The roughly half-year long low-level insurgency against Myanmar’s ruling Tatmadaw, as the armed forces is called, continues to brew, with the COVID-19 Delta variant’s spread throughout Southeast Asia adding a new layer of complexity (Terrorism Monitor, July 2). Myanmar hit record high COVID-19 deaths in July, while other countries in the region began lockdowns that same month (vnexpress.net, July 10). As of this publication, Myanmar was averaging more than 5,000 cases per day, which is nearly five times as high as the country’s previous highest average in November 2020 (Jakarta Post, July 13; Our World in Data, July 22).
On the political front, on July 20, National League of Democracy (NLD) spokesman Nyan Win died of COVID-19 while in the custody of the Tatmadaw. The NLD, which was ousted from power by the regime after winning a democratic election in November 2020, meanwhile, has also borne the brunt of attacks. In the days surrounding Nyan Win’s death, for example, the Tatmadaw burned the homes of NLD supporters who were fleeing a military offensive against the People’s Defense Force (PDF) in the city of Sagaing in northwestern Myanmar after a battle that led to more than ten deaths (Rfa.org, July 21).
Sagaing itself has not only been the site of clashes between the Tatmadaw and civilian militias, but also the site of a COVID-19 outbreak, with well over 5,000 people having died of the disease (scmp.com, July 13). Moreover, Sagaing’s proximity to the Chinese border has drawn Beijing’s attention, especially as China is witnessing a breakout on its side of the border in Yunnan Province, particularly in the town of Ruili. Myanmar’s inability to control the virus outbreak amid conflict on its side of the border will inevitably endanger China. However, whether China will seek to intervene in the conflict in Myanmar beyond its rhetorical support to the Tatmadaw and calls for non-interventionism remains unclear (al-Jazeera, July 20).
Elsewhere in the country, signs are emerging that the civilian militias are maturing. In Mandalay, on July 16, for example, two bombs destroyed an electricity office that had become a source of contention between the Tatmadaw and its opponents. Although the local PDF did not claim the bombings, it had warned the public against paying any bills to Tatmadaw for electricity, arguing that the money would be used to suppress the people. At the time of reporting, no one had claimed responsibility for the bombings. Whether or not the PDF conducted the bombings, which injured two people, or like-minded civilians conducted the attack, it reflected how the opposition to the Tatmadaw recognizes that the battle does not just involve combatting the regime with weapons in clashes, but also winning civilian support and acquiescence, and possibly even through coercion (myanmar-now.org, July 17).
In other parts of Myanmar, the fighting is becoming increasingly brutal. In mid-July, for example, the Tatmadaw’s soldiers clashed with the Karenni People’s Defence Force (KPDF). The battle resulted in ten shells striking villagers and heavy weapons being fired from both sides. Moreover, the fighting occurred after a temporary ceasefire had been reached between the Tatmadaw forces and KPDF, which obviously did not last. Further, civilians reported the regime troops stealing their livestock (Bnionline.net, July 15). This case is but one of dozens across Myanmar that reflects the intensification of the conflict, with COVID-19, China, and numerous other factors preventing any imminent solution.