On 1 February 2021, the Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) led by Commander-in-Chief, Min Aung Hlaing, staged a military coup that overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government. Ms Suu Kyi and other leaders of the National League for Democracy were arrested, including President Win Myint, who had won a majority of seats in Parliament on 8 November 2020 with an even greater consensus than the legislative elections of 2015.
After a few days, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across Myanmar in peaceful protests and a wave of strikes spread to major sectors causing detriment to the nation’s economy. By the end of June 2021, the death toll had reached an estimated nine hundred casualties while hundreds of people were wounded, and more than five thousand political prisoners were taken.
In May 2021, the junta government, known as the State Administrative Council, deployed its security forces to face the People’s Defence Force (PDF), with less demonstrations but more actions targeted at individuals. Meanwhile, the so-called ‘ethnic armies’, largely refused to obey the junta leading to the beginning of the fighting between the two most prominent groups, Karen and Kachin.
The European Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom imposed sanctions in March, while the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) attempted to mediate but failed. The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for an arms embargo in June, but the UN Security Council did not go beyond a mild condemnation.
The strongest supporters of the junta were Russia, but also China, India, and Vietnam, who watered down or delayed positions taken by the UN Security Council . On April 16, following the military coup, the National Unity Government (NUG) was formed by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a body of expelled parliamentarians, which included the deposed President Win Miynt, Aung San Suu Kyi, political groups of regional autonomies, some elected members of the Parliament, and the civil society without any ethnic or religious discrimination. A federal army was also created.
2022: the new year begins in blood
The new year opened in controversy due to the two-day trip made on January 7 by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (who has the presidency of ASEAN in 2022). The trip, conceived as a form of individual diplomacy by the Cambodian dictator, had no effect and Hun Sen was unable to meet Suu Kyi as the official ASEAN envoy had already done before and therefore had given up going to Myanmar. The visit was greeted with demonstrations in many cities and posts on the facebook page of Hun Sen, accused of having broken the ASEAN front against the junta that, since the end of 2021, had been excluded from ASEAN summits where only non-military can participate.
On January 10, 2022, the Naypyidaw Judiciary sentenced State Councillor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to another 4 years imprisonment in three cases opened against her ( two years imprisonment for the illegal importation of walkie-talkies, one year for possession of these devices and two years for a charge involving the violation of Covid-19 standards.
What is being fought for
The historian Thant Myint U defines Myanmar as ‘the eye of Buddha’ in his essay Where China Meets India. “Draw a circle around Mandalay, in the centre of Burma, with a radius of only a little more than 700 miles: it encompasses the Indian states of West Bengal and Bihar, the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, Tibet, and most of Laos and Thailand. That circle is populated by about 600 million people”.
Myanmar’s strategic position, therefore, makes it an important card of Asian dominoes: it is a key outlet to the Indian Ocean for China, where they can land energy and commodities essential to their economic development; it is a battleground with Beijing for the West countries; and it represents a zone of connection between Indonesia and Bangladesh for the Gulf countries. Myanmar is a perfect scenario for these parties to fuel the internal conflicts, bending them to become a battleground for external interests – but the situation is now complicated by another military coup that disorients external powers.
Both the army and the warlords manage regional ‘ethnic’ armies, providing them unofficial funding in addition to illicit financing they receive from drug trafficking. These armies were formed when Burma gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1948. In that period, Aung San’s dream of unity failed and the country faced dozens of outbreaks of autonomist or separatist guerrilla groups. With some success, the democratic government has tried to commit to a peace process that would lead to building a federation union and would draft a new constitution that could recognize the rights of over 130 nationalities. However, the recent military coup has jeopardised this path.
Myanmar, formerly Burma, faces the Andaman Sea in the Bay of Bengal. It is part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It has a long history of military dictatorships following the short-lived democratic experiment of Aung San, the hero of Myanmar independence from the United Kingdom in 1948. Authoritarian regimes began in 1962. In 2010 the Burmese military government implemented a series of gradual political reforms that led to the release of prominent political opponents, such as Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy.
The early partially free parliamentary elections were held in 2012, but the consultation of 2015 represented the real turning point: the National League for Democracy party won with President Win Myint and State Counsellor Suu Kyi. The League repeated its success at the 2020 elections, with a stronger majority, but the military took over in February 2021 after claims of election fraud. International observers have failed to explain the decision of Tatmadaw, which could still count on the vice-presidency, three key ministers (Interior, Defence, Borders), and the power to dissolve the legislature and a quarter of seats in Parliament. The military also controlled the entire Burmese economy through conglomerates and related companies.
The political climate in Myanmar has always been complex; but it is not only politics that is complicated. To understand the former Burma, it must be considered the practice of Theravada Buddhism, which is also dominant in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, as well as Mahayana Buddhism, which came to be practiced in Tibet, Mongolia, China, Japan, and Vietnam. The main difference between them lies in the method of following the Dharma (a term that indicates both the Buddha’s teachings and putting them into practice in your life) and achieving Nirvana (the absolute peace). The Mahayana embraces the principle of universal compassion of Bodhisattva, who renounced Nirvana to help humanity on its pilgrimage. While Theravada emphasizes personal pursuit of salvation, so particular importance is given to monastic life, whereas lay Buddhists earn merits by making donations and offerings. This explains what a Christian missionary in Myanmar said once: “Having a monk means having the people’s conscience”.
Dragons, Orcs, Devas, Hindu Buddhist angels are all key characters of the Burmese cosmogony. According to legend, it was the alliance between their kings, about six hundred years before the Common Era, to allow the fulfilment of the prophecy that foretold the advent of the kingdom of Pyu, located on the banks of Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, that flows from North to South through the centre of the country and connects it (to the North-West) to Brahmaputra and Ganges River basins. In the same period, other kingdoms and populations boasted divine origins and tied to Buddha, such as the Arakanese, who believe that Buddha arrived in the region 2,600 years ago.
Of the seven ethnic states, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Arakan and Shan are in a condition of cyclical conflict with the government: they have their own armed groups that are more like armies than revolutionary militias. Ethnic tensions, therefore, have characterized the history of Myanmar since 1947, when General Aung San persuaded the ethnic groups to join in a multi-ethnic conference at Panglong. A few months later, Aung San was killed and the agreement frustrated and opposed by subsequent military governments that dominated the country since 1962 and constituted the real ethnic Bamar (the largest ethnic community).
Aung San Suu Kyi repeated the peace process in May 2018 taking a small step toward reconciliation; but it rendered useless, because new fronts were formed and her dream of democracy failed. The tortuous path towards an ethnic balance is the mirror of Myanmar’s roadmap to democracy undertaken in 2010, with the first ‘semi-civilian’ government and the liberation of Suu Kyi. It seemed to have undergone a decisive acceleration in 2015 with Suu Kyi’s victory in the November 2020 national elections, but it ended after the military coup of 2021.
Key figure or organisation: Min Aung Hlaing
The black soul of Tatmadaw, Min Aung Hlaing (1956), is a five-star senior general and leader of the Myanmar State Administrative Council since 2 February 2021, the military junta that deposed the civilian government and its representatives in charge and those elected in November 2020. Commander-in-chief of the Burmese Armed Forces, member of the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC) and joint chief of staff of the Ministry of Defence, Min Aung succeeded his patron, Than Shwe, who marked a ‘breakthrough’ in 2010. Min Aung Hlaing is not only a powerful military chief: he is also the most important shareholder of MEHL, one of the two major conglomerates run de facto by Tatmadaw. Precisely for this reason, he was hit by sanctions that blocked his family’s assets held abroad. He also bears personal responsibility for what happened to the Rohingya population, whose mass exodus to Bangladesh in 2017 was due to a systematic persecution by Tatmadaw.
The People’s Defence Force (PDF)
The People’s Defence Force (PDF) is the armed wing of the Burmese National Unity Government (NUG) that has been able to carry out armed attacks against Tatmadaw. The PDF was formed on 5 May 2021, a few days after the formalization of the Shadow Government in April. On 8 May, the military junta listed the NUG as a terrorist group.
The People’s Defence Force is divided into five territorial divisions (North, South, Middle, East and West) with at least three brigades each. A brigade consists of five battalions, which are further subdivided into four companies. The PDF has been responsible for incendiary attacks on military targets or individuals nearly directly affiliated with Tatmadaw, as well as for targeted killings of military officers or members of the junta. They are the example of a peaceful protest severely repressed in blood.
Monks’ key role
In Myanmar, Monks play a key role, particularly those who identify as Burmese Sangha. Some prominent Buddhist monks lead a government body, known as the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (abbreviated Mahana or SSMNC). Custodians of traditions, Buddhist monks have often taken part in protests. Members of Tatmadaw follow the school of Burmese Buddhism, which does not refer properly to the Buddhism widespread in the country; instead, it is inspired by Ari Buddhism, linked to animist cults, to the worshipping of Nat, spirits of popular tradition, and is probably pre-Buddhist in origin.