Above: Troops rampaging in the streets
Myanmar is spiralling out of control and further confrontation is certain in the coming week – and with it, increased bloodshed and violence. Arson, violence and massacres of peaceful protestors rocketed out of control on the weekend – with ‘Bloody Sunday’ being the worst day of deaths since the military coup six weeks ago.
“We are descending into the darkest days of our time,” Dr Sa Sa, Myanmar’s special envoy to the UN – appointed by the MPs from the disbanded parliament – told me in a virtual interview. “The security forces are waging a war against our people: mercilessly killing, brutally beating and arbitrarily arresting anyone they want,” he said. We have to be able to defend ourselves he said, without elaborating.
On Saturday evening, Mahn Win Khaing Thanm, the acting Vice President of the Committee Representing Phyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) – made up of the elected MPs – rallied the rank-and-file members of the civil disobedience campaign – which has been at the forefront of the protest movement against the coup – in a video posted on their website.
“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,” he said. We are on the verge of a new dawn, he promised.
Above: Candle light vigil in Yangon on Saturday evening
Despite threats, arrests of protest leaders and massive reinforcements of security forces in the country’s ‘hot spots’, protestors have remained defiant: on Friday and Saturday evenings, despite the junta’s curfew, thousands joined candle vigils throughout the country to honour those who have lost their lives so far and vowed to continue the struggle; and on Sunday thousands joined the strike and protests in the industrial zones in northern Yangon, and smaller protests took place in many other cities and small villages throughout Myanmar.
On the weekend the violence and bloodshed reached a new high. At least 39 people have been confirmed dead in Myanmar on Sunday -- the majority in the Hlaing Thayer industrial area of Yangon, according to the UN human rights office (OHCHR) in Yangon. Since the coup, at least 138 people, including women and children, have been killed in the violence, which has also left hundreds more injured. Some 18 people were killed on Saturday according to OHCHR.
“The use of lethal force against non-violent demonstrators is never justifiable under international human rights norms,” David Swanson the UN spokesman in Bangkok told me.
“In regard Sunday’s violence … Such disproportionate use of force by security forces is completely unacceptable, and the perpetrators must be held to account. The use of excessive force against demonstrators by security forces, including the use of live ammunition, must stop.”
Myanmar’s independent media and local monitoring groups put the figures substantially higher At least 51 protesters were killed in the industrial suburb of Yangon where the country’s main garment factories are based. Another 12 were killed in other townships of Myanmar’s commercial hub and former capital. At least 24 bodies were taken to Hlaingthaya Hospital while others were kept in family homes, according to medical aid groups, requesting that their names be withheld for safety reasons. Later on Sunday, the security forces shattered the windows in the hospital with an endless spray of bullets, because they were caring for the wounded protestors, according to numerous eye-witnesses.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which tracks casualties and arrests, more than 150 people have been killed due to violent and arbitrary crackdowns. As of Sunday, 2,156 people had been arrested, charged, or sentenced in relation to the military coup, with 1,837 still being held, said AAPP.
Above: Neighbourhood watch build barricades to protect the community from the security forces
POLICE BRUTAL AND BARBARIC
Despite the heavy loss of civilian life, the security forces continue to terrorise the country’s civilian population – randomly beating and killing with impunity. During the weekend the troops shot directly at protesters, with sustained bursts of gunfire. Apart from these massacres – repeated throughout the last eight days – the security forces have committed extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests in late night raids and rampages.
Several authenticated videos, shot on mobile phones, have gone viral on the local social media outlets – all showing the ferocity of the security forces killing rampages, clearly taking great pleasure in their actions. In one video three policemen callously shoot non-stop into a corpse lying in the road, blasting away the remains of his head. In another a soldier orders his snipers to kill everyone below from their vantage point at the top of a building, ordering his troops to shoot their victims in the head – even to kill a passerby. In one of the worst, police officers drink, sing and dance in celebration of their actions during the day.
But the protesters continue to defy the junta, and although there seems to be a drop in numbers on the street, commitment to the civil disobedience campaign remains strong. And that resistance is going to continue, a young activist told me.
“We will continue to fight against the coup and its storm troopers,” said Ma Myint, a young communications consultant who lives on the northern outskirts of the country’s commercial capital. “Even if we’re scared, even if we’re frightened of dying, we will continue the struggle, for it’s about a future for us -- and our children.”
The security forces have stepped up their search for doctors and medical staff believed to be part of the civil disobedience movement – especially in Mandalay and Yangon. Storming into homes, arresting family members and harassing children when they find the targets have fled to safety elsewhere. Young students are being arrested everywhere because they are assumed to have been participating in the protests.
Another young activist who lives in downtown Yangon, was understandably too frightened to go out, said it is not safe anywhere in the streets now, police snipers are positioned everywhere and shoot randomly at anyone: it seems like target practice for them. They stop people in the streets and search everyone’s bags, looking for mobile phones and incriminating photos and videos, she said.
“But although I’m scared and want go out – we’re still protesting by locking our doors and not going out: it’s a silent protest,” said Sukura, a young marketing executive.
Although the security forces continue their brutal and barbaric suppression of the protests, with the death toll mounting every day, the junta leaders are obviously worried about their tarnished image being relayed around the world. They are ruthlessly cracking down on journalists – especially those who are getting out serious and independently verified stories about the government’s ruthless actions and tactics.
Thirty journalists have been arrested, according to Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) – a Paris-based international rights group that monitors press freedom around the world and tries to protect journalists. Of those, 11 are still detained and seven have been charged with section 505(a) of the criminal code, spreading false information, which carries a possible jail sentence of three years: recently extended from two.
Five media outlets had their licenses revoked earlier this month while others have had their websites taken down, confiscated or taken over, including Kamayut media which provided many domestic and foreign media outlets with precious footage from on the ground. Their two chief editors – Nathan Maung and Han Thar Nyein – were carted off a week ago but the local police station denies any knowledge of their whereabouts.
“What with censorship, threats and intimidation, press freedom has suddenly been set back ten years, before the previous junta dissolved itself in February 2011,” said Daniel Bastard, Asia head at RSF. “In closing independent media outlets, the current junta is trying to recover its total control over information like things were before 2011, and to prevent Myanmar population from accessing trustful information.”
Using its traditional methods, the Myanmar military is trying to redo what they did with the crackdown against the saffron revolution in 2007, and even back in 1988 with the anti-democracy coup. But things have fundamentally changed since then. Not only do the Myanmar people understand democracy and desire to have it restored, they now have learned to produce and broadcast their own information. “This is why this war of smartphones versus guns is so crucial – and is challenging the military’s control,” said Mr Bastard.
As a result, the junta is desperately trying to control the internet and reduce its usage by closing it down – as they do every morning from 1am to 9am. On Monday, internet usage on mobile phones was almost completely blocked. But huge parts of the country’s economy also rely on these digital platforms and have been severely hampered by these internet restrictions. It is likewise having an impact of government administration – those parts that are functioning.
Aung San Suu Kyi – the country’s civilian leader – was due to appear in court again on Monday accused of various charges, including corruption, illegally importing walkie-talkie radios and infringing coronavirus protocols, but the session was postponed until next week because the internet was down and video conferencing was impossible, according to her lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw.
Stung by the success of the protestors and civil disobedience movement in getting their coverage of the crackdown out to the world, last week the junta even held a press conference -- fronted by the hapless military spokesman, Brig Gen Zaw Min Tun – to put their side of the story and justify their actions. They have even appointed a shady international public relations company – and admitted to paying them $ 2 million dollars to accomplish the impossible – to convince the West of the righteousness of the military’s actions: “explaining the real situation in the Country,” according to the contract signed in Naypyidaw two weeks ago.
But the protests are set to continue as the security forces continue to zealously try to crush it as soon as possible. Martial law has been declared in the northern parts of Yangon and some townships in Mandalay but the protesters in those areas are undaunted. “The protestors are committed to resistance, and now are considering revenge,” said 88 veteran, Nyein Chan Aung Nyein. And more violence is inevitable in the coming days he feared.