicators that the regime is not providing accurate data. Meanwhile, the US government’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has rated Myanmar’s COVID-19 situation at the highest level of seriousness. Because of the current rate of spread, the CDC states that even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 variants.

As doctors and nurses are leading the Civil Disobedience Movement, public access to healthcare has declined sharply since the coup. Though private and charity hospitals are able to meet some needs, suspension of immunization programs by the regime will paralyze the already poor healthcare system.

Reuters reported that the country has administered about 3 million doses of COVID vaccines.  Assuming every person needs two doses, that’s enough to have vaccinated about 2.8% of the country’s population. As the former head of Myanmar’s COVID-19 immunization program, along with some key physicians, was detained to face charges of high treason for allegedly colluding with the NUG, it is doubtful the regime will be able to contain the pandemic to the extent that the NLD government did last year.

Given the general public’s distrust and fear of the military, it is clear the military cannot lead a national vaccine program. The military has already tried to use vaccine as a bribe in exchange for obedience, but the public has refused to cooperate.

Economic downturn

Anecdotes coming out of major cities indicate that even sales in the consumer non-cyclical sector are down more than 50 percent since the coup. The kyat has lost 20 percent of its value against the US dollar.

Independent Economists for Myanmar (IEM) recently reported that a sharp decline in household purchasing power will leave 25 percent of the population under the poverty line, seriously impacting both businesses and households. According to the UN Development Program, COVID-19 and the political violence following the Feb. 1 military coup could plunge half of Myanmar’s population into poverty.

The IEM also reported that the effects of reduced food supply and diminished household incomes will result in large numbers of households being pushed well below the poverty line, leaving them unable to meet basic consumption and nutritional needs.

Although under the current situation it is not feasible for international actors to provide direct humanitarian aid through military-controlled agencies, ethnic civil society groups, which have been carrying out cross-border programs for the past 30 years, can play an important role in providing aid to people who are in urgent need. For example, ethnic health organizations have the much-needed systems, skills and community trust to implement large-scale COVID prevention programs. With the support of the international community, EHOs could provide COVID vaccines to large areas of the country

To summarize, there is no sign of either the junta or the parallel NUG standing down from their respective entrenched positions. The present impasse could continue at least until the 76th UN General Assembly begins in September, because international responses and reactions are also fueling domestic expectations in Myanmar, regardless of their feasibility.

The situation also provides an opportunity for the NLD, CRPH and NUG to work with ethnic leaders and civil society in helping the people on the ground by building trust, which will be necessary in political negotiations at the federal level.

Zaw Tuseng, a former pro-democracy activist, is founder and president of the Myanmar Policy Initiative (MPI). The MPI was recently formed to mobilize Myanmar researchers to formulate policies and institutionalize the policymaking process for Myanmar. He holds an executive master of public administration from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

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