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Myanmar's military escalates its campaign to eliminate resistance


The military in Myanmar appears to be escalating its campaign to eliminate resistance to its coup. The military deposed the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi back in February. Since then, the military has killed more than 1,200 civilians. Michael Sullivan reports from neighboring Thailand.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Myanmar's military used scorched-earth tactics to burn out the Muslim minority Rohingya in 2017, sending more than 700,000 fleeing into neighboring Bangladesh. Now the military is employing the same tactics again against a town of more than 10,000 in the northwest of the country, where opposition to the coup has been fierce.

RICHARD HORSEY: There's a wholesale destruction of the town. By and large, the town has been deserted.

SULLIVAN: Richard Horsey is the International Crisis Group's longtime Myanmar analyst.

HORSEY: One can't help feeling that this is punishment revenge for the resistance that that town put up.

SULLIVAN: He worries what's been happening in and around Thantlang long may be the beginning of a larger effort all across the north.

HORSEY: All the indications are that over the past weeks, the military has been pushing troops into those areas for some sort of dry season offensive. The rains are ending now, and I think the next few months we'll see quite intense military operations.

SULLIVAN: And more people killed, wounded or displaced after nine months of violence that have crippled the economy and threatened the food security of millions.

MOE THUZAR: The magnitude of this humanitarian crisis may seem hard to grasp, and yet that's what the everyday reality is going on in Myanmar.

SULLIVAN: Moe Thuzar is with the Myanmar Studies Program at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

THUZAR: People are, I think, going about in fear of their safety every day.

SULLIVAN: And that's what Myanmar's military wants, says David Mathieson, a longtime Myanmar analyst now living in Thailand since the coup.

DAVID MATHIESON: To destroy, crush any opposition and try and ignore the damage to the society, the economy and the country's standing in the region. And if that's holding power over a funeral pyre for the whole country, they don't seem terribly worried with that.

SULLIVAN: Nor does the international community seem eager to intervene nine months in, argues retired Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan - apart, he says, from ineffective sanctions and condemnation.

BILAHARI KAUSIKAN: How is this, to use the U.N. charter language, a threat to international peace and security? It isn't.

SULLIVAN: The U.S. and China, he says, two superpowers vying for influence in Southeast Asia, aren't that concerned, either, as long as the conflict doesn't spill over into neighboring countries.

KAUSIKAN: Not such a big problem. It's a tragic situation, but a tragedy is not the same as a geopolitical problem. Both of them, the U.S. and China, have bigger things to worry - to wit, each other.

SULLIVAN: Not that Myanmar's military cares much of what the international community thinks. Last month, it sentenced 80-year-old Win Htein, an ailing longtime confidant of Aung San Suu Kyi, to 20 years in prison for high treason.

David Mathieson.

MATHIESON: And it's kind of like, yeah, that's right; we're the kind of guys that will persecute an 80-year-old man just because we don't like him with 20 years, a death sentence, to prison. That's who we are, world, and get used to it.

SULLIVAN: And a hint, he says, of the likely fate awaiting Suu Kyi herself, now being tried by the military on several counts, including sedition and corruption. Mathieson sees no way Myanmar's crisis ends any time soon. Neither does the International Crisis Group's Richard Horsey.

HORSEY: The most likely scenario for the next year or two is that a determined military unleashes an enormous level of violence to attempt to keep its control and expand that control and that the vast majority of the population of the country remains determined to resist that in any way they can.

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDIT'S "LTLP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.