Myanmar’s junta rule, two years on: Suppressed civilians, crippled economy and frosty foreign relations 

Two years since the 2021 military coup in Myanmar, the junta has been ramping up its suppression on the country’s civilians to quell all opposition, based on a report by Human Rights Watch in January this year. 

On March 1, the junta issued an addendum to its controversial Anti-Terrorism Law enacted in 2014 under then-President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government. This addendum, comprising a total of 20 chapters and 120 articles published in the junta’s Myanmar Alinn newspaper and signed by junta Interior Minister Lt. Gen. Soe Htut, would empower authorities to eavesdrop on suspects, confiscate their assets and employ other repressive measures to crush dissent, observers said. 

One chapter elaborated on the seizure and control of assets belonging to terrorist groups or individuals linked to them. Another chapter detailed how authorities could assume control of a suspect’s assets as part of an investigation. 

Six articles in Chapter 14 would empower authorities to control digital information, including intercepting, tracking and limiting communications for up to 60 days on a single approval and can extend such activities “if required.” Any such information obtained could be used in investigations and even submitted as evidence in court. Suspects could also be located by the authorities according to these articles.

An additional provision would enable witnesses of the prosecution to testify via video conferencing to avoid meeting accused parties in court. 

Than Soe Naing, a political analyst, remarked that the junta will rely on the amended law to label any actions by rebels with the People’s Defense Force or other groups as terrorism.

“The junta is trying to make its crimes – such as burning down villages, confiscating civilian properties and killing their cattle for food – acceptable under their laws,” he said.

According to the U.S.-based Radio Free Asia (RFA), lawyers and political analysts said the new law was meant to eradicate public support for the country’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG), the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, or shadow parliament, as well as the People’s Defense Force (PDF) – three entities deemed by the junta as terrorist groups. 

A lawyer who testified to RFA on the condition of anonymity remarked that after the 2021 coup, the junta suspended laws banning law enforcement agencies from tracking and limiting digital communications.

“We already have laws that protect the basic human rights of citizens, but the junta announced a temporary suspension of those laws,” the lawyer said.

“Now, they have enacted a new law to eavesdrop on and intercept people’s telecommunications. This means that they no longer need to consider the rights of the people while conducting an investigation.”

These lawyers and analysts also posited that the junta has tried to use the Anti-Terrorism Law to appoint new judges to the Supreme Court, suspend existing laws, and launch various decrees and restrictions.

Moreover, the annual U.S. country reports on human rights this year decried Myanmar for using “violence to brutalize civilians and consolidate its control,” including killing nearly 3,000 people and jailing 17,000.

Furthermore, based on a March 3 report by the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Commission, authorities have killed nearly 3,000 people and arrested some 18,000 others in the two years since 2021. Armed conflict has been adversely impacting at least 255 of Myanmar’s 330 townships, the report read. 

Beheading of two teenage members of PDF

Among the rising number of brutal incidents that the UN indicated were “consistent with patterns of brutality” among junta-related forces was the tragic beheading of two teenage PDF members who were trying to plant a mine while retreating after a battle with junta forces in the northern Sagaing region. The two teenagers were captured near Nyaung Pin Kan village on February 25 and killed the following day in Myinmu township, according to a statement by a PDF leader.

“We found their bodies on the morning of the 27th,” he said. “The scene suggested that they were beheaded alive by the military soldiers.”

Religious minorities in Myanmar have not been able to escape junta repression either.  For instance, various villages in Chin and Kayah states, where many Christians live, have been the hotbed of fierce confrontations between the Burmese army and resistance movements. Besides killing civilians, junta-related forces have bombed, ransacked or razed many churches to the ground.  

Observers have asserted that Myanmar’s junta would likely be indifferent to calls to spare churches as Christianity is regarded as a foreign religion in the country. Christians consist of about 8.2 percent of the population of Myanmar. Most of these Christians are Protestants, with Roman Catholics comprising most of the rest.

Economy in tatters

To complicate matters, military rule has plunged Myanmar’s economy into a tailspin. Gasoline prices have soared by about 350 per cent since the 2021 coup. The junta even mulled importing Russian oil through Singapore to deal with rising prices. 

A 2022 report by the World Bank claimed that 40 percent of Burmese made less than US$4 a day. The value of the kyat, the country’s currency, took a nosedive, causing Myanmar’s central bank to sell around US$600 million of foreign reserves (an estimated 10 percent of its total) to raise its value. 

Amid soaring prices and falling foreign investment, aid and remittances, the junta attempted to keep some dollars by enforcing capital controls and import restrictions. Consequently, imported essentials such as cancer medicines faced a severe shortage. Regulations converting foreign-currency revenues into kyat at a confiscatory rate deterred exporters. Eventually, many decided to cease trading (or tried to keep their earnings offshore) instead of forfeiting their income to bolster the regime. 

Suffice it to say that Myanmar is no stranger to an autarkic economic landscape. After all, periods of drastic political and economic overhauls ensued after the 1962 and 1968 coups in the country. Yet the Tatmadaw, or “armed forces”, proved to be resilient in face of economic hardships, as evidenced in their harsh clampdown on protesters in 1988. 

Perhaps the junta’s apparent political and economic resilience is not that surprising, considering that most of Myanmar’s economy operates on the basis of illicit black markets. Thus, official statistics do not reflect revenues made and profits earned. 

In addition, the junta controls large chunks of the country’s economy via the Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and the Myanmar Economic Corporation, conglomerates that are involved in a range of activities such as shipping, banking, real estate, sugar factories, tobacco companies and supermarkets.

Notwithstanding international sanctions placed on junta-linked entities like Myanmar’s Department of Transport and Communications, surveillance firms FISCA Security & Communication and Naung Yoe Technologies, these companies have been evading restrictions by conducting transactions through affiliate firms, as leaked documents obtained by news agency Myanmar Now revealed. 

The online whistleblower group Distributed Denial of Secrets divulged transactions between Innwa bank, controlled by junta-owned Myanmar Economic Corporation, and three foreign banks in November 2022, including Singapore’s United Overseas Bank (UOB), the Bank for Investment and Development of Vietnam, and the multinational Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ). 

Failure of ASEAN to mitigate humanitarian crisis

Notably, Myanmar’s neighboring countries have been unable to pressure its junta to take steps to cease hostilities and improve the humanitarian situation in the country. As ASEAN chair in 2022, Cambodia failed to decisively convince Myanmar to enforce the Five-Point Consensus, an agreement between ASEAN and Myanmar to end the civil conflict in the beleaguered country. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen could neither persuade Myanmar to do away with the execution of four opposition activists nor formally liaise with the exiled opposition-led National Unity Government (NUG). 

In turn, Myanmar’s junta has blamed external actors, domestic resistance fighters and foreign countries for the farrago of violence and armed opposition in which the country is facing. 

Thein Tun Oo, the executive director of the Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies, which comprises former military officers, claimed that if the Anti-Terrorism law is followed to the letter, peace will arise in Myanmar. 

“The law has been enacted already – we just have to wait and see how much can be done according to this law,” he said. “If this law can be applied accordingly, I am sure that the violence and conflicts in Myanmar can be controlled to a certain extent.”

Since its independence from the British, Myanmar has been grappling with years of military rule, civil war, weak governance, and massive poverty. In February 2021, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and other military leaders launched a coup after the military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), suffered a huge defeat in the 2020 elections. 

The junta—officially called the State Administration Council—detained and charged de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi with corruption and other crimes. It ordered lawmakers from her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and other parties, as well as many activists, to be under house arrest.

Deposed NLD lawmakers, protest leaders, and activists from several minority groups established the NUG that aimed to rally groups opposed to the junta together as well as form an agenda for a post-junta Myanmar. The NUG also declared war on the junta and formed the PDF.

Photo credit: iStock/ Aungraph. February 6, 2021, Yangon, Myanmar. Police in front of Sule Pagoda.

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