From small villages to city offices, an open rebellion is steadily spreading in Burma, drawing together citizens outraged by the Feb. 1 coup that overturned a national election and crushed a popular democracy.
Pro-democracy advocates inside Burma and abroad describe how defectors from the disgraced army — the hated Tatmadaw — as well as disaffected police officers and seasoned fighters from ethnic armies on the country’s borders are joining civilians in armed squads that are killing scores of soldiers and disrupting the coup leaders’ shoddy efforts at administering an angry country.
Tatmadaw leaders, fighting back as they see a few remote military bases overrun and high-ranking officers assassinated, are reacting with ever-increasing violence, according to local reports. Military vigilante squads are assaulting pro-democracy demonstrators and attacking outspoken opponents.
In one case, a former village administrator from Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, was murdered in northern Kachin state on June 2. In the southeast, the military destroyed food donations for refugees who had fled from their homes early this month to escape an outbreak of fighting.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who won an overwhelming election victory last November, remains in isolated army custody somewhere in Naypyidaw, the country’s capital. She has been cut off totally from her supporters and the outside world as she faces a military trial, starting on June 14.
Noeleen Heyzer, a former head of the United Nations’ Bangkok-based Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, said in an email to PassBlue that the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), formed immediately after the February coup, and the shadow National Unity Government (NUG), established in April by ousted elected leaders, “are prepared for civil war, if ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] continues to move at a snail’s pace and proves ineffective in consulting and bringing all sides to initiate dialogue.”
Heyzer, an analyst at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, added, however, that even if a dialogue can begin, “The Tatmadaw and the NUG have two very different visions for Myanmar’s future. Just read the NUG’s policy position on the Rohingya and the Rakhine,” she said.
In that paper, the Rohingya are promised citizenship, a long-held goal, along with a safe, voluntary program of return for those who have left the country after murderous attacks. The shadow unity government is also willing to give the International Criminal Court jurisdiction over human-rights crimes inflicted by the military.
Asean held a summit meeting on April 27 attended by the Burmese coup leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. Nothing has happened since then to advance the call for action — except that the general, who is often described as deeply xenophobic, has rejected all talk of outside intervention.
With attacks becoming more deadly on both sides, Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, warned on June 11 that violence is intensifying in Burma (which the UN calls Myanmar, a military-imposed name). She called the army’s use of heavy weapons against resisters “outrageous.”
The UN envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner-Burgener, is speaking to the Security Council on June 18 in a closed session, as is Brunei Darussalam Foreign Minister II Dato Erywan Yusof, whose country is chair of Asean this year.
Bachelet also joined calls for more intensive diplomacy to be employed in the region. The 10-member Asean, however, remains sharply divided and unwilling to become directly involved. Established in 1967 by five countries, it has never been proactive.
Only China has the power to change the current stalemate in Asean, but the Chinese are having their own problems with Burma, where they are heavily invested — and largely hated and mistrusted. (China is not a member of Asean.) A report published on June 8 by experts at the United States Institute of Peace, a Congressionally supported independent organization in Washington, D.C., untangles the web of issues surrounding the Burmese-Chinese relationship.
The report, “Myanmar: China, the Coup and the Future,” was written by Jason Tower, the institute’s country director for Burma, and Priscilla Clapp, a senior adviser and former foreign service officer who was chargé d’affaires at the US embassy in Burma from 1999 to 2002, when the US did not have an ambassador there.
The authors suggest that China may have fallen into a trap set by the Burmese military.
“China’s response to the coup was — and remains — shaped by propaganda produced by the Tatmadaw,” the authors write. “Official Chinese media, in turn, has amplified the junta’s disinformation to appeal to China’s traditional paranoia about designs of Western and liberal democratic sources.”
At the center of attention in the growing revolt in Burma is the real power of the loosely organized guerilla movement called the People’s Defense Force, which is carrying out attacks nationwide in the name of the National Unity Government. Opinions differ on its prospects.
A Burmese human-rights reporter — unnamed here because of the extreme dangers in that work — said recently in a virtual conference relayed to a US audience that the People’s Defense Force did not have the ability, arms or leadership to conduct an urban guerrilla war effectively.
A Western diplomat with years of experience in Southeast Asia, also requesting anonymity, expressed a more nuanced view in an interview with PassBlue.
“As far as the People’s Defense Force is concerned,” this diplomat said, “it’s not one force — it’s thousands of small forces all over the country and they range in size from little gangs — a handful of guys to — forces that number 200, 300, 400.
“Because they are a mix of ex-Tatmadaw, police and armed ethnic groups, it’s not that they are unarmed,” the diplomat said. “The effectiveness of these groups varies, but they are being mobilized and trained and armed . . . and then they go back into the cities in the affected areas of the country and raid government offices, and they have inflicted quite a bit of damage. It’s haphazard in the sense that they are never going to be an organized, orderly force. . . . But they are a thorn in the side, and they are taking a toll on the Tatmadaw. They are all over the country, and they are organizing villages to resist.”
Thant Myint-U is the country’s leading historian, and he has written books that express authoritatively how Burma and its people were a once-leading nation in economic, intellectual and cosmopolitan terms, all destroyed by the military over decades.
In an article to be published in the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs, a Council on Foreign Relations journal, he argues that Burma “is at a point of no return,” and that a revolution is coming.
“The February coup,” he writes, “has unleashed a revolutionary energy that will be nearly impossible to contain. Over the past four months, protests and strikes have continued despite the killing of 800 people and the arrest of nearly 5,000 more.”
The author still has hope. “Successful change must come from within, and there is absolutely no doubt, given what has happened since February, that Myanmar’s young people are determined to alter the course of their country’s history. It is they who must chart a path forward.”
Thant Myint-U is a grandson of U Thant, who was a Burmese UN secretary-general immediately after the death of Dag Hammarskjold, in 1961 until December 1971. U Thant was a devout Buddhist peacemaker, or tried to be, but he got on the wrong side of most US foreign policies as well as those of the French and the Soviet Union in Africa.
He had been a diplomat and foreign policy specialist during Burma’s first democratic era after independence from Britain. But the Burmese military had taken control of the country when U Thant died in New York City in 1974, and it refused to organize a state funeral for him.
Student activists barged into U Thant’s funeral procession in Burma, snatched his body and took it to Rangoon University to conduct their own ceremony. Days of violence, and a second attempt to bury U Thant in a site selected by students followed, along with a vicious military crackdown.
Nevertheless, the students’ action is a story still told with pride to visitors.