Content Warning: Graphic descriptions of torture and abuse
“The people of Myanmar only want democracy. The military coup was not supposed to happen. The Burmese military is arresting, torturing, and killing the people for no reason. They will continue the violence. They will keep firing guns and terrorizing the people. The people also know it.”
Myanmar has once again been destabilized by a coup d’etat organized by its military junta, ending a decade of peaceful democracy. Following the country’s military coup, Myanmar has experienced increases in socioeconomic and political inequality, and a surge of human rights violations.
On February 1, 2021, military officials took over the government of Myanmar after detaining the leaders of the National League for Democracy, de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint. This coup was carried out on the same day that the newly elected Parliament was scheduled to hold its first session, motivated by the military’s belief that the elections were fraudulent despite the landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the November 8 elections. Since then, the military junta has tried to legitimize its government by spreading propaganda through local broadcasting stations, suspending and limiting internet access, closing banks, and by terrorizing the people of Myanmar with violent crackdowns. The military junta’s political legitimacy, however, has been challenged by the civilians of Myanmar. Myanmar’s citizens birthed the Civil Disobedience Movement as they took to the streets for massive protest demonstrations and social media campaigns, encouraging government workers to go on labor strikes and embrace the “no recognition, no participation” stance.
Crimes Against Humanity
Myanmar’s military junta has consistently used violence and fear as a tactic of consolidating its power, and in the process has violated almost every human right universally recognized by the United Nations. Perhaps most striking is the military’s playbook on containing resistance -- the junta has responded to mass protests with heavy use of lethal force and unlawful arrests. The distinct contradiction between the civilians’ three-finger salute (the symbol of the Civil Disobedience Movement), and the retaliation of guns and bombs demonstrate no clearer indicator of the crimes against humanity committed against the people of Myanmar.
Those that manage to avoid the killings committed by the junta are unlawfully captured, which some civilians believe is even worse than death itself. After capture, protestors are locked in secretive facilities unbeknownst to their faimilies where the junta subject them to torture and violence. First-hand accounts by teenage protestors reveal a glimpse into the inside of Myanmar prisons.
An unnamed 19-year old recounts:“The commander tied my hands from the back and used small scissors to cut my ears, the tip of my nose, my neck and my throat. (He) hit my head with a glass bottle, beat me up, pointed at me with guns. They forced us to be on our knees, with our backs straight, and punched and kicked us. When we fell on the ground they hit us with the cable wire. It hurt so much. I even told them to kill me instead of torturing me it was that painful”
Although torture is traditionally used as an extreme means to obtain information, the junta subjects everyone to violence -- usually to reprimand protestors into never speaking out against the dictatorship again. Many affirm the extreme torture by echoing the sentiment of the unnamed 19-year old. Several have even chose death over submission to the junta, like the group of Myanmar youths that jumped off a building to resist arrest.
Using tactics of torture, violence, and killings designed to prevent the people of Myanmar from accessing basic human rights, the junta has casted a shadow of fear among the public. From restricting freedom of speech by arresting those who speak against the regime, privacy by implementing dalans (informants in disguise), and law by securing the entire police force, the junta are committing numerous crimes against humanity. It is quite clear that the junta deserve a much needed retaliation from the international order.
These human rights violations, however, didn’t stem from just the coup; the Myanmar military junta have historically acted with such cruelty during the 8888 uprising and against the Rohingya people, an ethnic group that resides in Rakhine, a province of Myanmar. The 8888 uprising was a series of nation-wide protests in 1988 that spoke out against the totalitarian government which , in the end, was met with extreme violence and a bloody military coup. Many draw parallels between the 88 uprising and the ongoing coup, denouncing a heartbreaking pattern of cruelty that spans across decades. Furthermore, the Rohingya have also consistently felt the wrath of the Burmese military long before the beginning of the coup, targeted due to their religious and ethnic differences. Violence has consistently played a telling role in the consolidation of power for the Myanmar military regime.
Nine months since the start of the coup, major inequalities have surfaced as a result of the dictatorship. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, has its effects amplified by the overthrow of the civilian government. The military junta reserves all quality hospitals for those in their inner circle while civilians suffer with mere mats on the floor as substitutes for hospital beds. Furthermore, civilians in Myanmar cannot access healthcare due to a shortage of oxygen tanks and the arrest of doctors who participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement, leaving patients with no options to get help even when they needed it. Myanmar’s military regime is not only ignoring the people’s needs, but actively opposing them. In response to a dictatorship that actively seeks to harm them, civilians have united together to support each other with their own oxygen tanks and donations. With the compounding effects of the pandemic and the ongoing military coup, the United Nations reports that “almost half of the population in Myanmar will be forced into poverty with the nation on the brink of economic collapse by 2022”.
The country’s path to poverty and economic collapse also attributes to the vast economic inequality that also resulted from the overthrow of the democratically elected government. Most importantly, the distribution of income has been largely affected by the rise in inflation. The value of currency in Myanmar, the Kyat, has lost more than 60% in value since the start of September -- driving up food and fuel prices for an average civilian and further leading those at the brink of poverty into a state of constant fear and fight for survival. In addition, money exchanges in Myanmar remain closed, and due to the banks placing a cap on the amount of money an ATM can withdraw, a cash shortage is now in effect. With these restrictions, civilians struggle to gain access to their own money with long lines in front of ATMs every single day, sometimes waiting hours on end just for the ATM to run out of money.
Many agree that this pattern of inequality and dictatorship must come to an end. But how can one change the flow of Burmese politics that has been deeply rooted into its history and society? For one, the people of Myanmar are urging the world to recognize the National Unity Government (NUG), the Burmese government in exile that was formed by lawmakers and politicians ousted during the coup. An important moment lies ahead at the ASEAN Conference, as civilians call on the members of the ASEAN Conference to engage with the NUG to discuss the country’s future and politics rather than the military regime. Civilians also await the results of the meeting between the U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Myanmar’s National Unity Government -- a meeting which could lead to a greater willingness to push for bolder action. Although the international community constantly encourages the occurrence of dialogue between the military government and members of the democratically-elected NLD, Myanmar civilians know better than anyone that an opportunity of peaceful dialogue can only be created through pressure from the international community on the junta to cease any armed violence. In the meantime, the people of Myanmar urge everyone to donate to the Civil Disobedience Movement and to support its National Unity Government.
Ever since the military coup, Myanmar’s quality of life has spiralled downwards in all aspects. Civilians live every day in fear of the dictatorship regime and of their struggles to survive in poverty. This conflict -- one rooted in the history of Myanmar’s military -- cannot be ameliorated without internal change and the response of the international community. For a country plagued by patterns of violence and fear, change is imminent to ensure the country’s survival.