A day after his capture by Myanmar soldiers, Saw Tun Moe’s decapitated head was found impaled on the spiked gates to the smouldering remains of a school building.
The 46-year-old mathematics teacher was a vocal critic of Myanmar’s military, which seized power in a coup last year, and was running schools for the National Unity Government (NUG) – an administration established in opposition to the military by ethnic leaders, activists and the elected politicians the generals removed from office – in the central Magway region
“He was aware he could end up like this if he fell into junta hands,” one of Saw Tun Moe’s colleagues told the Irrawaddy newspaper after his death in late October. “Even then, he took the risk and chose to teach at the NUG school.”
All across Myanmar, men and women are taking similar risks.
Outraged at the military’s toppling of Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government just 10 years after the start of a shaky transition to democracy, and horrified by a brutal crackdown on unarmed protesters in the immediate aftermath of the coup, the people of Myanmar have taken matters into their own hands. Some, like Saw Tun Moe, went on strike and joined the NUG’s parallel education and health services, while others have taken up arms against the military, despite very little training or weapons expertise, including by joining ethnic armed groups or newly formed civilian militias, known as the People’s Defence Forces (PDFs).
Thwarted in his bid to consolidate his coup, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing responded with even more violence.
The military restarted political executions, burned entire villages to the ground and bombed hospitals and schools, even an outdoor concert – attacks human rights groups say may amount to crimes against humanity.
The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a global crisis mapping group, estimates that some 27,683 people may have died from political violence in Myanmar since the military’s power grab in February of last year. The group says it has recorded nearly 15,000 incidents of violence, including armed clashes and air attacks, in the 22 months since the coup.
Only in Ukraine, where Russia launched a bloody invasion on February 24, is the rate of deaths higher.
‘Junta may not survive till 2023’
Analysts say Myanmar has not seen violence of this scale since its struggle for independence in 1948. The conflict has spread to areas that have long been peaceful, such as Magway in Myanmar’s central plains.
Known as the Dry Zone, the central plains are home to Myanmar’s Bamar-Buddhist majority. Until now, it has largely been spared the kind of violence the military has unleashed on and off against the ethnic armed groups fighting for greater autonomy in the country’s borderlands.
But now, some 647 PDFs are fighting the military in the Dry Zone alone, according to ACLED data.
And these armed groups have turned to bombings, focused assassinations and ambushes on military convoys.
Under pressure, the military has drawn up civilian militias of its own, called Phyu Saw Htee, and launched a campaign of widespread arson, razing homes and villages to the ground in a bid to root out any resistance forces. The fighting is causing untold suffering, having also forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
For all its brutality, however, nearly two years after the coup, experts estimate the military has stable control over just 17 percent of the country.
“Armed resistance, bolstered by an extensive popular non-violent movement, is now so pervasive that the military risks losing control of territory wherever it is unable to commit resources to actively defend,” The Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, a group of rights experts, said in a September report (PDF).
“From northern Kachin State down to southern Tanintharyi and from western Chin bordering India over to eastern Karenni State bordering Thailand, the Myanmar military has not been stretched across so many fronts since the late 1940s.”
The council, made up of former United Nations experts on Myanmar – Yanghee Lee, Marzuki Darusman and Chris Sidoti – went as far as to assert: “The junta may not survive through 2023, unless something dramatically alters the current trajectory.”
‘Are you good only for playing golf?’
Despite the situation on the ground, the international community has failed to engage NUG in discussions about Myanmar’s future, relying on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which Myanmar joined in 1997, to tackle the crisis. But the 10-member regional bloc has so far avoided any official engagement with the NUG, despite having agreed last year on a “peace plan” that calls for facilitating constructive dialogue in Myanmar.
With ASEAN leaders meeting for a summit in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh on Friday, campaigners are urging the group to get tough on Myanmar.
“Hello? Are you going to be good only for playing golf and making statements?” asked Debbie Stothard, founder of ALTSEAN, a rights group. “The crisis in Myanmar poses one of the most serious threats to economic and regional stability, especially human security and economic security in the region. And yet ASEAN is not even doing one-tenth of what the European Union did in response to the Ukraine crisis.”
At the very least, campaigners say ASEAN must continue to exclude the Myanmar military from its summits and extend that ban to working-level meetings. Most importantly, they are calling on ASEAN to engage with the NUG and demand the generals agree to specific actions and timelines to end hostilities.
Anything less could allow the military to stall the process, giving them time to consolidate power ahead of elections it has said it will hold in 2023, according to experts.
Charles Santiago, a former Malaysian legislator and founder of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), said the military must not be given the chance to dictate the terms of the vote.
“This is something that has to be stopped,” he told Al Jazeera. “The heads of government must come up with a clear statement that ASEAN and the international community will not accept elections in Myanmar next year. This is something that has to be done otherwise ASEAN will be seen as colluding with the Myanmar junta.”
Observers see at least one bright spot as Cambodia is set to hand over ASEAN’s chairmanship to Indonesia at the upcoming summit.
Jakarta has favoured engaging with NUG, with or without the military’s permission, and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has said ASEAN must tackle its problems head-on instead of sweeping them under the rug.
But despite the lack of a breakthrough so far, some observers say ASEAN remains key to tackling the crisis in Myanmar.
“The fact that ASEAN is a regional organisation where Myanmar is a member of makes it the only institution that has the legitimacy, and ideally, the willingness to deal with the issue,” said Lina Alexandra, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“Of course we don’t deny (the) possibility for other international actors to lead, but unfortunately until now we don’t see any intention so far from them. Nobody wants their hands to be dirty and everyone is busy with something else. Therefore, ASEAN should be the one that spearhead the process, then the other actors will follow to assist ASEAN.”