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Professor Discusses What Might Be To Come In Myanmar

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Myanmar today, ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi was hit with another criminal charge by the military, this time for allegedly breaching COVID-19 restrictions under the country's natural disaster management law. Suu Kyi, who has been detained since the February 1 coup, now faces six criminal charges altogether, as well as lengthy prison sentences.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Meanwhile, more than 80 people were killed by security forces on Friday. That's the largest single death toll in weeks. Yet protesters are still trying to reverse the military coup. Some say it has left Myanmar on the brink of collapse. Reporter Michael Sullivan spoke with a woman who has lived through several crackdowns in Myanmar.

And a warning - this story contains graphic descriptions of violence.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: University of Washington Professor Mary Callahan has had a front row seat watching Myanmar descend into chaos, her neighborhood in the commercial capital, Yangon, a hotspot for protests and the crackdowns that follow.

MARY CALLAHAN: Seeing from my condo balcony people fleeing into the spiderweb of streets in the neighborhood and soldiers chasing them and then random shootings and the terrorizing of the people on the streets every night.

SULLIVAN: Her routine the past few months has included a nightly walk around the neighborhood just before sundown and nightly chats with some of the young people.

CALLAHAN: They all know me, and they all know I speak Burmese. And it's like they wait for me to show me the grisly pictures and videos of things they took or they pulled off somehow - social media, even though they no longer have mobile data.

SULLIVAN: Mobile data was cut off by the military to keep people from posting images for the world to see. And those young people from the neighborhood - she's been to the funerals of four of them.

CALLAHAN: One was shot in the head. A soldier stalked him across the street as everybody else ran. He just stood there, terrified, and the guy shot him right between the eyes. Another died of a gunshot wound. He couldn't get to a hospital for care and ultimately died of sepsis. And then two others were detainees who got taken away and their bodies dumped the next morning in front of the apartments of their families, mangled beyond recognition.

SULLIVAN: Callahan's been living in Myanmar for nearly a decade and going back and forth for several more before that. But last Monday, she left for Bangkok.

CALLAHAN: It was a war zone. You know, I don't understand this narrative that Myanmar is on the brink of civil war. It is a civil war.

SULLIVAN: And she should know. She's been researching and writing about Myanmar's military for decades. What's happening today, she says, is exactly how the military has treated ethnic minorities in the borderlands for at least 50 years.

CALLAHAN: The Myanmar military has come over decades to view its citizens not as rights-bearing citizens but as potential enemies to the state.

SULLIVAN: Yet the protesters refuse to give up, and their civil disobedience movement has succeeded in paralyzing the government and the economy.

CALLAHAN: It's very clear to me that not only in Yangon and Mandalay but in many towns and even rural areas, Myanmar is not on the brink of a failed state. It is a failed state right now.

SULLIVAN: One where people don't have access to cash, where food is becoming more scarce and more expensive, where dealing with the ongoing COVID crisis has been put on hold and where supply chains for medicines have all but dried up - it's a humanitarian crisis in the making, she says, one that will likely force the international aid community to cut unsavory deals with the military.

CALLAHAN: If they go in, they will need an MOU with an illegitimate government. If they don't go in, people will die.

SULLIVAN: And the number of civilians dying in the protests is rising rapidly as the military uses heavier weapons against them. She doesn't see any way in which the protesters win. What she fears is that she won't be able to return, ever, to see people she's grown close to in the last 30 years.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.