As Myanmar’s crisis deepens amid a spiraling Covid outbreak, collapsing economy and repressive military coup, rising anger and insecurity are galvanizing calls for the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) to launch a nationwide armed uprising against the coup regime.
The NUG, comprised of activists, ethnic minorities and politicians from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party which was ousted from elected power in a February 1 coup, is preparing to answer that call with an armed response.
The NUG’s armed wing, known as the People’s Defense Force (PDF), is bidding to unify various resistance groups into a unified nationwide armed insurrection. Recruitment to the force is underway, with one PDF trainee communicating with Asia Times under the pseudonym Thakhin Daung.
“The economy has crashed since 2020 and is twice as worse this year due to the coup, so people want PDF action quickly,” he claimed, noting that many of his civilian colleagues are eager for a full-scale war in response to the nation’s tri-pronged crisis.
To be sure, desperation is spreading far and wide. In April, the UNDP predicted that nearly half of the population, or some 26 million people, could be plunged into poverty by 2022. Since that downbeat forecast, the socio-economic situation has deteriorated significantly due to a fast-spreading third wave of Covid-19 cases.
The UN now estimates that half of Myanmar’s population could be infected with Covid-19 within the next two or three weeks, turning Myanmar into a “super-spreader state” that could threaten the entire region. The country’s health care system, already among the region’s most rudimentary due to decades of military mismanagement, is by any measure in a state of collapse.
All of this is leading to a rising sense of despair that is fueling civil war cries. In a recent Facebook post, NUG Defense Minister Yee Mon acknowledged the people’s widespread desire to topple the regime, saying “We are prepared for the end game of the revolution,” referring to the massive anti-coup opposition movement known as the “Spring Revolution.”
Yet Yee Mon is walking a fine line between satisfying an impassioned public’s desire for quick action and the practical challenge of a huge power imbalance between the Tatmadaw and the PDF in terms of weapons and soldiers.
In a Radio Free Asia interview last month, Yee Mon urged local PDF fighters across the country to keep up their morale while saying everyone should “wait for his signal” on when to launch the much-anticipated nationwide uprising.
Whether the NUG is really prepared for full war is an open question. The coronavirus outbreak, the rainy season, and widespread flooding are also complicating the NUG’s efforts to organize armed resistance to the junta. If the UN has it right and half the country becomes infected with Covid in the coming weeks, it’s hard to imagine large-scale armed resistance will materialize any time soon.
At the same time, the pandemic has intensified the people’s misery, woes that are driving many Myanmar people to embrace the idea of civil war. Indeed, the situation has become so dire that Human Rights Watch researcher Manny Maung recently told media “The country has fallen into chaos and is close to complete collapse.”
Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced since the coup, including villagers who have fled armed conflict and military aerial bombardments, dissidents who are being actively hunted by the military and civil servants forced into hiding after being threatened with reprisal including imprisonment for refusing to work as part of the anti-military Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM).
Jonathan Nield, a British medical doctor who has spent several years working on the Thai-Myanmar border, said via email that many displaced people are still hiding in fields and forests, where they are “in great distress from lack of food, clean water, and shelter and at great risk of water and mosquito-borne disease.”
If the NUG does move decisively to organize a national armed resistance, there will be plenty of disenfranchised people they can seek to recruit. But a move to full-scale civil war, one that adds to ongoing armed conflicts in various ethnic areas including Shan and Kachin states, will exacerbate the nation’s intensifying humanitarian catastrophe.
Yet there are signs that this is where the situation is soon headed. In preparation for war, the NUG announced on May 5 the creation of the PDF, which the NUG hopes will take the lead in fighting against the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw.
Even before the PDF’s creation, small groups of resistance forces armed with rudimentary weapons had sprung up across the country in local areas and engaged in sporadic fighting with the Tatmadaw. They are also believed to be behind a fast-growing number of hit-and-run attacks on military soft targets and assassinations of military coup affiliated officials and suspected agents.
These local resistance groups also refer to themselves as PDF. The NUG now hopes to unite all these local PDF groups under the banner of a national PDF controlled by the NUG’s Ministry of Defense.
The NUG’s ultimate goal is to combine all the PDFs with the country’s various ethnic armed organizations to form a “Federal Army” that will take the fight to the Tatmadaw in a multi-front war. The end goal of the fight would be to establish a federal democratic union that provides a high degree of autonomy to ethnic states, a goal for which ethnic armies have fought for decades.
The PDF trainee interviewed by Asia Times, Thakhin Daung, is among thousands of mostly young people from central Myanmar who have flocked to Myanmar’s border areas for military training conducted by these ethnic armed groups.
Although Thakhin Daung said he gave up a comfortable life in Yangon to “join the revolution,” he was upbeat about the situation and said joining the armed movement was his “duty.” He said there was no choice but to take up arms faced against a military regime that has shown no signs of compromise since the coup.
“Some people still believe in soft power, but I’ve chosen hard power,” he said.
Thakhin Daung said that his friends who remained behind in central Myanmar are pinning their hopes on the PDF trainees to return soon and launch what some are cryptically referring to as a “D-Day” massive coordinated attack on the Tatmadaw.
While the NUG has reportedly received hefty public donations, it still likely lacks the funds to wage a national war. And an arms embargo on Myanmar imposed since the coup has made it doubly difficult to acquire modern weapons and ammunition to challenge the Tatmadaw.
In an interview, NUG representative Linn Thant cautioned that patience was needed before a nationwide uprising could defeat the Tatmadaw. “Even if we had money for weapons, we couldn’t buy them due to the arms embargo, and we don’t want to engage in illegal arms sales,” he said.
Linn Thant said the NUG is encouraging the international community to support the revolution, provide humanitarian aid and officially recognize the NUG as Myanmar’s legitimate democratic government.
As of now, the national PDF would be far out-manned and out-gunned by the Tatmadaw. Moreover, the various local PDF and ethnic armed groups are too geographically spread out to effectively coordinate with each other. The junta has also restricted phone and internet services to limit the ability of resistance forces to organize and coordinate their activities online.
Even with those limitations, organized resistance against the coup has been robust, marking a significant difference between this year’s coup and the last military putsch met by a national uprising in 1988.
After the 1988 coup, neighboring Thailand allowed refugees fleeing the Tatmadaw’s bloody crackdown to take refuge on its territory. It also allowed armed resistance groups to operate in border areas as part of a wider “buffer state” policy vis-à-vis Myanmar’s military government.
The times have changed, though, as Thailand’s current military-aligned leaders have drawn closer to the Tatmadaw. The two nation’s economies have also become more integrated, not least through Thailand’s crucial imports of Myanmar natural gas which are used to fuel the nation’s electricity supply.
There have already been reports of Thailand forcing refugees back across the border. The refugee situation has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has prompted Thailand to close its official border and crack down hard on illegal border crossings that previously received a blind eye.
Duncan McArthur, Myanmar Program director for The Border Consortium, told Asia Times that “Thai security forces have increased border security to mitigate against the spread of Covid-19 and reports suggest the detention of undocumented migrants has increased. However, it’s a long and porous border with thousands of informal border crossing points.”
However, as the humanitarian crisis intensifies in Myanmar, Thailand will find it increasingly difficult to stop a rising tide of refugees from illegally crossing the border. The combination of the coronavirus, the coup, and an economy forecast to contract by 18% this year has pushed Myanmar to the breaking point.
Critics say the coup government’s ineptitude in managing the economy, state administration and the pandemic has only been outdone by its cruelty. The junta has been hoarding oxygen tanks, deny people access to hospitals and physically attacking and imprisoning doctors who have treated people at underground clinics after quitting their jobs at government-run hospitals as a gesture of dissent.
Hla Hla Win, who founded the popular 360ed virtual reality learning app in Myanmar, said in an interview that “The military is using the coronavirus as a weapon to attack people” and is just sitting back and watching the pandemic happen.
Coup leader Min Aung Hlaing’s announcement on August 1 that elections—which he initially promised would be held within a year—would be delayed until 2023 has only reinforced fears that military rule will be extended indefinitely.
As such, many people feel like they have nothing to lose and are eager to fight. That’s especially true among tech-savvy Generation Z youth who came of age during the quasi-democracy era and aren’t willing to give up the freedoms denied to their forebears.
The Tatmadaw is keenly aware of the passion driving Generation Z and has intentionally targeted them with violence, repression and assassination by snipers at protest sites. According to PDF trainee Thakhin Daung, the military “is seeking to destroy the younger generation and doesn’t care about us.”
While a coordinated nationwide armed uprising may still be wishful anti-military thinking, local PDFs have instilled a degree of shadowy fear in the regime through growing small-scale hit-and-run attacks against Tatmadaw forces and assassinations of military or military-allied officials at the grassroots level.
Indeed, violence against local ward administrators has become so widespread that the Tatmadaw has been forced to barricade ward administration offices with sandbags and deploy soldiers to guard them.
This lack of control at the local level underscores the military’s failure to consolidate its power over the country and has given some breathing room to citizens, many of whom reportedly feel safer knowing that military-appointed administrators likewise fear for their personal security when roaming their neighborhoods.
Indeed, if the vast majority of the country opposes the military regime, there is not much the Tatmadaw can do to impose its will. The Tatmadaw had killed at least 946 people and imprisoned 5,478 people as of August 3, but the military can’t kill or imprison the entire country.
Thakhin Daung said the military’s ultimate lack of control is another big difference between this year’s and the 1988 coup. “After the coup in 1988, the military took control of the whole country quickly, but today the military can’t control us. They only have total control over their bases, not the civilian areas.”
Peter Morris is a journalist and lawyer who has been working on Myanmar-related projects since 2008. He’s on Twitter at @burmablues