MILITARY WAGES WAR ON OWN PEOPLE
Published in Bangkok Post Opinion on 16.02.2021
Myanmar's military has declared war on the country's citizens. In the last few days the army has stepped up its campaign of intimidation and harassment. But despite the army's escalation of threats, coercion and arrests, the protesters and their civil disobedience movement -- formed to fight the military coup -- remain defiant and uncowed by the authorities' aggressive bullying. Neither side is showing signs of backing down, increasing fears that the continuing confrontation between the protestors and the security forces will only end badly.
"The security forces have unleashed a reign of terror against the peaceful protestors," said Ma Myint, one of the activists who has attended the protests in the country's commercial capital Yangon every day since they started. "It's like we are now living in a North Korean dictatorship, ruled by fear. But we won't give up -- it's our duty to protect our democracy."
Hundreds of Myanmar citizens have taken to social media in the last few days venting their fury at the junta's tactics -- nightly arrests of targets perceived to be taking a lead in the civil disobedience movement. And since Friday hordes of thugs, paid for and operating at the behest of pro-military groups, are gallivanting around neighbourhoods committing random acts of arson, breaking into homes, conducting robberies, causing damage and general vandalism.
Since Friday night, there have been constant reports from all over Yangon of the damage being caused by the recently released prisoners. More than 30,000 prisoners were released earlier that day -- mostly petty and hardened criminals, although a handful of prominent political prisoners were among them. These thugs have been roaming the city ever since, doing the bidding of their paymasters. Several eyewitnesses have described these gangs as clearly recently released criminals: dark-skinned, unshaven and unkempt, wearing rags and clearly "drugged to the eyeballs" with amphetamines.
This is the same tactic the army used back in 1988 during the mass pro-democracy protests which brought the country to a standstill for several months, before the soldiers seized power in a military coup in September that year -- leaving as many as 10,000 dead, according to former Myanmar military intelligence officers.
But as in 1988, the protest movement has begun to organise local neighbourhood watches to protect their communities. "This is a strategy that's being replicated from 1988," said Maung Maung, an '88 veteran. Barriers are erected at night at key entry points to the district, guarded by volunteers, armed only with sticks. Others beat pots and pans to set off the alarm in the event of an intruder or incident. On Friday night in several districts in Yangon "troublemakers" were caught, treated civilly and handed over at the local police station.
The neighbourhood "vigilante" groups formed spontaneously in the first week to protect people like doctors from being whisked away in the middle of the night from their houses in their neighbourhoods. As it was the doctors, nurses and the health workers who initiated the civil disobedience campaign, it is they who have been targeted. They are targeting the heads of departments -- in charge of clinical wards, medical superintendents and other heads of government health services -- and university medical schools, according to doctors leading the movement in Mandalay.
Three nights ago, police in the city tried to arrest the rector of the University of Medicine, but were beaten off by scores of supporters beating pots and pans and refusing to allow him to be taken. On the same evening in Pakkoku, police and soldiers tried to take the medical superintendent of the main hospital, but were foiled by people surrounding them as they tried to enter the quarters "singing and chanting protest slogans", said a nurse who witnessed the rescue.
But the stage is now set for a showdown as the military steps up its resolve to quell the protests. In the early hours of yesterday, troops were moved into strategic positions, especially in the commercial capital, Yangon, in preparation to clear the streets of the protestors and force civil servants back to work. Tanks, armoured personnel carriers and trucks packed with police and soldiers are doing regular sweeps of strategic streets and locations.
Water cannons are also part of these convoys patrolling the streets, ready to unleash a high-velocity stream of water to repel those protestors who do not disperse as ordered. Over the last two weeks, the authorities have fired rubber bullets and live ammunition over the heads of the protesters, with one young woman dying from wounds sustained during a police charge in Nay Pyi Taw last week.
As this crisis deepens daily, hundreds of thousands of protesters continue to flood the streets of the nation's main cities, trying to bring the country to a standstill, despite the newly installed military junta's attempts to prevent them. Even the visible presence of the military and their hardware in Yangon has done little to dampen the support for the protest.
"These tactics by the military are just making the people angrier," said Ma Tin, a teacher from the outskirts of Yangon.
"We are not scared of anything because we feel that fighting for democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi is our duty, our responsibility to the next generation."
With the troops positioned in key cities throughout the country, the confrontation is set to worsen.
The government has increased its efforts to persuade or coerce the civil servants back to work. Since the beginning of this week, they have targeted banks, posting soldiers at branches throughout the country and trying to get the staff to open. Soldiers are even entering staff accommodation and escorting them to their offices. But instead, most branches seem to still be closed, according to numerous eye-witness accounts from across the country.
"The soldiers, police and their hired thugs come out at night and wage a war of terror against the people, targeting prominent leaders of the protest movement and conducting their campaign of intimidation, harassment and arrests," said Nyein Chan Aung, another '88 veteran supporting the movement from the sidelines.
"But this is different from 1988, and new generational tactics have armed the protestors with weapons that will defeat the military in the long run.
"With mobile phones, the internet and social media the civil disobedience movement has a voice that's being heard across the world. The military's tactics are doomed to fail this time round."