Analysis

A Textbook Example of Authoritarian Rule in Myanmar

By Mon Mon Myat 9 April 2021

It is common in Yangon today to see military trucks packed with dozens of soldiers followed by a car with a loudspeaker announcing local directives issued by the regional military commander. All day long, the cars drive around Yangon’s outskirts enforcing martial law. The announcements are similar to what we heard 30 years ago under SLORC/SPDC (State Law and Order Restoration Council/State Peace and Development Council) regimes, only the details are different.

The directives forbid gatherings of more than 5 people between 5 a.m. and 7p.m., forbid make-shift roadblocks, riding motor bikes, carrying people in the truck beds of any light truck, carrying hand-made weapons including sticks, knives, and slingshots. Overnight guests are required to report to the local authorities.

Such directives were noted before. In the 1990s, in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Letters from Burma (a former name for Myanmar) written for a Japanese newspaper, she posed a question in a letter entitled “Visiting Rites.” She asked, “What can happen if a family fails to let the local authority know they have an overnight guest? Both the guest and the host are liable to a fine or to a prison sentence ranging from two weeks to six months.”

She wrote then, “The price of hospitality in Burma can be very high.” Though 30 years have passed, the price of revolution against authoritarian rule is still very high in Myanmar. In just two months since the Feb. 1 coup, the lives of more than 550 civilians, including 37 women and more than 50 children, have been taken.

Key charity organizations including the Daw Khin Kyi foundation of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, and even Free Funeral Service Society (FFSS) are under investigation by the military council. Detained leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her alliance face multiple charges. Five independent local media such as 7 Days, DVB (Democratic Voice of Burma), Mizzima, Myanmar Now and Khit Thit were banned on March 10.

Fundamental democratic values such as press freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and free speech are being taken away by the military’s coercive power. If this is not a textbook return of authoritarianism, what is it? Military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is pushing today’s Myanmar back into the political landscape of the 20th century. Min Aung Hliang is following the footsteps of his predecessors Ne Win and Than Shwe, while still tailoring his response to the digital era. Internet media activists have been imprisoned, too.

The military arrested key leaders of the NLD government including State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, PresidentU  Win Myint and cabinet ministers in the early morning of Feb 1. They also added to their authoritarian playbook dozens of political and social activists including actors, actress, singers, writers, artists and poets who are important influencers in social media. Social media after 2010 quickly became one of the main sources of information in Burma; after all more than a half of the country’s population is on Facebook.

On Feb 1 alone, security forces arrested 80 cabinet members and 14 chief ministers from the NLD government. Soon dozens of NLD officials and elected MPs were detained. About 150 members of the Union Election Commission across the country were also detained at regional military bases.

By mid-February, the authorities were also arresting and intimidating civil servants who led or took part in the civil disobedience movement (CDM). About 120 civil servants including doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, bankers, railway workers, airline staff and civil servants from other different sectors were arrested and jailed. More recently, security forces arrested the leaders of mass protests nationwide. Within a month, the military council hit its record for massive arrests. At the end of February, approximately one thousand people were arrested across Burma according to a report of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) released on Feb. 28.

The authorities may have expected that if they could cut off the head of the opposition movement, the NLD government, party members, and leaders of the civil disobedience movement, it would halt mass protests against military rule in the same way dictator Ne Win and Than Shwe did decades ago.

But they were wrong this time. In fact, they effectively declared a new war on the whole Generation Z, youth capable of new and creative forms of non-violent revolution against military rule. For more than two months, brave young people have tirelessly sought every means possible to defy the military.

Streets turned into killing fields

Civilians ignored the local directives about gatherings and curfews. Streets across the nation filled with mass protests in February. The nationwide the CDM against military rule marked the “five twos” revolution on Feb. 22, a reference to the date 22/2/2021. A regional Milk Tea Alliance Movement emerged in Myanmar and other countries ruled by authoritarian regimes, in places like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand on Feb. 28.

When security forces cracked down on the protests they used water cannons, teargas and guns with rubber bullets, then began to use snipers, noise bombs, guns with real ammunition and machine guns in the last week of February. The soldiers targeted not only protesters but innocent civilians including housewives and children.

Security forces escalated the brutality of the crackdown in March. Arrests of activists, shootings and killings escalated day by day. In February alone, 24 people were killed due to bloody police crackdowns. The targeting of demonstrators by snipers rapidly escalated after CRPH, the committee formed by the NLD’s elected MPs, declared military’s State Administration Council as a terrorist group on March 1. Streets formerly filled with mass protests nationwide turned into killing fields for soldiers and police. The people became the enemy of the soldiers.

Military-controlled state media, MRTV, broadcast a warning statement to parents to “prevent [the loss of] lives of the new generation” a night before Armed Forces Day, March 27. The statement said, “People should learn lessons from the ugly deaths and anyone who takes part in the protest can be in danger of getting shot to the head and the back.” The statement echoed the warning of dictator Ne Win in 1988: “If the army shoots it has no tradition of shooting into the air. It would shoot straight to hit.” Ne Win’s comment, gleaned from a history textbook seems to still apply today. Dictator Min Aung Hlaing has yet to revoke it.

When angels died

Beginning in March, young men initiated self-defense plans to resist brutal attacks by riot police. In the tradition of mass uprisings everywhere, they made make-shift barricades to block the roads to prevent police access. Young people wore helmets, covered their body with armor and carried smoke bombs to resist police crackdowns. Some mobilized the protests in the communities by playing music and singing revolutionary songs. During March, security forces arrested more than 400 students from universities and high schools nationwide.

There are dozens of tragic stories of unarmed people who died during the military’s bloody crackdown. Nineteen-year-old “Angel” in Mandalay was shot in her back and died on the spot on March 3. A young medical student, Khant Nyar Hein, 18, was shot dead on March 14 in Tarmway, Yangon. On March 23, a 6-year-old girl, Khin Myo Chit in Mandalay was shot to death while sitting on her father’s lap . An 11-year-old girl, Aye Myat Thu, in Mawlamyaing was shot in the head while playing in her own house on March 27. When angels were killed, thousands of people attended funeral services and mourned for their lost ones. Parents across the country called out loud: “Stop killing our children!” But military chief Min Aung Hlaing seemingly turned a blind eye and a deaf ear.

In March, a series of massacres occurred in Yangon’s outskirts including Hlaing Tharyar, Shwe Pyi Thar, North and South Okkalarpa, Thingangyun and North and South Dagon. According to the statistics released by DVB fact-check, the March 14 massacre in Hlaing Tharyar killed 84 people and dozens were injured. Nationwide, massacres happened in Yangon, Mandalay, Monywa, Mawlamyaing and many other towns on March 27, Armed Forces Day. On this deadliest day, more than 140 people were killed. The military even used grenades on March 29 to demolish make-shift barricades in South Dagon. Of the 539 people killed, more than 90% were killed by gunshot. An estimated 228 of the 539 were young people between the ages of 19 and 30.

The military claimed that they took over power because the result of the November election was fraudulent, but the number of atrocities they have committed around the country tell a very different story.

Four figures in two months

When a journalist asked Daw Aung San Suu Kyi about political prisoners in Myanmar in 1996, she said it’s in the four figures, meaning more than 1,000, but less than 10,000. Ten years ago when former military general Thein Sein became president, he released more than 2,000 political prisoners – including monks, students, journalists, lawyers, MPs and over 300 members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy. Even after 30 years of struggle for democracy, all together Myanmar had only 2,000 political prisoners under Than Shwe’s regime (1990-2010). Today the number of detainees is almost 3,000 people after two months.

In the meantime, Myanmar is being closely monitored by the world community.  But how long can this last? The gesture the soldiers show the world is loud and clear. Myanmar is heading toward another round of authoritarian rule. The recent situation in Burma indeed provides a textbook example.

Mon Mon Myat is an author and a PhD Candidate in the Peacebuilding Program at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Her views are her own.

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