Insider

In 2 months, Myanmar’s military has killed more than 500 people. The international community has done little to help.

Summary List PlacementEarly on February 1, the leaders of Myanmar's National League for Democracy — the country's pro-democracy party — were taken into custody during a military raid and placed under house arrest. Later that morning, the people of Myanmar woke up to a new but sadly familiar world:...

Myanmar protester funeral

Summary List Placement

Early on February 1, the leaders of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy — the country’s pro-democracy party — were taken into custody during a military raid and placed under house arrest. Later that morning, the people of Myanmar woke up to a new but sadly familiar world: imposing tanks rolled down the promenade, police forces roamed the street, and a military junta once again reigned with an iron fist.

Myanmar’s military — known as the Tatmadaw — had taken over, claiming the country’s November election had been rigged in favor of the NLD, despite there being no evidence to support their claims. The junta almost immediately restricted media and internet access and installed repressive curfews. 

The country spent more than 50 years under military rule before transferring to a civilian government in 2011. Now, Burmese citizens saw a frightening repetition of the past. 

But the people of Myanmar took to the streets to fight back.

Since then, more than 500 civilians have died during protests in opposition to Tatmadaw rule. 

If we burn, you burn with us: Myanmar protesters 

The junta swept to power on February 1, plunging Myanmar into political turmoil.  

Within days, Burmese began taking to the streets to peacefully protest against the coup. Many adopted the three-finger salute from “The Hunger Games,” a symbol of opposition to tyrannical rule.

Burmese anti-junta protesters engaged in peaceful civil disobedience, rather than violence, but were met with brutal force from members of the military and police forces, known in Myanmar as the Tatmadaw.

The violence came in waves over the next two months, reaching a peak this past weekend when clashes between the protesters and the country’s security forces left 114 people dead. 

Several children and teenagers were shot dead by soldiers, and scores were injured when the police opened fire on mourners at a student protester’s funeral on Saturday.

A Myanmar protester makes the three finger salute during a demonstration against military coup in Yangon, Myanmar on February 7, 2021. (Photo by Myat Thu Kyaw/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

While the killings continued across the country and security forces doubled down on efforts to suppress the protests, junta chief Min Aung Hlaing feasted at a lavish dinner party to celebrate the country’s Armed Forces Day, attended by representatives from Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand.

“There’s a suspicion that Myanmar’s military wanted to make a particularly emphatic show of force on their special day. In the run-up to the day, protesters across the country had been holding mock funerals for the commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing, making it a particularly charged moment,” Dr. Elliot Prasse-Freeman, assistant professor at the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore, told Insider. 

Prasse-Freeman said the military seems to be “pursuing a strategy of intensifying — both gradually and in fits and starts — the brutality and inhumanity it is willing to bestow on the people.” 

“This is a terrorist mentality, in which actions directed at individuals are meant to intimidate — to terrorize — the rest of the population,” he added.

The death toll in Myanmar has since exceeded 500. Despite the staggering body count, the protesters carry on. 

“We salute our heroes who sacrificed lives,” one of Myanmar’s key protest groups, the General Strike Committee of Nationalities, wrote on Facebook. “We must win this revolution!”

In the latest move to combat military violence, protesters this week launched a new civil disobedience action: throwing garbage in the street to block intersections. 

Words ring hollow: a tepid international response

Ten days after the coup began, the US announced it would be sanctioning specific military members but failed to offer a broader appeal. It called on the Tatmadaw to release National League for Democracy leaders, including Aun Sang Suu Kyi and President Win Myint.

On Monday, the US took a further step, announcing it would be suspending all trade ties with Myanmar.

Then, on Wednesday, the US also ordered all “non-emergency” personnel to depart its Myanmar embassy. 

The US’s trade suspension is seen as largely symbolic given the trade volume between the two countries. According to The New York Times, the two countries exchanged around $1.4 billion last year. 

The US is likely hoping the move will domino into other countries issuing similar suspensions.

However, Prasse-Freeman suggests that US sanctions might not have as big an effect as intended. 

“Singapore, Hong Kong, China, and Thailand are the biggest investors in Myanmar, and the military is insulated from most effects of US sanctions because its investments in natural resource extraction tend to not be the major component of US investment,” he said. 

myanmar protests

“The most powerful economic actions, rather, seem to be the ongoing effects of the sustained general strike on the financial and logistical operations in the country, and the targeted boycott of military companies as well as the local businesses and shops run by families linked to the military,” he added.

Tan See Seng, professor of international relations at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, highlighted the essential role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in addressing the developing situation in Myanmar. 

In the past, ASEAN “was able to step into the breach and play a constructive mediating and facilitating role,” Tan said. 

“A key part leading to any resolution is initiating talks with the Tatmadaw and the coup leaders, and ASEAN could certainly play a part in that,” he added. 

On the human rights front, Kingsley Abbott, senior legal adviser at the International Commission of Jurists, recommends that at the international level, the United Nations Security Council and other UN bodies should pursue all appropriate actions: including a referral to the International Criminal Court, targeted sanctions against those implicated in violations and a global arms embargo.

Abbot suggests one of the ways to prompt action is to prey upon the self-interest of surrounding nations. 

“More immediately, key actors including ASEAN, China, and India have to recognize the situation impacts stability across the region and could get considerably worse if they fail to take meaningful action. These states need to alter course and at a minimum persuade the military to step back and stop the killings, arbitrary detentions, and other violations,” Abbott told Insider.

Gregory Poling, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Insider that the escalating violence was likely due to Min and other generals feeling “frustrated” by the protests’ staying power. 

Myanmar

“The space for compromise now seems all be vanished, and the military shows no signs of looking for an off-ramp, so violence is expected to continue escalating for the foreseeable future, including with the increasing role of ethnic armed organizations,” Poling said. 

“We will continue to see tightening economic sanctions and trade restrictions from the US and other states. They will continue to try and target those at military-owned companies and individuals, but that net has now become so wide that it will be impossible to prevent it from affecting the wider economy,” he continued.

The international community will have to weigh the value of “pulling every lever in the unlikely hope of convincing the military to back down” — even those which may harm average Burmese citizens, Poling said. 

He added that the international community has remarkably little leverage with the Tatmadaw. However, diplomatic and financial support provided to the pro-democracy movement, combined with the use of targeted sanctions to convince factions within the military to push for de-escalation, could have an impact. 

“But that too seems extremely unlikely to work. This crisis will likely worsen, last for years, and be decided on the streets of Myanmar, not by the international community,” Poling added. 

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