MYANMAR'S MILITARY RUN AMOK CAUSING MAYHEM AND DEATH IN THEIR WAKE
(Left) Catholic nun pleading with police to stop the violence. (Right) soldier patrolling on the ground in Yangon
Myanmar’s security forces are continuing to run amok in the country’s cities with impunity. They are indiscriminately shooting – now with live ammunition -- leaving scores of dead in their wake.
“Today was a very, very sad day for me,” Sakura – a young advertising executive told me after she had just returned from participating in the protest. “Seeing the dead hurts so much, I cannot speak.”
According to local groups monitoring the situation, more than fifty protesters so far on Wednesday have lost their lives across the country as the security forces ramped up their efforts to repress the non-violent uprising demanding the coup leaders return democracy to the country. Many believe the carnage will continue on into the night.
Soldiers now have openly joined the police in what is obviously an intensified crackdown on the peaceful protests. They are ruthlessly dealing with the protestors in cities across the country. In Mandalay and Yangon the army has deployed snipers, and at least six of the deaths were the result of sniper-fire. “The army has declared war on our citizens, they will shoot us to win,” said Sakura.
“They’re turning the country into a massive battlefield,” Zaw Naing, a local Myanmar businessman told me in an interview.
SECURITY FORCES LET LOOSE
Police and soldiers are continuing their draconian sweep – that was ramped up on the weekend -- against the civil disobedience campaign that has brought the country to a standstill since the coup more than a month ago. While the security forces rampage through most cities throughout the country, the activists are pleading for international help.
The crackdown started on the weekend and has continued to escalate ever since. Wednesday the 3rd of the 3rd was clearly another major turning point for the security forces as they seem to have been completely let off the leash with dire consequences. Till now the military have been progressively ratcheting up their response until last weekend’s tragic events.
Regional military analysts believe Myanmar’s security forces have been relatively restrained till now, compared to their past practices including the crushing of the 1988 democratic uprising. But that has clearly changed, with military sources saying the Deputy Commander-in-Chief General Soe Win has taken over operational control of the army’s response to the protests.
He is known to be a hardliner in the present crisis, and is regarded by the officers and rank-and-file as a ‘soldiers’ soldier’. The fear has always been that the closer it gets to March 27, armed forces day – the premium anniversary celebrations for the military – the more likely it is that the army is allowed to go for broke. The coup leaders will not be able to tolerate the continued civil disobedience campaign nor protests on the street on their sacred anniversary – so expect the army to deploy its full military might against the protests before then.
The continued crackdown has left most people shocked and dismayed, but it's only served to harden the battle lines between the protestors and the coup leaders, Zaw Naing reflected. “It’s hard to express our feelings – sad and despair,” he said, obviously upset. “The pain is with everyone. But we are helpless and paralysed …”
‘CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY’
In response to the shooting of unarmed civilians, Myanmar’s special envoy to the UN – representing the elected MPs -- called on the international community to bring the authorities to justice for ‘crimes against humanity’. “It’s time for the international community to act to protect our innocent, defenceless people who dare to stand up to these thugs who now controlling our country,” Dr Sa Sa told me in an interview.
Now the security forces have also stepped up their arrests of civilians – trying to force civil servants back to work and detaining protest leaders and prominent activists. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) monitoring group, more than 1,200 people have been arrested since the coup began on 1 February, with about 900 still behind bars or facing charges. But the real number is likely to be far higher – the state-run media reported that on Sunday alone more than 1,300 people were arrested. Arrests were also stepped up on Wednesday, with civil society activists putting the number for the today – country-wide – at over a thousand.
Many people in Myanmar and especially Yangon – particularly local and foreign businessmen -- are complaining the junta is terrorising its civilians. “It’s a total war zone,” Walter Khun, a Myanmar citizen and founding partner with C&A, financial advisors based in Yangon told me. “Our associates throughout the country are reporting the same: junta troops terrorising civilians.”
As the army and police maraud through the cities’ streets videos and photos of the incidents flood Facebook and other social media outlets. Pictures of those killed, pictures of those injured being carried to safety, and the vicious beating of anyone who annoys the security forces are whisked around in the ether by individuals and groups. The worst case on Wednesday that caught everyone’s attention was a violent, unprovoked attack by the police on three medics sitting by their ambulance in northern Yangon – part of the charity free ambulance service. They were viciously kicked and brutally beaten around the head and legs with rifle butts. The ambulance was then vandalised.
POLICE TIGHTEN CONTROLS
Police are invading houses: breaking down fences, doors and windows – whatever stands in their way – to conduct searches and carry out indiscriminate arrests several eyewitnesses have recounted. All without a warrant as the coup leaders neatly changed the law after they seized power to allow unrestricted searches and arrests, and indefinite detention. In the past two days there has been scores of reports of police systematically looting shops and homes. Stealing food from the market, commandeering possessions from private home and smashing car windows and stealing cash from inside – all caught on camera.
The security forces have put up barricades and blockades across strategic roads and thorough fares to prevent the protestors fleeing from one part of the city to another. As of Tuesday, the authorities have ordered all of Yangon’s major shopping Junction, Capital and Myanmar Plaza to close indefinitely. Many big supermarkets are also closed. This is obviously part of the security forces crowd control and dispersal strategy to prevent protestors taking refuge inside the shopping complexes when the police charge.
Meanwhile local community neighbourhood watch-teams have also cordoned off areas in the city townships, built their own makeshift barriers and mounted 24-hour guard, to prevent the police venturing into their townships and impede their advance charges -- even down-town Yangon. Ordinary citizens also surround police trucks with detainees exiting – loudly banging pots and pans to dissuade the police from taking them and releasing them instead.
‘KID GLOVES’ OFF
But as of Wednesday the ‘kid gloves’ were taken off and the troops advancing down streets shooting at random. On Tuesday evening troops began conducting armed sorties in Yangon and Mandalay. Before they unleashed their full assault plans on Wednesday – the turning point for the regime.
“It’s truly a combat zone all over the country,” said Nyein Chan Aung a veteran activist from 1988. “Except this time the army and police are waging war against the people.”
“I am very sad, and filled with grief for those who have died already in the struggle,” said Sakura – a young advertising professional who has given up her job to join the protests every day. “But we’re fighting for freedom and democracy – we are fighting for our future – we are fighting for our children’s future: we will fight to the end, we will never give up,” she said.
On the surface the protests seem to be leaderless and an expression of aspirations of the young – and the country as a whole – for genuine democracy, changing the constitution and introducing a truly federal democratic state. Most of the protestors on the street are under the age of 30. But the civil disobedience movement encompasses much more than the street campaigners.
The civil servants – the doctors, nurses and health workers who initiated this campaign four weeks ago – are still on strike despite the junta’s threats and intimidation, according to a young doctor heavily involved in the movement in Mandalay.
“Most young doctors are still on strike,” Dr Aung Aung Oo told me. “They are serious about protecting democracy, and have vowed not to stop till the coup commander is defeated and the culture of coups eradicated forever.”
While the movement is largely galvanised around Aung San Suu – and abiding by the election results of the November polls that her party the National League for Democracy. (NLD) convincingly won -- the campaign is much broader than that, though the anti-military sentiment is overwhelming.
THIS IS BROADER THAN ‘THE LADY’
“This is not just about Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD – though we believe the election results should be respected,” the activist Myo Win and executive director at Smile Education and Development Foundation told me. “It’s much broader: it’s about completing the transition to democracy, ripping up the 2008 constitution and replacing it with a democratic, federal state, and ending military dictatorships forever.”
Despite the current crackdown, the protests are set to continue – and even if the numbers on the streets diminish – the movement is having a dire effect on the junta’s ability to rule. The strikes and civil disobedience movement is having a devastating effect on the country: the banks are closed, government offices empty and the country’s fuel supplies running dangerously low; hospitals, universities and schools are mostly closed, and most factories have also been idle for the last four months.
And as the campaigners tighten their grip around the banking system, transport links and the government’s financial institutions like the taxation and customs departments, it is having a dramatic effect: the country is virtually at a standstill.
“We must continue to remind the army that we are not giving up, we are not going away, and we will continue to frustrate their efforts to run the country at every turn,” said Dr Sa Sa. But he said it must remain non-violent: the way of non-violence is our weapon.
WAY OF NON-VIOLENCE
“We are a non-violent movement, our weapons are our voice, our mobile phones and social media,” Dr Sa Sa insisted. “It’s the army that are committing crimes. These are the ones who facing real criminal charges and international justice at the Hague [at the International Court Justice], they are the ones who should be in prison … not our leaders [referring to Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders] … they must be made accountable for their crimes.”
While international condemnation has been swift and strong, the protestors are demanding immediate intervention. “Protestors are being shot: We are very angry, we are very upset,” Ma Myint – a 30-year-old young communications graduate from north of Yangon, told me. “How many dead bodies does the UN need to act?” she asked after the carnage of the last few days.
“The UN is watching, the US is watching, the whole world is watching but when will they act we need international intervention based on the “right to protect” R2P,” said another young professional Thiri Kyaw Nyo. They must act soon otherwise there will be more bloodshed in the coming weeks.”
The junta has no intentions of slowing down – they will never stop until a mightier force prevails, she said.
Analysts, commentators and diplomats who know Myanmar fear that more bloodshed is almost inevitable. The confrontation between the military and the protest movement is not going to lessen. And at this stage there seems no possibility of dialogue or even mediation to try to resolve the conflict. But while both sides remain on a collision course, the climax may only be days away rather than weeks.
But the campaigners are equally determined to continue irrespective of what the security forces throw at them. “This is about our future,” said Ma Myint. “Our future is being taken away from us … we feel like that: we do not want to go back to the darkness. We were looking forward to a brighter future, now suddenly it's gone dark.”