Interviews with Christian Lechervy, French ambassador to Myanmar regarding the grim situation in the country.
On 1 February, Myanmar entered the second year of conflict between the army and a huge portion of the masses. As each day brings new horrors and massacres, the future of the country seems more uncertain than ever. Christian Lechervy, French ambassador to Myanmar, shares with us his impressions from Rangoon and tells us more about a country that is being torn apart by violence.
After ten years of a promising democratic transition, Myanmar has been under the control of a military junta for more than a year. How would you describe this new act in the country’s political history?
Regression. How can we not use this image when the statistics take us back 15 years? In 2021, Myanmar’s economic growth has contracted by more than 18%, poverty has doubled, the number of people in need of humanitarian aid has multiplied by seven and more than 450,000 people have been forced to flee their homes. In Kayah State [in the east of the country], nearly 60% of the population has been displaced by the fighting. Nationally, 46% of the population is now living below the poverty line.
This economic and social regression has been compounded by a weakening of the state, particularly in its educational and health functions. The military coup of 1 February 2021 considerably amplified the difficulties arising from the spread of COVID-19 since March 2020. It led to a disruption of the administrative system: more than a third of civil servants were dismissed for political reasons. The putsch has created such a level of mistrust in the state apparatus that millions of children are no longer in school and many patients are avoiding treatment in public institutions. The result has been two years of no schooling for most institutions, from elementary schools to universities, and thousands of casualties due to lack of care and access to medicine. Myanmar now has the lowest vaccination rate in Southeast Asia.
While its inhabitants are massively confronted with the OMICRON variant, it is one of the three countries in the world that, due to political and administrative obstacles, has not yet been able to benefit from the COVAX vaccine access facility. By restricting its drug imports in the name of self-sufficiency and reducing foreign currency expenditure, nearly 35,000 people have lost their lives according to international organisations. The authors of the 2021 pronunciamiento have damaged the future of their country. They are not establishing, as they say, a “genuine disciplined multiparty democracy”. They have restored a military regime. The government is subservient to the State Administration Council headed by the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services. The new executive is not only reversing the gains of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government (2016-2021), but also those made by her former predecessor, General Thein Sein’s regime from 2010 to 2016.
THE POPULATION IN FIGURES:
forced to flee
46% of the population
living below the poverty line
jobs destroyed in the last two years
“Many Burmese feel that they have no future. This perception is transgenerational. When the military took over, they underestimated the extent to which they would face family opposition from all ages.
What is the impact of this overthrow of power on Burmese civilians today?
We see a country in the midst of a civil war. Although the Republic of the Union of Myanmar has never known peace and civil harmony since its independence in January 1948, armed clashes are now taking place in parts of central Myanmar where they have not been seen for decades. Major cities (Mandalay, Rangoon) and even the capital Nay Pyi Taw, are experiencing deadly gun battles and explosive attacks on security force installations or those linked to their interests and officers. The Burmese live in fear of informers (dalan), armed raids and the ensuing abuses (arrests, torture, racketeering, property damage, etc.). Many Burmese feel that they no longer have a future. This perception is transgenerational. It is very perceptible among Generation Z but also among the older generation, starting with their parents who lived through the revolutions of 1988 and Saffron (2007). In taking power, the military underestimated the extent to which they would face family opposition from all ages. Unlike past juntas, General Min Aung Hlaing’s junta did not oppose civilians demanding democratic change, but rather toppled a civilian government that had come to power through the ballot and was called upon to succeed itself by the clearly expressed will of the people (on 8 November 2020).
The Tatmadaw leaders (the name of the army in Myanmar) have taken away the voice of the people. The people’s anger is even greater. This time, it is being expressed through peaceful political action, but also through the use of arms. Around 350 People’s Defence Groups (PDFs) have been formed since the second quarter of 2021. They have broad popular support, both in the countryside and in the cities. They conduct their operations themselves but also in cooperation with armed ethnic groups (Chin, Kayah, Kachin, Kayin). These connivances are based on short-term politico-military interests between opponents against the military, but they suggest the possibility of deeper and even more promising convergences for the future of society, particularly when the actors outline a common desire to build a ‘federal and democratic’ Myanmar. We are still a very long way from this, but it is clear that there are new inter-ethnic and partisan rapprochements.
From outside the country, the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) gave the impression that the whole of Burmese society rejected the military takeover.
The scale of the rejection of the military coup has been matched by the support given by citizens to the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the last general election on 8 November 2020. Indeed, the most violent fighting is now taking place in areas (Magway, Sagaing) and states (Chin) where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won an electoral triumph in 2020, both in the national and provincial elections.
The challenge to the military coup also came from within the State itself. As a symbol of this, the first peaceful protester to be shot by the police was killed on 9 February in the capital Nay Pyi Taw. From the beginning of the coup, one of the leaders of the protest was the medical profession. It was from Mandalay and its medical faculty that the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) started. It is true that since the NLD came to power, the health and education sectors have benefited from new resources, whereas these public policies were neglected for years by the generals in power.
The CDM demonstrated that the popular revolt of Spring 2021 was not just the revolt of a Facebook-connected, urban and privileged youth, it was an expression of popular discontent, including among established executives who had sometimes worked very closely with previous military regimes. The spectacular rallying of Myanmar’s permanent representative to the United Nations to the opposition was one sign of this discontent.
As the months passed, the CDM protests have evolved. On 10 December 2021 and 1 February 2022, they were successfully translated into nationwide dead-city operations. They were accompanied by boycotts of products manufactured by companies owned by the army (mobile phone subscriptions, beer, cigarettes, etc.) and even by fundraising (treasury bonds, national lottery). The junta has not managed to contain this opposition and to find ways of dealing with these evolving forms of expression, which have been unusual in Myanmar until now.
What degree of violence are we talking about today?
It is difficult to establish a reliable assessment. Generally, the statistics published daily by the Association for the Assistance of Political Prisoners (AAPP) are used to measure the degree of victimisation. According to this non-governmental opposition source, as of 18 February 2022: 1,560 people have been killed, 12,228 arrested and 1,973 are wanted on warrants. This count is only a partial account of the violence. It is not able to count the number of casualties among the forces of law and order. These are far from negligible. High-intensity fighting takes place regularly. Since the beginning of the dry season, the Tatmadaw has increased its bombing operations from aircrafts and helicopters. Artillery is also used on a massive scale. Disproportionate use of force is very common. Numerous war crimes are and have been committed, with impunity so far.
The Tatmadaw’s human resources are limited in number and quality. Its intelligence, particularly in urban areas, is often deficient. These shortcomings result in increased brutality against property (arson, looting, etc.) and people (human shields, deaths in detention and during interrogation, forced recruitment, indiscriminate shooting, etc.). Abuses are also committed by paramilitary groups (Pyu Saw Htee) or ethnic militias affiliated with the Tatmadaw, as is the case in the west and north of the country. They also exist on the opposition side. There have been reports of the recruitment of child soldiers, extra-judicial executions and scattered mines. All these acts are reprehensible.
Does diplomacy today have concrete means to defend the weakest in Myanmar? In particular, the children who are victims of the armed conflicts?
There is not and will not be a solution to tragedies in Myanmar without the Burmese themselves. If we demand immediate and indiscriminate access to people in need, it depends fundamentally on the actors on the ground and in the country. The exits from the crisis that are being explored, notably by ASEAN or with the United Nations, have access to humanitarian aid at their core. This objective is included in the five principles of consensus agreed in April 2021 in Jakarta by the Heads of State and Government of Southeast Asia when they met for the first time with General Min Aung Hlaing. It is because of the lack of progress, particularly on this point, that it was not invited to the leaders’ summit at the end of 2021 and that its Foreign Minister was excluded from the meetings scheduled by the Cambodian Presidency. The humanitarian issue is considerable, as almost half of the Burmese population is now living below the poverty line. While there is a need to provide massive humanitarian aid, which today is largely reduced to assistance programmes and therefore to dependency on the population, it is also essential to safeguard access to basic services in the long term by going beyond the operational modalities of humanitarian action.
In the past year, almost twelve million children have been taken out of school. You are right to say that children are among the first victims of the military coup and the intensification of the civil war. 1,200,000 children are in need of humanitarian assistance. More than 40% of displaced people are children. Urban poverty has been multiplied by three. Nearly one hundred children have been killed in the past year by forces under the orders of the junta. Among the bad news, eight parties to the conflict have been identified by UNICEF as having used child soldiers: the Tatmadaw, particularly in Chin State and the Sagaing region, but also the KNU, the DKBA, the KNU-PC, the KNPP, the USWA, the KIA and the RCSS. Some fifty children and adolescents from the ranks of the People’s Defence Forces are reported to be in detention.
Karen National Union
Karen National Union Peace Council
Karen National Progressive Party
Democratic Karen Buddhist Army
United Wa State Army
Kachin Independence Army
Restoration Council of Shan State
“The digital battle is one of the essential dimensions of the struggle that has begun. Support and attention from outside, from diasporas and developing countries, will be just as crucial.
What can we expect in the coming months?
Throughout the north-western arc of the country, there is a risk that fighting will continue, at least until the rainy season. Urban harassment against the interests and supporters of the junta is also likely to be an everyday occurrence. Peaceful demonstrations (flash mobs) will also continue. The mobilisation of the opposition to the junta will take place through messages on social networks, which the junta’s services will seek to limit by increasing the cost of communications or by banning VPNs. The digital battle is one of the key dimensions of the struggle that has begun. Support and attention from outside, from diasporas and third states, will be just as crucial.
On the diplomatic side, efforts will be made on all fronts. In the Security Council, the Burmese crisis will remain on the agenda, with the new Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General being called to account. The same will be true for Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Prak Sokhonn with his ASEAN peers who have appointed him as their Special Envoy for 2022. In the European Union, new sanctions will be introduced against individuals or economic entities if an inclusive political dialogue is not seriously established. On the French side, we will continue our efforts with our regional and international partners of goodwill. Humanitarian action will be a top priority in this respect. As for the economic situation, it will hardly improve, particularly because of the lack of confidence in the policies conducted by the State Administration Council and the absence of foreign investment. Major multilateral donors will not be called upon to resume their vital funding for infrastructure development and growth in the near future. In this context, it will be very difficult for the Burmese economy to recreate the 1.6 million jobs destroyed in recent months by the COVID-19 and the effects of the coup. In one year, 31% of construction jobs, 27% of garment jobs and 30% of tourism jobs have been lost.
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