CHIANG MAI – Speaking on state television today (March 27) to mark Armed Forces Day, Myanmar’s junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing promised that “elections will be held” but without giving a date.
His speech came a day after the same military-controlled TV station announced that people demonstrating against the February 1 coup risk being shot “in the head and back.”
That is also exactly what has happened since the democracy-suspending coup, which has been greeted with nationwide anti-military protests. More than 450 people have been gunned down by the police and military, many with snipers firing single bullets into the heads of protesters, since the putsch.
At least 119 protesters were gunned down on Saturday and another nine on Sunday, according to media reports.
Meanwhile, six professors – five Norwegians and a Swede – at the University of Oslo have nominated Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) for the Nobel Peace Prize. The deadline for this year’s prize was January 31, so the nomination will qualify for 2022’s prize.
This may or may not result in any of the CDM’s activists going to Oslo next year to receive the award, but the thought behind it appears to be to embarrass Myanmar’s generals and, hopefully, get them to use less lethal force against anti-coup demonstrators.
Among the many victims are teenagers and a girl as young as seven, who was shot and killed on March 23 as she was running towards her father during a raid on her family’s home in Mandalay, according to reports.
Videos posted on social media show other acts of extreme brutality, including soldiers beating demonstrators, some of them to death, shots fired into crowds of demonstrators and young victims lying in pools of blood in the streets of the old capital Yangon, Mandalay, Myitkyina in the far north and other towns across the country.
There is hardly a city or town where people have not taken to the streets to demand an end to the newly-imposed military dictatorship. Apart from those killed, thousands have been arrested and there are frequent and credible reports on severe torture of those held in custody.
According to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani, some bodies returned to their families showed signs of “severe physical abuse.”
What has astonished many is not only the brutality of the police and military, but also their thuggish behavior. They have been recorded destroying motorcycles, smashing up cars and stealing whatever they can lay their hands on in homes, restaurants and tea shops.
“They are not only cracking down on the anti-coup movement,” said a Myanmar source. “They are trying to destroy people’s lives.”
Such behavior is common in ethnic minority areas when the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, frequently rampages against suspected rebel sympathizers — or for no apparent reason at all.
That is happening now. While the Tatmadaw has been killing and robbing people in urban areas, nearly 9,000 villagers have been forced to run from their villages due to attacks in the Papun area of Kayin (Karen) State. Officially, the Karen National Union (KNU) signed a ceasefire agreement with central authorities in October 2015.
A Shan group, the Restoration Council of Shan State, has also along with eight smaller and rather insignificant ethnic groups signed what is called a “Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement” (NCA).
The agreement is now dead as the Tatmadaw has intensified attacks in Kayin State and the NCA signatories have declared that they do not want to negotiate with Min Aung Hlaing’s coup-installed government.
The now almost two-month-long uprising has taken a high and rising toll on Myanmar’s already troubled economy. The World Bank warned on March 26 that the economy could slump as much as 10% this year due to the turmoil.
Factories are closed because of strikes. Foreign investors, among them Japanese beer giant Kirin, are pulling out because they do not want to be associated with a murderous regime. Others are scaling back their commitments because they could be affected by Western sanctions imposed after the coup.
Whether the CDM gets the Nobel Peace Prize or not, the nomination has attracted international attention to Myanmar’s plight at a time when news from the country has faded and many outside observers appear to believe that the unrest has abated.
The nomination mentions that “the systematic and illegal killings and torture of civilians by the Tatmadaw is a clear violation of human rights” and that “despite the bloody crackdown on demonstrations, the people of Myanmar continue to protest through civil disobedience…[with] massive and consistent popular support.”
The nominators note that the demands of the movement have broadened from asking for the return of the deposed government “towards more fundamental changes for real democracy and peace” involving ethnic minority organizations.
A nationwide movement, they say, has “emerged across ethnic, religious, generational, class and gender divides.”
None of this was probably what Min Aung Hlaing and his officers expected when they decided to overthrow the country’s democratically-elected government.
Yet soldiers marched in the capital Naypyitaw on today’s Armed Forces Day seemingly oblivious to the human tragedy they have wrought on the nation. The display of missiles and other heavy weaponry seemed like a show of force to intimidate the public rather than external enemies.
But despite the threat they could be shot in the “head or back”, Myanmar’s people kept on marching on March 27. At least 119 protesters were confirmed dead on Saturday and another nine on Sunday.
The deaths occurred when the army opened fire on a gathering in Dala across the Yangon River from the old capital, in Lashio and Hopin in the north, Bago in central Myanmar the Yangon suburb of Insein.
But the longer Myanmar’s crisis continues and the military clings to power with no sign of compromise, the more the nation slips into the abyss of becoming a failed state.