Last Friday, the United Nations Human Rights Office for Myanmar released a report on the conflict in Myanmar that made for grim reading, even by the standards of the last two years. A new report found that 255 of Myanmar’s 330 townships, or nearly four in five, had been impacted by armed clashes between the military and those resisting its rule in the two years following the February 1, 2021 coup.
A statement accompanying the report’s release said that in seizing power and defending its coup by force, the military had created “a perpetual human rights crisis through the continuous use of violence, including the killing, arbitrary arrest, torture and enforced disappearance of anti-coup opponents.” The report, which has been produced for submission to the U.N. Human Rights Council, claimed that 2,940 people had been verified killed since the coup, in addition to 17,572 arrests of people on suspicion of opposing military rule.
“Two years after the military launched a coup, the generals have embarked on a scorched earth policy in an attempt to stamp out opposition,” Volker Türk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said in the statement, adding that the lack of regional and global action to stem the abuses had only enabled them.
“The military, emboldened by continuous and absolute impunity, has consistently shown disregard for international obligations and principles,” he added. “Urgent, concrete action is needed to end this festering catastrophe.”
The report draws most of this to the military’s “four-cuts” counterinsurgency strategy, first developed by the Ne Win regime in the 1970s, which sought to undermine ethnic armed groups by “cutting” their access to food, funds, information, and recruits. The approach has enjoyed something of a renaissance since the coup, as armed resistance has flared across the country, even in areas of Myanmar’s central dry plain that were once free of fighting.
According to the U.N., this has involved “indiscriminate deployment of airstrikes and artillery shelling, mass burnings of villages to displace civilian populations, and denial of humanitarian access.” The military’s use of these tactics has only worsened as time has gone by, with the U.N. recording more airstrikes in the second year of junta rule – 301, as compared to 125 during its first year – more artillery strikes (756 vs. 376) and more incidents in which troops burned homes and villages (1,355 vs. 282). Incidentally, the one indicator to fall significantly in the second year was arrests (3,584 in year 2 vs. 3,584 in year 1), which suggests the military has escalated its tactics beyond simply detaining those resisting its rule, to eliminating them outright.
The report singled out the systematic and widespread burning of villages and dwellings as one of the military’s most frequently employed tactics, noting that nearly 39,000 houses across the country have been razed by soldiers since February 2022 alone. The rise in violence has been sharpest in northwestern Myanmar – particularly Sagaing Region, which has become a hotbed of resistance activities – and southeastern Myanmar.
Indeed, Sagaing saw the most killings of any state or region in Myanmar, with 1,200, and was the most affected by arson, with more than 25,500 homes destroyed by the military, according to the U.N.
The report offers a dire accompaniment to the latest humanitarian update from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, published early last month, which found that “humanitarian needs are on the rise and the operational environment is further worsening.”
It reported that 1.2 million people had been and remain displaced by conflict and insecurity in the two years since the coup, bringing the total number of internally displaced people in Myanmar to more than 1.5 million. It further noted that some 17.6 million people – nearly a third of the population – are estimated to require humanitarian assistance in 2023.
All of this has been accompanied by continued stagnation of the country’s economy, which has been hit hard by work stoppages, internet blackouts, Western sanctions, and the vicissitudes of the widening conflict. According to the latest forecast from Fitch Solutions, released today, Myanmar’s gross domestic product will likely grow by 2.5 percent this financial year, which would leave the country’s GDP 15 percent smaller than it was on the eve of the 2021 coup. It concluded, “With much of the population in poverty, inflation surging, and foreign firms continuing to exit the market, economic output is set to remain significantly constrained for the foreseeable future.”