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What does the future hold for Myanmar, one year after the coup?

Mr Aik Min sits in the remains of his house that was destroyed after clashes between the Myanmar military and Ta’ang National Liberation Army. PHOTO: MAR NAW FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

BANGKOK - Sunlight floods the home of Mr Aik Min in Myanmar's Shan state.

That is because it does not have much of a roof. There are gaping holes in the mangled metal sheathing overhead, which is barely supported by a bombed-out wooden truss.

The corrugated metal that used to be his bedroom wall is distended and missing in places, as a result of clashes between the military and an ethnic armed group supporting resistance against last year's coup.

The 40-year-old tea farmer now sleeps at the local monastery. He plans to repair his home some day, which is a lot more than what some people in Myanmar can hope for right now.

Across the country, at least 320,000 people have been displaced by armed clashes and insecurity since the Feb 1 coup last year. In places like the north-western Chin state and the eastern Kayah state, towns and villages have been sacked as the military rampages through populations most resistant to its rule. Civilians have been forced to abandon their homes and assets, or risk being abducted as human shields by the soldiers.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, over 2,200 homes and other civilian properties have been burned down or destroyed. With so many people on the run, current aid is not enough to meet the scale of emerging needs.

There is no political compromise in sight, almost one year after the military plunged the country into turmoil by seizing power from the civilian government.

Pre-coup Myanmar was already studded with territories controlled to various degrees by ethnic armed groups. But the unpopular coup has sent young people into the arms of numerous "people's defence forces", which are now waging armed insurgency against the junta.

Only some of the people's defence forces are coordinated by the parallel National Unity Government vying with the junta for international legitimacy.

A prolonged war of attrition is under way, with each side bent on crushing the other. Both suspected military informers and supporters of the deposed National League for Democracy (NLD) party have been murdered.

The junta, finding it hard to recruit more soldiers, is reportedly training and arming militia. It is pushing ahead with its "road map". Having annulled what it claims to be a fraudulent November 2020 election, it is edging towards installing a proportional representational system that will allow it to play kingmaker in fresh elections it promises to hold by August 2023.

"There is no popular support for the new elections in 2023," says political analyst Soe Myint Aung.

"For the future elections to be inclusive and credible, the military needs to mobilise more public participation and pro-democracy opposition. Legitimacy and successful implementation of the military road map are in jeopardy. Its mandate is limited and the timeframe is short.

"Even if the military can prolong its rule with brute force and coercion, Myanmar will not be stable and democracy cannot be restored due to continued resistance and opposition."

Protesters confront a police vehicle firing water cannons during a demonstration against the February 1 military coup on Feb 9, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

With domestic sentiments so fiercely opposed to political rapprochement, the international community is struggling for solutions.

Asean's much cited "Five-Point Consensus", drafted nine months ago to tackle Myanmar's crisis, has stalled in its tracks. The blueprint calls for a halt to violence, inclusive dialogue, the appointment of an Asean special envoy who would visit Myanmar to meet all parties concerned and facilitate dialogue, as well as the provision of humanitarian aid.

Amid resistance from the junta, little has been achieved on these fronts beyond the provision of aid through the Myanmar Red Cross Society.

The slow progress has prompted Asean members to insist that Myanmar not be represented by a political appointee at recent summits.

Beyond Asean, countries like Japan, China and India have taken up their own shuttle diplomacy, which observers say allows the junta to play one party off against another.

Collaborative diplomacy

"The international community should work towards a coordinated policy for Myanmar," says political analyst Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee. "So far, there has been a lot of disjointedness in these efforts, which gives the military the space to manoeuvre all of this to its own advantage."

Perhaps mindful of its potential reliance on China amid international condemnation of the coup, the Myanmar junta has been courting Russian support. Russia's Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin was the first foreign dignitary to visit post-coup Myanmar, in March last year.

Three months later, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing made a rare foreign trip to Moscow, where he addressed an international security conference, met Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, and was conferred an honorary professorship.

China dispatched its special envoy for Asian affairs Sun Guoxiang to Naypyitaw in August.

"We hope that all parties and groups in Myanmar will proceed from the long-term interests of the country and people, and seek a proper solution through political dialogue within the constitutional and legal framework," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said after that visit.

Mr Sun, who has played a role in peace talks between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed groups by the Chinese border, followed up with another visit in November.

That same month, Gen Min Aung Hlaing also received Mr Yohei Sasakawa, Japan's special envoy for national reconciliation in Myanmar and chairman of the Nippon Foundation.

Mr Sasakawa, who called the trip a "personal visit", was credited with helping to broker the December 2020 ceasefire between the Myanmar military and the powerful Arakan Army in Rakhine state, a truce that still exists today despite the turmoil elsewhere in the country.

India's Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla paid the junta chief a visit last month. According to his ministry, he also held meetings with members of Myanmar's civil society and the NLD.

None of these diplomatic overtures appear to have tempered the violence in Myanmar, which has killed over 1,400 people so far.


Protesters react after tear gas is fired by police during a demonstration against the military coup on March 2, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Careful engagement

Myanmar's turmoil is posing a growing threat to regional security. Illicit drug production centred on Shan state has exploded and nearby countries like India, Thailand and Laos have seen a steady uptick in seizures.

In October last year, police in Laos intercepted a truck with 55 million methamphetamine tablets and more than 1.5 tonnes of crystal meth. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, it was the largest haul in the history of East and South-east Asia.

The most problematic extractive industries in Myanmar have cranked up production. Rare earth mining, a highly pollutive process, has reportedly picked up in Kachin state. So has illegal jade mining. A landslide in Kachin's jade hub of Hpakant last month that left at least 70 jade pickers missing highlighted the severity of governance challenges in the wake of the coup.

It was against this backdrop that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen met Gen Min Aung Hlaing on Jan 7, triggering condemnation that the Asean chair this year was lending legitimacy to the regime.

But it is still too early to rule out any possible pathways to peace.

Dr Noeleen Heyzer, the UN special envoy on Myanmar, has advocated a UN-Asean "humanitarian-plus" effort that will include food security, socio-economic resilience and Covid-19 assistance. This could be facilitated by a humanitarian pause of hostilities in targeted areas to allow safe access.

Analysts suggest engaging carefully - rather than exclusively - with the junta, to help the country avert a bigger humanitarian catastrophe. Mr Nay Yan Oo, a researcher and politician who ran in the November 2020 polls, said bilateral efforts to engage the regime should continue alongside Asean's.

The junta, trying to right the sinking economy, last month announced plans to quickly resume infrastructure and development projects with China.

Analysts say Beijing should use its political and economic heft to nudge the junta towards halting violence and releasing political prisoners. The same applies to Thailand as the two countries' militaries maintain back channels.

"The Myanmar military thinks the West is always working with the opposition to undermine it," said Mr Nay Yan Oo. "This military is insecure and xenophobic, and you need to convince them that you understand their anxieties."

Isolating the military, he said, would not only doom Myanmar's democratic transition but also put it at risk of economic exploitation by opportunistic powers.

Cambodia, Asean's current chair, has nominated its foreign minister Prak Sokhonn as the special envoy on Myanmar.

Mr Soe Myint Aung says while it is important for the Asean envoy to communicate with all parties concerned in Myanmar, "it will eventually be a series of political dialogue and a deal between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Tatmadaw leaders which could really bring about a peaceful solution".

Tatmadaw is the local term for the military.

Ms Suu Kyi, the deposed state counsellor and NLD leader, is serving a six-year sentence for charges that include breaching pandemic rules and possessing illegal walkie-talkies - charges widely seen as spurious.

While a controversial figure internationally, she is still revered by many in Myanmar and commonly referred to as "Mother Suu". She played a central role in the NLD's 2015 and 2020 landslide election victories.

The 76-year-old politician has been detained since the coup and has not been allowed to communicate directly with the public. Her lawyers have also been barred from speaking to the media.

Yet she remains a key figure for any political solution, says Mr Soe Myint Aung. "A compromise with the opposition when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is alive and active is the Tatmadaw's only chance to redeem its damaged reputation, as well as to avoid public resentment for many decades to come."

Turbulent year

Feb 1, 2021

Myanmar military stages coup, arrests top civilian leaders like State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint (below).

Feb 2, 2021

Civil disobedience movement launched by medical workers which spreads to other civil servants.

Feb 5, 2021

Thwarted by the military from being sworn in, those elected to Parliament in the November 2020 election form an alternate legislative body called the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH).

Feb 6, 2021

Mass street protests erupt.

Feb 9, 2021

One protester, 19-year-old Mya Thwet Thwet Khine, is struck in the head by a bullet in Naypyitaw. Many more young protesters die in a similar manner in the following months.

Feb 24, 2021

The junta's foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin visits Thailand, where he meets his Thai and Indonesian counterparts.

March 1, 2021

Myanmar's central bank imposes cash withdrawal limits after people rush to withdraw their savings.

March 28, 2021

About 3,000 villagers from Kayin state flee to Thailand after air strikes by the Myanmar military against an ethnic armed group opposed to the coup. This pattern would be repeated over subsequent months.

April 16, 2021

The National Unity Government (NUG) - a parallel government made up of CRPH members and their allies - is launched

April 24, 2021

Asean leaders gather in Jakarta for a special meeting also joined by the junta chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Asean issues a road map to resolve the crisis in member state Myanmar - the so-called "Five-Point Consensus".

May 24, 2021

Ms Suu Kyi appears for the first time since the coup, in court facing a host of charges including breaking pandemic rules and inciting dissent.

June 4, 2021

Mr Erywan Yusof, second foreign minister of Brunei, which is Asean chair, holds talks with Gen Min Aung Hlaing in Myanmar. He is accompanied by Asean secretary-general Lim Jock Hoi.

July 13, 2021

News emerges that crematoriums are overflowing in Yangon amid a new wave of Covid-19 infections in the country.

July 26, 2021

Junta annuls the November 2020 election which Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won by a landslide.

Aug 1, 2021

Gen Min Aung Hlaing promises to hold fresh elections and lift a state of emergency by August 2023.

Aug 4, 2021

Mr Erywan is appointed as the Asean special envoy on Myanmar.

Aug 18, 2021

The number of people killed by the junta since the coup exceeds 1,000, according to a tally by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Sept 7, 2021

The NUG declares a "people's defensive war" against the junta.

Sept 28, 2021

The value of Myanmar's currency, the kyat, plunges to an all-time low of 2,500 to 2,700 against the US dollar. Before the coup, it was trading at about 1,400 to the dollar.

Oct 16, 2021

Asean leaders agree to allow only a "non-political representative" from Myanmar to its meetings.

Oct 26, 2021

Myanmar is not represented at the Asean summit.

Dec 15, 2021

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has assumed the Asean chair, announces that his foreign minister Prak Sokhonn will be the new Asean special envoy on Myanmar.

Jan 7, 2022

Mr Hun Sen (below) travels to Naypyitaw to hold talks with Gen Min Aung Hlaing.