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SITUATION UPDATE 5 March, 2021 Back

Situation Update - Myanmar Unrest

Leanne Self

Summary

  • Mass protests have taken place almost daily in several cities and towns across Myanmar to oppose the 1 February military coup.

  • The military continues to defend its actions on 1 February alleging fraud took place in the November 2020 election that returned Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to power.
  • In addition to a year-long state of emergency, the authorities have declared martial law in various cities and towns across Myanmar, banning people from protesting or gathering in groups of more than five, and restricting movement between 20:00 and 04:00 local time daily.
  • As of 2 March, at least 1,294 people have been arrested in relation to the coup, including President Win Myint and elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
  • The violent crackdowns at demonstrations have attracted deep concerns and condemnation, with several international governments imposing sanctions on military leaders responsible for the coup.
  • Nationwide internet and mobile data services are experiencing ongoing disruptions and most banks have suspended branch operations. The Central Bank of Myanmar is limiting cash withdrawals.
  • Ongoing strike action under the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) has significantly slowed down health services, including testing and treatment of COVID-19. Slowdowns along with mass protests is expected to significantly increase Myanmar's COVID-19 infections.

Situation

Since the military seized control and detained elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party on 1 February, mass protests have taken place almost daily in several cities and towns across Myanmar to oppose the coup. The most notable protests have occurred in Mandalay, Yangon and Naypyidaw, attracting tens of thousands of people in what have been described as the largest demonstrations in the country since the 2007 "Saffron Revolution", which helped to push the country from military rule towards democracy.

Although perceived as more peaceful than the mass protests in the "Saffron Revolution", when thousands of monks rose up against the military regime, clashes between protesters and the police have occurred. Security forces have often resorted to utilising tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, stun grenades and water cannons to disperse protesters. The United Nations Human Rights Office has said that security forces have also used 'lethal and less-than-lethal force' after receiving "credible information" that officers have also fired live ammunition into crowds. Sunday, 28 February, has been described as the 'bloodiest day' so far, with at least 18 people reportedly killed across the country. Violent clashes have also occurred between pro-military and anti-coup protesters. Since the coup began, dozens of protesters have been injured and at least 30 people have been killed.

As of 2 March, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) is reporting that at least 1,294 people, including activists, teachers, journalists and members of civil society, have been arrested in relation to the coup. Hours before the military seized power on 1 February, Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other NLD leaders were arrested in a series of raids. Suu Kyi was initially charged for illegally importing walkie-talkies found in her home; however, on 16 February, she was charged with a second offence under the country’s natural disaster management law. On 1 March, two new charges were filed against Suu Kyi after being accused of violating a communications law as well as inciting public unrest. President Win Myint is also facing new charges, including a breach of the constitution, and violating protocols to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Myanmar professionals who are vital to the country’s economy, including health professionals, bankers, lawyers, teachers and engineers, are leading the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). The CDM has attracted support from a broad range of professionals who are refusing to work until the military releases those that have been detained, including elected political leaders, and returns the country to civilian rule.

New charges against Suu Kyi and Win Myint, as well as the violent crackdowns at demonstrations, have attracted deep concerns and international condemnation. The United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, among others, have imposed sanctions on military officials responsible for the coup, most of whom have already been placed under sanctions following the Rohingya crisis in 2018. On Tuesday, 2 March, several members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have called on Myanmar's military to cease using lethal force against peaceful demonstrators and release detained NLD leaders. Thousands of demonstrators are beginning to appeal for international help by protesting in front of foreign embassies and United Nations agencies in Yangon and the capital, Naypyidaw.

Implications

The military has continued to justify the coup, which occurred as a new session of parliament was set to open, alleging fraud took place in the November 2020 election that returned Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to power. The election commission has said there is no evidence to support these claims.

On 1 February, a year-long state of emergency was declared and a nationwide curfew is in place between 20:00 and 06:00 daily, during which security forces patrol the cities and streets. Yangon International Airport also remains closed until 31 May. During the week beginning 8 February, the authorities declared martial law in various cities and towns across Myanmar, including in seven townships in Mandalay, a township in Ayeyarwady Region, and several urban townships in Yangon, Shwebo, Monywa, Sagaing, Kalay in Sagaing Region, Bago, and Pharsong in Kayah State. Under the law, people are banned from protesting or gathering in groups of more than five, and a curfew will run from 20:00 until 04:00 local time. Despite the implementation of martial law, tens of thousands of protesters have continued to demonstrate.

Throughout the day on 1 February, the country experienced widespread internet connectivity issues. Since then, the country has experienced several night-time internet and mobile data blackouts, with recent data from Netblocks showing that the internet has been operating at around 13 percent of ordinary levels between 01:00 and 09:00. Social media sites including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook have also been blocked and Facebook has banned the military from using its platforms to prevent them spreading “misinformation”. Local businesses have stated that the widespread blackouts are impacting operations. Despite the internet blackouts, activists continue to livestream protests and strikes on social media by downloading virtual private network (VPN) services to skirt the ban. A draft cyber security bill released on 11 February proposes granting the regime a wide range of new powers, including requiring online service providers in Myanmar to locally store user data for three years.

With the exception of state-run Myanmar Economic Bank, most banks have suspended branch operations due to the ongoing unrest across the country. From Monday, 1 March, the Central Bank of Myanmar is limiting cash withdrawals from banks and automated teller machines, aimed at "facilitating the transition to digital economy" by reducing cash usage among government agencies and the public. According to a directive signed by central bank Deputy Governor Than Than Swe, individuals will not be allowed to withdraw more than 2 million kyat (S$1,885) from their bank accounts while businesses will be allowed to withdraw up to 20 million kyat a week. ATM cash withdrawals will be capped at 500,000 kyat a day, half of the previous daily limit of 1 million kyat.

As general strike action under the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) continues across the country, a significant slowdown of health services, including the prevention, testing and treatment of COVID-19 is occurring. The almost total stop of testing, along with recurrent mass protests is expected to significantly increase the COVID-19 prevalence in the country. There is no reliable visibility on the country's epidemiological situation at this time. In addition, humanitarian assistance is also severely impacted by the CDM strike action, with partners reporting delays in important food and cash distribution. Food insecurity in the country is therefore expected to rise.

The military currently intends to hold power for a year before proposed new elections are held; however, precise details regarding a timeline for this remain limited. The current uncertainty in the details and duration of a military rule are likely to have wider implications on internal society, as well as international political and diplomatic relationships. Anti-coup mass demonstrations and unrest are expected to continue nationwide, which will likely cause ongoing internet blackouts, bank service suspensions, travel restrictions and healthcare interruptions.