Fighting in Myanmar between the junta’s military and an ever-savvier armed resistance has hit a “deadly stalemate,” with both sides dug in but lacking the force for a knockout blow as violence continues to spiral, analysts say.
Rights groups say soldiers and police have shot and killed more than 1,200 civilians at ongoing protests against the military’s Feb. 1 coup against the previous, democratically elected, government.
Incensed by the bloody crackdown, dozens of communities across the country have taken up arms and formed so-called people’s defense forces to push back. Reports of ambushes, assassinations and bombings targeting the new regime are on the rise.
The military is stepping up the violence too, with a major offensive against PDFs across the northwestern part of the country over the past month that has driven tens of thousands of locals out of their homes amid reports of torture and sexual assault by junta forces.
In a recent report on the post-coup violence, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said Myanmar had entered “a deadly stalemate” with “no end in sight.”
“However much the Myanmar military has been able to inflict casualties on PDFs, on civilian targets, arrests of underground groups — none of that, at least so far, seems to have done anything very much to cripple the resistance movement,” Richard Horsey, a Myanmar analyst and senior adviser to the group, told VOA.
“Rather the opposite; attacks have continued to escalate. So … I think Myanmar is in for many months, possibly years of this confrontation,” he added.
With some 350,000 troops, Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, is among the largest in the region and battle-hardened by decades of fighting against ethnic armed groups vying for territory in the country’s borderlands. Between these groups and the new PDFs, analysts say the military has been stretched as never before.
“The Tatmadaw is facing security threats from all over the country” and “using its reserve forces and … auxiliary units to deploy to those areas,” said Min Zaw Oo of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, a local think tank.
An independent report on the fighting last month by Matthew Arnold, former Myanmar country director for the nonprofit Asia Foundation, says the regime has even deployed traffic police from Yangon, the country’s commercial hub, against PDFs hundreds of miles away, and sent pro-junta paramilitary groups from outside Yangon into the city to root out urban insurgents.
Once disparate and ill-equipped PDFs have also started joining forces with one another and falling under the command of ethnic armed groups with better weapons and decades of guerrilla combat experience, the analysts say.
“That’s how these groups of PDF fighters who have come together since the coup, in some areas with very little history of fighting, with very little military experience, how they’ve been able to so quickly evolve into effective fighting forces,” said Horsey.
In Myanmar’s north, the Kachin Independence Army, one of the oldest and largest ethnic armed groups in the country, is posting its officers among some PDFs “to coordinate command and control,” said Min Zaw Oo.
In western Chin state, over a dozen PDFs have allied with the Chin National Army, another established ethnic armed group, to forge the Chinland Joint Defense Committee to coordinate their own efforts, a local PDF member, Salai Van Bawi Mang, told VOA.
“We are working closely and together in terms of military operations,” he said. “Mostly we [plan how] to fight together under one command, like one command and control system.”
He claimed that resistance forces have killed some 500 soldiers in Chin state alone since February and lost about 50 of their own members.
A spokesperson for the junta could not be reached for comment.
‘Spiral of violence’
Analysts say resistance forces are also picking up the pace of targeted killings of alleged junta informants and collaborators and of attacks on infrastructure, moving beyond mobile network towers to power cables, water lines and bridges.
In mid-September the junta itself said the PDFs and other “terrorists” had murdered 799 civilians in targeted killings since the coup, a figure the International Crisis Group says roughly matches its own count of assassinations reported by independent media.
Min Zaw Oo and his team counted another 190 reports of targeted killings in October, the most in any month yet. He said the assassins have started going after the family members of their prime targets as well, and that those fearing they may be in the PDFs’ crosshairs are also arming and hunting down suspected assassins, laying the groundwork for a dangerous new, communal “spiral of violence.”
Last month, the United Nations’ outgoing special envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, said the fighting had swelled into a full-scale civil war.
Jason Tower, Myanmar country director for the U.S. Institute of Peace, said ethnic armed groups have been waging war with the military for decades but agreed with the envoy that a broader civil war Is taking root.
“What’s new is that the population has overwhelmingly expressed that it’s not going to allow military rule,” he told VOA, adding that the junta’s mass arrests and assaults on whole towns harboring insurgents was only feeding the resistance.
“It’s pretty clear that there’s a lot more people who are joining PDFs and continuing this struggle, so I don’t see it going away,” he said.
Thantlang, a mountain-top town in Chin State, has suffered from eight fires and lost around 254 houses in two months, according to residents, who blame Myanmar’s military.
The latest fire broke out on Wednesday after junta troops shelled the town following clashes with the Chinland Defense Force (CDF) resistance group.
The regime claimed that 30 houses, a shop and church were destroyed by resistance attacks on Wednesday.
Around 36 houses in a ward burned down and then 10 more houses caught fire when another fire broke out in the same ward hours later after fighting had ceased. Three houses burned down in another ward.
A civilian resistance fighter from the CDF in Thantlang said junta soldiers were responsible for the fire that broke out after shooting ceased in the evening.
“The sounds of gunshots and shelling had stopped. I am sure it was arson. They have committed arson several times. It seems that they torch anywhere they think we have been firing from. They want to make their targets clear. They want to blame us for the fires,” said a CDF member.
Since Sept. 9, Thantlang has lost around 254 houses in eight fires, which have been blamed on junta shelling.
More than 160 houses out of around 2,000 homes in Thantlang burned down after junta artillery strikes on Oct. 29. The fires raged until the following day morning.
Junta spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun disputed the allegations as “groundless” and accused resistance groups of setting fire to the houses.
The majority of Thantlang’s population have left the town due to earlier artillery strikes. At least 70 junta troops are deployed in the town.
A house burned down during a junta artillery strike on Sept. 9 following fighting with resistance groups. Nineteen more houses burned down during shelling on Sept. 18, 164 on Oct. 29, 9 on Nov. 6, two on Nov. 9, seven on Nov. 10 and three on Nov. 11.
“The military is supposed to protect the lives and property of the people. But it is doing the opposite. It is a terrorist army being exploited by a small group,” said a Thantlang resident whose house burned down.
“The resistance fighters consider everything and try to minimize the impact on people and their property if they fight. But Min Aung Hlaing’s troops are different. When they suffer heavy casualties, they steal and destroy houses. They open fire at random without mercy. They have no regard for civilians,” added the resident.
A Chin pastor was shot dead and troops cut off his finger for his wedding ring during fighting with resistance forces in Thantlang on Sept. 18.
Chin State has been seen some of the heaviest resistance to the regime since the Feb. 1 coup. Clashes broke out between junta troops and the CDF in Thantlang on August 20.
How the military junta has curtailed attempts for democratic reform in Myanmar
Myanmar has been embroiled in decades of internal warfare in which the military junta has adopted strategies in an attempt to harness control over the civilian population. The Myanmar Generals maintained power from 1962 until 2011 and frequently deployed violent actions meant to weaken local resistance movements and to assert their dominance over ethnic populations. Even when the National League for Democracy (NLD) was elected in 2015, the military struggled to share power with the civilian government, and regularly committed human rights violations. Despite moments of international condemnation, the Myanmar junta has largely evaded accountability for their crimes.
The military-drafted 2008 Constitution has contributed to their merciless authority which regularly provided amnesty to soldiers who committed endless crimes against civilians. Many of those in power today are longstanding Commanders in the Myanmar military. Their reign, which has spanned seven decades, has prevented any meaningful pathways for transitional justice for the thousands who have been killed and injured in the Tatmadaw’s pursuit for power.
Following years of authoritarian rule under the Myanmar junta, in 2015 the NLD won in a resounding landslide against the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was victorious after years of house arrest and unyielding attacks on her party’s members. The transition to democracy under a quasi-civilian government was slow but steady. It was challenging to advance and reform meaningful legislation due to the junta’s effective veto power, with 25 percent of Myanmar’s parliament seats reserved for unelected military Members of Parliament.
New Briefer from the Network for Human Rights Documentation-Burma Condemns Ongoing Attacks Against Innocent Civilians in Myanmar
For Immediate Release
DATE: 24 November 2021
Civilians in Myanmar have unjustly been subjected to systematic human rights violations perpetrated by the military junta for decades. A new briefing paper by the Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma (ND-Burma), “Democracy Derailed in Myanmar,” details how the junta has curtailed attempts for democratic reform in Myanmar.
A failed attempt at seizing control of the country by the Myanmar military on 1 February 2021 has left the country in desperate need of humanitarian assistance alongside worsening economic and social crises. With over 3 million civilians lacking critical life-saving materials including food, water and shelter in the midst of raging internal conflict, the Myanmar Generals have effectively left the most vulnerable in oblivion. Villages under martial-law, amid sweeping restrictions on movement and access to information, has made basic survival a daily challenge.
Among ND-Burma’s findings, ongoing conflict in urban and rural areas, as well as the suppression of fundamental freedoms, including that of the press, and the mishandled COVID-19 response has led to the conclusion that the junta is on a war-path which includes the destruction and annihilation of anyone or anything that stands in their way. Using evidence collected by ND-Burma members including the Chin Human Rights Organization and the Human Rights Foundation of Monland, and desk-research, it is abundantly clear that long held impunity is emboldening the junta to commit state-wide atrocities.
Any government which uses violence to suppress basic rights and freedoms must be condemned in the harshest possible terms. It is unacceptable that civilians are fearing for their lives in the midst of a brutal, militarized civil war. Longstanding calls for their protection must be heard, and freedom of expression must not be used to derail civilian rights.
For more information:
ND-Burma is a network that consists of 13-member organisations who represent a range of ethnic nationalities, women and former political prisoners. ND-Burma member organisations have been documenting human rights abuses and fighting for justice for victims since 2004. The network consists of nine Full Members and four Affiliate Members as follows:
- All Arakan Students’ and Youths’ Congress
- Assistance Association for Political Prisoners
- Association Human Rights Defenders and Promoters
- Future Light Center
- Human Rights Foundation of Monland
- Kachin Women’s Association – Thailand
- Ta’ang Women’s Organization
- Ta’ang Students and Youth Union
- Tavoyan Women’s Union
After nearly six months in detention, detained US journalist Danny Fenster was released by the military junta through the help of negotiations between former US Diplomat, Bill Richardson under terms which remain undisclosed. Days before, on 12 November the same authorities who deported him, also sentenced Danny to 11 years in prison on violations of immigration and unlawful associations laws. The severity of the sentencing was called ‘baseless,’ ‘unjust,’ and ‘the harshest possible under the law,’ by Danny’s employer, Frontier Myanmar. His release comes after months of trials within the prison and endless calls for all journalists and political prisoners to be freed – none of whom should have ever been imprisoned to begin with.
Danny was taken away by security forces on 24 May while waiting to board a flight home when he was arrested based on false allegations that was working for Myanmar media outlet, Myanmar Now. His detainment and subsequent release highlights the injustices that the military junta has taken to suppress free speech and press freedom. Since his release, Danny has said he is committed to highlighting the plight of the dozens of remaining journalists behind bars and pledged to advocate for their freedom. They too are facing outlandish charges and face the possibility of long jail sentences.
While news of his release was overwhelmingly welcomed, it is nonetheless critical that Burmese press, human rights activists and civilians who have been unjustly imprisoned are also granted amnesties and negotiations on their behalf to ensure their freedom is granted.
The junta has taken significant steps to have a stronghold on media outlets across Myanmar as it attempts to eliminate an environment of the free press altogether. Since February, the media has been warned to not call the attempted coup as such. Journalists were arrested while documenting peaceful protests, which forced dozens into hiding. Many still remain on the wanted lists of the junta, and their families are targeted by being taken hostage. The worrying situation and declining media landscape has been compared globally as among the worst in the world.
It is with the utmost urgency that the stronghold on the press in Myanmar is relinquished and that all efforts are made to ensure the freedom of journalists unjustly behind bars. As a hallmark to any democratic society, free press is a guiding principle which the junta has outright discouraged and actively disbanded. The path the junta has taken is on a dangerous course which must be reversed, or further risk a deterioration of media values and even more dangerous space for journalists. It is therefore imperative that the country be under civilian control to restore the dignity and integrity of muted professions by the Myanmar military.
The military junta has been accused of raping two women in Chin State while raiding a village in Tedim township. A 27-year old victim was raped in front of her husband who was held at gunpoint, according to residents. She had only recently had a baby. Later that night, the woman’s pregnant sister in law was also raped. Thin Yu Mon, the director of the Chin Human Rights Organization, called the incident “disgusting and extremely inhumane.”
Offensives by the military junta and increased presence of soldiers are dangerous for civilians. Yanghee Lee of the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar stated: “Junta forces in Chin State have plundered rice stocks, destroyed farms and killed livestock in an attempt to starve the local population. Across northwest Myanmar people are in urgent need of food and medical aid.”
An escalation in fighting in Karen State has local civilians worried for their safety. According to the Karen National Union (KNU), since the beginning of November, 32 Myanmar junta soldiers were killed, and 56 wounded in clashes. The KNU has stated that the increase in fighting is due to the ongoing expanding military operations of the military junta who are taking advantage of the coming dry season to transport their supply of food and ammunition.
According to a KNU news release, five armed clashes took place on 11th November between local KNLA soldiers and Burma Army Light Infantry Battalion 406, under the Military Operations Command 8, stationed in the Ma Htaw Village tract, Dwe Lo Township, Mutraw District.
The military junta set fire to more than three dozen homes in a village in Pekon Township, southern Shan State. Officers from the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force noted that many homes were torched intentionally by the regime. Following the destruction of properties, local villagers fled once the regime set up their base in the area. In addition to homes, a church was also damaged by shelling.
A new flash report, “Access Denied,” released by Fortify Rights analyzed the atrocities being committed against innocent civilians by the junta in Kayah State, including the blocking of life-saving aid. According to accounts in the report, human rights violations have been escalating including torture, raids and scorching of villages. Aid workers had also been targeted as arbitrary arrests continued.
The victim was shot in the Mandalay Region town during a clash between the military and local resistance forces
The body of a young man who was shot dead by the military in Mogok last Thursday was taken away by his killers before his family could claim it, according to local sources.
Wai Yan Aung, 19, was hit by a sniper bullet during a clash between regime soldiers and the Padamya Myay People’s Defence Force (PDF) in Mogok’s Mintada ward, a resident of the town in Mandalay Region told Myanmar Now.
“He was just hanging out with some other kids. He heard some gunshots, and as he was running away, a sniper shot him in the chest,” said the Mogok local, who did not want to be named.
“He died on the way to the hospital and the military came to collect his body. His family didn’t even get to bury him,” the man added.
The incident occurred near the Singtaung Kyaung Pagoda Hill, in Mogok’s Mintada ward, at around 7pm on Thursday, the Padamya Myay PDF said in a statement released the next day.
The group said that it carried out a series of attacks around Mogok that night, killing an unspecified number of regime forces.
According to a member of the Padamya Myay PDF, Wai Yan Aung was killed during a clash at Mogok’s Electric Power Corporation (EPC) office.
“There were at least four casualties on the junta’s side during the attack on the EPC office in Mintada,” he added.
Also targeted were the town’s central police station, a jail in South Kachin ward, a police outpost in Kyauk Phar ward, and a military outpost in the Ngayantinn area.
“There were also a great number of casualties during the attack in Ngayantinn,” said the PDF member.
Almost all of the shops in Mogok were closed in the wake of the attacks, and security was tightened at all exits and entrances to the town, local residents told Myanmar Now.
According to the Padamya Myay PDF, a clash at the Ngayantinn outpost on November 14 left five junta soldiers dead. Another mine attack near the village of Nannwet in Mogok Township killed at least 15, the group said.
The military council has not released any statement regarding the situation in Mogok.