MS Risk Blog

Myanmar: Stability up in the Air

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In December 2021 and early January the international community witnessed an escalation of the internal conflict in Myanmar. The UN Rights Office recently warned that the Human Rights situation is worsening on an unprecedented scale, and fresh prison sentences against the former leader Aung San Suu Kyi only add fuel to internal divisions. News broke when 30 civilians were killed and burned on Christmas eve in Moso, in the state of Kayah. Other incidents, including the killing of eleven civilians in Salingyi Township, Sagaing region, or the death of a journalist in prison have been only some of the news coming from the country in the last weeks.

The Min Aung Hlaing Administration is far from achieving a complete control of the country. The Myanmar armed forces, or Tatmadaw, have been increasing their fighting against local armed resistance groups across the country, especially in Karen and Kayah states. In Karen, a region bordering Thailand, the rebel group Karen National Union has been stepping up the fight against the military junta. Around midnight on 23 December, the Tatmadaw launched at least two air strikes against the guerrillas. Thai Foreign spokesperson Tanee Sangrat reported that the two air strikes also affected Thais residing on the border between the two countries.

In Sagaing region and Shan state clashes between the military and local resistance groups are being waged on a daily basis. While some ethnic armed groups have offered their support to the local civilian resistance groups, some remain ambivalent. It is unclear the extent to which civilian resistance groups could inflict significant damages to the military. It is expected that the fighting will continue until its main objective of toppling the military regime is achieved. Ethnic guerrillas, around two dozen in the country, could take advantage of the political turmoil to attain greater political leverage and eventually achieve autonomy. According to the Association for Political Prisoners of Myanmar, more than 1,300 people have been killed by the military and almost 8,300 have been arrested or convicted since the coup in February 2021.

Moreover, it is estimated that since December 15, more than 10,000 people have fled Karen, including more than 4,200 who, according to the Thai Foreign Ministry, have already crossed the border. Several non-governmental organizations are asking Bangkok not to close its borders due to the massive arrival of refugees. Apart from violence, civilians are fleeing to neighbouring countries due to the lack of humanitarian aid. The junta is deliberately blocking the provision of humanitarian aid in conflict-ridden states as a form of punishment for the support of the civilian population to resistance groups. The situation is so critical that Myanmar has reached a level of impoverishment not seen since 2005. The strategy of blocking the provision of humanitarian aid is part of the wider strategy that the Tatmadaw has been using for decades: the ‘four cuts’. Even if the Tatmadaw does not use that term anymore, the strategy is definitely the same as that of the four cuts they have used against the ethnic population for more than 70 years, which consists of preventing the guerrillas from accessing food, financing, intelligence information and the possibility of recruitment. To make things worse, aid efforts have faced a number of significant operational challenges including travel and COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Overall, this situation will further intensify the existing economic, social, and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.

Apart from the more commonly conflict-ridden areas of the country where ethnic minorities are present, the conflict has spread to urban areas as well. The deterioration of the socioeconomic conditions has cropped up resistance in cities and regions where the ethnic Bamar are a majority. On 5 December five protesters were killed and several dozens were injured during anti-government protests in Yangon after a car initially drove into a group of demonstrators at high speed. Besides, and coinciding with International Human Rights Day on 10 December, thousands of citizens joined the calls of activist groups to stage an unprecedented “silent protest” against the regime. Businesses were closed and people isolated themselves at home across the country to show their rejection of junta violence.

The internal turmoil has been escalated with new prison sentences for the leader of the National League for Democracy party and Myanmar’s former state councillor (head of government) Aung San Suu Kyi. On 6 December she was sentenced to two years in prison for inciting violence and failure to comply with COVID-19 measures. The sentence was initially of four years in prison, but shortly after the ruling was known, the military junta made official a partial pardon that reduced the sentence to 2 years. In addition, on 10 January Suu Kyi was sentenced, in other two processes, to a total of four more years in prison for violating the laws against the pandemic and for the illegal importation and possession of various telecommunications devices. There has been a widespread international rejection for these judicial processes, which have been considered politicized and lacking of judicial guarantees. Suu Kyi could still face nine other charges with accumulated penalties that exceed 100 years in prison.


Given the new escalation of violence by the Tatmadaw the international community has announced a new set of sanctions against the junta. As a response to human rights abuses, the US and other governments such as those of Canada and the United Kingdom have imposed a fresh set of sanctions on dozens of people and entities linked to Myanmar. Moreover, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, urged the imposition of an international arms embargo on the country. The international community is also keeping an eye on ASEAN moves. Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, started in early January an official visit to Myanmar that has been widely criticized by fellow members of ASEAN, especially by Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, as being a move to legitimate the junta’s actions. Cambodia will chair the presidency of ASEAN in 2022, and the situation in Myanmar is set to increase internal divisions within the organization. The leaders of ASEAN already agreed on a Five-Point consensus plan in April 2021 to tackle the internal crisis in Myanmar, which resulted in an evident fiasco.

The escalation of violence in Myanmar against civilians, as well as the continued persecution of political opponents and journalists has led to new sanctions against the junta. Furthermore, the internal situation in Myanmar has increased tensions in neighbouring countries, since Thailand has seen a significant increase in refugees from Myanmar, and the Cambodian Prime Minister’s state visit has generated tensions among ASEAN members. The following months will be filled with internal uncertainty and external criticisms.