More than two months into the unfolding nightmare of Burma’s latest military dictatorship, a grim new reality has become apparent to the people of this country, also known as Myanmar, and to others around the world who have been following events there with growing concern: the longer the national army (Tatmadaw) keeps killing innocent civilians and otherwise terrorizing the population while the United Nations does nothing, the more likely the country is to descend into civil war, triggering a bloodbath the likes of which Southeast Asia hasn’t seen in decades—if ever.
Just before the Easter long weekend, the possibility of civil war—and of widespread violence “at an unprecedented scale”—was raised at the UN Security Council. In a closed briefing to the UNSC on Wednesday, UN special enjoy for Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener said the country “is on the verge of spiraling into a failed state” and urged the Council to consider every possible action to “prevent a multidimensional catastrophe in the heart of Asia.” If further escalation of hostilities cannot be averted, she warned, the cost to the world would be “so much more in the longer term than investing now in prevention, especially by Myanmar’s neighbours and the wider region.” Comparisons to Syria have already begun.
Such a frightening scenario is perhaps the sad but inevitable outcome of disingenuous reform. That shift to parliamentary democracy the Tatmadaw promised the Burmese people in 2010 has been exposed, once and for all, as nothing but a political tease the generals dangled like a carrot with no intention of letting it happen for real. But what the coup leaders didn’t count on when they took back power on February 1 was the resilience of Generation Z—those legions of Burmese youth born between 1995 and 2010, the final year of the Than Shwe dictatorship. The youngest members of the new civil disobedience movement (CDM) have come of age with a strong sense of entitlement to freedom. And why wouldn’t they? Before the coup they had just spent the last decade getting a glimpse of their own potential, subject to none of the restraints typical of life in their country before 2011. Thanks to their older comrades, who had long memories of the bad old days, these young people knew what was at stake if the coup were allowed to stand. As many commentators have noted since the first demonstrations, the genie is out of the bottle and can’t be put back.
Unlike the 1988 and 2007 pro-democracy uprisings, with their predictable street rallies and other actions the Tatmadaw easily crushed within days or weeks, the CDM continued to gain momentum as the army outrages piled up. While the dictators stuck to their usual script for repressing dissent, the people tore up their old playbook of popular resistance and, despite daily risk of serious injury or death, came up with creative new ways to keep the momentum going. Wearing helmets and marching behind flimsy tin shields, they carried more signs in English this time—their message having the desired impact in Western capitals—and used music and humour to keep spirits up while shaming the dictators. They also complemented street demonstrations with rotating job actions and ‘silent strikes’ to cripple the economy. In one symbolic gesture, women’s sarongs were hung up on lines above the street barricades, daring soldiers to break a cultural taboo by crossing beneath them. From the beginning, the CDM has taken advantage of virtual personal networks (VPN) to circumvent frequent Internet shutdowns, and—using cell phone technology and social media platforms unavailable in 1988 or 2007—shared massive evidence of Tatmadaw atrocities with the world. In doing so, the people are drawing international support for their courageous bid to end military rule once and for all.
They shoot children, don’t they?
Back in the spring of ’88, just before stepping down at the end of a reactionary, twenty-six-year reign of brutal authoritarianism, Senior General Ne Win famously told a meeting of the ruling Burmese Socialist Program Party: “When the Tatmadaw shoots, it doesn’t shoot up in the air. It shoots to kill.” This was both an order to his soldiers and a warning to the public: once the State decides that civil disobedience has gone on long enough and it’s time to disperse the crowds, soldiers will harden their hearts and blow away as many protesters as they can—even killing those who try to flee. In 2021, the Ne Win killing protocol has been upgraded: when the Tatmadaw shoots, it goes for the head—the younger and more helpless the victim, the better.
This trend was apparent within days of the first crackdowns in February, when one teenaged protester after another fell victim to a bullet in the skull. The official death toll—570 as of this writing, not including those unaccounted for among the 2,728 who are currently detained, nor among the kidnapped or otherwise disappeared—has included 47 children. Given the atrocious evil of murdering innocents, the junta’s use of snipers at first seemed a deliberate strategy to avoid obvious culpability: compared to groups of soldiers shooting openly in the streets, snipers are much harder for a camera to locate. But such logic soon proved mistaken as, day after day, cell phone videos of soldiers and police officers out in the streets opening fire on civilians kept popping up in social media. By last week, the junta had abandoned all pretense of trying to hide what it’s doing: a warning on state television, pitched like a public service announcement, advised Burma’s youth to stay home and not participate in protests or risk being shot in the head or in the back—in which case, the message implied, they’d have it coming.
Singular among the world’s despotic regimes, Min Aung Hlaing’s junta has made an art form of piling obscenity upon atrocity. Saturday, March 27, was a good example. That date on the calendar is Armed Forces Day in Burma, an annual occasion for self-congratulatory muscle-flexing by the army: a celebration of military might through giant parades of soldiers and phallic weapon fetishism reminiscent of Stalinist Russia back in the day. As it happens, this year’s event in Naypyidaw, the capital city, was attended by Russia’s deputy defense minister Alexander Fomin. Min Aung Hlaing was most pleased with this show of support: on Friday the 26th, the Senior General presented Mr. Fomin with a medal and a ceremonial sword, no doubt in thanks for Vladimir Putin’s generous supply of weapons, training, and IT assistance for surveillance, hacking, and firewall capacity-building, to say nothing of Russia’s UN Security Council veto. (This after China, the junta’s other UNSC rubber stamp veto, showed its priorities by saying nothing in response to the coup until Chinese-owned factories in Rangoon were torched, at which point they demanded protection of their assets.)
Surrealism and irony don’t exist in Burma, so on Armed Forces Day Min Aung Hlaing was able, with a straight face, to commemorate the Tatmadaw’s founding by General Aung San without mentioning that Aung San’s daughter, today Burma’s duly elected leader, was still under house arrest at the orders of Min Aung Hlaing. As the Senior General was busy fêting Mr. Fomin and other dignitaries with a dinner party, his forces were busy killing 114 civilians—including six children between the ages of 10 and 16, a five-year-old, and a snacks vendor in Mandalay who, before being literally reduced to ashes, was heard screaming for his mother as the flames enveloped him. Meanwhile, a one-year-old baby playing outside her home in Rangoon was hit in the eye with a rubber bullet. On Sunday in Bago, not far from Rangoon, security forces opened fire on people who had gathered for the funeral of a 20-year-old student killed the day before. “The military’s actions are only making people angrier,” one student told The Guardian, responding to the orgy of state violence with the weekend’s biggest understatement: “We are furious more than scared.”
Ethnic minorities—seventy-four years of grievances
When Senior General Ne Win launched Burma’s first military coup on March 2, 1962, the new dictator easily justified his decision to take power: the Union of Burma was thought to be facing disintegration because two of its main ethnic minorities, the Shan and Kayah, were claiming their right to withdraw under provisions of the 1947 constitution. The federal system of parliamentary government, he insisted, only seemed to encourage such a move toward ethnic autonomy. He also claimed that civilian Prime Minister U Nu’s plan to make Buddhism the state religion had only fuelled the passion of Christian ethnic minorities, such as the Kachin, to fight for independence. Thus, in taking power, Ne Win was staking his claim as Burma’s saviour.
History, of course, suggests otherwise. From 1962 until 1988, Ne Win’s “Burmese Way to Socialism” was a good deal for the dictatorship but pretty much a disaster for everyone else, especially ethnic minorities. Over the years, Tatmadaw soldiers raped, killed, and pillaged their way through Shan, Karen, and Kachin villages, strip-mining those states and others of their natural resources so generals could line their pockets. While doing so, they left a trail of forced labour and child soldiers, villages in ruin, extrajudicial killings, and other atrocities that kept international human rights NGOs busy for decades. As for U Nu’s attempt to make Buddhism the state religion, Ne Win proved that he didn’t need legislation to achieve such an end: he could just send in the troops to terrorize religious minorities by burning down their churches and mosques.
What Ne Win knew but would never acknowledge was that Burma on its own lacked sufficient resources to become an Asian Tiger: there had to be a ‘Union’ for Burma’s sake because Burma needed the ethnic states to enrich itself. So it’s no wonder the Tatmadaw has always opposed the right of secession for ethnic minority states. But there’s an irony in the posturing of every dictator who has occupied the Tatmadaw leadership since Ne Win, all devout Bamar Buddhists just like him: each condemned the evils of foreign colonialism while behaving like the worst of colonial overlords in his dealings with ethnic minorities. Far from building a stronger Union based on mutual respect between all ethnic groups, the record shows that no one has fanned the flames of secession through their own actions —nor made the case for dissolving the Union—better than the Tatmadaw itself.
In August last year, three months before the National League for Democracy’s landslide re-election victory, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi hosted the fourth session of the Union Peace Conference—21st Century Panglong in Naypyidaw. “Panglong” is the name of a town in Shan State where, in 1947, the Shan, Chin and Kachin minorities signed an agreement with Burma, represented by General Aung San, that gave those frontier states full autonomy in their internal administration. The agreement also gave ethnic states the right, under certain conditions, to secede from the Union after ten years. Although enshrined in the 1947 constitution, the agreement was never enacted and the constitution was thrown out when Ne Win took power. And so, 73 years after the first Panglong Agreement—and following the 2015 National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) between Burma (Myanmar) and ten ethnic armed organizations (EAOs)—Suu Kyi tried to resurrect an historic agreement her father never lived to see through.
The new agreement, which followed a decade of on-again, off-again talks with EAOs frequently interrupted by renewed hostilities, included implementation of the NCA, principle guidelines for the establishment of a democratic federal union, and a commitment to continue the dialogue after the 2020 election. For obvious reasons, Suu Kyi was eager for a slam dunk win as reconciler-in-chief after being vilified internationally for her disastrous mimicry of Tatmadaw policy on the Rohingyas. But “Panglong 2.0” had its problems. The credibility of the conference was damaged when seven non-signatories of the NCA refused to attend, citing the government’s exclusion of the Arakan Army, which the Tatmadaw had branded a terrorist organization (a designation since rescinded). Suu Kyi promised that, after 2020, her government if re-elected would open up parallel negotiations with EAOs who didn’t sign the NCA while also strengthening the existing ceasefire regimes. The NLD would also implement structural reforms to achieve a democratic federal union. Key to this goal would be amending the military-drafted 2008 constitution, which Suu Kyi had tried but failed to do over the previous year. The Tatmadaw, predictably, opposed an amended constitution and the EAOs’ insistence on retaining their own armies and including an exit clause for leaving the Union.
With the February 1 coup, of course, everything is off the table and all progress on national reconciliation to date has been wiped out. And here is where Min Aung Hlaing might have made a major miscalculation. Before the coup, he could always rely on infighting among the pro-democracy parties, a divide-and-conquer strategy that prevented the kind of solidarity between ethnic groups that could lead to a united front against the military’s vice grip on power. The Senior General’s biggest advantage in maintaining this status quo was historic distrust of the NLD by the ethnic minorities, to whom Suu Kyi had promised much but delivered little. But in 2021, Min Aung Hlaing can no longer claim such an advantage: the process that Suu Kyi set in motion at “21st Century Panglong,” with its move toward federalism and its promise to trash the 2008 constitution, is another genie that can’t be put back in the bottle.
Imagining the unthinkable
Shortly after the coup, the Tatmadaw attacked the Restoration Council of Shan State’s camps in Hsipaw Township, an act the Shan military group regarded as a violation of the NCA. On Armed Forces Day, the army launched its first air strikes in more than twenty years in Karen State, killing at least three civilians in a village near the Thai border. Those attacks triggered a massive exodus of Karen refugees into Thailand, giving the Thai military regime an unwelcome sense of déjà vu from 1988. Throughout all this, Burma’s ethnic minorities have more than hinted that they are willing to work with the deposed NLD government to restore civilian rule. This weekend, the ten signatories of the NCA made it official. Yes, Min Aung Hlaing’s power grab and mass murder of civilians, among other things, should mark the death knell for Bamar Buddhist nationalism as a foundational principle for participatory democracy, never mind as a source of patriotism.
By early March, 600 police officers had defected to the CDM, with others crossing the border into India. But there haven’t been nearly enough of these defections—certainly not from the Tatmadaw—to seriously threaten the junta. Work stoppages and general strikes have put the brakes on the economy, but not fatally so: Western sanctions have done nothing to move the generals, who have every reason to be confident that Burma’s Asian neighbours will continue to invest in the country. Meanwhile, there’s been no word from Aung San Suu Kyi, who the generals hope remains out of sight and out of mind. With each passing day, as the CDM’s dramatic resistance takes centre stage, her famous name fades from the headlines, unless there’s a court appearance or another bogus charge levelled against her. (The latest was violating the official secrets act, a British colonial-era law for which a conviction can carry a jail term of up to fourteen years.) Short of actually killing her, the generals are doing everything possible—shaming and criminalizing her—to prevent the Nobel laureate and de facto leader from ever holding office again.
Given the usual gridlock at the UN Security Council, Russia and China are expected to veto any attempt to invoke the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) to justify military intervention. China, for its part, exercised its veto power last week to block sanctions. And so, the drumbeats for civil war have begun. Just what would civil war look like in Burma? The most likely form it would take in the initial stages would be a series of small-scale skirmishes between the Tatmadaw and a united federal army commissioned by the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Representative Committee (CRPH), the government-in-exile of elected members of parliament. This army would be composed of a coalition of Bamar and battle-scarred ethnic minority troops, eventually absorbing a large component from the CDM, young civilians radicalized by post-coup trauma. Should any battles take place within spitting distance of Naypyidaw, Min Aung Hlaing would no doubt pick up the phone and call Beijing; the U.S. would be compelled to respond in kind for the resistance. What would happen next is anyone’s guess, but one shudders to contemplate the magnitude of suffering, the scale of death that would surely result, were the fighting to extend to every region of the country.
It all sounds so hauntingly familiar. As in Syria ten years ago, a despotic leader is waging a war on the citizenry that has so far killed hundreds of unarmed civilians and UN officials have warned of a coming bloodbath. As with Syria, the UNSC is split, with China this time holding the key vote. Like Russia in Syria, notes Simon Tisdall in The Guardian, China “is a saviour of killers…If it’s a choice between autocracy and democracy, the world knows where president Xi Jinping stands.” Like Bashar al-Assad, Min Aung Hlaing is guilty each day of committing crimes against humanity and war crimes while triggering a refugee crisis. (And that’s after being accused, in 2017, of genocide against the Rohingyas.) And as with Syria in 2011, civilians in Burma now seem prepared to take up arms in their own self defense. We know what happened next in Syria: ten years later, half a million or more Syrians are dead, 13.3 million are displaced, and the country is a wreck.
Is the international community ready for another Syria in Asia? We may soon find out.
There are many ways to support the Burmese people during their national crisis: helping to fund expenses for participants in the civil disobedience movement, supporting crisis relief for families of the dead, injured or jailed, and protecting internally displaced people from persecution are just a few. For more info, visit the Support Myanmar website.