Last week in Southeast Asia, people in Myanmar continued to demonstrate against the military junta, which seized power three months ago. Demonstrators stepped up calls for a boycott of the education system ahead of the reopening of higher education institutions on 5 May. Meanwhile, fighting between the Myanmar military and local resistance groups intensified as the National Unity Government (NUG) announced the formation of the People’s Defense Force in anticipation of forming a federal army. Attacks by unknown assailants on both military appointed officials and National League for Democracy (NLD) members were reported last week. Fighting between ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and the Myanmar military also continued unabated. In the Philippines, tensions with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea continue to escalate, with Manila filing yet another diplomatic protest to Beijing. In Thailand, anti-government protests decreased as a detained protest leader was released from prison. Lastly, on 1 May, protesters across the region took to the streets to commemorate International Labor Day.
In Myanmar, three months after the military seized power on 1 February, anti-coup demonstrators continue to rally across the country in opposition to military rule. Ahead of the reopening of higher education institutions on 5 May, anti-coup demonstrators intensified their campaign to call for a boycott of the military’s “slave education” system (Frontier Myanmar, 6 May 2021). Students, teachers, and parents have vowed not to take part in the public education system under the junta, regarding it as an attempt by the junta to legitimize its rule over the country. In response, the junta suspended more than 11,000 academics and non-academic staff from their duties for failing to return to work prior to the resumption of classes (Reuters, 11 May 2021).
Armed resistance against the military junta intensified last week as local resistance groups fought against the Myanmar military in Magway and Sagaing regions, and in Chin state. In Chin state, the Chinland Defense Force (CDF) launched an offensive against Myanmar military troops after the Myanmar military failed to release 60 detained locals, as demanded. The fighting escalated into a three-day battle, killing nine Myanmar military soldiers (Irrawaddy, 5 May 2021). Elsewhere in the neighboring Sagaing region, the Myanmar military and a local resistance group clashed on 6 and 7 May along the Chindwin River, with the resistance group sinking two military ships (VOA, 6 May 2021). This comes as the NUG announced the formation of a People’s Defense Force. The new defense force is meant to serve as a precursor to a Federal Union Army (Reuters, 6 May 2021).
Targeted attacks against military-appointed administrators were also reported last week, leaving three administrators dead and one injured. These administrators were perceived to be collaborating with the junta to arrest anti-coup protesters and government staff who are on strike in support of the civil disobedience movement (Irrawaddy, 6 May 2021). Separately, in Bago region, an explosion caused by a parcel bomb killed five people, including an NLD lawmaker and three striking police officers (Irrawaddy, 4 May 2021). No one has yet claimed responsibility for any of these attacks.
Separately, clashes between the Myanmar military and EAOs continued unabated. In Kayin state, the Myanmar military continued its airstrikes against the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA) positions. On 7 May, the KNU/KNLA and Arakan National Council/Arakan Army (ANC/AA) launched a joint operation to attack and capture a Myanmar military camp. Elsewhere, in Kachin state, battles between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Organization/Kachin Independence Army (KIO/KIA) increased, as the Myanmar military continued its efforts to recapture the strategic hilltop of Alaw Bum. In Sagaing region, the Myanmar military and the Shanni Nationalities Army (SNA) clashed for the first time since the coup (Democratic Voice of Burma, 6 May 2021).
In the Philippines, tensions over territorial claims in the South China Sea continued to escalate following Manila’s previous announcement of the Philippine Coast Guard carrying out maritime military drills near the Scarborough Shoal on 24 April (CNA, 25 April 2021). On 3 May, the Phillipine Department of Foreign Affairs announced that the Chinese Coast Guard took “belligerent actions” against the Philippine Coast Guard in the course of said drills (Rappler, 3 May 2021). The Philippines filed yet another diplomatic protest; this time the protest is against the Chinese Coast Guard’s “shadowing, blocking, dangerous [maneuvers], and radio challenges” of the Philippine Coast Guard (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 3 May 2021).
In Thailand, there was a decrease last week in the number of protest events calling for the release of anti-government protest leaders being detained without bail. This comes as prominent protest leader Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, who has been on a hunger strike, was released on bail after being detained for about two months (Prachatai, 7 May 2021). Meanwhile, another protest leader who has also been on a hunger strike, Parit Chiwarak, continues to be held by authorities, even as his health continues to deteriorate.
Finally, protests were held across the region in conjunction with International Labor Day, or May Day, on 1 May. In the Philippines, labor groups staged large-scale traditional May Day rallies with hundreds to thousands of participants (Cebu Daily News, 1 May 2021; PNA, 1 May 2021). This year’s turn out is in stark contrast to last year’s, when labor groups mostly stayed off the streets at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Several of these protests faced police intervention with reports of protesters being arrested or blocked from demonstrating. Police provided coronavirus-related reasons for the interventions, as strict movement restrictions are currently in place in several cities (CNN, 29 April 2021). Similarly, in Indonesia, police carried out mass arrests as thousands of protesters gathered to commemorate May Day and oppose the Omnibus Law on Job Creation. More than 300 protesters — primarily students — were detained by police during these protests (Tempo, 1 May 2021). In Malaysia, the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) carried out a series of coordinated protests across several states demanding improved labor conditions. These demands were echoed by protesters in Thailand.
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