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1 year since Myanmar's coup, the military has been unable to stamp out the resistance

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There was a silent strike in Myanmar today. Anti-coup protesters are marking a year since the military seized power, toppled the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and plunged the country into chaos. The military's been unable to quash the resistance that has sprouted since, and the conflict shows no sign of ending, as Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Just a few weeks after the coup, activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi was out on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, leading protests against the military.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

THINZAR SHUNLEI YI: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #1: (Chanting in non-English language).

SULLIVAN: Her message, as she explained to me then, was simple.

YI: If we don't fight and if we don't make sure right now, then we will end up in the darkest days. A coup that they are making right now is not yet complete - it's not yet successful because of the resistance inside is so strong.

SULLIVAN: The military's brutal crackdown on those street protests forced her to flee for her safety in April to the Thai-Myanmar border, where many anti-coup activists now live in jungle camps or in hiding.

YI: I lost friends, close friends. And also, I have friends being detained in the prison, as well as being tortured, and some of them are already killed. So yeah, I think that's happening to almost everyone in the country right now.

SULLIVAN: In July, I spoke with another activist, Dr. Tun (ph) - not her real name. She joined the civil disobedience movement, refusing to work for the military at her state-run hospital. Instead, she treated patients secretly during both the military crackdown and a deadly COVID surge.

TUN: (Through interpreter) I would describe the current situation as a living hell. First, it was our young people being killed during the military crackdown. Now it's our beloved eldest dying of COVID before my eyes. If someone asked me where hell is on a map, I would put my finger on my country.

SULLIVAN: Not long after we spoke, she and a friend decided to join the resistance in the jungle as medics. They didn't make it - captured by the military. Physicians for Human Rights says more than 30 health care workers have been killed and hundreds more arrested since the coup.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNS FIRING)

SULLIVAN: Yet the resistance continues to grow, with more attacks like this one by so-called People's Defence Forces against a military that's become more and more overstretched.

MARY CALLAHAN: I think the biggest surprise has to be the emergence of such significant spells of resistance, and locally organized, in the heartland of the country.

SULLIVAN: Mary Callahan is a Myanmar scholar at the University of Washington, and Richard Horsey, senior Myanmar adviser for the International Crisis Group, says that resistance is a huge problem for a military used to fighting ethnic minority militias in the borderlands.

RICHARD HORSEY: Now it is fighting an insurgency rooted in its own population in the dry zone, from where a lot of these soldiers were recruited. They're back in those communities, fighting people who look like them - not minority people who they can see as the other. And that is a much more difficult challenge.

SULLIVAN: It's a challenge both he and Mary Callahan are skeptical the military can meet and one it is responding to with increasingly brutal tactics - most recently on Christmas Eve, when it killed and burned several dozen men, women and children.

HORSEY: These are graphic episodes of violence that are intended to be photographed, intended to be spread around, intended to go viral as part of an intimidation campaign against the population. But you know what? It's not working.

SULLIVAN: And the toll this conflict is exacting on the people of the country is enormous. It's led to a near total collapse in government services and devastated the economy. The U.N. says more than half the population of 50 million will soon be living below the poverty line, with close to half a million more displaced by the fighting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #2: (Chanting in non-English language).

SULLIVAN: The international community has been largely unable or unwilling to help bring a negotiated settlement to the conflict, and opponents of the regime are increasingly getting training in camps like this one run by ethnic minority militias along the border.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #2: (Chanting in non-English language).

SULLIVAN: Some of those militias are even joining with the newly formed People's Defence Forces in joint operations against the military. But a year on, neither the military nor the opposition appear capable of winning outright.

CALLAHAN: The only solution to this fight is a political solution, but that is not anything anybody on any side is thinking about.

SULLIVAN: The University of Washington's Mary Callahan.

CALLAHAN: The pro-coup in the anti-coup forces are going to fight this to the end, to the point that there's not much left of a country to govern.

SULLIVAN: Activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi hopes it doesn't come to that, but she is steadfast in her desire to see the military gone.

YI: We won't run out of activists in this fight. We are the majority. The military is only 400,000. We are 40 million. So let's keep the fight. This will not be easy, but we need to do it. This should be the last coup of Myanmar in our history.

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan on the Thai-Myanmar border. 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.