Myanmar : Road to Freedom
Myanmar, also known as Burma, is in South East Asia. It neighbors are Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, China and India. For much of its modern history, it has been under military rule. It has a population of about 54 million, majority of whom are Burmese speakers, although other languages are also spoken. The biggest city is Yangon (Rangoon), but the capital is Nay Pyi Taw.
The main religion in Myanmar is Buddhism but there are as well many ethnic groups in the country, including Rohingya Muslims.
The country gained independence from Britain in 1948. It was ruled by the armed forces from 1962 until 2011, when a new government began ushering in a return to civilian rule.
The ruling military changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989. The two words mean the same thing but Myanmar is the more formal version.
Some countries, including the UK, initially refused to use the name as a way of denying the regime’s legitimacy. But use of “Myanmar” has become increasingly common, and in 2016 Ms. Suu Kyi said it did not matter which name was used.
Restrictions began loosening from 2010 onwards, leading to free elections in 2015 and the installation of a government headed by veteran opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi the following year.
In 2017, Myanmar’s army responded to attacks on police by Rohingya militants with a deadly crackdown, driving more than half a million Rohingya Muslims across the border into Bangladesh in what the UN later called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing“.
The military is now back in charge and has declared a year-long state of emergency.
It seized control on 1 February following a general election which Ms. Suu Kyi’s NLD party won by a landslide. Aung San Suu Kyi became world-famous in the 1990s for campaigning to restore democracy. She spent nearly 15 years in detention between 1989 and 2010, after organizing rallies calling for democratic reform and free elections. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while under house arrest.
In 2015, she led the NLD to victory in Myanmar’s first openly contested election in 25 years.
The military has also accused the ousted leader of bribery and corruption. Military spokesperson Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun said in a news conference Suu Kyi accepted illegal payments worth $600,000, as well as gold, while in government. But her lawyer called the allegations a “complete fabrication.”
Suu Kyi has not been seen by the public or her lawyers since she was detained. The ousted President Win Myint has also been detained since the coup and faces similar charges.
Officials with the ruling NLD have either been arrested or gone into hiding since the coup. A group of former NLD lawmakers have formed a kind of parallel civilian parliament — called the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) — and are pushing for international recognition as the rightful government.
The group’s acting leader Mahn Win Khaing Than has vowed to pursue a “revolution” to overturn the ruling junta.
The armed forces had backed the opposition, who were demanding a rerun of the vote, claiming widespread fraud. The election commission said there was no evidence to support these claims.
The coup took place as a new session of parliament was set to open.
Ms. Suu Kyi has been held at an unknown location since the coup. She is facing various charges, including violating the country’s official secrets act, possessing illegal walkie-talkies and publishing information that may “cause fear or alarm“.
NLD MPs who managed to escape arrest formed a new group in hiding. Their leader has urged protesters to defend themselves against the crackdown.
Military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing has taken power. He has long wielded significant political influence, successfully maintaining the power of the Tatmadaw – Myanmar’s military – even as the country moved towards democracy. He has received international condemnation and sanctions for his alleged role in the military’s attacks on ethnic minorities.
In his first public comments after the coup, Gen Hlaing sought to justify the takeover. He said the military was on the side of the people and would form a “true and disciplined democracy“.
The military says it will hold a “free and fair” election once the state of emergency is over.
The military detained the leaders of the National League for Democracy, cabinet ministers, the chief ministers of several regions, opposition politicians, writers and activists.
The coup was effectively announced on the military-owned Myawaddy TV station when a news presenter cited the 2008 Constitution, which allows the military to declare a national emergency. The state of emergency, he said, will remain in place for one year.
The military quickly seized control of the country’s infrastructure, suspending most television broadcasts and canceling domestic and international flights.
Telephone and internet access was suspended in major cities. The stock market and commercial banks were closed, and long lines were seen outside A.T.M.s in some places. In Yangon, the country’s largest city and former capital, residents ran to markets to stock up on food and other supplies.
Why is Myanmar protesting?
Incensed the previous decade of reforms, which have seen political and economic liberalization and a transition into a hybrid democracy, would be undone, millions of people of all ages and social backgrounds have come out onto the streets daily across the country.
Protesters are demanding the military hand back power to civilian control and are held fully accountable and are calling for the release of Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders. Myanmar’s many ethnic minority groups, which have long fought for greater autonomy for their lands, are also demanding the military-written 2008 constitution be abolished and a federal democracy be established.
The military has called the protests unlawful and accused demonstrators of causing disruption. Police initially used rubber bullets and water cannons but as large demonstrations continued, they began firing live rounds on protesters.
The demonstrations, especially those taking up positions on the front lines behind barricades, are dominated by young people who have grown up with a level of democracy and political and economic freedoms their parents or grandparents didn’t have, which they are unwilling to give up.
Meanwhile, a civil disobedience movement has seen thousands of white- and blue-collar workers, from medics, bankers and lawyers to teachers, engineers and factory workers, leave their jobs as a form of resistance against the coup.
The strikes have disrupted health care, banking, rail and administration services among others. Local media outlet Frontier Myanmar reported striking truck drivers, customs and bank agents, and port workers have brought international trade through Yangon’s ports to a standstill.
The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), made up of legislators removed by the coup, endorsed the people’s right to self-defense on March 14. On May 5, the CRPH-appointed National Unity Government, which is running a shadow government in opposition to the military, announced the formation of a national-level People’s Defense Force, a step towards a federal army that would unite the country’s disparate ethnic armed organizations and other resistance groups.
Civilian fighters in Kayah have not come under this People’s Defense Force but have, since June joined local armed groups to form the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force (KNDF).
Armed largely with homemade hunting rifles, Karenni fighters are the latest to emerge as a civilian defense force against a military that, according to the Stockholm Peace Institute, purchased $2.4bn in arms over the past 10 years, mostly from China and Russia. Both before and after the coup, the Tatmadaw has not hesitated to use these weapons on civilians, especially in areas of armed resistance
“The military have been violating human rights for many years, but now it’s more often and more obvious … [violations] happen every day,” said Khu Te Bu of the Karenni National Progressive Party and deputy minister of Home Affairs under the National Unity Government.
On June 2, the KNPP issued an urgent appeal for the Tatmadaw to cease attacks and threats against aid workers and civilians and to open blocked roads so food and supplies could enter the state. It also called for the UN, international governments and humanitarian organizations to provide immediate humanitarian assistance to the displaced and hold the Tatmadaw accountable for its actions.
Patterns of Tatmadaw violence seen since the coup mirror decades of human rights abuses which the Karenni, along with other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, have suffered at the hands of the Tatmadaw, which has systematically gone after civilians in areas where ethnic armed organizations have fought for self-determination and equal rights. In Kayah, tens of thousands were forced into relocation sites or to flee into the forest or across the border to Thailand, predominantly in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“Since May 21, we have been re-experiencing violations like the military committed in the past,” one protester said.
The recent fighting in Kayah erupted on May 21, when Tatmadaw troops opened fire in residential areas of Demoso and arrested 13 people. The KPDF, at times supported by local armed groups, has since razed police stations, ambushed approaching troops and engaged in gun battles. The Tatmadaw has responded with continuous air and ground attacks on civilian areas.
“They are shooting everyone they see,” said Banya Kun Aung of the Karenni Human Rights Organization. “Civilians have become hostages because of the political crisis.”
Among civilian casualties were a young man shot in the head with his hands tied behind his back on May 24 in Loikaw township and a 14-year-old boy shot dead in Loikaw township on May 27, the latest of more than 73 children to be killed by the security forces, according to the National Unity Government.
Churches have been repeatedly attacked in the predominantly-Christian area. On May 24, four people were killed and at least eight injured when heavy artillery struck a Catholic church in Loikaw township where more than 300 villagers had sought refuge.
A local community leader said that on May 29, Tatmadaw forces raided a Catholic seminary in Loikaw where more than 1,300 civilians were sheltering, killed a volunteer cook and ate the food he had prepared. The same day, according to the community leader, the Tatmadaw raided and looted a Catholic parish house and convent in Demoso. On June 6, a Catholic church in Demoso called Queen of Peace, which had raised a white flag of peace, was damaged by artillery fire. “If the churches are no longer safe for the people to take shelter and protection, where can we find safer places?” asked the community leader.
The Tatmadaw has justified its attacks on temples, churches and administrative buildings by claiming that the facilities sheltered “local rebels.” Humanitarian access has been hampered by insecurity, roadblocks, landmine risks and lengthy or unclear approval processes, according to the UN.
Local media has reported that the Tatmadaw has cut off access to Kayah State from Shan State as well as road access to Loikaw, the Kayah State capital.
On June 3, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross met army chief Min Aung Hlaing to share concerns on the current humanitarian situation in Myanmar and “reinforce ongoing efforts to ensure space for neutral and impartial humanitarian action.”
In Kayah, the Tatmadaw has continuously attacked and threatened humanitarian workers trying to help those displaced in recent clashes.
Security forces gunned down two youth delivering food from a church to displaced people in Demoso township and arrested three volunteers who were returning from delivering assistance there. The next day, a volunteer youth with Free Burma Rangers, a Christian humanitarian group, was shot dead in Demoso township while trying to assist civilians.
A representative from the Karenni National Women’s Organization (KNWO), a Kayah-based civil society organization that is monitoring the crisis, said that Kayah’s mountainous terrain is also posing a challenge to aid delivery. “From above, it might look like [displacement sites] are near each other, but one place and another are far; you may even have to cross mountains,” she said.
As in other parts of the country experiencing mass displacement since the coup, she said that food insecurity was rising. military snipers shot dead two young men in Demoso township who were travelling back to their villages to get rice. “[People] are afraid to go back to their houses to take necessities because they don’t know where soldiers might be hiding or aiming their guns.”
Those trapped in cities and towns, including the elderly and disabled, are also facing trouble getting food, as curfews and ongoing violence leave them afraid to leave their homes. “We buy food quickly … Other than that, we don’t dare go out … because [Tatmadaw] snipers can shoot us any time,” said a woman in Loikaw who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I hear the sound of shooting all day.”
The generals’ forces, she said, are also raiding homes for food and valuables, following patterns seen in other parts of the country. “They went into houses and took everything, including rice, oil, and salt … They took what they wanted and destroyed the houses,” the woman said.
With the rainy season approaching, aid groups warn there could be more serious food shortages if farmers in conflict areas are unable to plant their crops, and health concerns are growing too.
Insufficient shelter and hygiene facilities leave populations vulnerable to malaria and diarrheic diseases, while access to medicine and health services remain severely deficient. “There are just a few nurses among the displaced people but they themselves are also displaced,” the representative from the KNWO said. Compounding these problems, local aid groups are running out of funds. “We only have local donors who can give small amounts … we don’t know how long we can hold up,” she said.
Dozens of people have been killed by security forces in Myanmar, on the deadliest day since last month’s military takeover of the country.
More than 90 deaths, including children, were confirmed by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) monitoring group.
“They are killing us like birds or chickens, even in our homes,” resident Thu Ya Zaw told Reuters news agency in the central town of Myingyan. We will keep protesting regardless.”
The lethal crackdown came as protesters defied warnings and took to the streets on the annual Armed Forces Day. Children are also among the dead and injured. A one-year old girl was hit in the eye with a rubber bullet as she played on the pavement near her home in a suburb of Yangon.
A five-year-old boy in Mandalay is fighting for his life after being shot in the head by security forces. Across the country, children are amongst the injured and the dead in the bloodiest day since the coup on the 1 February. Fourteen-year-old Pan Ei Phyu’s mother says she rushed to close all the doors when she heard the military coming down her street. But she wasn’t fast enough. A moment later, she was holding her daughter’s blood-soaked body.
“I saw her collapse and initially thought she just slipped and fell. But then blood spurted out from her chest,” she told BBC Burmese from Meiktila in central Myanmar.
It was the randomness of today’s killings that was particularly shocking. Armed with battlefield weapons, the security forces appeared willing to shoot anyone they saw on the streets. The brutality they showed they were capable of today is on another level from what we have seen since the coup.
The human rights monitor, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners reported that the death toll from the military crackdown since the beginning of the coup has already reached around 1,000, while more than 5,000 are currently detained or have been sentenced.
Neither side – the military or the pro-democracy movement – is willing to back down. The military think they can terrorize people to achieve “stability and security”. But the movement on the streets, led by young people, is determined to rid the country of the military dictatorship once and for all.
It’s painful to have to count the mounting dead, especially the children.
How has the International Community Responded?
The killings in Myanmar drew international condemnation.
The US embassy said security forces were “murdering unarmed civilians“, while the EU delegation to Myanmar said the 76th Armed Forces Day would “stay engraved as a day of terror and dishonor”.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply shocked”.
Numerous countries have condemned the military takeover and subsequent crackdown. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused the security forces of a “reign of terror”.
The US, UK and European Union have all responded with sanctions on military officials.
China blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the coup but has backed calls for the release of Ms. Suu Kyi and a return to democratic norms. The country has previously opposed international intervention in Myanmar.
Every day, ordinary people in Myanmar are making difficult choices in the face of an increasingly violent response to their mass protests.
The protesters want a return to their democratically-elected civilian government, after the military seized control on 1 February claiming there was widespread fraud in last year’s election.
Today’s protesters demand the release of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint and the verification of the 2020 election result.
But the ethnic minorities, have deeper demands, their vision is to establish a federal democratic union with all nationalities who belong in Myanmar.
The military ruled with the divide and conquer strategy for many years, but now all nationalities have become united.
One protestor said:” I have a little girl. She’s one. I don’t want her to suffer from my actions. I got involved in the protest for my daughter because I don’t want her to grow up under a dictatorship like I did and before I joined the protest, I discussed it with my husband. I asked him to take care of our baby and move on with life if I get arrested or die in this movement. We will finish this revolution on our own and not hand it over to our children.”
Myanmar security forces opened fire on some of the biggest protests against military rule, killing eight people, media reported, three months after a coup plunged the country into crisis.
The protests, after a spell of dwindling crowds and what appeared to be more restraint by the security forces, were coordinated with demonstrations in Myanmar communities around the world to mark what organizers called “the global Myanmar spring revolution“.
“Shake the world with the voice of Myanmar people’s unity,” the organizers said in a statement.
Streams of demonstrators, some led by Buddhist monks, made their way through cities and towns across the country, including the commercial hub of Yangon and the second city of Mandalay, where two people were shot and killed, the Mizzima news agency reported.
The Irrawaddy news site earlier posted a photograph of a man it said was a security officer in plain clothes taking aim with a rifle in Mandalay.
Three people were killed in the central town of Wetlet, the Myanmar Now news agency said, and two were killed in different towns in Shan State in the northeast, two media outlets reported. One person was also killed in the northern jade-mining town of Hpakant, the Kachin News Group reported.
Reuters could not verify the reports and a spokesman for the ruling junta did not answer calls seeking comment.
The protests are only one of the problems the generals have brought on with their Feb. 1 ouster of the elected government led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Wars with ethnic minority insurgents in remote frontier regions in the north and east have intensified significantly since the coup, displacing tens of thousands of civilians, according to United Nations estimates.
In some places civilians with crude weapons have battled security forces, while in central areas military and government facilities that have been secure for generations have been hit by rocket attacks and a wave of small, unexplained blast
Sanctions have so far been imposed only by Western countries, primarily the United States. They are directed against individual members of the army as well as against certain ministries and companies controlled by the military. The measures include entry bans, asset freezes and the prohibition or restrictions on business relations with the individuals or organizations concerned.
On Monday, EU foreign ministers slapped sanctions on 11 officers of the Myanmar army and security forces, as well as against companies that generate revenue or financial support for the army.
At the moment, UNSC sanctions are considered unrealistic, given the readiness of China and Russia to veto any proposed measures.
Speaking to DW about the alleged crimes against humanity in the country, UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said that there needs to be a “collective response outside of the Security Council.”
“If the Security Council can’t impose focused, tough, clear sanctions on the military then a coalition of nations can.”
However, this is likely to remain illusory, given the US-China antagonism, which was on open display at the recent Alaska meeting.
What Are the Possible Scenarios?
A number of possible scenarios are emerging with different enabling factors, not least of which is the Myanmar people’s sheer determination for democracy.
One scenario is a return to absolute military rule. The junta would use the crises, violence and coercion to remove any semblance of social order, and then present a false dichotomy to the population: anarchy or dictatorship.
A delay in holding elections for several years would be justified under the guise of restoring stability.
A second scenario follows the path set by Min Aung Hlaing: Hold elections within a year and reinstall a semi-elected parliament.
The military has likely realized by now that the political system they designed under the Constitution does not guarantee its political victory.
The military-backed Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) has been unable to secure enough seats to outnumber the NLD, even with the advantage of a quarter of parliamentary seats being assigned to the military.
the junta may attempt to redesign the electoral system from first-past-the-post to proportional representation, framing this as an opportunity for ethnic and other political parties to gain more seats in a new election.
A sham election could then take place with the NLD removed from the electoral map.
While ASEAN countries initially seemed tempted by this track, it does not provide a pathway to de-escalate resistance.
A New Myanmar
In a final scenario, the coup fails and the civilian government leads a new transition. Many protesters and groups are calling for a new political arrangement through the removal of the military from political life and the military-drafted 2008 constitution.
Rather than exclusively supporting the NLD or Aung San Suu Kyi, many in Myanmar are marching for democratic federalism — a system ethnic minorities have been striving for since 1947.
For this scenario to take hold, a counter-coup within the military may be needed to deliver a new leadership willing to work under the civilian government — a tall order.
Elected officials would take up their positions and an inclusive constitutional committee could be established, including armed groups, civil society and ethnic political parties, to draft a new constitution.
Testimonies of some Protestors
Unidentified Protester #1: “Our position is very clear. We won’t accept this military institution anymore. And we will never, ever surrender until the real democracy is restored and people power is back.”
Unidentified Protester #2: “We thought COVID-19 was brutal, but now we have lost everything we had. And we all are threatened by the soldier who are barbarians. And we feel like now we have lost our future and everything has stopped. And we are in the dark.”
Unidentified Protester #3: “This 10 years is not a full-fledged democracy, but we can enjoy just a little slice, just a little taste of democracy. I think, you know, people are very determined that, you know, they will not go back to the dark age that we have 10 years ago.”
Unidentified Protester #4: “They took hostages,” he said. “They pointed guns at people who are walking around these defense lines and took them hostage. And because they have these hostages, people in the neighborhood don’t attack the military anymore because they don’t want to harm innocent people.”
Unidentified Protester #5: “Everyone is scared of being hurt or being killed, but at the same time it’s scarier to think about what the military would do if they win this, and that’s what the older generation don’t get at the moment.”
Unidentified Protester #6: “They keep saying: ‘No don’t go out now it’s dangerous’, but if we don’t go out now and fight for this, it’s going to be dangerous for the rest of our lives.”
Unidentified Protester #7: “I really don’t want my beautiful country destroyed by war, but I don’t think we can avoid it as the junta didn’t give us a choice. They won’t back off to release the power and we won’t give up till the legitimate government returns to form a federal, democratic country.”
Unidentified Protester #8: “They shot and beat the medics and ambulances, shot at the private hospitals, occupied the public hospitals, raided the charity clinics and detained the medics in the field.”
Unidentified Protester #9: “Most of us are on the run these days, they were searching for the leaders and activists. The junta’s forces traced the addresses using photos of the doctors. So, we can’t stay at our permanent addresses.”
“Our country was a bird that was just learning to fly. Now the army broke our wings,” said a Student Activist.
Darwish Musab/무열 기자 (이주민방송MWTV)