Chaos in Myanmar

Holsen Moore, Staff Writer

The streets of cities Yangon and Mandalay, as well as countless more towns across Myanmar, were deserted Friday, December 10th in “silent protest” against the brutal military junta that currently rules the Southeast Asian country. The protests come amid mounting tensions and human rights abuses in the former democracy that have crippled a growing economy and stifled manufacturing that brings brands such as H&M, Dove, Axe, and Lipton to store shelves. 

The empty streets across Myanmar come in light of the massacre of 11 villagers in the north of Burma by the Tatmadaw, or Burmese Armed Forces, which has ruled the country for ten months after the February 1 coup that deposed the democratically elected Aung San Suu Kyi. Tatmadaw soldiers raided the village of Don Taw, captured 11 villagers who did not manage to flee, shot them, and burned their bodies–some of them alive. The Tatmadaw’s brutal retaliation against peaceful protesters caused the Burmese people to stay indoors and close their businesses; Eastern philosophy holds that “silence is the most powerful scream.” Even then, soldiers have confiscated property and arrested business owners who closed during the protest.

Additionally, Suu Kyi, the 76-year-old former civilian leader of Myanmar, faces two years in prison after being convicted by the country’s military government. Suu Kyi faced nearly a dozen more charges as the Tatmadaw scrambled to discredit the highly popular, pro-democracy leader. Under the current Burmese Constitution, those who have served jail time are ineligible to hold political office. 

Suu Kyi’s trial began eight months after the Tatmadaw seized control of the government and her subsequent detainment. Since the February coup, the Tatmadaw has been unable to exercise full control over the Southeast Asian nation, and civil unrest is rampant. The military government has used deadly force on peaceful demonstrations and arrested scores of protestors. In late October, they released thousands of political prisoners only to have them re-arrested—an action that has been dubbed psychological warfare. 

Ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) also stand in opposition to the military regime. Myanmar boasts more than 100 ethnic groups aside from the dominant Bamar people. Non-ethnic civilian militias are also active in the fight against the junta. Opposition to the military government is more or less organized under the National Unity Government (NUG), which is made up of the remains of the former civilian government and insurgent groups. The NUG has raised more than $6 million for its cause and is rallying for revolution, although its associated organizations are and will likely remain underequipped. 

Although these EAOs have allied themselves with the NUG in the fight for democracy, both sides of the escalating conflict regularly commit human rights abuses such as forcing men, women, and children to join military ranks amid mass desertions from the Tatmadaw and scant resources in local militias.  The Tatmadaw has been committing atrocities against ethnic minorities in Bamar- and Buddhist-majority Myanmar for decades; they killed 10,000 Rohingya Muslims in the country in 2017 in an ongoing genocide, and they have been holding villagers, including children, under duress and death threats in the Karen State on the Thai border to undermine their autonomy. The effects of this can be felt abroad as Facebook faces lawsuits in both the United States and United Kingdom from displaced Rohingya who hold the company accountable for exacerbating the hate against them. 

A few months ago, even after the coup, conflict would have been unimaginable. Now, military power is growing thin as the Tatmadaw struggles to man campaigns against guerrillas in the north amid a growing number of desertions and the COVID-19 pandemic. Large swaths of the country remain outside control of the junta, and morale in armed groups around the country is high. The Tatmadaw’s opposition, however, is ill-equipped. 

While reading about the atrocities that are occurring in Myanmar, it is difficult to imagine they are being carried out in 21st century Asia. They seem more like something out of the bloody pages of history or a gloomy dystopian future. Indeed, pro-democracy activists across Southeast Asia, including Myanmar, have appropriated the three-finger salute that originated from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. The United States and other nations have called upon the opposing sides to compromise, but it is unclear if Myanmar is headed down the road to peace or civil war.