Once one of the fastest-growing economies in Southeast Asia, Myanmar has now fallen way behind since the 2021 military takeover, with an estimated 40 percent of the population living in poverty.

Two years after the military ousted Myanmar's democratically-elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, thousands of people have died in a growing civil conflict, and many more have been forced from their homes in a dire humanitarian crisis.

Myanmar's economy, once one of the fastest growing in Southeast Asia, now lags behind where it stood, before the February 1, 2021, military takeover compounded the country’s struggles with the pandemic.

Ten years earlier, Myanmar had emerged from decades of military rule, gradually transitioning to a civilian government, opening its economy to more foreign investment and entrepreneurship and relaxing censorship of the media.

A modern consumer culture took hold, with glitzy shopping malls in the biggest city, Yangon, and the use of Facebook and cellphones the new normal. 

In November 2015, the country held parliamentary elections, the first openly contested poll in 25 years, which saw Suu Kyi's party winning a landslide vote. A wave of optimism swept the country of more than 50 million. But in five short years, that came to an abrupt end. 

The army takeover brought thousands into the streets in peaceful protests that were suppressed with lethal force.

What happened on February 1, 2021 

The army arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and top members of her governing National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which had won a victory for a second term in a November 2020 general election.

The army said it acted because there had been massive voting fraud, but independent election observers did not find any major irregularities. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, best known for his role in a 2007 crackdown on pro-democracy protests, now leads the government.

The ouster of the civilian government provoked widespread demonstrations and civil disobedience that were met with violence.

READ MORE: What is happening in Myanmar one year after the military coup?

As weeks dragged on, security forces crushed the anti-coup demonstrations with violence.

So far, nearly 3,000 civilians have been reported killed, and thousands have been detained. 

Tens of thousands have also been forced from their homes by fighting between security forces and civilians who took up arms, sometimes allying themselves with ethnic armed groups that have been fighting for autonomy for decades.

UNICEF, however, says the number of displaced people has risen to as many as 1.5 million in the last two years.

The military's seizure of power drew international condemnation. Many governments have shunned the army-led leadership and imposed sanctions, cutting off some financial flows. But neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia and Myanmar's most powerful ally, China, have balked at taking such actions.

Where is Suu Kyi now

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi, 77, was the de facto head of government, holding the title of state counsellor when the army arrested her and took power.

In December last year, a court sentenced her to seven years in prison for corruption in the last of a string of politically tinged criminal cases against her, leaving her with a total of 33 years to serve in prison.

Suu Kyi’s supporters and independent analysts say the numerous charges against her and her allies were an attempt to legitimise the military’s seizure of power while eliminating her from politics before an election promised for later this year.

Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero General Aung San, spent almost 15 years as a political prisoner under house arrest between 1989 and 2010. She is being held in a newly constructed separate building in the prison in the capital, Naypyitaw, near the courthouse where her trial was held.

Unlike her previous incarceration, however, support from international organisations and human rights groups has waned for Suu Kyi after she defended the military's role in the alleged genocide targeting hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya minorities. She had also refused to acknowledge the Rohingya as citizens of Myanmar and even refrained from saying the word Rohingya.

READ MORE: UN Says Myanmar opium production on the rise, worth as much as $2B

The military's return to power has stymied a decade of reforms and left 40 percent of the population living in poverty, according to to economic analysts.
The military's return to power has stymied a decade of reforms and left 40 percent of the population living in poverty, according to to economic analysts. (Reuters)

What is life like under military rule

Two years after the army seized power, life in Yangon and other big cities has inched back toward normality but fighting in much of the countryside has left the country deeply mired in civil conflict.

Rights advocates say the military and security forces have carried out arbitrary arrests, torture and other abuses to quash dissent. 

Human rights monitoring groups said on Tuesday that Myanmar’s military is increasingly turning to airstrikes with deadly results to try to crush stiff armed resistance.

While the military is responsible for the massive use of violence throughout the country, armed groups in the opposition have carried out bombings and assassinations of military officials and their supporters.

Min Aung Hlaing on Tuesday accused opponents of army rule of trying to take power with “wrongful forcible means”.

The World Bank forecasts the economy will grow a meagre three percent this year, with some strength in agriculture and industries such as garment making. But it remains smaller than it was in 2019, before the pandemic and then the military takeover.

The military's return to power has stymied a decade of reforms and left 40 percent of the population living in poverty.

Despite stringent foreign exchange controls and uncertainty over rules and regulations under army rule, some businesses are finding ways to operate by using informal payments and trade channels.

The reopening of Myanmar’s trade routes with China also has helped.

But risks have been heightened by security issues due to the civil conflict.

Meanwhile, the instability in the country has paved the way for lawless elements to thrive. 

According to a recent United Nations report, opium cultivation jumped 33 percent in 2022 and could be worth as much as $2 billion, reversing a six-year downward trend.

The growth was "directly connected" to the political and economic turmoil in Myanmar since the military took power, an official at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said.

READ MORE: Nations helping Myanmar junta produce arms to crack down on civilians

What lies ahead?

The way out of the crisis remains unclear.

The military-controlled government enacted a law on registration of political parties that will make it difficult for opposition groups to mount a serious challenge to army-backed candidates in the general election set to take place later this year.

Critics have already said the military-planned election will be neither free nor fair because there is no free media and most of the leaders of Suu Kyi’s NLD party have been arrested.

The party has declared it will not accept or recognise the election, which it has described as “fake” and a ploy by the military to gain political legitimacy and international recognition. 

The vote is also opposed by the National Unity Government, which was established by elected lawmakers who were prevented from taking their seats when the army seized power and serves as an underground parallel national administration.

Units of the People’s Defense Force, the armed wing of the banned pro-democracy movement, have been attempting to disrupt preparations for the election by attacking personnel of the military government who are conducting a population survey that could be used to assemble voter rolls.

Plans for elections by the military government this year will only "fuel greater violence", UN special envoy Noeleen Heyzer said.

Heyzer said the vote "will fuel greater violence, prolong the conflict and make the return to democracy and stability more difficult".

READ MORE: Deadly 'riot' jolts prison in Myanmar

Human rights monitoring groups said on Tuesday that Myanmar’s military is increasingly turning to airstrikes with deadly results to try to crush stiff armed resistance.
Human rights monitoring groups said on Tuesday that Myanmar’s military is increasingly turning to airstrikes with deadly results to try to crush stiff armed resistance. (Reuters)

International response

In the runup to the February 1 anniversary of the coup, the US issued a new wave of sanctions on Tuesday targeting Myanmar’s officials and what it called “military-affiliated cronies”.

In all, the US is sanctioning six individuals and three organisations, including the country’s elections authority, the Treasury Department said in a statement.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that Myanmar’s military regime has “set the country on a disastrous and deadly path with the brutal military coup against the country’s democratically-elected government.”

“We’re going to work to help restore democracy for and to the people of Burma,” he added, using the old name of Myanmar.

Also on Tuesday, Britain said it had sanctioned two companies and two individuals for helping supply Myanmar’s air force with aviation fuel used to carry out bombing campaigns against its own citizens.

“The junta must be held to account for their brutal crackdown on opposition voices, terrorising air raids and brazen human rights violations,” British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said.

Meanwhile, Australia announced on Wednesday targeted financial sanctions and travel bans against “individuals responsible for egregious human rights abuses” in Myanmar.

The Myanmar sanctions target 16 members of the military’s governing regime and two military-controlled entities, the government said.

Two successive Australian governments had resisted calls to impose sanctions on Myanmar since the military takeover while Australian economist Sean Turnell, an adviser to Suu Kyi, was detained by the military.

Turnell has since returned to Australia after his release from detention. But the Myanmar government annulled his amnesty last December and ordered him to appear in court.

READ MORE: Myanmar army leader touts election plan on Independence Day

Source: TRTWorld and agencies