søndag 3. desember 2023

Torbjørn Færøvik: Bloody news from the battlefield in Myanmar

Daily reports of killed and wounded, villages set on fire, and thousands of homeless people fleeing in all directions. "Parts of the country are like an inferno," says a UN envoy.

In the shadow of the tragedies in Ukraine and Gaza, the civil war in Myanmar continues. More than two years have passed since the country's military leaders canceled a free election and once again took the reins. For decades, Myanmar has been ruled by a coterie of brutal generals. Today's junta boss is Min Aung Hlaing. But is he safe?

The reports of the last few days indicate that the rebellion against the regime is gaining strength. Along Myanmar's border with China, chaos reigns. Several local rebel forces have joined forces and driven the government army to flight. An entire battalion has surrendered. The junta, normally brimming with self-confidence, is concerned and describes the situation as critical. Since the end of October alone, three hundred thousand civilians are said to have fled in panic. China, the regime's best friend, is also uneasy and has put its own border forces on high alert.

Last week, the rebels launched a drone attack against a parking lot with 260 trucks. In the past, the rebels have concentrated on blowing up bridges and disrupting border traffic between Myanmar and China. Now trade across the border is said to have stopped almost completely.

The junta has accused the rebels of financing their activities with extensive drug trafficking. It is not at all unthinkable, because parts of the country, especially the north-eastern Shan State, are known for their large opium production. Myanmar is also notorious for its shadowy production of synthetic narcotics. In reality, both the regime's own men and the Chinese mafia are involved in the drug trade.

Junta boss Min Aung Hlaing promised the people "law and order" when he seized power in February 2021. The result has been exactly the opposite. The junta opponents responded with demonstrations, strikes and armed resistance from the start. The status so far is several tens of thousands killed and wounded, and two million internal refugees. Another one million displaced persons have sought refuge in neighboring countries. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees despairs and notes that the junta is doing its utmost to sabotage the aid work.

The tragedy is compounded by the fact that neither side cares about the written and unwritten laws of war. Everything seems to be allowed, including torture, rape, forced recruitment of child soldiers and scorched earth tactics. While the violence is increasing, the peaceful opposition is suppressed, among them Aung San Suu Kyi, who is serving a sentence of 33 years in prison.

Suu Kyi ruled the country for a few years before the latest coup. In June, she turned 78. Several thousand other opposition figures are also behind bars. The junta justified the takeover by saying that the election had been obstructed by fraud, and that Suu Kyi and others had allowed themselves to be bribed. The UN, for its part, determined that the election, which ended in a clear victory for Suu Kyi and her party, was as fair as it could be. Shortly afterwards, the party, the National League for Democracy, was forcibly dissolved by the junta.

With its 55 million inhabitants, Myanmar is a patchwork of regional and ethnic contradictions. Opposition to the military rulers has traditionally been strongest in the western, northern and northeastern parts of the country. In the last two years, the rebellion has spread to more populated areas in the middle of the country, near the city of Mandalay. In the hills surrounding the city, a large number of gilded pagodas twinkle in the sun. Now the smoke of war drifts over the verdant landscape, and monks and nuns live in constant fear of tomorrow.

In the north, close to the China border, a coalition of several groups, the Brotherhood Alliance, is at the forefront of the resistance struggle. At the end of October, it launched an offensive which, judging by the reports, has produced significant military results. Several of the government's bastions are said to have been conquered, including the town of Chinshwehaw, which is a hub for border trade with China. The government in Beijing immediately called on the junta to protect the lives and property of all Chinese personnel in the border area.

Myanmar is an important link in China's ambitious Silk Road project (BRI), and the leaders in Beijing are following events in Myanmar closely. Their main project is to develop an "economic corridor" that stretches from southern China to the Indian Ocean. In addition to building modern roads and a new railway, China wants to establish a large "economic zone" where the corridor meets the sea. The idea is to develop a new and time-saving route for Chinese exports and imports. In the long term, the zone may also have military significance for China's increasingly active navy.

Western countries have imposed severe economic sanctions against the regime in Myanmar. That is why cooperation with China is so important to the junta. But Russia is also a close ally. The country is Myanmar's main arms supplier. "We call you not only the leader of Russia, but the leader of the whole world because you create stability in the whole world," said junta leader Min Aung Hlaing when he met Vladimir Putin last year. The planes that have bombed soldiers and civilians in Myanmar for several years are mostly of Russian manufacture.

For the hard-pressed junta, India is also a friend in need. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known for his pompeus speeches and says he wants to reconcile the parties in Myanmar. But he has so far taken no initiative to end the war. India is obviously more concerned with promoting its own standing in the region. Earlier this year, the UN established that Indian companies have supplied Myanmar with vast amounts of weapons since the coup in 2021. India is also keen to avoid unrest along the long shared border with Myanmar.

Other countries in Asia, such as the members of ASEAN, are woefully passive and let the junta do as it pleases. Thailand, itself ruled by powerful generals, is a good but sad example.

Myanmar is richly endowed by nature. The country has nevertheless been an economic failure, and it still is. A noticeable improvement occurred during the rule of Aung San Suu Kyi, but the pandemic set the economy back, and the junta's mismanagement has worsened the situation. In the last two years, the country's gross domestic product (GDP) has shrunk by 13 per cent, enough to wipe out ten years of steady progress. Roughly sixty percent of the inhabitants live below the official poverty line.

Few believe that the regime in Myanmar is about to fall. The progress of the armed opposition may, however, trigger internal conflicts in the leadership and force the resignation of the junta boss. Such shifts have taken place on several occasions since the 1990s. If the overall situation becomes even more critical for the junta, it is not inconceivable that the peaceful opposition will get a second chance. Meanwhile, it looks like the warring parties will sacrifice even more blood on the battlefield.

This article was published by Nettavisen 28.11.2023