Above: Police often accused of opening fire on unarmed protesters.
Myanmar’s security forces continue to terrorise the country’s civilian population. This week has witnessed the worst bloodshed across the country, brutal beatings of protestors rocketed, and the arrests of activists, journalists and politicians accelerated. The strategy seems to change last weekend: with the army ramping up its crackdown on peaceful protestors and occupying many hospitals and schools across the country. The emphasis now has also shifted to causing maximum panic at night with random firing and stun grenades. Arrests at night continue unabated: targeting Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters, democratically elected ward administrators and young protestors.
The worst is yet to come, according to analysts, commentators and diplomats. The violence is expected continue to escalate in the lead up to March 27 – Armed Forces Day or resistance day which commemorates the start of the Tatmadaw (as the Myanmar army is called) liberation campaign against the Japanese occupation. This year one of the largest ever celebrations was being planned: it was to be a celebration of the army rescuing the country – a victory celebration in effect.
“In fact it should now be known as the Myanmar army’s day of shame,” Dr Sa Sa Myanmar’s UN envoy -- appointed by the disbanded parliament -- told me in a virtual interview. “The Tatmadaw should no longer be called the Army of Myanmar – they have failed to protect the people and the country – instead they have become the attackers, they have become the enemy of the people, they have terrorised 54 million people since February 1st.”
For most nights this week the police and soldiers have gone on the rampage in many cities across the country. Shooting live ammunition and rubber bullets, using tear gas and stun grenades to threaten, harass and intimidate the local residents and generally frighten the civilian population. Setting fire to the makeshift barricades the local neighbourhood watch has erected to help protect the local inhabitants.
“The police and soldiers rush down the streets spraying bullets in the air, shooting directly at anyone who appears at the window filming their advance, and beating people they find in the street with sticks, gun butts and motorbike chains,” said Soe Thu who lives in downtown Yangon -- the country’s commercial capital. “They are vicious, violent and barbaric.”
“The security forces are terrorising the people, brutally beating the protestors, and trying to pound them into submission,” said Dr Sa Sa. “But it’s not working, people are courageously standing up to them, they are continuing to protest and continuing to defy them.”
SEARCH AND DESTROY
Since last weekend the security forces have ramped up their ‘search and destroy’ sweeps especially in Yangon. On Friday troops were down-town Yangon forcing everyone to stop and be searched, confiscating phones and bags, according to an eye-witness Sakura, a young executive who lives in Yangon.
The security forces have narrowed their targets to so-called ‘red zones’ where they suspect the protestors and political activists are concentrated. Sanchuang – a crowded suburb in central Yangon – has been the main target in the last few evenings days. On Wednesday night after dark, a swarm of lorries arrived – with an estimated 700 troops according to several eyewitnesses.
The electricity supply to the area was cut. And the troops started searching apartments, block by block, kicking in doors and arresting anyone they suspected of participating in the protests. “The police are mingling around Sanchuang terrorising the whole community with stun grenades,” tweeted the activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi, who is also a resident there.
Above: Police burn residents make shift barricades in downtown Yangon
They broke down doors and confiscated phones trying to find ‘incriminating’ photos and videos. They also accused the residents of stealing weapons: but retreated after they found a rifle lying in a back alley. But all week Yangon residents have reported heavy-handed tactics, especially in the northern part of the city – also seen as a hot bed of protest and defiance.
For some residents of Sanchuang it was terrifying: “We are so scared the last few nights and could not sleep; we have to stay in the dark until after 4am for safety, as the police fired at our room if they saw a light in the window -- to frighten us further,” said U Tint, an elderly worker with an international organisation.
“There are a lot of police and soldiers patrolling the street outside till the early morning – the night air is filled with gunfire and flashbang sounds till the early hours. We are too scare to go out during the day and the night, because the troops are camped nearby in the local Fire Station to further intimidate us. But we do escape -- when we can -- and join the protests”
“There is simply no acceptable justification for the police actions: acting completely contrary to international human rights standards by wantonly using excessive, and often lethal force, against protesters and activists,” said Philip Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch.
“Quite clearly, the police’s actions are meant to terrorise the population, with the apparent objective of instilling so much fear that people don’t dare go on to the street and the civil disobedience movement crumbles.”
There are continuous arbitrary arrests throughout the country – mainly of young people – who are detained indefinitely, though some do get released, after signing a declaration not to participate in further protests. Those in custody are viciously beaten -- with sticks, rifle butts and motor bike chains. Authenticated pictures and videos of torture victims have swamped the social media. The local media has also covered a myriad of stories on the wanton torture detainees suffer at the hands of the authorities.
More than forty male young protestors, including high school students, were detained in Myeik – on the western coast in the south of the country – earlier this week: “It was hell,” 30-year-old Ko Thura – not using his real name for protection -- told a local news reporter from Irrawaddy after being held for around four hours in military custody at Myeik airbase. “They beat us non-stop with belts, rifles butts, pipes, wooden sticks and chains,” he said after his release.
It is unconscionable say human rights activists. “Freedom from torture is considered a non-derogable right – meaning it’s so important that they cannot be limited or suspended under any circumstance -- and quite clearly the Myanmar security forces are violating that right,” said Mr Robertson.
DEATH IN CUSTODY
At least two detainees died in police custody last weekend. They were both associated with Aung San Suu Kyi’s party the National League for Democracy. Both badly beaten, with blood on their clothes and clear signs of being tortured. Their bodies were handed back to the families for burial, but with no explanations of what happened.
“Arresting and beating local NLD officials in front of their families, and then taking them away to be tortured and killed in custody, is a return to the methods of previous military regimes in Myanmar’s past,” Mr Robertson.
Myanmar in accordance with international legal standards, prisoners also have the right to have access to family members, and more importantly, to legal counsel. In fact, it is written into the constitution. “Under Myanmar law, detainees have the fundamental right to legal representation, which is guaranteed under the 2008 Constitution,” Stephen McNamara told me -- a UK lawyer who has worked with lawyers in Myanmar since 2007. In fact, there is a sign on the wall in every police station that prisoners have the right to appoint a lawyer.
But clearly neither of these rights are being currently being observed in Myanmar. In fact, when family members seek news of their loved ones who have been detained, the police deny any knowledge of their whereabouts. This even happened initially when the Australian embassy sought to locate the renowned economist Sean Turnell, in the early weeks of his detention: the police station at Yankin in central Yangon where he had originally been detained, denied all knowledge of him.
POLICE LOOTING RIFE
From all over Myanmar, there are endless reports – much it captured on camera – of unrestrained looting — especially from the mini-markets. Stealing money wherever they can find it – from cars and homes. Confiscating motorbikes and cars — and then ransoming them back to their owners for exorbitant ‘fines’.
Destroying property: smashing in the doors and windows of residential homes, trashing furniture, breaking dishes and ornament; destroying bicycles, carts and motorbikes in their path; and even vandalising ambulances, cars and taxis. “They are causing massive damage when they break into offices and homes ‘in search of suspects’, according to countless eye witnesses I have spoken to in the last three weeks.
“The Myanmar police’s actions show they are really no better than pirates, ready to steal and rampage as soon as they are let off the leash,” said Mr Robertson.
He went on to say that the regime’s claims to be acting according to the law were patently untrue and beyond belief. “The claims by the military junta, the Tatmadaw and the police to be following ‘rule of law’ are absolutely laughable,” he said. A view endorsed by many independent foreign legal experts.
The coup leaders are obsessed with maintaining the fiction that they are acting according to the law, and that everything is constitutional – this could not be further from the truth, according to the Australian lawyer and constitutional expert Janelle Saffin, who has been advising on legal and parliamentary matters in Myanmar over the last ten years. “This is rule by orders and is intended to disguise the illegitimacy of their military regime: it is selective legality. It’s only to effect legality. What’s more it’s unconstitutional,” she said.
Above: Sixty year old headmaster lies dead shot in the head in Myitkyina, Kachin state.
DEATH TOLL MOUNTS
So far this week a dozen more protestors have lost their lives as the security forces continue to sweep through the country's cities trying to stem the protests, force civil servants, medical staff and workers back to abandon the civil disobedience movement. This now brings the total deaths since the coup six weeks ago to over 70 according to local monitoring groups and the Myanmar media. A day ago, more than 2,500 people have been arrested, charged or sentenced since the beginning of the coup according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners – which keeps reliable records of those detained.
“The commanders and the units responsible for these deaths must be identified, and held accountable, and sanctioned by the international community,” Mr Robertson told me. Myanmar’s UN envoy, Dr Sa Sa is also committed to bringing Myanmar’s security forces to book – they need to be held accountable for their “crimes against humanity”, he said. He plans to move quickly to get the International Criminal Court to take the case as soon as possible.
Only this week – the group of parliamentarians he represents – appointed a leading international legal firm to represent them -- Volterra Fietta – “to advise on and pursue international legal proceedings against the unconstitutional and illegitimate military regime responsible for the violent armed aggression directed against the people of Myanmar and their legitimate democratic representatives,” according to a press statement released on Face Book. “We are gathering large volumes of evidence for use in such proceedings,” they promised.
Justice and accountability is also what most of the Myanmar public wants. As the death toll mounts and the security forces rampage unchecked, the angrier the protestors are getting.
“We will never forget or forgive the police and the military for killing our innocent people,” the young activist Sukura said. “But our young people are united: we need true democracy, we are fighting for democracy for our next generation, we will fight for our freedom to the end.”
But the security forces seem as determined as ever to crush the protest. Increased confrontation increase police violence and increased bloodshed seems inevitable. The next few days are likely to be even worse than the past week -- as March 27th looms ever nearer.