At the beginning of February Myanmar’s military staged a vicious coup. Glenda Cimino details the brutal repression being meted out to those protesting the Junta’s rule and argues for international solidarity.
Myanmar (formerly Burma) is a Southeast Asian nation of more than 100 ethnic groups, bordering India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand. In recent years Myanmar was brought to the world’s attention as a result of the shocking genocide of the Rohingya people, which on top of the horrors unleashed also undid renowned Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation.
The people of Myanmar are living an ongoing nightmare since 1 February 2021, when the military declared falsely that the election of 8 November 2020 was fraudulent. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw, launched a violent coup – the first since 1988 – to overthrow the election, which had been won in a landslide by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.
In late 2019, Aung San Suu Kyi unsuccessfully defended this same general and the military against accusations of genocide at the International Court of Justice in the Hague. Her collaboration and attempt to co-govern with the military proved fruitless, as she and other parliamentarians, including president Win Myint, were immediately arrested under trumped-up charges.
The military is ruthlessly dismantling civilian rule and reversing the steps begun roughly 10 years ago towards democracy. Two officials of the elected government were among five people known to have died after being tortured.
Protest, Repression and More Protest
Unarmed people from different ethnic groups – many of them very young – came together in unprecedented unity and poured into the streets in peaceful protest.
They demanded the results of the election be respected, and they have been marching every day in many towns and cities, despite weapons of war being used against them. Numerous strikes have brought the economy to a standstill, with a huge backlash from the Junta.
There seem to be no limits on the brutality of the military response to their own people. To date, they shoot to kill, using live ammunition aimed at the heads and hearts of the people. They have dragged off the wounded and the dead, not returning bodies to their families.
It is estimated that over 240 people have been killed so far, including many women and children as well as people not involved in the protests who were targeted anyway by snipers. Over 2000 people have been pulled off the streets or out of their homes in nighttime raids and arrested. These include government officials, hospital workers, journalists, civil servants, NGO workers, students, and other protestors.
People have no way of finding out where their friends and relatives are being held. There are many reports of poor conditions, ill treatment and torture.
The general feeling is that the people have no choice but to protest to demand the release of elected members of government and the victims of the mass process of rounding up, disappearances, torture and killings.
Internet and phone services are cut off at will. Schools and hospitals have been occupied by soldiers. Every night the military raids the houses of those they suspect are against them. Railway workers and their families were evicted just for being on strike.
According to Dr Sasa, Special Envoy to the UN representing the parliament of Myanmar and himself forced into hiding, there is no difference between being on the street and staying home.
Fleeing for their Lives
On 13 March 2021, 32 Chinese-funded garment factories in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, were torched. It is thought to be the act of protestors, on the perception that China backed the military by not explicitly condemning or punishing them.
Chinese companies are Myanmar’s largest investors and the arson attacks prompted an even harsher response from the Junta, as they placed several parts of Yangon under martial law. This meant that arson, ‘illegal’ gatherings or protests could be punished with an non-appealable death penalty or ‘unlimited years’ in prisons with hard labour. Added to this, security forces have recently opened fire on crowds using semiautomatic and automatic rifles, according to the UN human rights chief, Michele Bachelet.
With such constant shooting and martial law deployed, migrants and residents of the affected areas of Yangon – industrial areas where workers live – fled on carts, in cars, with whatever they could carry, children and pets in tow and fearing for their lives, with protestors lifting barriers so they could escape before the curfew came down.
The situation is already severely impacting poorer people with rising food and fuel prices and the near paralysis of the banking sector creating limits on cash availability. Many Chinese people also want to return to China but the pandemic makes that unlikely.
Some government officials, as well as police and military, who could not go along with the orders to shoot to kill their fellow citizens managed to escape to India, but their asylum there is not secure. Modi could return them at any time to Myanmar, almost certainly meaning death.
International Support Ineffective So Far
The protesters had immediately called for international and UN support, but statements of outrage by US and UN, and ‘targeted sanctions’ have had no effect in reducing the killing. Myanmar’s Ambassador to the UN, Kyaw Moe Tun, took the brave step of siding with the protesters.
The protesters’ hopes for the UN to take effective action are waning. Not long ago, the UN Security Council finally ‘strongly condemned the violence’ and expressed ‘deep concern’, calling for human rights to be respected, democratic institutions to be upheld, and among other things, for all those detained arbitrarily to be released. China, supported by Russia, eventually agreed to the statement after eliminating text referring to the situation as a ‘coup.’ Russia has sold weapons to the Junta, including MiG-29 jet fighters and the Pantsir-S1 missile system.
Protesters saw China as holding up possible help and siding with the military, seeing the unrest as a threat to its massive investment in Myanmar. Since the arson attacks, Beijing has demanded greater security for their interests in Myanmar. Chinese state media CGTN warned that ‘China won’t allow its interests to be exposed to further aggression […] If the authorities cannot deliver and the chaos continues to spread, China might be forced into more drastic action to protect its interests.’
Calls for Revolution
The civilian leader of Myanmar’s government, Mahn Win Khaing Than, addressed the public on Saturday for the first time since the military takeover. He called for ‘revolution’ to oust the military Junta. The acting-Vice President, who is a member of deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party and is also currently in hiding, addressed the nation recently saying that “this is the darkest moment of the nation and the moment that the dawn is close,” in a video posted on the shadow government’s website and social media – though one wonders how many in Myanmar could see it.
“In order to form a federal democracy, which all ethnic brothers who have been suffering various kinds of oppressions from the dictatorship for decades really desired, this revolution is the chance for us to put our efforts together,” he said. “We will never give up to an unjust military but we will carve our future together with our united power. Our mission must be accomplished.”
Ireland now has a seat on the UN Security Council. Will it use its voice to find a more effective way of helping the Myanmar people, fighting an unarmed struggle against a ruthless military armed to the teeth?
The European Union members are finalising sanctions targeting Myanmar coup leaders’ own business interests and suspending all budgetary support, yet targeted sanctions are unlikely to work if the historical record is anything to go by. For its part, the Biden administration had a virtual meeting with the Indian, Japanese and Australian leaders yesterday as part of a push to demonstrate a renewed US commitment to ‘regional security’. They vowed to restore Myanmar democracy… but didn’t specify how.
The generals made a major miscalculation, underestimating the positive impact that a decade of democracy and economic liberalisation would have on people. People in Myanmar are suffering, risking their lives, with unarmed people wounded and dying every day, letting the Junta know they will not give in to more years of military oppression. They have had enough.
We must demand immediate release of all political prisoners, an end to violent kidnappings and attacks, and recognition of the government legally elected last November. General Min Aung Hlaing and the Junta should be brought to trial for their disastrous and brutal coup and ordering of the illegal imprisonment and killing of their own people.
Plans need to be put in place for the safe return of the estimated 1 million Rohingya refugees. It is hoped that the government would heed the call of the uprising for fair treatment of all the ethnic minorities in the country.
The three fingered salute of the protesters, taken from the Hunger Games, is an appropriate symbol as it represents solidarity in a dystopian world where rebels have to fight for freedom against an all-powerful tyrant. The Junta can cut off the internet, but it is too late to cut off the consciousness of a new generation of young Burmese activists. The world needs to be not only watching but standing up for – and with – them.