What’s Happening in Myanmar? A Nation in Turmoil

Over 1.95 million people are currently displaced within Myanmar, with the majority being women, girls, and children.

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What's Happening in Myanmar A Nation in Turmoil
Photo: Ann Wang/Reuters

Myanmar, a Southeast Asian country of over 100 ethnic groups bordering India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, and Thailand, has been gripped by escalating conflict and severe human rights abuses since the military’s coup in February 2021. At least 2,000 people have been displaced within Myanmar by the latest surge in fighting, according to the civil society group Karen Peace Support Network.

Myanmar’s Civil War: How It Started

Military personnel in tanks participates in a parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, on March 27, 2021. Stringer/Reuters

The crisis in Myanmar, which has escalated into a full-blown civil war, can be traced back to February 2021 when the military, known as the Tatmadaw, staged a coup d’état. This move effectively overturned the democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), thus plunging the nation into turmoil and political unrest.

Moreover, the coup took place on February 1, 2021, just hours before the newly elected members of Parliament were set to convene for the first time since the November 2020 general elections. Furthermore, the military alleged widespread electoral fraud in the elections, although these claims were widely disputed by international observers.  

Consequently, the Tatmadaw seized control of key government institutions, declared a state of emergency, and detained civilian leaders, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. This power grab drew widespread condemnation both domestically and internationally, triggering mass protests across Myanmar.

In response to the military’s usurpation of power, various segments of Myanmar society, including civil society groups, students, ethnic minorities, and pro-democracy activists, mobilized to oppose the coup. As a result, this resistance movement, often referred to as the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), became a focal point of opposition to the military regime.

As the Tatmadaw sought to consolidate its control over the country, clashes between security forces and anti-coup protesters became increasingly violent. The military junta resorted to brutal tactics to suppress dissent, including the use of live ammunition, tear gas, and rubber bullets against peaceful demonstrators.

In addition to targeting protesters, the military regime also cracked down on dissenting voices within the media, civil society, and political opposition. As a result, journalists, activists, and politicians critical of the coup were arbitrarily arrested, detained, and subjected to harassment and intimidation.

Burma Human Rights Violations

The military junta has systematically violated the rights of Myanmar’s population, committing egregious abuses that contravene international human rights standards and laws. 

Since the coup, the military regime has engaged in a campaign of targeted arrests, detaining thousands of individuals perceived as dissenters, activists, or opponents of the junta. These arrests are often arbitrary and carried out without due process, with individuals being taken into custody without warrants or legitimate legal grounds. Once detained, many are subjected to harsh interrogation tactics, torture, and ill-treatment in detention centers, 

Moreover, the junta has systematically denied detainees their rights to fair trial and due process. Many are held incommunicado, without access to legal representation or contact with their families. Those brought before the courts often face sham trials conducted by military-controlled judicial bodies, where verdicts are predetermined, and basic legal protections are disregarded.

Attacks on Civilian Populations

The military junta unleashed a wave of violence against civilian populations across Myanmar, targeting not only anti-coup protesters but also ethnic minority communities and vulnerable groups. Security forces have carried out indiscriminate attacks, including airstrikes, artillery shelling, and ground assaults, resulting in civilian casualties and widespread destruction of homes, infrastructure, and livelihoods.

In particular, areas inhabited by ethnic minority groups, such as Chin, Kachin, Karen, and Rohingya communities, have borne the brunt of military aggression. Reports of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, and forced displacement have emerged from these regions, highlighting the severity of the human rights crisis.

Myanmar Refugee Crisis

What's Happening in Myanmar? A Nation in Turmoil
Rohingya refugees crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters

The ongoing conflict in Myanmar has triggered a massive humanitarian crisis, leading to the displacement of millions of people both internally and across borders. The plight of Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority group in Myanmar, has long been subjected to discrimination, marginalization, and violence at the hands of the military and local authorities. The military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State in 2017 resulted in the mass exodus of Rohingya refugees to neighboring Bangladesh, where they sought safety in overcrowded refugee camps.

The junta also imposed movement restrictions and aid blockages on Rohingya camps and villages, including a ban in September on UN and international nongovernmental operations, increasing water scarcity, food shortages, disease, and malnutrition.

Despite international calls for accountability and justice, Rohingya refugees continue to face dire conditions in refugee camps, with limited access to necessities such as food, clean water, healthcare, and education. Moreover, the Rohingya remain the world’s largest stateless population since 1982 deprived of citizenship rights and subjected to apartheid-like conditions both in Myanmar and in refugee-hosting countries.

Displacement and Cross-Border Migration  

In addition to the Rohingya crisis, the broader conflict in Myanmar has led to widespread displacement nearly 1 million people forced to flee their homes due to violence, persecution, and insecurity, with an additional 70,000 fleeing to neighboring countries such as Thailand, India, and Bangladesh.

The influx of refugees has presented significant challenges for host countries, which cannot often adequately support and accommodate displaced populations. As a result, refugees face precarious living conditions, limited access to essential services, and heightened vulnerability to exploitation, trafficking, and abuse.

International Response to the Myanmar Crisis

The situation in Myanmar has garnered attention from the international community, thus prompting various responses aimed at addressing the ongoing crisis. Several countries, including the United States, European Union member states, Canada, and the United Kingdom, have consequently imposed targeted sanctions on individuals and entities associated with the military junta.

The United Nations Security Council has also issued statements condemning the violence and calling for a peaceful resolution. However, the council has been divided, with China and Russia opposing stronger measures such as sanctions or intervention.

Meanwhile, regional organizations, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have attempted to mediate the crisis. ASEAN member states have held meetings and issued statements urging dialogue and reconciliation. However, progress has been limited due to differing perspectives among member states and the military junta’s reluctance to engage in meaningful dialogue.

In addition, the United Nations and various non-governmental organizations have provided aid to those affected by the crisis, delivering food, medical supplies, and other essential assistance to displaced populations within Myanmar and refugees in neighboring countries.

Furthermore, some countries, along with international organizations, have pursued legal action against the military junta for human rights violations and crimes against humanity. For example, The Gambia filed a case at the International Court of Justice alleging genocide against the Rohingya minority. Additionally, investigations into human rights abuses are ongoing at the International Criminal Court.

Moreover, calls for a global arms embargo on Myanmar have been made to prevent the military from acquiring weapons that could be used against civilians. However, implementing such an embargo requires consensus among major arms-exporting countries.

Despite these efforts, the international response to the Myanmar crisis remains fragmented, with challenges in achieving unity and decisive action.

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