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It has been more than 10 months since Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup. Its soldiers have since fought with urban protestors and rural militias using brutal violence. Activists accuse the military of killing more than 1300, and detaining more than 11,000. The UN on Monday called for an investigation into a new massacre that the U.S. described as “barbaric.” Nick Schifrin reports.
It has been more than 10 months since Myanmar's military seized power in a coup. Since then,soldiers have fought with urban protesters and rural militias using violence activists call brutal. They accuse the military of killing more than 1,300 people and detaining more than 11,000.
And, today, the United Nations called for an investigation into a new massacre that the U.S. described as barbaric.
Nick Schifrin reports.
In Eastern Myanmar, a line of cars was trying to escape nearby violence. But soldiers torched the vehicles and burned the 35 people who were hoping to flee, possibly including two staff of Save the Children, other photographs of the Christmas Eve massacre too horrific to show.
It's the second time in four weeks soldiers are accused of burning their enemies' bodies. The junta that reseized power in February has ruled through horror and fear. It's helped spark an exodus. On Christmas Day, families in the southeast saved only what they could carry and fled to neighboring Thailand.
Thousands have become refugees to escape military airpower, even if they had to walk across rivers. Myanmar's military ruled the country for half-a-century before civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi came to power in 2015. Her National League of Democracy Party easily won the 2020 election.
But on the February the 1st, when the new Parliament was supposed to sit, General Min Aung Hlaing declared a state of emergency and arrested Suu Kyi and hundreds of pro-democracy activists. Earlier this month, Suu Kyi was sentenced to two years in prison.
That day, protesters took to the streets in Myanmar's capital, continuing their resistance to military rule. All year, they have demonstrated. A massive civil disobedience movement has paralyzed basic services. In response, the military has turned urban streets into battlegrounds.
But the resistance extends to the countryside, where ethnic militias attack army checkpoints. For decades, ethnic minorities have fought what they consider central authorities' political persecution. Myanmar has about 20 ethnic armed groups in yellow that control about a third of the country's territory. The Christmas Eve attack took place in Kayah State, where the Karenni ethnic army has been fighting the military on and off for years.
But since the coup, urban civilians have teamed up with ethnic militias, united to resist military rule.
Man (through translator):
Everyone came here with their resentment and revolutionary spirit. So, that is why they can only focus on fighting for revolution.
To understand how critical this moment is for Myanmar, I'm joined by Priscilla Clapp, previously chief of mission in Myanmar and is now senior adviser to the U.S. Institute of Peace, which was established by Congress.
Priscilla Clapp, welcome back to the "NewsHour."
This attack was brutal, but we have seen other attacks just as brutal over the last few months from the military. Why?
Priscilla Clapp, Former State Department Official:
The better part of a year, in fact, many months.
They have run into very, very serious popular opposition in the country that they did not expect when they took over in a coup on February 1 in this past year. The original demonstrations against the coup-makers have turned into violent opposition.
And so the military is fighting for its life now, and particularly attacking areas of the country where the resistance is the strongest. And the area that they attacked on Christmas Day is one of those.
And so you referred to those original protesters, the civil disobedience movement in the cities. We have also got ethnic militias, so-called. People's Defense Forces as well are expanding.
How unprecedented is that widespread resistance? What is the implication of it?
It's quite unprecedented. It has not happened before.
When there have been rebellions against military rule, they have been largely urban. They have been in the form of protests, in-the-street protests. They have not really turned violent.
Separately, the army has been fighting ethnic militias and armies for 70 years, unsuccessfully. They haven't won any battles against them. In fact, during that time, they have become more organized, better funded, better armed, and stronger control over their territory. So the army is actually in a losing battle overall over time.
And they are fighting for their life.
And so we have seen, as you just said, these ethnic militias confronting the army, fighting the army, even grabbing a little bit of self-governance in their territories.
But could this go further than self-governance? Is the very state at risk of fracture?
I believe it is. That is a debatable point, but it is going in that direction, there is no question.
The area along the China border where there are some very strong armies and militias and on the west along the Bangladesh border, the Arakan Army, which has taken over Rakhine State, which used to be called Arakan, is very strong. And they basically beaten the military at their own game there. And they have virtual control over most of that state.
The military doesn't dare to attack either of those areas, because they know they would lose
As the military struggles with those fights that you justified, what is the moral inside the military?
Many soldiers are being asked to fight where it's very cold. There's some trench warfare. And there's attempts to actually get soldiers to defect. So what's the morale inside the military?
At the lower level, the military is suffering from very bad morale.
The people that are on the front lines fighting are losing. They're losing a lot of people. They're getting killed themselves. And there are many defections. And the defectors are going off into the People's Defense Forces and fighting back against the military and helping the People's Defense Forces learn how to fight. They're arming them with their weapons and so forth.
So it's becoming a real civil war.
What do you think the United States government should do?
There are experts I talk to who say squeeze the military sources of revenues more. That is oil and gas. Pressure the U.N. to support the opposition group, the National Unity Government, even declare what the military did against the Rohingya a genocide.
Do you think those steps could help?
All of those steps are good steps, and — but there are more as well.
And the U.S. government will be coming up with a new strategy soon, at the request of the Congress. So we will see many more things happening.
I think — I believe they are looking very hard at how to cut off some of the revenues from oil and gas and other things. It is not that simple. So we have to be careful. But there are ways of squeezing them. And that is definitely the main thrust of U.S. policy, is just to squeeze the military more and more.
I believe that they should be accused of genocide, but I don't think it's just Rohingya. It's not even ethnic cleansing anymore. They're cleansing all — they're going after all ethnic groups, including their own.
Finally, in the brief time we have left, let me just ask about the humanitarian situation, that U.N. warns that half of Myanmar's population could fall into poverty, millions could face hunger.
How dire is the humanitarian crisis?
In fact, that has already come to pass. I would say that half or more of the population is all already facing enormous hunger. But part of the strategy of the opposition is to destroy the economy. They're willing to take this in hand just to bring the army down.
And it is very difficult to predict what the end will be. But it's going to go on for quite a long time, unfortunately. And people will suffer badly.
Priscilla Clapp, thank you very much.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
Layla Quran is a general assignment producer for PBS NewsHour. She was previously a foreign affairs reporter and producer.
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