Two years after coup, both the military and the resistance remain steadfast in Myanmar

Anti-coup protesters in Mandalay, Myanmar
Anti-coup protesters march against military rule in Mandalay, Myanmar, in March 2021.
(Associated Press)

The prospects for peace in Myanmar, much less a return to democracy, seem dimmer than ever two years after the military seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, experts say.

On Wednesday, legions of opponents of military rule heeded a call by protest organizers to stay home in what they called a “silent strike” to show their strength and solidarity.

The opposition’s General Strike Coordination Body, formed soon after the 2021 takeover, urged people to stay inside in their homes or workplaces from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Photos posted on social media showed empty streets in the normally bustling downtown area of Yangon, the country’s largest city, with just a few vehicles on the roads, and there were reports of similar scenes elsewhere.


Small peaceful protests are an almost-daily occurrence throughout the country, but on the anniversary of the Feb. 1, 2021, seizure of power by the army, two points stand out: The level of violence, especially in the countryside, has reached the level of civil war, and the grassroots movement opposing military rule has defied expectations by largely holding off the ruling generals.

The violence extends beyond the rural battlefields where the army is burning and bombing villages, displacing hundreds of thousands of people in what is a largely neglected humanitarian crisis. It also occurs in the cities, where activists are arrested and tortured and urban guerrillas retaliate with bombings and assassinations of targets linked to the military. The ruling junta, after closed trials, has also hanged activists accused of “terrorism.”

According to the independent Assistance Assn. for Political Prisoners, a watchdog group that tracks killings and arrests, 2,940 civilians have been killed by the authorities since the army takeover, and another 17,572 have been arrested — 13,763 of whom remain detained. The actual death toll is likely to be much higher since the group does not generally include deaths on the military government’s side and cannot easily verify cases in remote areas.

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“The level of violence involving both armed combatants and civilians is alarming and unexpected,” said Min Zaw Oo, a veteran political activist in exile who founded the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security.

“The scale of the killing and harm inflicted on civilians has been devastating and unlike anything we have seen in the country in recent memory,” he said.

When the army ousted Suu Kyi in 2021, it arrested her and top members of her governing National League for Democracy, which had won a landslide victory for a second term in a November 2020 general election. The military claimed to have acted because of massive electoral fraud — a claim not backed up by objective election observers. Suu Kyi, 77, is serving prison sentences totaling 33 years after being convicted in a series of politically tainted prosecutions brought by the military.


Shortly after the military seized power and quashed nonviolent protests with lethal force, thousands of young people slipped away to remote rural areas to become guerrilla fighters.

The photos showed the charred bodies of over 30 people in three burned-out vehicles who were reportedly shot by government troops as they fled combat.

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Operating in decentralized “People’s Defense Forces,” or PDFs, they are proving to be effective warriors, specializing in ambushes and occasionally overrunning isolated army and police posts. They have benefited greatly from supplies and training provided by the some of the country’s ethnic minority rebels — Ethnic Armed Organizations, or EAOs — who have been fighting the army for decades for greater autonomy.

“That’s not only a very brave thing to do. It’s a very difficult thing to do,” Richard Horsey, an independent analyst and adviser to the International Crisis Group, told the Associated Press. “It’s a very challenging thing to do, to take on ... a military that’s been fighting counter-insurgency warfare [for] basically its whole existence.”

David Mathieson, another independent analyst with more than 20 years’ experience in Myanmar, said that the opposition’s combat capabilities are “a mixed picture in terms of battlefield performance, organization and unity amongst them.”

But, he added, “it’s also important to remember two years in that no one was predicting that they were actually going to be as effective as they are now. And in certain areas, the PDFs have been taking on the Myanmar military and, in many respects, besting them on the battlefield in terms of ambush and pitched battles, taking over bases.”

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Mathieson said the military’s heavy weaponry and air power had brought the situation to a kind of stalemate.


The military government of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has an advantage not just in arms and trained manpower but also in geography. Myanmar’s main neighbors — Thailand, China and India — have geopolitical and economic interests in Myanmar that leave them satisfied with the status quo, which largely keeps Myanmar’s borders from becoming a major supply route for weapons and other supplies for the resistance. And while much of the world maintains sanctions against the generals and their government, the junta can rely on obtaining arms from Russia and China.

Min Aung Hlaing’s government is also nominally pursuing a political solution to the crisis it caused, most notably in its promise to hold fresh elections this year. Suu Kyi’s party has rejected taking part, deriding the polls as neither free nor fair, and other activists are employing more direct action, attacking teams from the military government that are conducting surveys to compile voter rolls.

“The regime is pushing for an election which the opposition has vowed to derail,” said Min Zaw Oo. “The election won’t change the political status quo; instead, it will intensify violence.”

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The planned polls “are being run by a regime that overturned the popularly elected government. They are clearly being seen by the Myanmar people for what they are: a cynical effort to overwrite those previous election results that gave a landslide victory to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy. So these are not elections in any meaningful sense of the word,” Horsey said. “They have no legitimacy or credibility.”

In what amounted to an admission that it does not exercise enough control to stage the polls, the ruling junta announced Wednesday night that it was further extending the state of emergency imposed when it seized power two years ago. That means, under Myanmar’s constitution, that it will be impossible to hold the election in August, a date that Min Aung Hlaing earlier said was under consideration.

State-run MRTV television said the state of emergency had been extended another six months because the country remained in an abnormal situation and time was needed to prepare for a peaceful and stable election. It did not offer a date for when the polls might be held.


On the diplomatic front, the military government has thumbed its nose at international efforts to defuse the crisis, even those by sympathetic fellow members of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, whose harshest response has been to not invite Myanmar’s top military leaders to attend its meetings.

Myanmar’s army government rejects virtually all efforts at peacemaking as interference in its internal affairs.

The resistance, by contrast, has actively reached out for international support. It won small new diplomatic victories Tuesday as the U.S., Australia, Britain and Canada announced new sanctions meant to squeeze the military’s revenue and supply lines. The British and Canadian sanctions are especially noteworthy, as they target the supply of aviation fuel, a move activists have been pleading for to counter the increasing number of airstrikes pounding pro-democracy forces and their allies in ethnic minority rebel groups.

“Currently, both sides are not ready to seek a political solution,” Min Zaw Oo warned. “The military stalemate won’t shift significantly this year, despite more deaths and violence.”