Protest against military coup in front of Kayin State Hluttaw Protest against military coup in front of Kayin State Hluttaw. Photo: Ninjastrikers / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0, license linked at bottom of article

Confronting ever more deadly military repression, and with little support from outside, the people of Myanmar are somehow finding ways to fight back, writes Susan Ram

If there were any lingering doubts about how far the Burmese military might go in its efforts to restore order in Yangon, Naypyidaw, Mandalay and every other corner of Myanmar following the coup of February 1st 2021 these have now been comprehensively quashed. 

Unfolding before our eyes is that most horrific of spectacles: a military machine unleashing its ferocious firepower on an unarmed people, and doing so free of any material, political or moral constraints. 

As the coup enters its third month, the civilian death toll stands at 510, according to the body count undertaken by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, (with the proviso that the total is likely to be higher).  

Hundreds, perhaps thousands more people have been dragged off the streets or from their homes to enter the black hole of army or police detention. 

Army bullets have pummelled into the flesh of demonstrators, striking workers and student leaders. They have cut short the lives of growing numbers of children: among them seven-year-old Khin Myo Chit, seated on her father’s lap inside their Mandalay home when soldiers opened fire in their direction, and Sai Wai Yan, aged 13, who was simply playing outside his house in Yangon when he was shot dead. 

As if to underline its intent, the Tatmadaw (the local term for the military) transformed Armed Forces Day, a public holiday held on March 27 every year to mark the start of the Burmese National Army’s fightback against the Japanese occupiers in 1945, into the bloodiest 24 hours since the launch of the coup.  

Once known as Resistance Day, this annual commemoration has long been usurped by a military with everything other than resistance to tyranny in its sights. This year, as elite troops and dress-uniformed martinets strutted their stuff along the boulevards of Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s purpose-built national capital, and fireworks lit up the night, troops elsewhere were engaged in military displays of a different kind. 

By the end of the day, more than a hundred more civilians had been killed across the country.  

The following day saw the military launch air strikes against recalcitrant ethnic minorities living in the country’s eastern borderlands, initiating a flow of refugees across the frontier with Thailand. 

Throughout Myanmar there is the unmistakeable whine and roar of a full-metal response, of a no-holds-barred military ‘pacification’ effort. All the evidence points in one direction: the dedication of the Tatmadaw to its own form of ‘final solution’: killing on whatever scale is deemed necessary to quell a nationwide popular uprising and bring the people to heel.   

Help from outside? The international response

Reactions from abroad to the accelerating military slaughter in Myanmar have so far underlined the limited ability of international players, whether global institutions, regional blocs or national governments, to intervene or exert effective counter pressure in such situations.  

At the United Nations, efforts to hammer together some sort of unified response have fallen foul of the veto power exercised by the Tatmadaw’s two main arms suppliers, China and Russia.  This has left Christine Schraner Burgener, the UN’s special envoy on Myanmar, with little option other than to issue a string of heartfelt pleas for more robust action.

There is no shortage of moral outrage. Expressions of horror and condemnation have been forthcoming from any number of overseas governments. Defence chiefs from a dozen countries, including the US, the UK, Germany and Japan, have put out a joint statement condemning the army’s actions and reminding generals of their duty to “protect – not harm” the people they serve. 

But such declarations mean little to a coterie of thugs out to perpetuate their power – and bountiful business interests.      

Targeted sanctions aimed at the business empires and accumulated lucre of specific generals, including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the junta’s top dog, seem to offer a more promising line in ‘persuasion’.  This has been the preferred approach of the Biden administration in Washington, which began authorising new sanctions and export control restrictions in mid-February, towards the goal of restricting the ability of Burmese military leaders to access the substantial funds the government of Myanmar has on deposit in the US. 

In late March, sanctions were extended to include two military conglomerates — Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (MEHL) – which between them control significant portions of Myanmar’s economy. While the US Treasury has added both companies to a blacklist, freezing any assets they have in the US and banning US businesses and citizens from trading with them, the UK has also put in an appearance, imposing sanctions on MEHL. 

On March 22, the EU placed Min Aung-Hlaing on an assets freeze and added his name to a visa ban blacklist.  Nine other senior military leaders received similar treatment.  

But efforts to squeeze the Tadmadaw financially are undermined by the unwillingness of any of Myanmar’s biggest trading partners – China, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia and India – to impose sanctions. It bears emphasis, too, that decades of exposure to economic sanctions of various forms and efficacy have rendered the Burmese military experts in the business of circumventing them. The wily generals always seem to win through. 

Arms suppliers  

As for access to weaponry and all the accoutrements of 21st century high-tech warfare, surveillance and repression, the Tatmadaw can count on help from a number of reliable friends. 

A recent report by SIPRI (the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) provides data on suppliers of major arms to Myanmar for the period 1999-2018.  Heading the list, and outpacing all other vendors by a wide measure, are China and Russia, each of which supplied roughly 44 per cent of major arms sales to Myanmar over this period. 

Other nations in the business of selling arms to the generals include Ukraine, India – and Israel, whose carefully concealed arms trade with the Tatmadaw was exposed in a 2019 UN report. As the report noted, the foreign companies listed in its findings ran 

“a high risk of contributing to or being linked to, violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. At a minimum these foreign companies are contributing to supporting the Tatmadaw’s financial capacity.”  

Of late, Russia has been assuming a rising profile on the arms sales front, and is now thought to have overtaken China as the Burmese military’s chief source of arms. Just days before the coup, on January 25, 2021, Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, announced a new arms deal while on a red carpet visit to Naypyitaw. On the table: a Pantsir-SI air defence system, along with Orion-10E drones and radar: all geared to ‘modernising’ the Burmese army’s surveillance capacity and counterinsurgency operations. 

On March 24 – Armed Forces Day – representatives of seven countries, all of them arms vendors to the generals, were accorded a ringside view of the parades and the razzmatazz.   

Fighting back

A rapidly rising death toll; fine words but little more in terms of international solidarity; targeted economic sanctions slapped down on the Tatmadaw from some quarters, but not by any of the country’s major trading partners; unbroken supplies of arms entering the country to shore up the generals and intensify their repression capabilities: such is the situation currently facing the people of Myanmar two months into the coup.

How will they – how can they – respond? 

The latest word from the cities suggests that popular resistance — essentially a multi-fronted campaign of civil disobedience in which millions of people are withholding their labour — is cutting deep into the economy and seriously disrupting transport and administration. According to officials from four ministries who spoke to a journalist from the New York Times, up to 90 percent of national government activity has ceased.

The inventiveness and resourcefulness of people in struggle is everywhere evident.  The past few days have seen residents of Yangon dumping garbage on the streets in direct contravention of military calls for a clear-up. It seems that popular defiance remains at extraordinarily high levels, despite the bloodletting and naked brutality of recent days. 

But in the absence of any serious constraints on the Tatmadaw and its capacity for carnage, it seems likely that resistance will have to move beyond civil obedience and peaceful protest.

In the aftermath of Armed Forces Day and its gruesome harvest of civilian deaths, three of Myanmar’s armed ethnic rebel groups issued a joint statement threatening the military with retaliation. The Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army and the Arakan Army vowed that if the junta did not stop the bloodshed, they would “co-operate with the protesters and fight back.”

In an article written in collaboration with social activists from the Karen ethnic minority (located in Kayin state in southern Myanmar), the journalists Naw Has Moo and Dominique Dillabough-Lefebvre explore the implications of such a fusion

“Now that these diverse groups are coming together, new alliances are beginning to emerge amidst the chaos. Although Myanmar’s future remains far from certain, the coup has created circumstances through which people in towns and cities across the country can better empathise with the long-suffering plight of residents of the war-torn lands inhabited by the Karens and other ethnic nationality peoples.” 

If there is a faint glimmer of hope to be gleaned from somewhere in the fathomless darkness now engulfing Myanmar it lies here — in the possibility of people overcoming old divisions, finding common cause, and uniting in struggle. 

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Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.