During the month, Myanmar faced a double crisis – political turmoil and COVID-19. The country’s health care system has collapsed, and the number of cases reported is vastly underestimated because of limited testing. At an informal Security Council discussion, Barbara Woodward, Britain’s UN Ambassador, warned that half of Myanmar could be infected with COVID-19 by the end of July. Myanmar is struggling with a surge in infections and the military ruler is calling for greater cooperation with the international community to contain the COVID-19 wave. The military has assured that six million Chinese vaccines and two million Russian vaccines would be delivered. With COVID-19 deaths rising in Myanmar, allegations are growing from residents and human rights activists that the military government is using the pandemic to consolidate power and crush the opposition.
Economic and Political Crises
World Bank’s Myanmar Economic Monitor stated that the economy is expected to contract around 18 percent in Myanmar’s 2021 Fiscal Year (Oct 2020-Sep 2021). The ongoing political turmoil and a rising third wave of COVID-19 cases have a damaging impact on lives, livelihoods, poverty and future growth. It also predicted that the country’s economy is around 30 percent smaller than it would have been in the absence of COVID-19 and the military takeover of February 2021.
Economic activity has been hit by reduced mobility and incomes, protests and labour shortages, as well as the ongoing disruption of critical business services, including logistics and telecommunications, and public services such as health and education. In addition, the physical currency remains in short supply and access to banking and payment services remains limited. As of mid-July, the Myanmar Kyat had depreciated by around 23 percent against the US dollar since late January, which combined with trade disruptions has led to rapid price increases for some imported products, including fuel. These shocks have weakened consumption, investment, and trade, and disrupted businesses’ operations and the supply of labour and inputs.1
In further development, two statements issued by the National League for Democracy (NLD) has been accepted as evidence against Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and Naypyitaw Mayor Myo Aung, who are charged under Section 505 b of the Penal Code. The statements, released by the party’s central executive committee on February 7 and 13, were submitted as part of the incitement case. The 07 February statement urged the international community not to recognise the coup regime. And the 13 February statement stated that all regulations, rules and laws enacted by the military were illegal. Judge Maung Maung Lwin ruled out the defence team’s objection to the submitted evidence.2 During the month, Myanmar security forces searched Suu Kyi’s house without a search warrant, according to her lawyer.3
The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) attacked three military bases in the Kachin State towns of Mogaung and Waingmaw on 29 July, and launched an assault on the junta’s Waingmaw-based Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) 58. Later, the KIA also attacked two military bases between Kutkai and Muse townships in northern Shan State. In addition, the KIA intercepted and attacked seven naval vessels belonging to the military on the Irrawaddy River near Shwegu in Kachin State.4 Clashes have been breaking out between the military and the KIA in Kachin State since April.
Despite last month’s peace talks, clashes between the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Karen State Border Guard Force (BGF) are continuing. The KNLA’s Brigade 1 clashed with a BGF battalion led by Major Saw Tin Win near the village of Kontangyi in northern Hpa-an Township in Karen State. Between 15 to 22 July, there were 29 clashes between the military forces and Brigade 5 of the KNU’s armed wing, the KNLA. The military-backed Karen Border Guard Force (BGF) joined junta soldiers in attacks against the KNLA, clashing with the group’s Battalion 1 in Thaton, across the border in Mon State.5
Fighting erupted between Chinland Defence Force (CDF) and Myanmar military in Mindat Township for the first time since a temporary ceasefire. The peace agreement brokered between the military council and CDF (when CDF in Mindat was called Mindat People’s Administration) expired on 12 May, after the former refused to release all of the youths it arrested. On 13 May, the military council imposed martial law. The military sent troops to Mindat and shelled CDF positions, and the civilian resistance group retreated to the jungle. A second temporary ceasefire was brokered from 20 June to 04 July, which was extended until 16 July.6
Organisations like the KIA, Karenni Army and KNLA have shown solidarity in their position against the military. To counter these, pro-military social media users spread disinformation to cause rifts between the groups or discourage other prospective trainees from entering the ethnic-controlled territory. Many Facebook posts have accused ethnic armed organisations of killing or mistreating civilian trainees. However, the posts provide no evidence to support the allegations, and both People’s Defence Forces and the armed organisations have denied the incidents.7
Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch have accused that dozens of journalists have fled from Myanmar to Thailand since the military seized power to escape a crackdown on the country’s free press. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, around 98 journalists have escaped the country since the military crackdown.
In addition, the Taa’ng National Liberation Army (TNLA) ordered businesses operating within its territory to stop selling products made by military-owned companies. Merchants were given the order at meetings held in TNLA-controlled townships and villages. Products banned under the new rules include Myanmar Beer, Red Ruby and Premium Gold cigarettes, and tickets for buses run by Shwe Mann Thu, Parami, and other military companies. This will promote the nationwide campaign to boycott military products. The ousted National Unity Government has also endorsed the order.8
Damian Lilly, the author of the report, published by the New York-based International Peace Institute (IPI), accused the UN of doing little and being directionless in taking any coherent steps to control Myanmar’s crises. Lilly also accuses China and Russia of their role in obstructing efforts to hold the Generals to account. 9
In another striking move, Myanmar’s military rulers seek to replace the country’s ambassador to the UN, Kyaw Moe Tun, who condemned the coup and refused to recognise the military regime. Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin in a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated that he had appointed Aung Thurein as Myanmar’s UN ambassador. Lwin stated that the Kyaw Tun was terminated on 27 February 2021, due to his failure to perform his assigned duty and mandate. This was the second attempt to remove Kyaw Tun; earlier on 12 May also a letter was sent to the UN, but no action was taken.10
On 02 July, the United States announced sanctions on seven military personnel and 15 individuals in the family of previously sanctioned officials and businesses related to the Myanmar military. Additionally, the US Commerce Department restricted trade exports to four companies, which provide services to the Myanmar military. 11
Despite the call for the imposition of the arms embargo by the international and civil society groups, Russia has delivered a consignment of Sukhoi Su-30SME multi-role fighter jets and military training aircraft to Myanmar. In addition, Myanmar has been using Russian Mig-29 and Jak-130 aircraft for a long time; and the two countries have established close cooperation in the defence field. 12
Given the surge of COVID-19 cases, China has closed its border with Myanmar. In addition, it is adding a barbed-wire fence spanning around 600 kilometres between Ruili, Lijiang, and the Gaoligong mountains in its southwestern province of Yunnan. China is also constructing walls to block soldiers, ethnic militias, drug, and gun-smuggling from entering in the country.13
Amid Myanmar’s COVID-19 spike, the developer of the controversial China-backed Shwe Koko new city project near the Thai border in Karen State has been recruiting staff, prompting fears over a rise in cross-border crime. The Irrawaddy has been told Yatai International Holding Group (IHG), which Chinese investors run, has been recruiting a manager for a five-star hotel, human resources manager, an accountant and gardeners this month. The project is also controlled by the Karen State Border Guard Force (BGF), an armed group backed by Myanmar’s military. The project was suspended after the National League for Democracy government formed a tribunal to investigate irregularities. However, following the February coup, activity at Shwe Koko appeared to revive, including hiring new staff and restarting gambling. 14
The Thai army seized face masks illegally imported into Myanmar from Maw Taung-Singkhon pass on 22 July, according to Thai media. They found 44 packings of KF94 face masks manufactured by South Korea, 17 packings of three-ply masks. According to Article 167 of the 2017 Thai Ordinance, these items are part of a controlled substance that prohibits the availability of adequate medical supplies in the country and their export.15
Myanmar’s military government banned telecommunications company executives from leaving the country without authorisation. Before the coup, Myanmar’s primary telecom and internet service companies, Telenor, Ooredoo, MPT, and Mytel were pressured in 2020 to install a “lawful intercept” without any legal processes in place to protect citizens’ privacy. Telenor, a Norwegian telecoms firm and one of two foreign operators in the telecoms sector of Myanmar, flagged the plans publicly and expressed concern for citizens’rights to privacy and freedom of expression on 03 December 2020.
Telenor sold its Myanmar business to the Lebanese investment firm M1 Group after the military’s travel ban on telecom executives. Activists in Myanmar fear that the exit of Telenor will cause further obstructions to their free expression as they relied on the company as a protector of human rights. The Western company’s decision to sell its Myanmar business likely reflects the increasing difficulty of continuing operations under principles of free communication and expression. 16
The civil society organisations have filed a formal complaint with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) accusing Norwegian telecoms giant Telenor of “irresponsible disengagement” from the country. The Netherlands-based Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) submitted the complaint on behalf of the 474 Myanmar groups. They alleged that the Telenor Group’s sale of its Myanmar operations to the Lebanese M1 Group is in violation of OECD standards outlining the requirements for a responsible exit from the country. The OECD complaint described M1 Group, a Mikati family enterprise, as an unsuitable partner for Telenor’s handover. The Mikati’s are accused of having a history of businesses in authoritarian countries including Syria, Sudan and Yemen, as well as face allegations of corruption and terrorist financing. 17
The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution on 12 July 2021 titled the “Human Rights Situation of Rohingya Muslims and other Minorities in Myanmar” a powerful message to the regime for its gross violations of human rights, specifically against the stateless Rohingyas. Bangladesh has played a crucial role in the approval of the resolution. The resolution condemned human rights’ violations by Myanmar military against the Rohingya and other minorities, and called for a reconciliation process. The resolution was approved without a vote in the Geneva-based council. China, one of the 47 council members, told it could not join the consensus but did not insist on bringing the text to a vote.18 However, Myanmar’s military rejected the resolution, and stated that the resolution is “based on false information and one-sided allegations”. 19
India’s Engagement in Myanmar
A Singapore-based Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) report titled, “Myanmar Coup, Resistance and India’s Response: Fractured Between Words and Deeds” has stated that a possible full-scale armed revolt in Myanmar will have a spill-over effect on India. The report also said India has an opportunity to build on the “reservoirs of goodwill” with many of the Myanmarese citizens. The Indian Border States that share religious, kinship and historical affinities with people in Myanmar are supporting Myanmar people; for instance, Mizoram is hosting more than 15,000 Myanmar refugees. However, the report underlined India’s fears that condemning the military publicly would result in alienating Myanmar and pushing it closer towards China. 20
However, India has come under the radar of Myanmar anti-coup activists who are opposed to the idea of any relationship between the Indian government and Myanmar military. Justice for Myanmar (JFM) condemned the awarding of a contract by the Indian government-owned Syama Prasad Mookerjee Port, Kolkata to A to Z EXIM Ltd—a unit of the Mumbai-based Bharat Freight Group—to operate, maintain and develop the port and inland water transport terminals at Sittwe, Rakhine State and Paletwa, Chin State. 21
Assam Governor Prof Jagdish Mukhi has raised concerns about the illegal smuggling of arms, gold, drugs and liquor through Myanmar via Moreh and requested the Indian Army to play a more dominant role in controlling the inter-state movement.22 In another incident, fifteen Rohingya immigrants, including six minors and three women, have been held by Railway Police Force (RPF) in Assam’s Karimganj district. According to reports, the RPF personnel had intercepted 15 people sitting in Badarpur railway station after observing some suspicious activities. 23
Over recent days, the country has rapidly descended into the most severe public health crisis. The hospitals are struggling with a shortage of oxygen supplies and lack of intensive care capacity while just a small percentage of the population has been vaccinated against the virus. Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) are playing a crucial role in addressing COVID in the territory where they have control, such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) carried out extensive COVID-19 tests and restricted entry to Laiza and Maijayang, since the first week of July. The KIA has also vaccinated some 30,000 people with COVID-19 vaccines donated by China. 24
Due to political crises and continued clashes, thousands have been displaced by military attacks in recent months, placing them at even greater risk. Myanmar urgently needs international support to address the unfolding tragedy. Right now, the humanitarian response from UN agencies and international organisations is inadequate.