Myanmar Round-Up: May 2021
Cchavi Vasisht, Research Associate, VIF

Since the military coup in February, Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi appeared for the first time at a court on 24 May. Her lawyer stated that she was determined to defend the integrity of her political party. Myanmar military has branded the National Unity Government (NUG) (government formed by elected members of November elections) as a terrorist group and blamed it for bombings, arson and killings.

Myanmar has been reeling under chaos with rampant protests and strikes across the country. Meanwhile, anti-coup protesters called for a “spring revolution”. According to the International Crisis Group report, the internet has become a virtual battlefield with military leaders limiting access to “white-listed” sites. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners has claimed that the military has killed more than 800 people and detained more than 4000 individuals. However, on 20 May, military leader Ming Aung Hlaing in his interview, disputed the number of protesters and individuals killed by security forces protests since February, stating the actual casualty figure was about 300 and that 47 police forces had also been killed.

Domestic Political Situation

Myanmar's military-appointed Election Commission claimed that the NLD won the November elections by fraud. However, the claims were dismissed by the former electoral commission. Furthermore, the Asian Network for Free Elections said the outcome of the November vote was "by and large, representative of the will of the people of Myanmar” and have rejected claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election. The Asian Network for Free Elections had observers at more than 400 polling stations during November's vote. Nevertheless, they stated that several "irregularities" were there because of the COVID-19 pandemic and ethnic conflicts in the country. It also said those irregularities meant the election was not as free and fair as the previous vote in 2015.1

During the month, the directives issued on 04 February were revealed through which military leader Min Aun Hlaing made himself the de facto leader by removing the age restrictions, which enforces retirement age 65. Just two months away from his 65th birthday, he changed the rule by issuing a directive and stated that the commander-in-chief and the deputy commander-in-chief remain in their positions as long as the situation requires. This was confirmed by Maj-Gen Zaw Min Tun, the military’s deputy information minister and military spokesperson, in a recent interview with the BBC’s Burmese-language service. 2

After the ASEAN summit, the State Administration Council (SAC), the military’s ruling body, announced it would consider ASEAN’s ‘suggestions’ only after the situation returns to stability. Since then, ASEAN leaders have focussed on the other points of the consensus, particularly the choice of a special envoy. However, on 07 May, the SAC announced that it would not accept any visit until the domestic situation stabilises’. Following SAC’s decision, on 11 May, a group of ethnic armies, such as the Restoration Council for Shan State and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, called on ASEAN and other partners to mediate. 3

The NUG has further stated that it will not negotiate with the military under current circumstances. The NUG has established a People’s Defence Force to train civilians to fight the military. The force is being trained in territory controlled by the Karen National Union which is engaged in large-scale clashes with the Myanmar military. The NUG is working in a coalition with ethnic armed organisations to challenge military rule.

Due to protests and demonstrations, and clashes around the country, the country is reeling under humanitarian crises. The food prices are rising, COVID-19 testing has reduced, and health care infrastructure is in pieces. Because of the clashes in various states such as Karen, Kachin and Chin, thousands of individuals are displaced. Fitch Solutions has forecast that the economy will contract by 20 percent in 2021.

On the other hand, Myanmar Investment Commission approved 15 investments in projects worth nearly USD 2.8 billion. It did not give details of the companies/countries behind the projects.4 Also, illegal mining of rare-earth minerals has surged in an area controlled by a military-linked militia since the military coup. The environmental groups stated that the mining has increased by at least five times in Pangwa and Chipwi townships in northern Kachin State, with a rapid influx of Chinese workers. Despite COVID-19 restrictions, materials for mining moved across the border easily. Myanmar is China’s largest rare earth source, accounting for over half of its supplies. According to Kachin environmental groups, over 100 rare earth mines in Pangwa and Chipwe townships are controlled by the military and Chinese investors.5 Protecting the interests of China, the military tribunal sentenced 28 people to 20 years in jail with hard labour for arson attacks on two factories in March 2021. A total of 32 Chinese-invested factories were attacked in March 2021.6

According to the International Crisis Group, the Myanmar military is restricting internet access to only "white-listed" sites to silence dissenting voices that oppose its power. The military is also limiting access to only fiber data connections that is available to a limited population. The military also stated that it is developing an "intranet" for the country that will allow access to only approved applications.7

Protests and Ethnic Conflicts Continues

The armed and ethnic conflicts which were generally confined to the frontiers of Myanmar have now reached the urban areas. During the month, four bomb blasts killed two police near the military’s General Administrative Office in Yangon on 21 May. The military is continuing to arrests NLD candidates. This month military arrested two former NLD candidates from Rakhine State, Ni Ni May Myintand Chit Chit Chaw.8 On the other hand, on the village side, rampant arrests and detentions took place. For example, around 14 people were arrested from Yinmabin and Kani townships in the Sagaing region that are resisting military rule. There have been five major clashes since April in that region. Myanmar citizens are raising arms with whatever they can access. For example, locals in Yinmabin and Kani townships made homemade hunting rifles known as Tumi guns.9

The Brotherhood Alliance - includes the Arakan Army, Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Ta'ang National Liberation Army, and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army is clashing with the military. According to the residents, the military has set landmines around Namparchi; however, the military alleged that the KIA planted the mine.10 The clashes between the military and KIA continued during the month. In total, there have been more than 50 battles between the two since the coup in February. Earlier on 03 May, the KIA shot down a Myanmar military helicopter as it was carrying out airstrikes in Momauk, Kachin State. The fighting in Momauk surrounds Alaw Bum base on a hill on the Chinese border, which KIA had seized on 25 March. The hill is strategically crucial for gaining the upper hand over areas between Bhamo and Myitkyina.11

The military also attacked Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) with artillery near Nam Khong village on 07 May. Since 04 May, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), part of the Northern Alliance, clashed near Ner Moong and Ner Yok villages.12

The tensions have risen in the Hpapun area, Shwe Kyin and Thaton Districts, in Karen and Bago regions after the military wing of the KNU, Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) Brigade 5 seized an outpost near the Salween River in Thi Mu Hta held by the military’s Light Infantry Division 349 on 27 March. KNU Brigade 5 also overran a military border post on the banks of the Salween River in Thaw Le Hta, near the border with Thailand’s Mae Hong Song Province a month later. Subsequently, the military launched airstrikes. 13

Myanmar’s military entered Mindat, a town in western Chin State, around 100 kilometres from the border with India. This was followed by days of fighting between the military and the Chin land Defense Force (CDF), formed in March 2021 to resist the military coup government. The CDF seized control of Mindat in the last week of April. The military placed Mindat under martial law on 13 May, after fighting erupted again between the military and the CDF, marking the end of a brief ceasefire that the two sides had established to facilitate a prisoner exchange.14

International Responses

The United States, United Kingdom, and Canada have imposed additional sanctions on Myanmar’s military, and tightened restrictions on economic dealings with the military government.On 14 May, the Government of Canada expanded its existing sanctions regime under the Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA) and amended the Special Economic Measures (Burma) Regulations to sanction ten new entities and 16 new individuals. These latest sanctions target key senior military and military-appointed officials, family members of designated officials, and affiliated commercial entities. Now, a total of 54 entities and 70 individuals are under sanctions. The sanctions continue to include an asset freeze and an arms embargo. Further the UK announced sanctions against the state-owned Myanmar Gems Enterprise. OFAC sanctioned four members of the SAC and nine military-appointed cabinet members, including the governor of the central bank and the ministers of commerce and planning and finance. OFAC also sanctioned three adult children of previously designated military officials. 15

Following Justice for Myanmar report, which targeted at stopping support to the military, several commercial tenants of the Sule Square complex, Yangon, have moved out or are reviewing their leases. The report had identified 18 tenants. Reuters approached these 18 companies, and stated that eight of the 18 had moved out or were reviewing office plans. Sule Square was developed by a local affiliate of Shangri-La Asia in 2017. According to a 2019 fact-finding mission established by the United Nations, the site was leased from the military. The World Bank, which also has an office in Sule Square, said it was "assessing the situation in Myanmar, according to internal policies and procedures".16

France’s Total stated that it would comply with any further US and European Union sanctions. It also claimed that it would continue its operations but would no longer direct cash payments to Myanmar's military. The MGTC pipeline-15 per cent owned by the military-controlled Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) -- brings gas from the offshore Yadana field operated by Total to Myanmar's border with Thailand. 17

Yuki Kitazumi, a Japanese reporter, arrested on 18 April was released by Myanmar’s military following efforts by Japanese diplomats and others. Kitazumi was arrested on 18 April for “inciting” anti-military civil disobedience and riots and violating visa regulations. Japan has criticised the military government’s crackdown on the opposition but has not imposed sanctions against military members.18 In another development, Myanmar’s military arrested a US journalist, Danny Fenster.19

Impact on India

As the Myanmar military continues crackdown on protestors, thousands of people have reached bordering Mizoram, India.The latest report from Mizoram state is that around 16,000 Myanmar refugees are now residing in Mizoram. Mizo people share a close ethnic affinity and familial relations with the Chin State population, and both have a predominantly Christian population. Those who fled Myanmar include government employees, police officers, and fire service personnel. Additionally, at least 20 lawmakers elected in Myanmar’s November 2020 general election have fled to India.20 Following the declaration of martial law in Myanmar’s Mindat town on 13 May, about 100 km from the Mizoram border, many more has entered. Further, the COVID-19 cases have complicated the situation.21

On the other hand, extremists groups in Manipur are fighting the Myanmar military’s war against its civilians. Manipur has seven active outfits, which the security forces call Valley-Based insurgent Groups (VBIGs), primarily comprising the Meitei community. The newest of these is the Pambei faction of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), the oldest VBIG formed in November 1964. According to a report in Myanmar, the Tamu Public Defence Force (TPDF), a militia of civilians in Myanmar, killed 15 soldiers of the Myanmar Military Council in a two-day battle in Tamu town and Pan Thar village. Four of the 15 killed were Kathe, the Burmese term for Meitei, the dominant community in Manipur’s Imphal Valley. There is a sizeable Meitei population in Kabaw Valley. However, the Indian intelligence agencies found that the four were members of either one of the seven VBIGs or at least two. Informants have also revealed that on 24 May, Myanmar military officials had a meeting with 14 top leaders of the VBIGs apparently to work on strategies against the armed pro-democracy activists.22


Numerous approaches have been suggested to challenge and change the course of chaos reeling the country. Independent Economists for Myanmar (IEM) suggested that effective sanctions, which could limit the ability of the regime’s SAC to collect revenue from natural gas, mining, and other resources, could change the military’s actions.23 On the other hand, nine Southeast Asian nations have proposed not to support the UN General Assembly draft resolution on Myanmar, including removing a call for an arms embargo on the country. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General António Guterres renewed his call on the military to respect the people’s will and act in the greater interest of peace and stability in the country. Furthermore, he encouraged ASEAN “to swiftly follow through on its own commitments” while urging the international community to support regional efforts and respond to the increased humanitarian needs.24

The military has declared the CRPH, NUG, PDF and their affiliated local defence teams to be terrorist organisations. At the same time, the NUG has denied negotiating with the military under current circumstances. As a result of the clashes, the ordinary citizens have now taken up any weapons available, from air guns to traditional firearms and homemade bombs, protesting against the regime. To date, according to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, more than 800 persons have been killed and 4,000 have been detained, including nearly 70 journalists.

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