Myanmar after the coup: Heavy fighting, airstrikes and spies on street corners (2023)

As fighting rages and people fear spies on street corners, Sky News goes inside Myanmar to find out the truth about life in the country almost two years after the coup

Myanmar after the coup: Heavy fighting, airstrikes and spies on street corners (1)Myanmar after the coup: Heavy fighting, airstrikes and spies on street corners (2)
'Then comes the ominous march of missiles'

By Cordelia Lynch, southeast Asia correspondent

It feels like we're driving through a dystopian movie set. It's dawn and the roads are shrouded in mist.

Suddenly, we grind to a halt.The end of a long metal pole creeps past our window. As it inches closer, I realise it's attached to a tank.

Minutes later, a fleet of model navy ships decked in bright green and yellow bulbs shimmer out of the shadows. They look almost festive.

Then comes the ominous march of missiles.

Our destination is growing closer and we're not alone. A cavalcade of buses roll in, packed with performers in vibrant regional dress. Their hair and make-up is immaculate.

A few are still snoozing on arrival. It is 4am and they've been compliantly rehearsing at this early hour for weeks.

We're in Myanmar - a country that's been largely off limits to Western journalists since the military seized power in a coup nearly two years ago.

Some call it the Land of the Shadows - a nation caught between light and darkness. The abiding impression from our first day is that it embodies that paradox - hugely colourful and deeply intimidating.

Our journey starts at the 75th Anniversary of Myanmar's independence from Britain.

The military government who has planned it all is looking to show the world - and convince their own country - that the regime is stable. It's a hard sell.

The junta is accused of war crimes and genocide. It's been condemned by the UN, sanctioned and the economy is precarious to say the least.

But the man at the top, self-declared caretaker Prime Minister Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, wants to deliver a day of national pride.

He arrives at the event alongside an army of soldiers on horseback, their hooves clattering alongside an unnerving discordant soundtrack.

The commander of the Tatmadaw, who is accused of strangling a democracy and unparalleled brutality, uses his speech to tout free and fair elections while thanking those countries who have kept him close - most notably China and Russia.

Myanmar after the coup: Heavy fighting, airstrikes and spies on street corners (3)

Myanmar after the coup: Heavy fighting, airstrikes and spies on street corners (4)

Myanmar after the coup: Heavy fighting, airstrikes and spies on street corners (5)

This is not a day for the masses.

A civil war is still raging and the armed resistance has grown sharply since the coup.

The audience is a carefully picked mix of military dignitaries and government personnel.

The stage is a 20-lane highway - the perfect symbol of the city it sits in, Nay Pyi Taw. Designed by the junta, it is a military utopia seemingly untouched by normal life.

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Myanmar after the coup: Heavy fighting, airstrikes and spies on street corners (7)

Myanmar after the coup: Heavy fighting, airstrikes and spies on street corners (8)

The independence anniversary celebrations stretch out across seven-hours in searing heat. We watch as float after float from every government department pass slowly by in an explosion of colour. Onboard performers carry out fake surgeries, there are dance routines, a printing press and a huge mechanical dove.

Dressed elephants are fed in synchrony, 75 parachutists fall one-by-one from the sky, martial arts aficionados break through bricks and lie on beds of spikes. But outside this theatrical bubble, there is dissent and fear.

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Myanmar after the coup: Heavy fighting, airstrikes and spies on street corners (10)

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Myanmar after the coup: Heavy fighting, airstrikes and spies on street corners (14)

Pic: AP

Pic: AP

"The military junta insists that everything is peaceful and stable," says Debbie Stothard, who coordinates the ALTSEAN-Burma network supporting human rights in Myanmar.

"But outside the main cities like Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw, we are seeing what would amount to an all-out war…

"There was a 361% increase in airstrikes in 2022 compared to the previous year.

"And most of these airstrikes are targeting civilian communities, particularly in the ethnic areas."

Large chunks of the country are still outside the junta's control.

'We are seeing what would amount to an all-out war'

What started as a nationwide protest movement has transformed into a fully-fledged armed uprising.

The People's Defence Force (PDF), a network of armed resistance groups which formed after the coup, has in some parts of the country worked with long-established Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs).

While PDFs and EAOs operate independently on the ground, they are united in their objective to overthrow the military leadership - a goal they share with Myanmar's shadow government, the National Unity Government (NUG).

The NUG - founded by elected politicians and ethnic leaders - isn't without criticism and is untested, but it does have significant support.

Since the coup more than 2,700 pro-democracy activists and other civilians have been killed and more than 13,600 detained, according to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (Burma).

Junta soldiers have been accused of rape, murder and bombing towns it claims are "terrorists".

Anti-regime forces have also allegedly carried out attacks on civilians believed to be abetting the military.

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Executions have resumed for the first time in decades

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Myanmar after the coup: Heavy fighting, airstrikes and spies on street corners (36)

After the parade, we're told not to travel to conflict areas.

There are checkpoints as you enter them and the consequence of us flouting that rule could be immediate detention.

Myanmar is the third-worst jailer of journalists globally, ranking behind only Iran and China. The world only knows some of what's happening inside the country due to the work of courageous local reporters.

But after six days of negotiations the military allow us to leave Nay Pyi Taw on the grounds that we agree the broad locations in advance.

It is a rare opportunity to see what's happening elsewhere and it proves far more revealing than we expect.

We head to Bagan, an ancient city, famous for its pagodas and sacred sunsets.

The military, we assume, hope it will show us how stable the country now is and showcase the undoubted beauty of Myanmar.

But within minutes of arriving at the Bupaya Pagoda, a majestic setting by the famous Irrawaddy River, we see soldiers from a Light Infantry Division (LID) jumping off a truck and walking purposefully down steep steps to the river.

The LIDs are considered the most battle-hardened units within the Tatmadaw. Their presence is unsettling.

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Myanmar after the coup: Heavy fighting, airstrikes and spies on street corners (38)

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We ask a man at the market overlooking the water where they might be headed. He's warm and friendly, but looks uneasy.

There's a line of boats waiting for tourists, so we ask him if he'd rather speak with us on the water. He agrees and away from the glare of the market, he starts to talk.

We have protected the identities of everyone we spoke to. This is an unpredictable time and some people are terrified of what could happen to them by just talking about life in Myanmar.

Everyone feels they're being watched in Myanmar

Aung*, not his real name, says he feels he could "die at any moment".

"The situation in the Yaw area is currently dire," he explains. "Both sides are opposed to reducing the number of fights."

Yaw is to the west of Tant Kyi mountain area.

On the map the area looks to be a short journey across the water. It's in the Magway region - a place the government accepts is experiencing heavy fighting. They've told us to stay away.

You can't see the conflict in Bagan, but others tell us you can hear it.

'If I speak to you without wearing a mask, then they will come and arrest me by using force'

A tourist guide who we're calling Aung Ley* says the noise comes late at night.

"It is loud. They said the instability was finished. However the fight against the junta isn't over in many areas. They are attempting to persuade the public of their victory. That's all."

Aung Ley is hurting. "My life has got worse since the coup," he tells me.

Like so many here, he is dependent on tourists and most are still being told to stay away. He's already spent all his savings.

Civil strife has hit the economy hard and fighting has displaced more than a million people.

The UN estimates that 34% of the population, 17.6 million people, will require aid and protection in Myanmar. That compares to only a million before the coup started.

Aung Ley has little faith in the prospect of a fair election.

"They are using their weapons and power to threaten the people," he tells me.

He wants to expose what life is really like here, but he's scared of the risks.

"If I speak to you without wearing a mask, then they will come and arrest me by using force."

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Myanmar after the coup: Heavy fighting, airstrikes and spies on street corners (42)

Bagan is a place of relative stability and outstanding beauty, and yet a sense of fear hangs over it.

We find a spot to watch the sunset over the temples.

A huddle of souvenir sellers offering paintings and trinkets look surprised to see us. One man says he hasn't sold any of his work in three years.

Most of the crowd of selfie-takers, 50 or so people, are Burmese bar a handful from Russia and China. The trickle of visitors has reportedly increased recently but everyone wants more.

This area relies heavily on foreign visitors and many countries like the UK still advise against travel to Myanmar.

The World Bank says the economy remains weak due to high inflation and "elevated levels of conflict". About 40% of the population is currently living below the national poverty line.

The war in Ukraine and COVID's legacy have compounded problems. But the economy is showing some signs of stabilising. Some sectors, like manufacturing, are reportedly recovering.

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The coup crushed a decade-long democratic experiment in Myanmar led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Following a landslide election victory in November 2020, State Counsellor Suu Kyi and other democratically elected leaders were arrested in February 2021 and their government was overthrown.

The military claimed the election results were marred by fraud and in a series of secret trials Suu Kyi was sentenced to 26 years in prison.

Her outraged supporters took to the streets in protest. They were silenced in a brutal crackdown.

Diplomats have recently speculated about her possible release, but in December 2022 her sentence was increased to 33 years.

Suu Kyi has spent much of her life in detention at the will of the military.

She is the daughter of Myanmar's independence hero, Aung San, and has a complicated relationship with them.

Once lauded around the world as an icon of democracy and peace, she ended up in a genocide trial in 2019, defending the military when they were accused of the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar.

But domestically she still enjoys a lot of support.

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'The military genuinely believe they've improved the country'

It was the military who granted our visas.

We weren't escorted anywhere but they knew the cities we were in, and we assumed they were watching us.

We made repeated requests to interview military spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Tun to no avail.

We'd almost given up hope when suddenly a call comes saying he is available to talk.

We are on our way to Yangon so we pull over in a lay-by. This could be our only chance to challenge the regime.

It is odd and imperfect. I question him through a translator, without seeing him.

I ask about the allegations of indiscriminate airstrikes and villages being burned.

He immediately dismisses them as "incorrect".

"We are not denying that we carry out airstrikes," he says, but denies that any civilians have been killed.

"What we can say is that in some regions PDF terrorists are hiding and staying in villages. They are not wearing uniforms.

"When they are killed in combat, they claim to be innocent civilians."

He refutes entirely that the regime is burning villages and instead points the finger at the resistance.

"The PDF terrorists enter areas where they do not have support," he says.

"When the fighting happens they set fire to the villages and then flee."

I push him on the climate of fear in the country. He says he doesn't want to comment.

Instead he references the New Year's Eve celebrations in the big cities as if they are proof enough of a happy country.

His tone is surprisingly calm, consistent.

It strikes me that the military genuinely believe they've improved the country.

And publicly they certainly maintain they're committed to peace and a handover of power if the nation votes for it.

It's highlighted on a "Five-Point Road" map in The Global New Light of Myanmar state newspaper every day.

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What struck me the most about our time in military-controlled Myanmar is just how scared people are to talk.

Even uttering the word coup feels like a dangerous act.

Everyone is second guessing what the military might do.

People feel like every street corner is being watched, with spies everywhere.

And yet in Yangon, Myanmar's most populous city, there is a veneer of normality.

The protest movement, known as the Spring Revolution, that filled its streets in mid-2021 has been extinguished.

Many fled. Many were jailed for taking part. Sweeping anti-terror legislation is helping to lock up many more.

We meet KGS, one of those who took to the streets.

Now "it’s impossible to protest," he says.

After the coup the military regularly shut off mobile and wireless internet.

The regime is now looking to adopt a new cybersecurity law to jail anyone accessing banned sites like Facebook via virtual private networks.

There are countless stories of people being picked up by the authorities.

We spend our last night in Myanmar on 19th street - a bustling thoroughfare typically known for its food, drink and nightlife.

There, young people are busy grabbing a beer and a bite to eat.

Life goes on, of course, but so much has changed. With the stakes so high it's hard to imagine a revival of the 2021 protests anytime soon.

Instead, an intensifying civil conflict is gripping the country. The junta, by some assessments, is on the back foot but claims it had to stop a fraudulent election.

It now says it's committed to elections as a way of securing a path to peace. That feels elusive right now.

What they do want and need is international investment and backing.

Perhaps opening their doors to us, however partially, was about appearing to engage with the outside.

I still have no idea why they let us visit. Nor do I know what they will make of what we heard from the people of Myanmar.

But I can't believe any of it will come as a surprise. They must know that the single thing uniting Myanmar's population right now is fear.

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Myanmar after the coup: Heavy fighting, airstrikes and spies on street corners (73)

Credits:

In Asia:

Cordelia Lynch, Asia correspondent
Duncan Sharp, Asia cameraman and editor
Rachel Thompson, Asia producer

Production:

Michael Drummond, foreign news reporter
Serena Kutchinsky, assistant editor
Stacey Drake, designer
Bria Anderson, designer

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