Updated: Apr 21, 2022
Myanmar’s brief experiment with democracy had come to an abrupt halt when the military staged a coup d’état on 1 February 2021. Despite months of civilian resistance, there are no signs for immediate resolution and the impending question of who will represent Myanmar at the 76th UN General Assembly remains unanswered. Would the State Administration Council (SAC) formed by the military-run government occupy the empty seat? Or would it instead go to the people-backed National Unity Government (NUG), a coalition government formed by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH)?
As this question lingers, the world must acknowledge the reality faced by the people in Myanmar: the recent coup is not a reversal to violence, but rather an expansion and escalation of it, in which the military, also known as the Tatmadaw, is the perpetrator.
Violence is neither a new nor sudden phenomenon in Myanmar; a half-century of dictatorship and armed conflict that continues till date have enabled the Tatmadaw to establish itself as an institution of violence that we know today. At the centre, memories of the junta’s terrorisation is largely remembered by its bloody crackdowns on the 8888 Uprising in 1988 and the Saffron Revolution in 2007. The bloodied bodies of young student protesters remain forever ingrained in the memories of Myanmar people and its diaspora.
At the periphery, where marginalised ethnic populations reside, military violence has been an everyday threat for decades. The Tatmadaw’s ‘four cuts’ counter-insurgency strategy to ‘cut’ ethnic insurgents from access to food, funds, intelligence, and recruits have violently suppressed their resistance and livelihoods. According to a report by Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO), the Tatmadaw has also used rape and other forms of sexual violence as a widespread and systematic tactic to “intimidate, control, shame and ethnically cleanse” the Karen population in Myanmar.
Although the 2015 landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) brought hope for better days, the institution of violence was never uprooted but instead remained deeply entrenched. The military-drafted 2008 Constitution has enabled the Tatmadaw to occupy a quarter of the seats in both houses of Parliament and control the ministries of home affairs, defence and border affairs, making it virtually impossible for the NLD to rein the military under civilian control. In August 2017, the Tatmadaw launched a genocidal campaign of killings, rape and arson against the Rohingyas in Rakhine State. It is estimated that at least 6700 Rohingya were killed in the first month of attacks with many more displaced. The military's violence in the peripheries did not stop with the country's transition to democracy.
Now, the junta’s violence has expanded and escalated in scale following the coup. The military’s bloody crackdown on nationwide anti-coup protests have amounted to a civilian death toll surpassing 1000, including victims as young as seven. From the killing of peaceful protesters to depriving civilians of oxygen amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the attacks committed by the army and police forces amount to crimes against humanity. Ethnic minorities have been disproportionately affected by the coup as the Tatmadaw launched air strikes in the borderlands of Karen and Kachin State. The UNHCR’s Myanmar Emergency Update highlight that approximately 211,000 people have been internally displaced since the coup with numbers expected to rise.
However, the undying, overwhelming resistance, especially in the forms of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and the People’s Defence Force (PDF), show that the people of Myanmar are determined to continue their fight for a genuine, federal democracy and the Tatmadaw cannot walk away from the coup untarnished. And for this very reason, the Tatmadaw has no fear to back down. The domestic and international blanket impunity it enjoys from the 2008 Constitution as well as China and Russia’s Security Council vetoes and the general lack of action from the wider international community only emboldens its position.
The heightening violence coupled with an unmanaged pandemic in post-coup Myanmar entails more loss of lives as well as the impending risk of a collapsing economy and descent into widespread poverty. As we inch towards UNGA 76, the UN and the rest of the world must not underestimate the institution of violence that is the Tatmadaw and the danger that people in Myanmar are facing everyday under the coup regime.