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Myanmar has been in chaos since the army seized power from the civilian government


Two years ago today, Myanmar's military seized power, deposing Aung San Suu Kyi's civilian-led government. The country has been in chaos ever since. Meanwhile, a million Rohingya people, minority Muslims, languish in refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. Most of them fled Myanmar after a 2017 crackdown by the military that many have labeled genocide. Here to talk about both, we're joined by NPR's Michael Sullivan in northern Thailand and NPR's Lauren Frayer in southern Bangladesh. Michael, let's start with you. Bring us up to date on what many are calling a civil war now raging in Myanmar. What's been happening there?

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Yeah, it's a mess, A. I mean, it's just getting worse. I mean, it's a very brutal conflict pitting Myanmar's military not just against the ethnic minority militias it's been battling for decades, but against its own people, the ethnic Bamar or Burman majority - people who look like them, people who speak like them, people who worship like them - in the country's heartland. There's also a million and a half newly displaced people within Myanmar. The economy has shrunk 20%. And poverty levels are back to where they were a decade ago. I spoke to Richard Horsey. He's the senior Myanmar analyst for the international Crisis Group who doesn't see an end anytime soon.

RICHARD HORSEY: From one of the most hopeful periods in Myanmar's recent history has come one of the darkest times. And, you know, there's that real sense of a generation who, instead of being, you know, computer programmers and doctors and entrepreneurs, you know, helping to drive a new Myanmar, they're often in the jungle fighting. Or they're in - you know, been forced into exile. Or they're dead.

SULLIVAN: So that's a country of 50 million in chaos. And almost every analyst I've spoken with say this situation could drag on for years. And that's especially hard for people like the Muslim minority, Rohingya and any idea they may have to be able to return to Myanmar in safety.

MARTÍNEZ: Lauren, you've spent the last two days with Rohingya refugees at a camp inside Bangladesh. What's the mood there?

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Yeah, so everything that Michael has just told you about Myanmar, Rohingya here have been watching that with absolute horror. They thought they were fleeing their country very temporarily. And it's been more than five years for about a million Rohingya here in Bangladesh. Conditions here are tough. They've come to a poor country on the front lines of climate change. There are fires here in the dry season, floods in the rainy season, desperation. Last week, there was a shooting in this camp. So there's increasing lawlessness here. And people are trying to escape now on rickety boats across the Bay of Bengal. And they're drowning at sea by the hundreds. I want to introduce you to one Rohingya family I've met here.


FRAYER: Hazera Khatun sifts rice in the bamboo shelter she shares with her husband and 12 children. Her big family used to be prosperous, running a business back home in Myanmar, until 2017...

HAZERA KHATUN: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: ...When she says soldiers set fire to their house. The family fled by boat to Bangladesh, where they've been for five years. With ongoing conflict in Myanmar, it's impossible to even think of going back.

KHATUN: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "But we can't live off charity in a refugee camp forever," Hazera says. One day, her 17-year-old son, Mohammad, had an idea. Smugglers have been ferrying more and more desperate Rohingya out of this camp and across the sea to Malaysia. He could go, get a job, send money back.

KHATUN: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach," Hazera recalls. But Rohingya can only go to school here through eighth grade. And Mohammad was idle. Other kids have gotten into drugs. So Hazera gave in, made her son promise to call home and hugged him goodbye as he snuck out to meet a smuggler on the coast. And I retraced some of his steps.


KHATUN: This is the Bay of Bengal in front of me. It's dark now. But mixed in with these fishing boats is exactly where the smugglers operate. I'm walking through the sand.

DIDARUL ALAM RASHED: We can't stop. We try but can't stop.

FRAYER: Didarul Alam Rashed runs an NGO that drops leaflets on this beach urging Rohingya not to make these dangerous journeys. But in recent months, hundreds, if not thousands have disappeared into these waters.

How many boats do you think are leaving?

RASHED: One boat we can rescue, I think, 10 boat, we can't.

FRAYER: For every one boat you rescue, 10 are missing?

RASHED: Yeah. Yeah.

FRAYER: Hazera's son, Mohammad, he never called home.

KHATUN: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: My phone was silent. And meanwhile, I heard about all these boats sinking, Hazera recalls. She was frantic. Mohammad was one of the lucky ones. A smuggler had confiscated his phone, but he was alive. He spent 2 1/2 months at sea in a boat with fellow Rohingya.

MOHAMMAD: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: Eating one meal every two days, he explained. Now, sitting cross-legged on the cement floor with his mother, she caresses his ankle as he talks.

MOHAMMAD: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: He explains how they tried to make it to Malaysia but had to turn back. Smugglers dropped him off Bangladesh's coast right where he started. He's even more desperate now.

MOHAMMAD: Other country, any opportunity for me?

FRAYER: He's searching for any other way to avoid being in Myanmar, where he was persecuted, or in Bangladesh, where he risked his life to try to leave.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow. So that sounds like a really, really desperate situation. What can the international community do, then, Lauren and Michael?

FRAYER: Well, this is one of the world's biggest refugee camps. And people here have been telling me that they feel like the world has forgotten about them, that they've moved on to new conflicts and new refugee crises in Ukraine and elsewhere.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, exactly. And there doesn't seem to be much appetite in the region to intervene to solve the Myanmar crisis either. China doesn't seem to care as long as no one messes with their energy pipelines or businesses in country. And the rest of the neighbors don't seem to care much either. Western governments have imposed some sanctions against the military that, so far, haven't proven very effective. And with the war in Ukraine, there doesn't seem much bandwidth for, say, helping arm the opposition, for example, even though Myanmar's military is getting help from Russia. So honestly, it's the people of Myanmar who are going to sort this out, not the international community.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Michael Sullivan in northern Thailand and NPR's Lauren Frayer in southern Bangladesh. My thanks to you both.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome.

FRAYER: Thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "PROCESSION") 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.
Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.