The tragic and painful death of nearly 100 persons in air attacks carried out by the military junta in Sagaing region of Myanmar on April 10 is another grim and cruel reminder that violence and distress of people have become the most defining features of this deeply troubled country.
According to a statement by the UN Human Rights Chief Volker Turk on 27 January 2023, “By nearly every feasible measurement and in every area of human rights,–economic, social and cultural, as much as civil and political—Myanmar has profoundly regressed.” There has been persistent disregard for rules of international law, he said, and civilians have been actual targets of attacks—“ victims of targeted and indiscriminate artillery barrages, air strikes, extrajudicial executions, the use of torture and burning of whole villages.” Nearly 34,000 civilian structures have been burnt during the two years following the military coup ousting the elected representatives. Almost half of the population is living below the poverty line. Other UN estimates have revealed that nearly 17.2 million people, or about one-third of the population, are in need of humanitarian assistance.
This need not have happened and was clearly avoidable, but for the unforgivingly extremely aggressive stand taken by the military junta in the early days of 2021 which resulted in election winners being jailed and the military junta assuming control of the affairs of a country which had already experienced more than its share of military interventions in civilian affairs. Worse, the prevailing discontent and dissention of various ethnic groups ensured that once the military takes over and possibilities of democratic solutions are reduced, the violence would be many-sided and very difficult to control. There is no bigger tragedy for a country than for its people to kill each other in civil strife, a tragedy compounded by the fact that there have been several reported cases of shelling, air strikes and houses or settlements being set on fire by the military. Reports indicate that over 3000 civilians and political activists may have been killed while around 17,000 are in prison. Nearly 400,000 people (apart from nearly a million Rohingyas) are externally displaced while around 1.2 million are likely to be internally displaced.
Left to themselves the military authorities now show no intention of calling for democratic elections. As they continue to use very strong words against those elected by people in the latest democratic elections, their intentions of handing over power to genuine representatives of people remain highly suspect. They did not at all respect democratic verdict of elections the last time, instead jailing the leaders of the National League for Democracy who had been elected with clear support of people. The most prominent political leader having the most support of people, Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as some other political leaders and elected representatives of people, have been implicated in all sorts of allegations, making their return to political power very difficult and unlikely unless they agree to compromise with the military or its front-persons.
This overthrow of democratic rule and processes took place in times of a pandemic, a time when all sections of people including the government, political parties and people are supposed to cooperate for protecting the health of people. On the contrary it has been alleged that even those who are supposed to provide medical services are not being spared if they are seen to be opposed to the rulers.
A serious humanitarian crisis has emerged. A humanitarian crisis is generally seen in terms of people being denied essential needs like food, medicine and basic health services to an abnormal extent and for longer period in conditions of internal or external conflict and/or other disaster situations. This is already happening particularly in more remote areas, in minority dominated areas and those areas which were identified even earlier as rebel zones, or in those areas which have seen a major confrontation and crackdown.
Meanwhile the military junta gets significant support from China, thereby strengthening its position. While western countries are more sympathetic to the resistance and democracy in Myanmar, the humanitarian help offered by them is very limited as they are preoccupied with Ukraine for their own reasons—the resources raised by some of the richest countries together for Myanmar may be just or about 1 or 2% of what they have raised for Ukraine.
Myanmar in normal times has been generally seen as a food exporting country which is often assumed to be a food surplus country. Agriculture as a basic livelihood provides a strong base for self-reliance in food. In particular Myanmar has been able to export considerable quantities of its main food rice in the past. In addition it has considerable supplies of oil and gas, and can also earn from exports of gems, rubies, jade etc.
However in the new crisis situation some of these strengths may diminish rapidly. Some of the troubled regions may witness a reduction of area planted. An early resolution of the political crisis is unlikely to emerge in the present situation on its own. Many –sided ethnic discontent has existed from much earlier times and this too may escalate in the new disturbed situation. Overall economy and trade are likely to decline, all the more so if there are strong sanctions, including lack of access to assets held abroad ( for example in the USA). The capacity to finance essential imports may suffer, in turn leading to breaking down of domestic production chains and shortages caused directly or indirectly. All this can also lead to loss of livelihoods and income to people, in turn increasing discontent further.
Also the fact that there are food exports does not necessarily mean that there are no local food shortages and hunger in adversely affected regions. Such areas may increase now. Capacity as well as political will to rush food to certain places (for example where rebels are strong) may also decline. Under the compulsion of earning more foreign exchange (for example to fund imports of arms and ammunition in conflict situations), the ruling regime may increase food export even when there is compelling domestic need for more food.
Moreover the junta will be under pressure to maintain essential supplies to armed forces and police as well its domestic allies and elites. Inevitably there will be corruption also and excessive demands by the powerful. Hence in a situation of overall shortages, these inequalities will lead to even more denial to ordinary people and even more so to areas identified for their opposition to ruling regime.
Illegal earnings from drugs may be tapped more often, with its many adverse impacts of more crime and violence.
Shortage of food, medicines and access to normal health care is generally like to become more common, combined with violence and conflict, disruption of transport in some areas, breakdown of normal governance , discrimination against some areas or sections of people ( identified as opponents, rebels or potential secessionists).
All these possibilities can accentuate in the months to come in Myanmar amidst conditions of increasing overall poverty and economic hardships of people, related both to pandemic and civil strife. There are estimates that over 80 per cent of people have suffered loss of income since the advent of pandemic and poverty levels have doubled, from around a quarter of the population to a half. Hence over 27 million of the around 54 million population of the country may be already living in poverty.
There were over a million refugees from Myanmar in other countries even before the recent coup, mostly the deeply suffering Rohingyas and some other ethnic minorities, apart from a significant number of internally displaced persons. The numbers in both categories have increased rapidly in recent months. The international community has increasingly limited capacity to respond to such situations effectively, as seen in recent times. Another problem is that of taking relief supplies those in most need of them. A lot of restrictions are imposed by the junta on relief organizations.
However there is urgent need for international action to restore democracy and to help the people in the middle of a serious humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. Apart from governments, people’s movements and organizations also have an important role. Peace and justice movements can play an important role to pressurize important national governments and international organizations to take timely actions to prevent escalation of humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.
Even resistance groups in Myanmar should rethink their strategies keeping in view the need to avoid a deeper and wider humanitarian crisis. For example rural communities can take steps to improve self-reliance of farming and food-processing so that food-security can be maintained over vast areas even in difficult times of conflict. Any ethnic or religious differences among people should be resolved to establish broad-based unity of people so that they stand united to face the bigger challenges before them.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had earlier come up peace plan which at one stage had raised some hope, but this has failed to check the worsening conditions. Some other peace initiative is now urgently awaited.
Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children, A Day in 2071 and Planet in Peril.