TROOPS, TANKS & TEARGAS DEPLOYED TO DISPERSE DEMONSTRATORS
Updated: Feb 28, 2021
Myanmar Gas and Oil Enterprise workers protest against dictatorship (credit Kamayut Media)
Saturday 27th February – 27 being an auspicious number for the army -- marked the start of the junta’s concerted crackdown on the street protests and the civil disobedience movement that has been leading the opposition to the military coup. Since the violence in Mandalay – the country’s second largest commercial city -- in central Myanmar last weekend, that claimed three protestors’ lives and a policeman, the security forces have been ratcheting up their riot control techniques.
Parts of the country’s main cities – especially Yangon, Naypyidaw and Mandalay – have been cordoned off, with barricades and blockades erected to enable more strategic use of the police and soldiers, to enable them to more effectively prevent access to key parts of the cities, and allow more concentrated efforts on the part of the police with riot shields and batons to charge into the crowd and beat people at random, arrest those they identified as ring leaders and disperse the protestors.
Most of the week there has be a ‘cat and mouse’ game between the security forces and the protestors. But the mood has radically altered in the last two days, with the police far more aggressive and visibly violent irrespective of who got in their way: several women and children suffered cuts and wound as a result in several urban centres throughout Myanmar, with reports of casualties in Yangon, Mandalay, Monywa and Dawei. “The beatings of campaigners outside Yangon have been particularly brutal,” said an activist and 1988 veteran who’s monitoring events throughout the country. The most tragic incident he said was in Monywa where a young University botany lecturer was hit in the abdomen by a bullet during a police charge. She was denied medical attention for so long it her bladder became infected, and remains is a highly critical condition in a private clinic.
The police have continued to indiscriminately arrest with protestors – though many are later released – and then make surgical strikes on the homes in the middle of the night of suspected protest ring leaders and political activists, including politicians of the National League for Democracy (NLD). As the numbers of those detained continually rises day by day it is difficult to get a definitive count. Political prisoner groups, who monitor arrests, estimate that since the start of the coup over a thousand have been detained before the latest crackdown. Most of who have not been released or arraigned or had a bail hearing. And much worse have not been allowed access to a lawyer. All of this is really a gross infringement of the rule of law – the junta neatly revised the law after the coup to allow for indefinite detention.
The coup leaders’ insistence that they are following the constitution and the laws of the land does not bear scrutiny, according to several international legal experts. This is rule by orders – as the 1988 coup and its junta the State Law and Order Council (SLORC) did before the 2008 Constitution was drafted to disguise the illegitimacy of their military regime. This is selective legality, according to the Australian lawyer and constitutional expert Janelle Saffin who has been advising on legal and parliamentary matters Myanmar over the ten years. “It’s rule by orders, it’s only to effect legality,” she said. What’s more it’s unconstitutional, she added.
“The changes to the penal code to detain people longer than 24 hours and without a judicial order, violates Section 376 of their own 2008 constitution.”
Meanwhile the military are clearly on a mission to overhaul and restructure the country’s fledgling democracy, turning the clock back to the dark days of direct military rule. For the past three weeks the new junta has rolled out a new administration: from national, provisional to district and wards. Removing the previous elected incumbents and putting in people close to the military.
The Supreme Court has been transformed, with the previous NLD appointments routed out and replaced with judges loyal to their military masters. The Union Election Commission has also been dismissed and swapped with military loyalists. Key ministries have also been targeted and military officers and personnel infiltrated, often at the highest level. This was the common practice during the previous military regime. But the public service has been largely transformed in the last ten years with comprehensive public reform.
MILITARISATION OF GOVERNMENT
“The militarisation of the bureaucracy is under way again I fear,” a former diplomat told IPS on condition of anonymity. “In the past it destroyed civil servant moral, civil service efficiency and expertise, and made the bureaucracy another arm of the military -- stripped of initiative and think independently – making it powerless to do anything else but follow orders and recreating a truly authoritarian state.”
But the military junta has also dealt a death blow to developing democratic ideals and practices, with the worst being the wholesale changes in the laws and new edicts. Activists and human rights groups in Myanmar have condemned these measures as unacceptable and a gross erosion of basic civil and human rights, especially the changes to citizens protection and security laws.
These include the prisoner’s right to a lawyer – even Aung San Suu Kyi has been denied access to her lawyer since she was detained at the beginning of February – detain prisoners for an unlimited the right to arrest people without a warrant and search homes unimpeded by local administrators, carry out surveillance unconstrained, intercept any form of communications, and ask for users’ information from operators. The government has also enacted a draconian Cyber Law which essentially allows them full access to digital information and all social media – with the right to prosecute anyone they deem has crossed the line.
“The changes in the laws amount to the removal of all rights of freedom of speech, association and liberty as well as the rights associated the rule of law and fair trial,” said Stephen McNamara, a UK lawyer who has worked with lawyers in Myanmar since 2007.
“These changes in the basic laws of Myanmar are wider than any amendments since the nineteenth century. It reflects a military that intends to stay in power for a very long time,” he told me.
Sunday many fear may prove to be a turning point in the confrontation between the young protestors – mostly under 30 years of age – and known as the Generation Z. They have taken the civil disobedience campaign out onto the streets. The civil disobedience movement, which sprang up spontaneously in response to the soldiers seizing total control of the country at the beginning of February, has led the opposition to the coup. This has grown in numbers ever since the doctors, nurses and health workers initiated the campaign. Civil servants across the country have joined the protests and refused to go to work. In the past three weeks the country has ground to a halt: gas and petrol supplies are running desperately low, with banks and government offices closed – including hospital, schools and universities.
But last Monday the movement called a general strike which was almost universally observed: shops, restaurants, transport – including food delivery services – commercial and government offices were all shut.
In a deeply superstitious country like Myanmar, Monday’s date the 22-2-2021 or 22222 is symbolically significant – and more importantly it draws on parallels with the famous 8888, a crucial stage in the mass pro-democracy protests of 1988, which left an indelible mark on the Myanmar psyche.
Although crushed by the military in the subsequent weeks, the immediate consequences were the resignation of the former dictator General Ne Win (soon to be replaced by a military council – the State Law and Order Restoration Council SLORC), the birth of the notion that a multiparty democracy was the best fit for Myanmar, the birth of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi as the living symbol of the country’s aspirations for a democratic future
Now Generation Z are calling Sunday's general strike in conjunction with the ‘Milk Tea Alliance’ to spread demonstrations across the region especially in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand. “We are looking to spread the Spring Revolution in the region to topple or challenge their own authoritarian regimes in China and Thailand, if these countries dare to support General Min Aung Hlaing,” a young 24-year-old student told me but declined to be identified. But while the campaign’s organisers maybe hoping for sympathy protests across the region – the main aim is to bolster the enthusiasm within the movement in Myanmar, as after four weeks of almost continuous strikes and protests, enthusiasm, energy and participation seems to have been on the decline.
“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 Sasa, recently appointed by the elected NLD MPs to represent them at the United Nations in my extensive interview with him. But in fact the NLD are only part of the protest movement though large parts of the protestors are galvanised behind Aung San Suu Kyi. But there are broader pro-democracy factions under the civil disobedience movement’s broad banner.
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. “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.”
“We are a non-violent movement, our weapons are our voice, our mobile phones and social media,” reflected Dr Sasa. “It’s the army that are committing crimes. These are the ones who facing real criminal charges and international justice at the Hague, 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.”
But the army has turned up the tempo in the course of this week: threatening, harassing and intimidating the movement. In the past few days the tanks, troops and teargas have been deployed on the streets to disperse the demonstrators. Their bullying tactics have begun to turn more brutal, with deaths – more than ten protestors have died since day one of the coup – and injuries mounting daily. The fear is that on Sunday the junta leaders may decide to be take more draconian action.
“Every day we fear this is the moment the troops will turn their guns on us,” said a young professional woman from a village on the outskirts of Yangon. “I’m really, really scared: the police are really brutal, and I dread to think what will happen next. But I’ll still be on the streets to fight for democracy. We feel we’d rather be dead than live under another military dictatorship”.