Myanmar's Tatmadaw flexes in an Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyitaw, March 27, 2021. Photo: Agencies

What began as carnival-like protests against Myanmar’s military takeover on February 1 has since morphed into a vicious nationwide insurgency that has hit areas of the nation that had seen no armed confrontations between rebels and state forces for decades.

Brutal repression and massive atrocities committed by the military, known as the Tatmadaw, have underscored its reputation as the nation’s most loathed institution at a time when it has seized absolute power and appointed a new, non-elected government.

At the same time, the country is being ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic and a faltering economy the World Bank this month predicted will contract by at least 18% in 2021. The percentage of the population living in poverty is expected to rise to 48.2% by 2022, nearly double the 24.8% recorded in 2017.

And while a darling of the Western aid community after introducing political and economic reforms beginning in 2010 and resulting in historic 2015 elections, Myanmar has resumed its previous pariah status. By any measure, the country appears to be heading for a disaster of unparalleled proportions.

Eight months ago, millions of people took to the streets in virtually every city, town and major village across the country. Youth in fanciful costumes, some dressed as contestants in beauty pageants or as ghosts carrying placards saying “the military is scarier than us”, voiced their strong opposition to the coup.

Older protesters, inspired by the Generation Z youngsters, dressed in pre-Buddhist temple robes met for religious ceremonies reminiscent of those during Myanmar’s fabled nat pwes, or spirit festivals, asking deities for help to get rid of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and other coup maker generals — and then cast evil spells on them. At one point, almost the entire nation was on strike.

But the situation took a turn for the worse when the Tatmadaw began shooting mainly peaceful demonstrators.

Protesters with placards showing the image of detained Myanmar civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi sit along a street before holding a candlelight vigil during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon in a March 2021 protest. Photo: AFP / Stringer

Specially-trained snipers picked out the youngest in the crowds in order to get their brutal message across. At the end of March, Min Aung Hlaing even said in a televised speech: “You should learn from the tragedy of earlier ugly days that you can be in danger of getting shot to the head and back.”

Today, after more than a thousand demonstrators have been killed and thousands more remain in military custody, small-scale protests continue in the old capital Yangon, the central city of Mandalay and other places.

But expressions of dissent are changing as anti-junta forces increasingly detonate bombs on military and military-affiliated targets in urban areas and assassinate junta-aligned officials and their suspected informants.

New rebel forces, known as people’s defense forces (PDFs), are battling the Tatmadaw primarily in Sagaing, Mandalay and Magwe regions as well as Chin and Kayah states. While they often started their hit-and-run attacks with rudimentary hunting rifles and slingshots, many now possess automatic rifles and are inflicting heavy casualties on the Tatmadaw.

Unable to locate the new generation rebels, the Tatmadaw has resorted to shooting indiscriminately into villages from helicopters and with heavy artillery, looting homes at random, killing civilians for no apparent reason and burning property such as motorcycles, cars and livestock.

Some of the new-age rebels’ weapons have been captured from the police and Tatmadaw, while others have been supplied by ethnic rebels, namely Kachins in the north and Karen and Karenni on the Thai border in the east.

Myanmar’s many long-running ethnic rebellions have also been revitalized since the coup. In Kachin state, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has gone on the offensive and even expanded its area of operation to northern Sagaing and Mandalay regions, where it is working with local PDFs.  

When Min Aung Hlaing visited the Kachin state capital of Myitkyina on September 19, he stayed for only one day and security reasons was forced to cancel a planned trip to Putao in the far north.

The Irrawaddy, a Myanmar website, reported on September 21 that dozens of young people took to the streets in Myitkyina shouting “Min Aung Hlaing, don’t you feel ashamed to come to Kachinland? Get out of Kachinland!”

Kachin civil society organizations, meanwhile, have slammed the Tatmadaw-appointed Kachin state chief minister Khet Htein Nan, calling him a traitor to the Kachin people.

Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces and head of Myanmar’s coup regime Senior General Min Aung Hlaing attends the 9th Moscow Conference on International Security in Moscow, Russia on June 23, 2021. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency / Sefa Karacan

The deteriorating security situation nationwide prompted the US embassy in Yangon to post an alert on its website on September 25 warning of “potential attacks” that may be carried out not only in the old capital but also in Mandalay and the new capital Naypyitaw “in the coming months.”

Internationally, Myanmar’s only remaining friends are its Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) partners, Russia and China.

But even China is playing a double game to hedge its bets. While Beijing recently supplied US$6 million in aid to the ruling junta, known as the State Administration Council (SAC), in Naypyitaw, it has also reaffirmed Chinese Communist Party “party-to-party relations” with the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi who led the now military-toppled government.

China’s recent deal with the US to delay which government should represent Myanmar at the United Nations – the coup-installed government or the National Unity Government (NUG) comprised of ousted politicians – further underscored Beijing’s double game.

Moreover, China has given nearly 13 million doses of its Covid-19 vaccines to Myanmar’s military-controlled health authorities and an undisclosed number of the same shots to people in areas controlled by ethnic armed groups, including in Kachin and Shan states and Wa-controlled areas. The vaccinations were reportedly conducted by Chinese medics who entered and then left the areas.  

Several rebel groups, primarily the Kokang-based Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army among the Palaungs of northern Shan State, the Shan State Army of the Shan State Progress Party, the Arakan Army in the southwest, and, to some extent, the KIA are armed with Chinese-made weapons provided by the United Wa State Army, a group with links to China’s security agencies.

China is also known to have told those groups not to fight near the oil and gas pipelines it has constructed from Myanmar’s coast on the Bay of Bengal to the China’s southern province of Yunnan, or disrupt other Belt and Road Initiative-related investments in Myanmar. 

The Tatmadaw had probably not anticipated any of this when it seized power on February 1. At the same time, the generals appear determined to cling to power at any cost, probably realizing that it would be held accountable for the atrocities it has committed before and, especially, after the coup, if it were to fall.

To survive mounting international sanctions and boycotts and its own gross economic mismanagement, the Tatmadaw is attempting to tighten its grip on the lucrative jade trade, a multi-billion industry centered on the jade mines in and around Hpakant in Kachin state.

Rebel soldiers of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) manning rifles on a supply route from Laiza, a KIA-controlled stronghold in Myanmar's northern Kachin state on the border with China. Photo: AFP/Patrick Bodenham
Rebel soldiers of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) manning rifles on a supply route from Laiza, a KIA-controlled stronghold in Myanmar’s northern Kachin state on the border with China. Photo: AFP / Patrick Bodenham

According to a report issued by the international environmental watchdog Global Witness and quoted by Al-Jazeera on June 29, the coup could turn the income from jade exports, mainly to China, “into a ‘slush fund’ for the military and source of political patronage to prop up the military regime.”

The Hpakan area has turned into a war zone since the coup, with KIA forces ambushing the Tatmadaw and even capturing some of its outposts, thus making it much less secure to mine for jade there.

But, according to reports compiled by Global Witness in 2015 and this year, among those making profits from the jade trade is Kyaing International Gems Company, which is owned in part by Kyaing San Shwe, one of the sons of senior general Than Shwe, Myanmar´s dictator from 1992 to 2011.

Meanwhile, Min Aung Hlaing’s son Aung Pyae Sone plays a role in the military’s control of the sale of dynamite in Hpakan, which is needed to extract the jade from the ground. On March 10, Aung Pyae Sone was placed under US sanctions along with his sister, businesswoman Khin Thiri Htet Mon.

The survival of SAC hinges on such connections and income, but if it fails to satisfy Tatmadaw leaders other than those in immediate power an internal coup cannot be ruled out. But observers monitoring the Tatmadaw say there is no guarantee that whoever dared to take such a drastic move would have a more liberal outlook than Min Aung Hlaing and his top brass allies.

To the contrary, the uncharismatic Min Aung Hlaing is seen by some top soldiers as weak and that even harsher methods are needed to quell the spreading dissent. Any significant split in the Tatmadaw, some suggest, could lead to a full-scale civil war and even greater humanitarian disaster.

But whatever happens next in Myanmar’s evolving tragedy, it is becoming increasingly evident that Min Aung Hlaing and his military allies opened a Pandora’s box of disasters when their tanks rolled into Naypyitaw and Yangon on February 1.