Disaster looms in Myanmar’s rural heartlands as conflict continues
In its attempts to crush a pro-democracy uprising, the junta is destroying vital agriculture
More than a year after the military coup that plunged Myanmar into violent conflict, a deliberate catastrophe is taking shape in the centre of the country.
The worsening situation made international headlines in July, when the junta executed four pro-democracy activists. But the greatest changes are in rural areas that form part of the country’s demographic, cultural and social core.
Resistance to the military is fiercest in rural parts of Sagaing and Magway; regions which, together with Mandalay, are home to the Bamar people, Myanmar’s dominant cultural and linguistic group. Junta forces have responded with an ongoing campaign of killings, arson and forced displacement.
With a junta-enforced communications blackout, little information seeps out and it is with considerable difficulty that humanitarian assistance gets in. It should be clear now that the State Administration Council (SAC) junta intends to starve the entire population into submission. There are frightening echoes of what Stalin did in Ukraine during the ‘Red Famine’ years of 1932-33.
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The junta knows very well that a clear-cut military victory is no longer feasible. The Myanmar military seems to be strong on paper and in the minds of some foreign experts. In reality its situation verges on the precarious. Hence it has to resort to drastic measures upon entire rural populations.
The timeline of resistance to the coup of 1 February 2021 is marked by a descent into mass brutality. At the beginning, peaceful mass protests in the cities had an almost carnival-like air to them. Then security forces used live ammunition, resulting in deaths. Barricades were put up by protesters but these too were demolished, with heavy calibre fire in some cases.
The outcome this year hangs in the balance
Gradually the urban demonstrations died down and the opposition moved to the next logical stage – that of armed resistance. The monsoon breaks in May every year, and that was when ‘people’s defence forces’ (PDFs) began to form, arm and train.
Sagaing Region, to the north of the old capital of Mandalay, is largely flat and closely-cultivated, dotted with small towns and villages. There were protest rallies there, like everywhere else, notably in the chief town of Monywa. After junta forces used armed force against some villages, resistance with makeshift weapons spread like wildfire.
Yinmabin township, across the Chindwin River from Monywa, became a centre of PDF activity. The junta’s retaliatory strategy of killings and torching entire villages ensued and expanded in the following months. Sagaing has the highest number of homes destroyed by fire in the country.
Homes, livelihoods and food supplies have been totally destroyed. Over the past decade or so, Sagaing earned a reputation as Myanmar’s second breadbasket (after the Delta in the south). Now, with the havoc raining down on farming families and all they own, regional food insecurity stares us in the face.
Agrarian issues were there all along, and successive elected governments did not resolve or even acknowledge them. Land comes foremost, with unbridled land confiscation by the military as well as (mostly crony) companies. Then comes extensive out-migration, with families selling assets and moving to greener pastures or adjoining countries.
The resistance leadership is local and doesn’t spring from any political party
Environmental problems such as land degradation and loss of natural cover are also growing. But all these did not engender much political unrest, much less revolution. Hundreds of farmers’ unions were formed after restrictions on unions were loosened in 2011, but they have been able to do very little. Some political parties paid lip service to agrarian problems but real action was lacking.
People in rural areas staged protest marches against the coup, just as in many other places. And it was the heavy-handedness of the troops that sparked the revolt. The fact that this happened most vigorously in Sagaing warrants a deeper look. As mentioned above, the agrarian disruptions are a direct consequence of military ‘counter-insurgency’ strategy and operations. They interlock with the other violations – the arson, looting and wanton destruction, religious sites included.
The resistance leadership is local and doesn’t spring from any political party. Arms are in short supply and this has led to a flowering of ingenuity, creativeness and metal-working. The outcome this year hangs in the balance. As with the majority of revolutions, icons are being demolished – the established political leadership, senior Buddhist clergy, so-called civil society, and generally the old way of seeing and doing things.
Before 2021, longer-term armed violence in Myanmar was seen as a conflict between the majority Bamar and other ethnic groups. This has now been turned on its head. The savagery of the attacks on Bamar Buddhist villages is without precedent.
The rural populace are not looking for saviours; they want to be self-sufficient but are open to arms supplies. The social cleavages in the country must be acknowledged. It says a lot that at a time when rural resistance fighters are going to battle with home-made guns and the womenfolk are donating their gold jewellery to purchase ammunition, there is a rat-line of affluent families heading abroad (usually to Thailand), taking their assets with them. A fraction of that wealth could give a boost to the anti-junta war.
The coup forces mounted an assault upon all who oppose them, and then some more. The impact of the all-out war upon rural, agrarian Myanmar is many-sided and difficult to fathom at this point. But it will certainly not go easy on the junta and its remaining forces.
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