The Coup: Three-year-long Nightmare or Blessing in Disguise?

by mohingamatters

Just like any other country, Myanmar welcomed the new year 2024. Unlike other countries, the atmosphere in Myanmar is filled with hope as the pro-democracy public channels motivation and inspiration from Operation 1027, the military operation launched by ethnic armed groups in late 2024 which seems to be succeeding. While people celebrated the triumph of ethnic fighters, in alliance with other resistance forces, the military junta simply ignored the defeat that its army faced in Northern Shan State, probably hoping active skirmishes would eventually die down when China stepped in diplomatically.

However, 2024 began with a slap in the face for the military since the entire Regional Operation Command (Laukkai) which is one of the strongest commands in Myanmar military and stations in Northern Shan State, surrendered to Kokang’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) which is one of the members of Three Brotherhood Alliance in the first week of January. The surrender was led by six brigadier generals and included almost 4,000 personnel, thousands of heavy weaponry, and ammunition. One significant point to note here is the involvement of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) which initially distanced itself from Myanmar’s politics after the coup. UWSA raised its flag in the middle of Hopang town after the successful siege by the Three Brotherhood Alliance. While the military regime’s spokesperson General Zaw Min Tun admitted that Laukkai fell, a UWSA liaison officer also publicly declared that they had controlled Hopang.

The majority of Myanmar citizens were overjoyed with these news stories, and military analysts took an easy guess that conflicts would be intensified in the new year. Still, not everyone celebrates this shift in power because higher officials and businessmen from Lashio, the capital of Eastern Shan State, have prepared to flee as they worry that they will be the next hotspot after the fall of Northern Shan State to ethnic and resistance forces.

Are cities actually safe havens?

War only means people will suffer. Not just for humans, it is a basic instinct that all living things on earth flee to a safer place when their habitats face danger. Internally displaced people from conflict zones take refuge in bigger cities that they think are still peaceful. Questions remain for these bigger cities too. Are cities actually safe to live in? What kind of threats awaits city dwellers? How can they remain resilient when conflicts seep into their cities?

Cities from central Myanmar are still considered livable for all classes compared to the conflict zones. Clubs and bars are full houses regardless of age and class, and this may give the illusion that cities are safe. Still, they are not entirely safe although they are not as life-threatening as conflict zones. The bigger question is if big cities can promise the safety of those who come to take refuge. We will further discuss some major threats that Myanmar cities face.

Min Aung Hlaing’s army

The number one threat for all residents of Myanmar is the military itself. Although the army is losing the fight against the resistance fighters in ethnic areas, the regime troops in cities continue to terrorize the defenseless populace by holding them at gunpoint. To this day, the regime continues to abduct people including youths if they find them suspicious, and then torture them in interrogation centers.

Some families have the means to bribe the military for the release of their sons and daughters with tens of thousands of Myanmar kyats but those without these means end up behind bars for the long term, and in some cases, some lose their lives. It has become a routine for the military to scheme with regime-appointed ward administrators, conduct surprise checks at civilian houses in designated wards, and then extort money from them. Even in broad daylight, the regime soldiers can be seen working together with traffic police, stopping cars on the road and asking for bribe money with the reason of “road safety”. While the military council states in the media allocation of “security personnel” in cities, these soldiers are simply roaming around like mobs and terrorizing civilians.

Lack of job opportunities

The trust built between the then-civilian government and foreign investors from 2011 to 2021 collapsed when Min Aung Hlaing staged the coup on 1st February 2021. As a result, several foreign investors phased out and eventually terminated their projects which consequently adversely affected the job market. Young people are robbed of job opportunities and career development. On the other hand, local businesses were gearing up to resume their work in the new normal in 2021 after struggling in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 but unfortunately, the military coup only prolonged their struggle due to the mismanagement and illogical policies by the military council. As a result, thousands of employees across the country have been laid off and many struggle to find new jobs.

As an alternative, young and able people find better jobs abroad. Employment agencies for Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Japan are busier than ever, and service fees for those agencies are skyrocketing as well.

Threat of mobsters

The intention of internally displaced people is simple. They would move to cities that promise safety and provide job opportunities for their livelihood moving forward. It is visible that IDPs are slowly moving to cities, but they are not the only group that seeps into society. Since its power grab, the military council has released over 30,000 prisoners intending to reduce international and internal pressure on it, and only a handful of them are political prisoners while the majority are criminals. Surely, these individuals head to urban areas in different states and regions only to face a difficult life with limited job opportunities and an increasing cost of living. This situation pushes them to resort to criminal activities. News reports have proven that the crime rate is rising with no rule of law.

Policing mechanism

Myanmar Police Force (MPF) has always been considered a subordinate institute for the military. To make this situation worse, the military losing a large number of its troops in the battlefronts around the country demands the police force to act as a secondary attack force against resistance forces, and eventually tarnishes the role and mechanism of the police force. With such demand, Myanmar Police Force is put in a position where it fails to perform its primary objective which is to enforce the rule of law in the country. Rather than keeping citizens’ lives safe, the police force has to cooperate in cracking down on anti-coup protesters and oppressing dissidents while generating their income by extorting from the people. Even though crime rates have increased in the urban areas, bandits are still at large. Victims also no longer bother to file complaints as they lose faith in the policing system which will only cost them money and time if they get extorted. This is a sign that the policing mechanism is no longer effective in the country.

Shortage of goods, basic medicines, and increasing commodities prices

Myanmar citizens used to claim that contentment was a virtue as they tried to survive under the iron fist of military rule. When the country opened its doors to the world from 2011 to 2021, these people were introduced to good and quality commodities and hospitality services, and they seemed to enjoy these new experiences. With new imports from Western countries coming in, Myanmar citizens who were mostly familiar with products from the region, especially from China, started to use international brands. Unfortunately, since the military staged the coup, these brands gradually pulled out their businesses from Myanmar due to new restrictions made by the military council. As a result, people experience a shortage of imported goods, commodities, and medicines, and consequently, the prices of whatever items that still flow into the country by any means increase.

This impacts the entire country, but those in big cities with decent money suffer the most. From branded items that are worth thousands of dollars to cheap coffee sachets, most items are out of stock in the supermarket as the import trade is affected by the regime’s red tape. Even the rich people who used to be able to purchase the newest iPhones in the same month of release from the comfort of their own homes in Yangon or Mandalay can no longer afford this luxury. Similarly, imported ready-made milk bottles are most of the time out of stock in every supermarket, but when they are on shelves the next time, the prices hike at least 3 to 4 times than the last time they hit the shelves. People with money complain, “It doesn’t matter if the price goes up. It sucks that products are not available when we need them.” Well, those who do not have that kind of money have no choice but to rely on local made products or low-quality products from China.

Fuel shortage and power outage

Electricity blackouts are not something new for those who were born between 1985 to 1995. They are used to it. People in bigger cities had experienced a taste of having 24-hour electricity during the decade of transition, and they enjoyed it so much. Unfortunately, the country resorted back to the dark when the military regime decided to distribute power with the quota system. Due to the urban lifestyle, cities like Yangon and Mandalay need regular power, but these cities will suffer the worst electricity blackout this summer. To escape these blackouts, diesel engine generators are the go-to substitutes for blackouts. However, buildings in Yangon are not designed to house one generator per apartment, and there is only limited space for big diesel generators on the street as the city planning is not designed to accommodate them.

Yangon is not a city that is famous for its urban planning. While construction companies were permitted to build several highrise buildings to accommodate the growing city dwellers, the water supply system was not planned very well. Those who live on the upper floors use motors to generate water for their rooms so the water supply in turn relies on electricity. If a power outage gets too extreme, water shortage will be followed promptly. So far, the power outage is not too terrible and there are still some places for big generators on the streets. But the catch is that these generators are run on fuel. Since the military staged the coup, people experienced a shortage of fuel every now and then as they were imported items. However, it reached the worst situation in 2023 because junta-run Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) was sanctioned by the US and the crisis of foreign currency exchange rate persisted. No sign shows that things will get better for the oil and gas industry in 2024.

Growing addictive drug problem

After the coup, a new wave of the nightlife industry emerged such as live bands, karaoke bars, and overnight clubs. Many people believe that these hubs serve as distractions so that the public will stop supporting the pro-democracy movement. What is worse is that these places are homes for narcotics such as ecstasy and ketamine which are widely known as “party drugs”. One does not need to show ID or anything to buy these drugs. Users can simply say “Let’s go and get high” out loud in public with no consequences as if it means “Let’s go get some beer”. Nightclubs, karaoke bars, and pubs are now attracting customers to use drugs. Special trays which contain drugs are ready to be served to customers. There is no way that so-called security forces do not know about the surge of drugs, but rumor has it that military generals are involved in this drug business.

Discrimination against those from conflict area

News reports have been made that people who hold National ID cards from ethnic regions or resistant stronghold areas face discrimination such as having difficulties in finding jobs or accommodations. The General Administration Department, currently led by the regime, has a strict policy to check newcomers to each neighborhood as the regime feared resistance fighters seeping into the cities. Consequently, landlords and business owners avoid renting their properties to or hiring people who come from resistance stronghold regions. Even if internally displaced people who have nowhere but to take refuge in cities manage to support themselves, the regime-appointed ward administrators keep an eye out for them, and occasionally extort money from them.

Guerrilla attacks

With the regime’s significant loss in ethnic regions, urban guerilla attacks resurfaced again. Guerrilla groups have warned the public to stay away from soldiers and to avoid moving around the regime’s infrastructures and businesses that hold affiliations with the regime. However, the cities are mostly packed in terms of housing and buildings, and the military takes this as its advantage and takes cover among civilians’ properties. When the number of urban guerilla attacks, collateral damage is inevitable. This remains one of the most imminent threats for those who live in or come to take refuge in cities.

To conclude, the military regime is well aware of the threats that urban areas face as discussed above, but it seems that they are intentionally ignoring them. Probably, Min Aung Hlaing and his gang still think they can overcome the current dissent from the people. Seeing how they let the people suffer, one can only wonder if the regime is greatly benefiting from the people’s suffering.

It feels right to say this armed resistance is the ultimate battle to take down the military institution once and for all from the Myanmar political realm. But honestly, it has been a three-year-long nightmare and only time will tell if the entire thing has been a blessing in disguise after all.

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