Is Myanmar heading into civil war — or already there?
Nikkei – Nikkei staff writers – February 5, 2022 09:29 JST
NEW YORK — Welcome to Nikkei Asia’s podcast: Asia Stream.
Every week, Asia Stream tracks and analyzes the Indo-Pacific with a mix of interviews and reporting by our correspondents from across the globe.
New episodes are recorded weekly and available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all other major platforms, and on our YouTube channel.
This week, one year after the military declared an emergency and assumed control there, we report on the escalating political, military and humanitarian crises in Myanmar.
In this episode, we report on the latest developments within Myanmar, as well as the regional and international diplomacy underway. We talk to Nikkei Asia’s editor-at-large, Gwen Robinson, and contributor Thin Lei Win, both of whom have recently reported from the ground.
Asia Stream is hosted by Wajahat S. Khan, our digital editor and executive producer, and produced by Monica Hunter-Hart and Jack Stone Truitt.
Related to this episode:
U.S., U.K. and Canada slap new sanctions on Myanmar, 1 year on, by Jack Stone Truitt
Yangon calm masks Myanmar’s pain 1 year after military takeover, by Gwen Robinson
How Myanmar’s post-coup violence is transforming a generation, by Thin Lei Win
Cambodian PM’s embrace of Myanmar military rulers splits ASEAN, by Toru Takahashi
Japan’s Myanmar expats remit restaurant profits to defy military, by Yuji Kuronuma
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WAJAHAT S. KHAN, HOST:
Hello, and welcome to Asia Stream — where we track, report, and analyze the issues and interests of the world’s largest region. I am Waj Khan.
Today’s episode: “The Struggle for Myanmar.”
A year ago, Myanmar’s military — the Tatmadaw — arrested the country’s elected leadership and declared an emergency. Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy activist-turned-Nobel Peace Prize laureate-turned-elected premier, was imprisoned. The next day, the protests began. As they picked up momentum, the military — which has ruled Myanmar directly or indirectly for decades — cracked down. The tear-gassing turned into rubber bullets, and those were upgraded to live ammunition, used against those who dared to march for democracy. By last summer, the protests became violent, as many took up arms. As for the military, well, it doubled down, and even started using airstrikes to crush those who challenged it. Today, more than 600 resistance groups are operating in the country. Thousands have been killed on both sides. Hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee their homes. The U.N. says, 1 in every 4 people needs humanitarian aid.
THIN LEI WIN: The country has been dragged back two decades.
GWEN ROBINSON: I think the people out there are just absolutely determined to fight to the end.
Will Myanmar return to democracy?
Will the military regime back down?
Will the international community step in?
Will a new generation of leaders emerge?
And, is this civil war?
That, and more, are coming up …
But before we start, a quick reminder that Nikkei Asia is currently offering an exclusive discount for our podcast listeners: just type in the code ASIASTREAM, all caps, no spaces, at checkout, when you visit us at asia.nikkei.com.
You’re listening to the sound of Asia, streaming in your ear.
From Nikkei Asia, this is Asia Stream.
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(Sound of “silent strike” in Yangon)
Those sounds of silence were captured by a Nikkei Asia reporter earlier this week on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, as millions protested against a year of military rule with a “silent strike.”
(Sound of workout video)
A year ago, on the 1st of February, a workout video that went viral caught on tape the military moving in to seize power and arrest the country’s elected leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, also known as “Daw Suu.”
By the 2nd of February, the first sounds of resistance had emerged, as people across the country clanged their pots and pans to protest.
(Sound of pots and pans protests)
A year later, the people of Myanmar seem determined to fight on to restore the democratic government they elected in 2020.
Some of them are engaged in civil disobedience and mass protests.
(Sound of mass protests)
Some of them have picked up arms.
(Sound of gunfire exchanged between troops and civilians)
Some of them have left, taking refuge next door.
AL-JAZEERA: Those wounded in the crossfire have come across to Thailand for treatment, as have thousands of refugees, a number that’s growing every day.
KHAN: The human cost of what is effectively a civil war has been staggering.
12,000 — civilians, soldiers, and combatants — killed.
Countless thousands detained.
At least 400,000 displaced.
But the escalation of violence, which now includes bombings by the resistance and air strikes by the military, clearly indicates that one year after the generals took over, many in Myanmar refuse to return to the military rule they lived under for half a century.
However, the response of the international community has been mixed.
The U.S. has condemned the military and its brutality, and along with the U.K. and Canada, has announced fresh sanctions against its leadership, just this week.
BIDEN: Today, I’ve approved a new executive order enabling us to immediately sanction the military leaders who directed the coup, their business interests, as well as close family members.
KHAN: Meanwhile, Myanmar’s allies China and Russia have thwarted any attempt to sanction the regime, and have, in fact, continued to provide diplomatic and military support.
As a shadow government in exile has emerged, regional actors have been divided about how to deal with the regime.
Earlier this week, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said it bluntly: Myanmar’s military is engaged in war crimes …
TOM ANDREWS, UNITED NATIONS: The military is committing crimes against humanity and war crimes against the people of Myanmar. And the world must recognize that behind the growing statistics, real people are suffering.
KHAN: So, let’s dive in and learn more from someone who was just there on the ground. Here with us and recently back from her reporting trip to Myanmar is Gwen Robinson! Gwen was chief editor of Nikkei Asia back when we were known as the Nikkei Asian Review. Now she’s our editor-at-large. She’s also a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, where she specializes in Myanmar and the larger Southeast Asian region. Before her work with Nikkei, she spent many years covering Asia for our affiliate, the Financial Times. Gwen, welcome to Asia Stream.
GWEN ROBINSON, EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Thanks very much.
KHAN: Alright, so, Gwen, you wrote a brilliant piece for Asia Insight, which is one of our main sections this week. And at the beginning, you say, that “As life in Yangon settles into a surreal ‘new normal’ … there is a curiously calm feeling … downtown … that at first glance belies the fear and violence gripping much of Myanmar.” That is an alarming perspective. Gwen, tell us more about that.
ROBINSON: Well, I think what I was really trying to convey in that first paragraph was really more the feeling of disconnect the kind of bizarre calm, or semblance of normality, that’s in Yangon, the former capital, which is now the commercial hub of Myanmar, where, you know, the shopping malls are full of people by the day, and in the evening, there’s bars and restaurants, including hip new dating spots, and things like that. So it all looks, you know, surreally kind of normal, except that below the surface, there’s a lot of fear, tension and a slightly sinister air. And that was meant to contrast with what is actually, you know, outright terror, military brutality and despair in a lot of rural areas around Myanmar.
KHAN: Right, now, Gwen, for those of us who aren’t familiar or, rather, as familiar with Myanmar as you are: I understand that this is definitely not the first military regime in that country. But how would you assess it? How are things different this time around versus your experience and understanding of military governments before this one?
ROBINSON: Right. Well, you know, Myanmar is no stranger to military rule and also very harsh, secretive regimes. This time, I think, though, it’s unprecedented what we’re seeing, which is a convergence of all kinds of opposition. So what I tried to highlight in my visit to one of the border regions in Myanmar’s east, bordering Thailand, was the convergence of forces, where you have ethnic groups, indigenous ethnic people, who have long been fighting the military, teaming up with a lot of activists who have fled to the jungles and taken up arms to actually fight the military. And then, more broadly, you’ve got a lot of civilian uprisings, boycotts, a lot of civil servants who’ve gone what they call “CDM,” civil disobedience movement, to leave their jobs and, and resist the military.
KHAN: Right. So from this very, I must say, this very Gandhian civil disobedience movement, to these men and women who have taken up arms in the jungles of the country. From my understanding and your reporting, there’s over over 650 PDF groups, or People’s Defense Forces groups, which are spread countrywide, but this didn’t — this wasn’t the first knee-jerk reaction of the people, right? A year ago, there were, at this time, there were peaceful protests. What do you think, and when do you think was the tipping point when violence became an option, or for some of these groups the only option for taking on the military regime?
ROBINSON: Yeah, that’s a very good question, Waj. It’s difficult to exactly pinpoint. But we could say it’s, it was striking that, I interviewed quite a few of these so-called PDFs, People’s Defense Force fighters. And invariably, they all you know, they’re quite young, a lot of them, but some of them are up to 40 years old. But all of them had, were civilians in, in jobs ranging from salesman to, to seamen, merchant, merchant seaman, as well as all kinds of, a tech entrepreneur. And these are all people who’d never really handled a gun. And they all started off as peaceful protesters in the weeks following the Feb. 1 coup in 2021. And I think that there were, it was really, the tipping points were a couple of very harsh military crackdowns, including a particular day in April, where near Yangon, the military shot 81 or 82 protesters dead who were peaceful protesters at barricades, maybe throwing rocks.
VICE NEWS: On the morning of April 9, people in Myanmar woke up to terrifying messages flooding their social media. In the city of Bago, just 55 miles northeast of Yangon, a massacre was unfolding.
SKY NEWS: Terror on the streets of Myanmar. This is now the norm.
ABC NEWS: Overseas, now, protests against the military coup claiming more lives in Myanmar.
ROBINSON: So some of, the couple of the PDFs I spoke to who were actually in the protests lost a lot of friends. There are a lot who’ve lost family and have decided that there’s no alternative. It’s actually, I think, shaping up to be a lost generation, the sort of people who are who are flocking to these defense forces and that estimate, by the way, of 650 groups comes from a couple of research groups, which try and track the the new growth, the rapid growth of these groups and they all come out with different names. Some form and then re-form and fall apart and then merge with others. So at any point, I think it’s a bit of a moving feast. But it would easily be as used as you mentioned from my articles about 650 at any one time, with, with names as bizarre as you know, “Kind-Hearted Boneheads” is the, is the name of one such group, or “Thunderstorm Without Borders.” You know, they all, a lot of them do have these fanciful names, but they’re, they’re deadly serious. They lack arms and ammunition. But I think a lot of these groups get hold of a few guns and are willing to share them. A lot of them use explosives to blow up infrastructure or military convoys. So that’s the kind of scenario we’re seeing in these pockets of resistance.
KHAN: Right, and what about the establishment itself, right? I mean, the, the empire has, in a way, struck back. A year ago or so, in the early days of the regime, the leadership, the military leadership was promising elections. Are those still on the agenda? That’s one. And then, secondly, how is the military responding to the Kind-Hearted Boneheads of the world? How, how are they taking these men and women on? […]
ROBINSON: Well, indeed, I mean, surely, that that is one of the funniest names, and it’s not actually a laughing matter, as you quite, I think you pick up on that. It’s just actually in covering Myanmar, you do come across these moments of black humor, which come up also in the extraordinary art and cartoons that are coming out.
KHAN: Of course.
ROBINSON: But you asked a couple of very good questions. So the military is cracking down in unimaginable ways. Reports of torture, a lot of detentions. And of course, it’s escalating, because any action by the People’s Defense Forces invites some terrible reprisals. Often, the fallout is on civilians, and we’re seeing whole villages razed to the ground. And, uh, so it’s a pretty dismal situation.
KHAN: Now, Gwen, in the past year, there’ve been around 12,000 deaths on all sides of the conflict, including civilians and combatants. So, the question really is, is the violence too entrenched to expect a peaceful solution anytime soon? Has too much damage been done? And then the second question is, how is the region responding? Because I remember a year ago, ASEAN was split about Myanmar, right? There were some countries in the organization which wanted to help. There were some countries in ASEAN which were not interested in talking to the Myanmar generals at all. So where does the region come in at this point?
ROBINSON: Right. You do ask difficult questions, Waj. But I — they’re very good ones. And I’d say first, your, your question about the response or your reference to the two sides. It has to be really emphasized here, when we talk about violence on both sides. Initially, there was violence only on one side, the protests were purely peaceful. The fact that people now are trying to push back has been met with extraordinary disproportionate force. So, you’ve got the military now employing helicopters and jet fighters to bomb villages, aerial bombardments, as well as ground forces with huge firepower and complete deadly will to use it against often-unarmed civilians. So it’s a very asymmetrical picture there. And in terms of the response, ASEAN, as you say, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is deeply divided. As is the top, I guess, the top recognized international body in the world, the United Nations Security Council, which is absolutely split over the response, with China and Russia, firm allies of the military in Myanmar, the military regime, blocking any attempt to even establish, say, an arms embargo or a no-fly zone, those sorts of proposals have been put in place, and any attempt to take more, put more pressure on the military to end the violence. So I think what we’ve got is a very divided international community and region, it has to be said. Which is forcing, I think, a reassessment of ASEAN’s whole framework of principle of centrality and noninterference in each other’s affairs. And now we’re seeing some serious debate. And possibly, I mean, some have called for Myanmar to actually be suspended from ASEAN, which is unthinkable. It would be the first time in ASEAN’s history that these sorts of, these sort of issues are being discussed.
KHAN: Right. Gwen, let’s talk a little more about the elephant in the room: China, not only a neighbor which has a border with Myanmar, but also the only superpower remaining in the area, with plans for the Belt and Road Initiative in Myanmar and in the region. Beijing, of course, has a very different approach to Myanmar compared to the U.S. No sanctions have been issued by China. In fact, it’s blocked a U.N. Security Council statement even condemning the military takeover. So, will Beijing stay open for business with whoever is in power? And could that blow back?
ROBINSON: Well, that’s a good point, China is a long-standing ally and friend of Myanmar and previous regimes. But that has to include, and it has to be said that in the last five years of when Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, has been in power, China actually cozied up to the, her National League for Democracy government. And I guess they, China itself was probably not overly thrilled to see the military take over and also — not that China has shown any concern about human rights per se, but — I think they are concerned that this terrible scale of violence and the, and the pushback it has invited is actually spoiling their backyard a bit, because […] its long border with Myanmar it’s very sensitive about, and it has oil and gas interests, including some very precious pipelines for China running from Western Myanmar, off-, offshore Western Myanmar, through to Yunnan Province. So they are very concerned, I think about their infrastructure and, you know, prospects, that their interests will be harmed. And I think right now, what China really wants is stability. And there actually is, in China’s view, no alternative at the moment, apart from a very strong military that could hold the country together. But increasingly, I think there’s doubts about whether this supposedly strong military can hold the country together, because I think the people out there are just absolutely determined to fight to the end.
KHAN: Right. And what I was going to say, Gwen, that this isn’t your first rodeo, as the Americans say. This is not your first military regime, military government in Myanmar. But if one were to ask you about a crystal ball analysis, in the next 12 months, where do you see things going?
ROBINSON: Ah, well, that’s the $64 million question. And a lot of people I think the, the resistance movement, which is quite, in a way very disparate, there’s one thing they agree on, is that the military regime must be ousted. But the very divisive question is how much, is there any room for negotiation if the military regime decided to try and negotiate? And I think increasingly hard-liners are saying no. So if I had to guess, I would say in a year’s time, we’re going to see further fragmentation in Myanmar, and possibly the cities settling into this surreal kind of uneasy, kind of calm, where the cities are carrying on, but in the countryside, I think you’re going to see increasing, you know, basically civil war and various ranges of activity and pushback. So it’s not a happy scenario. And I really can’t see the military coming to the negotiating table. And even if the military wanted to, I can’t see a lot of the resistance wanting to talk to the military. They want to fight to the end. And some of them are increasingly thinking that maybe they can win. But it’s hard to say right now with the enormous firepower of the military that a people’s force can prevail. We did see it in the Vietnam War, where the Vietnamese troops defeated the American-led forces against impossible odds. So, never say never, I would say.
KHAN: Interesting. Well, Gwen Robinson, thank you for keeping us honest about Myanmar and coming on Asia Stream.
ROBINSON: Thank you very much, Waj.
KHAN: A bit of a bleak note to end on, but we have a couple of hopeful points coming up, too, from a Burmese journalist who intimately knows Myanmar’s problems and potential. We’re here with Thin Lei Win, a Nikkei Asia contributor, co-founder of the nonprofit Kite Tales, and former chief correspondent of Myanmar Now, a news agency based in Yangon. Thin, thanks for being with us.
THIN LEI WIN, CONTRIBUTOR: Thanks for having me, Waj.
KHAN: All right, now, Thin, you’ve said that a common misconception about Myanmar is that it went from peaceful to conflict-ridden overnight. What do you mean by that?
WIN: Well, so, essentially, you know, one of the things that I am constantly being asked over the past 12 months is that, “Oh, is Myanmar now going to be mi-, mired in civil war?” Or, you know, like you said, “Oh, Myanmar was such a peaceful nation. We have all these pagodas and you know, pictures of monks. Now, there’s all this violence, what’s happening?” And that is a very common misconception. Unfortunately, Myanmar is home to some of the world’s longest-running civil wars. Armed conflict has been in existence for at least 70 years, it is just that they were in the peripheries of the country. They were in the hilly areas, they were in the border regions. They were in areas where you’ve got the minority ethnic groups. So people in big cities and towns in the central plains didn’t really see it firsthand. And that also meant that the international community did not see it or experience it firsthand. It’s just that that violence is now spilling over into where we could all see, and in fact, follow in real time.
KHAN: On that front, you founded Kite Tales, a project that collects the stories of ordinary Burmese folks. So if I may, what have you heard from them about the deteriorating humanitarian situation?
WIN: We set up the Kite Tales, me and another journalist friend, be — you know, during the heyday of Myanmar’s opening in 2016, when it felt like you know, the sky was the limit. Millions of people were suddenly online, they discovered the internet, you know, journalism and local media was flourishing, there was, you know, foreign investment coming in. And now just, you know, five, six years later, it’s a complete reversal. The country has been dragged back two decades. People are now living in isolation and fear. Internet is very tightly regulated and controlled. The economy is in tatters. People are afraid. Like, imagine walking on the streets of Myanmar these days, you can be stopped at any point, by the junta, the military, the soldiers. They will check your phone, and if they see pictures, or information that they do not like, you could be arrested and you could be tortured. In fact, some say that people have died as a result. You know, this is the kind of situation that people are having to live through. In addition, the humanitarian needs are vast. They’re just enormous. The latest report, humanitarian needs report from the U.N., said that 14.4 million people need humanitarian assistance — that is 1 in 4 people.
KHAN: So, Thin, between Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Laos, et cetera, most of the region has recently been struggling with autocracy, or been entrenched in it. But it still seems like what has been happening in Myanmar for the last six decades is on another level, what with the perpetual ethnic conflict, endemic poverty, and military regime after military regime. Why is it that Myanmar is in such a particularly dark place in Southeast Asia?
WIN: There was obviously the colonial legacy. You know, Myanmar was under colonization by, first by the British and then the Japanese, and then British came back in. It’s a fairly young country. Myanmar is a very diverse nation. It is estimated that the Bamar, the majority ethnic group, makes up about two-thirds. But the other one-third is made up of lots and lots of different groups with different cultures and language and traditions. And of course, this divide-and-rule strategy that the British colonial masters have deployed had a massive impact on national unity. One thing that we have seen over the past 12 months is this massive shift within the Myanmar society, and we have never been as united as we’ve been over the past 12 months — there is, the common enemy is the military now. And the Bamar Buddhists, the majority group that used to have the privilege, and not really understood or believed what the minority ethnic groups have been going through, the discrimination, the oppression. They are realizing what has been happening right under their nose for the past 70 years.
KHAN: Hmm, that’s interesting. So, is this a tipping point? Is this when the people of Myanmar finally start to see themselves as a single nation rather than as a collection of ethnic groups?
THIN: I absolutely hope so. As you, you know, so eloquently put it, I absolutely hope this is the tipping point, obviously it is going to take a lot longer, and there needs to be a lot more reflection from the part of the Bamar Buddhist majority to which I belong. For many decades, the propaganda, the military propaganda has been very successful, right? They’ve sort of put themselves and the majority as the benevolent brothers. You have to remember, it’s a very conservative, patriarchal society. This whole idea of a family, but we are the big brothers. And we are looking after the younger brothers who are naughty and troublesome. You know, this is how they portrayed the minority ethnic groups as. And that’s how a lot of the Bamar Buddhists saw the ethnic armed groups, you could see very clearly with what happened with the Rohingya when there were these atrocities, you know, that that happened in 2017. And you’ve got, you know, like, within I think, a month of, of this, these attacks, state-sponsored attacks, you’ve got what I think more than 700,000 Rohingya as, you know, fleeing across the border from Myanmar to Bangladesh. And there were all these terrible stories of rape and abuse, and villages being burnt down. And the military, you know, was constantly saying, “Oh, no, no, no, they did it to themselves. You know, these are untrue. This, these are fake news.” So, having witnessed it themselves, they’re finally realizing that, you know, there was a reason why ethnic armed groups came into being. That, that perhaps all these propaganda that they had been listening to, perhaps were probably wrong.
KHAN: Now, Thin, to wrap up, let’s look forward. If Aung San Suu Kyi is not released, or even if she is, is there a plan for what comes next? Is a new generation of leadership emerging, an alternative to the military regime?
WIN: I am in awe of the Generation Z, you know, and Generation Y as well, because, you know, those are the two generations that were leading the protests, the creative, very, very creative and brave protests, and also leading the current resistance, both the armed and that peaceful resistance, yeah? Daw Suu has been synonymous with Myanmar for many, many years. Unfortunately, she’s currently in jail, and she can’t speak. We don’t know what she’s thinking. She has fallen from grace in the international arena because of her failure to essentially speak out when the atrocities were being committed against the Rohingya. But she is still extremely popular within the country. And people, I think, at least ordinary people and voters, are still hoping for some sort of guidance from her. Now, having said all of that, there are a number of really brave protesters, activists, leaders that have come up from what’s happening, what’s has happened over the past 12 months, and I’m very heartened by how inclusive and diverse they are. So, you might think I’m prevaricating by not naming individual people. And part of this is, it is intentional, because I think for so long Myanmar has been twinned with a single person, Daw Suu, that I think we really need to move away from a single leader.
KHAN: Thin Lei Win. Thank you for being on Asia Stream, and we hope you stay safe as well.
WIN: Thanks for having me.
KHAN: On Thursday, the Burmese regime announced yet another charge against Suu Kyi, this time for bribery. She’s already on trial in almost a dozen cases that, when combined, carry maximum prison sentences of at least 150 years. That’s the latest, and that’s it for Asia Stream this week.
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KHAN: As always, I encourage you to head to Nikkei Asia at asia.nikkei.com for more in-depth coverage of Myanmar and, of course, the rest of Asia. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share, subscribe and leave us a review — and hopefully, a five-star rating! And a reminder that Nikkei Asia is currently offering an exclusive discount for our podcast listeners: just type in code ASIASTREAM, all caps, no spaces, at checkout. This episode was produced by Monica Hunter-Hart and Jack Stone Truitt. I’m your host, Waj Khan. Let’s cross streams next week.
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