Human Suffering in Myanmar: The Need for International Attention

By ISP Admin | December 22, 2021

(This commentary appears as part of a research collaboration between the Institute for Strategy and Policy- Myanmar and ISEAS’s Myanmar Studies Programme. It was originally published on Fulcrum by the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute on December 22, 2021.)

This photo taken on October 18, 2021 shows children attending a class in a temporary shelter at a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Demoso township in Myanmar’s Kayah state. – Civilians in Kayah state have sought the safety of rural IDP camps as fighting continues between rebel groups and the Myanmar military, which took over the country by force in early 2021. (Photo by AFP)

Last week, the Myanmar military attacked Lay Kay Kaw village in Kayin state with heavy use of artillery weapons, resulting in an intense firefight with the Karen National Union (KNU) and other resistance forces. The military claimed that the KNU, the largest ethnic armed group in Myanmar, supports and shelters resistance forces in the area. On 8 December, gruesome details allegedly emerged of the military burning alive 11 villagers (including teenagers) in Myanmar’s Sagaing region. The military’s extrajudicial killings, raids in civilian areas, arrests and torture have goaded resistance forces into counter-attacks, bombing, and targeted killings. The intensified climate of violence has precipitated the worst humanitarian crisis in recent history. The existing legal system in Myanmar is incapable of protecting civilians from harm. To alleviate human suffering, the international community needs to weigh in and deescalate the ongoing conflicts.

Between 1 February and 23 November, 10,143 persons have been arrested, of which 7,251 are still under detention. The military has imprisoned 343 persons, and sentenced 86 to death. As of 25 November, the civilian death toll due to military crackdowns and injuries inflicted during the detention stood at 1,293. The military’s brutal crackdowns have triggered spontaneous resistance movements throughout the country. The crackdowns have turned non-violent protests into violent resistance, creating a new set of conflict actors and a new conflict map in Myanmar. The Institute for Strategy and Policy (ISP)-Myanmar has documented more than 251 active local resistance forces. Since the parallel National Unity Government declared a ‘people’s defensive war’ on 7 September, local forces have responded to military violence with urban bombings, improvised explosive device (IED) attacks, and targeted killings of military informants in several cities. From February to November, at least 1,697 clashes have taken place across Myanmar. The highest number of clashes occurred in September (344) and October (336). 

The clashes between state security forces and local resistance forces have injured hundreds, causing at least 252 civilian deaths since 1 February. The clashes have also led to the loss of dwellings and places of worship in towns and villages. From June to October, more than 833 civilian structures were set on fire, including 420 houses and five churches in Chin State, and 328 houses in Sagaing Region. In October, some 340 additional houses were torched.

Since the 1 February military coup, urban and rural communities in Myanmar have faced mounting insecurity and human rights violations related to armed conflict and attacks in civilian areas. The ongoing conflicts have also caused a significant rise in displacement. In Kayah State alone, over 100,000 persons (equivalent to one-third of the state’s population) have abandoned their homes and went into hiding. In the ten months since the coup, internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Myanmar have increased by nearly 400,000, bringing the total IDP population inside the country to 881,927. The long-term refugee problem remains unsolved. Almost 1 million refugees live outside the country, especially in Bangladesh, Thailand, and the respective border areas that Myanmar shares with these countries.

The rapid spread of a Covid-19 third wave in mid-2021 compounded the security crisis and the attendant daunting economic difficulties. The mortality rate skyrocketed by 3,200 per cent over 27 June to 17 July. Even though many infections and fatalities remain unrecorded, daily cremations at cemeteries in Yangon municipality exceeded a thousand on 18 July alone. The collapse of the public healthcare system, the military’s mismanagement and the advent of the new Omicron variant of Covid-19 have laid bare the potential threat of more people falling into extreme poverty. The United Nations estimates that the combined effects of the coup, conflicts and Covid-19 have pushed 20 million (nearly half the country’s population) below the poverty line. Three million people, mainly in Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Kayah, and northern Shan, need life-saving humanitarian assistance.

The international community has a moral obligation and human duty to alleviate the Myanmar people’s suffering. This would prevent various spillover effects of the current crisis (refugee flows, spread of Covid-19 variants, drug trafficking) and minimise the reputational damage of the current ‘wait and see’ approach. It is imperative that the international community explore every possible entry point to engage with key stakeholders. 

The health and personal security aspects of human suffering in Myanmar requires deescalating the conflicts, and building common ground among all concerned stakeholders for civilian protection and for providing life-saving humanitarian assistance. These three valid and much-needed interventions provide a starting point for Dr Noeleen Heyzer, the newly appointed UN Special Envoy on Myanmar, and Cambodia, the incoming ASEAN Chair to consult and coordinate regional and international approaches to the Myanmar crisis. Dr Heyzer participated in the tripartite mechanism for the 2008 Cyclone Nargis response, during her term as Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission of the Asia-Pacific. Her subsequent work for building capacities in Myanmar during the short decade of Myanmar’s opening, places her in a unique position to address the current needs of the Myanmar people. Cambodia, as the ASEAN Chair for 2022, must also consult with ASEAN members and dialogue partners (as well as the UN) to achieve progress on ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus priorities, particularly the cessation of violence, and humanitarian assistance. These imperatives require the international community to start with conflict de-escalation before providing any conflict resolution strategies.

Dr. Su Mon Thazin Aung is the Director of Capacity Building at the Institute for Strategy and Policy-Myanmar, a think tank in Yangon. She also works as an Associate Fellow with the Myanmar Studies Programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.


(This commentary appears as part of a research collaboration between the Institute for Strategy and Policy- Myanmar and ISEAS’s Myanmar Studies Programme. It was originally published on Fulcrum by the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute on December 22, 2021.)

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