'It's like a war zone': Life under the Myanmar junta

1 month ago 15

With refugees escaping to neighbouring countries such as India and Thailand, Myanmar is seeing a bloody turn to its coup where a crackdown by the military (junta) has seen more than 100 protesters and citizens allegedly shot down.

These crackdowns have now seen the rise of armed rebel groups which have threatened to fight back the military if their violent crackdowns do not end. This comes after the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a monitoring group, released a report stating that the Myanmar security forces have killed at least 510 people since February 1, when the coup officially started.

With hundreds of refugees having crossed borders to arrive at the North-eastern states of India like Mizoram and Manipur, it is now estimated that almost 3,200 people have fled to Thailand.

While the killings continue across the country, military chief Min Aung Hlaing hosted a lavish dinner party to celebrate Myanmar's Armed Forces Day, attended by representatives from Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand.

India Today has contacted residents and activists of Yangon and other cities in Myanmar to understand the country's new normal.

What is it like for Yangon residents after Feb 1?

Speaking exclusively to India Today on her experiences, a popular student leader named Phyo (name changed), a 25-year-old Yangon resident and activist, says, "My home city of Yangon is unrecognizable. While I am someone who tries to be extremely cognizant of comparing the current situation to a war zone, that is the closest scenario that comes to my mind. The roads are full of rubble, trash, and ruins of barricades built by civilians to defend themselves against the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military). There are bloodstains of fallen angels and small vigils to commemorate them on roads, sidewalks, and small streets. Every single day I've come out, I have literally seen lines of trucks of police and soldiers."

He further says different parts of the city are barricaded and are inaccessible each day. "Civilians try to keep each other posted through telegram channels, Facebook and Viber groups, and updates like which places are accessible or have new Tatmadaw presence. Yangon netizens are also learning to figure out how to get to places."

"I have been trying to buy bread for the past few days and I never thought I'd experience such anxiety, uncertainty, and fear. Normal activities are becoming impossible now. On the other day at 3 pm, I was supposed to pick up something from my mother's friend in Tarmwe, a township that has seen a lot of shooting over the past week. While the side of Tarmwe we were supposed to go to was not being cracked down upon, we weren't allowed to enter and residents inside weren't willing to leave," he adds.

Phyo says "normalcy and certainty have been robbed from us and that coincides directly with the changing space of Yangon's urban makeup."

Is there a feeling that junta has the backing of external elements like China?

Phyo says, "There is definitely a feeling that the junta is wholly backed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Russia. Despite journalists and analysts disproving some major rumours of China actively participating and supporting the coup (such as China assisting Tatmadaw in constructing an internet firewall), or pointing out the fact that Premier Xi Jinping maintained a strong and close relationship with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, civilians remain adamantly convinced that China actively supports the Tatmadaw."

Another pro-democracy activist and student based in Yangon, Myanssie (name changed), tells India Today that he personally think the CCP is backing the junta. "We were supposed to get Covid-19 vaccines from India, I guess on February 3. But they didn't allow any planes to land in Myanmar. However, there have been planes flying from Kuming to Yangon for like 3-4 times at night almost every day. Besides, they also tried to control our social media activities like in China. Additionally, when the industries in Hlaing Tharyar got burned up, China released a statement to control the protesters toughly, although it kept silent about the mass massacre by junta all these days. Later that evening, junta announced Hlaing Tharyar and some other townships to be under martial laws. The fire wasn't set by the locals."

What do you think triggered this coup?

Myanssie says, "I feel Min Aung Hlaing has been long planning this coup. He may want to control the country like it was during the 1962, 1988 coups without any party interference. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party were accused falsely. This time, in Naypyidaw, the NLD won even in military constituencies. Given this, there were already some talks that the NLD would rewrite the constitution and limit the powers of the military. Fearing this, he accused them of election fraud and went for the coup."

The story so far captured through images

Maxar Technologies and open-source intelligence (OSINT) networks worked on some pertinent satellite and street images showing the magnitude of the protests.

Popular junctions in the city of Yangon have been filled with protesters, thronging to make a presence and express their solidarity with those arrested and allegedly killed by the military.

A popular Yangon-based photographer, Htet Arkar, has been capturing some key moments of the pro-democracy protests.

“My hair was dyed by my friend two days before he died. He said Thingyan festival is coming soon and he dyed it for me,” said the kid. #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar #March29Coup

— Shoon Naing (@Shoon_Naing) March 29, 2021

Protesters have been encouraged using technology and novel ideas from other protests across the globe, especially the likes of those in Hong Kong.

The implications of the coup

Popular freedom rights activist Ro Nay San Lwin (@nslwin), who is also the co-founder of @FreeRoCoalition, while speaking exclusively to India Today on the reason for the coup, says: "The first coup was in 1962 and the second one in 1988. Now, it's the third time. The military head wants to become the president. This is all about his personal invasion. There was nothing wrong with the election."

When asked about the pressure from the international community, he adds: "You know the USA is responding very quickly and the UK, Canada, and the European Union are also responding. But this is not going to work at all.

Myanmar had sanctions for a very long time before, and the military coped with it then. People in Myanmar are openly demanding military intervention from the US. This has never happened before. They are demanding the United Nation to protect them. But I believe this will not happen because China and Russia are the permanent members. They will always use their veto to reject any resolution that will favour the people of Burma because these two countries are supporting the Myanmar military."

He further says, "Last week, a seven-year-old girl was shot dead by the military in Mandalay, and later, they tried to hide the body. So, the family fled home and conducted a small funeral."

On reports of an armed rebellion rising against the military, San Lwin says he believes there will be an armed revolution soon because the people in the border areas are planning for it. "The rebel forces are planning to form a federal army. So, I think the situation will be worse than ever in the country."

On Russia and China's interference in safeguarding the military rule, he adds: "Just before the coup, the Chinese foreign minister was in Myanmar. There was also a Russian delegation. So, both are openly supporting them. And even when the UN Security Council released a statement, these two countries objected to the usage of the term 'military coup' and hence it was replaced by 'state of emergency'. So, the military is not scared of sanctions, as they have China and Russia."

Will the Myanmar citizens back down from protests?

Phyo says, "I don't see anything that could make them back down. Of course, this is different from fleeing and hiding."

Myanssie adds, "It is impossible for us to back down. I don't think there's a way to stop the protests unless Min Aung Hlaing and his loyal puppets get to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to take responsibility of their crimes against humanity and genocide. If we can't be on the streets, papers and candles are there for us. There's going to be human-less strike, candles strike, boards strike, banana strike, coconut strike, paper crane strike, etc. We would try one way or another to show our displeasure towards the military. We'll try our best to rebuild Myanmar."

"We don't want to get back to the days that they brainwash us to know the truth about what's going on with ethnic minorities. We don't want to go back to schools where they don't let any creativity. Scholarships were never offered to children from normal families but instead were given only to those from military backgrounds. Once you've tasted democracy and what it's like to be 'free', you don't want to go back to dark ages."

What changes did the people of Myanmar see when they got back to democracy? Was it successful?

Phyo says, "Our democracy was extremely nascent when this coup occurred. While the NLD party had a lot of flaws, problems, undemocratic qualities, there is no comparison between what we had before February 1 and what we had afterwards. Under the NLD (previous civilian government), at least we had that space, regardless of how small it was. Elements of society were all there but now are destroyed.

"Most importantly, while we were governed by the NLD, we had mental relief that everything we were doing and saying was not going to be considered treason," he adds.

According to Myanssie, the introduction of democracy was at least 60 per cent successful during the last five years, "although it wasn't a fully democratic one."

"After the NLD won the elections, our education system saw many significant changes. We got more opportunities for international scholarships. Also, we got more international investment and job opportunities. We could at least see some clear development. Even though, we weren't fully satisfied, we got to live like real human beings."

Is the junta targeting specific ethnic groups?

Phyo says, "The junta is not targeting specific ethnic groups; it is targeting everyone equally. However, their tactics and goals in different ethnic states are of course different depending on the socio-political goals they have."

Myanssie adds, "I don't think they're targeting specific ethnic groups. They oppress all ethnic groups. Before the coup, many of us didn't know a lot about the oppression of minorities in Myanmar. The military usually blocks the flow of information from these areas reaching the mainland."

Are all ethnic groups fighting together against the coup?

Phyo says, "Currently, many of the major armed groups such as the RCSS, KNU, and KIA have openly taken anti-coup positions whether by armed conflict, by interrupting the state's cross-border affairs with other countries, by hosting internal migration of civilians from urban cities into their territories, or by providing protection and refuge for ethnic civil society to continue carrying out humanitarian aid and development work."

"We only got to suffer this time, but they (ethnic minorities) have been facing this kind of brutality and mass massacre for many years," Myanssie adds.

Times are changing

On the new wave of young protesters being motivated by similar protests in Hong Kong and Thailand, freedom rights activist San Lwin adds, "It is different this time round. The younger generation is well-educated. They are very familiar with technology. As many as 25 per cent seats in Parliament are reserved for the military. The people want to get rid of this."

"Protesters across ASEAN have been very supportive, by sending out all the information they have. They have been sending important notes for protesters translated to the Burmese language. We have got a lot of solidarity from people in Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, India and Indonesia," he concludes.

(The writer is a Singapore-based Open-Source Intelligence analyst)