The Tatmadaw has turned into a terrorist organization

Since the military seized power on February 1, overthrowing Myanmar’s elected government, the country’s people have resisted by every non-violent means imaginable. They have banged pots and cast curses, boycotted military-owned companies and joined nationwide protests. Most importantly, they have brought a large part of the state apparatus on board with a Civil Disobedience Movement that includes a broad cross-section of public employees.

But where the civilian population has used solidarity and general strikes to pursue its aim of undoing the coup, the junta of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has relied on what it knows best: brute force.

Predictably, the first thing it did to neutralize opposition was detain government leaders and prominent activists. Then, as mass demonstrations began to swell, it ordered late-night raids on the homes of protest organizers. But as the ranks of angry citizens coming out into the streets continued to grow, violence became its chief means of quelling the unrest.

Along with mass arrests, the regime has used outright murder to intimidate those who oppose its will. Crackdowns that begin with rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas quickly escalate to the indiscriminate use of live ammunition and, most ominously, sniper fire. One of the victims of such an attack, a 19-year-old girl named Kyal Sin, was killed with a single, carefully aimed shot to the head last week.

Kyal Sin, or Angel, as she was also known, has since become a symbol of defiance in the face of these ruthless tactics. Because of her newfound status, she was also singled out for another indignity on Friday, a day after her burial, when her grave was desecrated by the authorities in a farcical attempt to exonerate police. Instead, her death was blamed on some shadowy force seeking to smear the junta’s honour—as if there was ever any doubt that the regime was capable of such a heinous crime.

Increasingly, it is becoming impossible to believe that the junta is motivated by anything other than contempt for the country’s people. It seems especially affronted by the fact that voters have repeatedly and resoundingly rejected its proxies at the polls. This alone would seem to make them unworthy of being treated like human beings.

The junta claims that it will hold elections next year to correct what it sees as a democratic aberration. Its reaction to popular resistance to its rule suggests it has other plans. Over the past month, it has fuelled the flames of resentment, unleashing hell on the streets, even as it coolly delivers diktats on state media. It has revised laws that were once merely draconian and turned them into legal bludgeons to beat its critics into submission. Evidently, what it wants to see is a return to the Orwellian nightmare that Myanmar began to slowly emerge from a decade ago after half a century of military rule.

This great regression has introduced a new generation to the horrors of Myanmar’s not-so-distant past. As the memory of the famous four-eights uprising of 1988 has begun to fade, except in the minds of those who vividly remember the many atrocities committed that year, the junta has resorted to the playbook of its predecessors to remind young and old alike of what the Myanmar Tatmadaw is capable of.

By putting armoured personnel carriers on the streets of Yangon and other cities during the early days of the mass demonstrations, the regime sent a chillingly clear message: If push comes to shove, this will be all-out war. Fifty-plus dead over the course of a month is nothing compared to the number the military is prepared to kill in order to impose its absolute control over a country that it has long held in a vice-like grip.

Meanwhile, the military has opened another front in its campaign to consolidate power. It has hired a Canada-based lobbying firm to provide PR services in an effort to persuade the rest of the world that it was perfectly justified in overturning the results of last year’s election. Not content to push the pretext that the election was rigged, this company’s stated strategy will be to argue that the National League for Democracy government was moving too close to China, and that it was responsible for the military’s genocidal campaigns against the Rohingya.

The first claim is merely laughable, considering how much Myanmar’s generals depended on Beijing’s support during their decades of brutal rule, and the second can best be described as obscene in light of the well-documented crimes against humanity committed during the army’s “clearance operations” in northern Rakhine state, which sent hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Far from being persuasive, these arguments seem more like an expression of disdain for international opinion. Like a terrorist organization that isn’t overly concerned about how murdering innocent civilians will affect its reputation, the junta is making a mockery of civilized norms, confident in the knowledge that no outside power will seriously hold it to account for its actions.

At this stage, only one thing can save the Tatmadaw from itself. That would be a split at its higher echelons, with some senior-ranking generals refusing to go down the disastrous path that their commander-in-chief has chosen. Some have surely questioned the wisdom of reversing the progress of the past 10 years, which left the military as unassailable as ever, while also making it less beholden to Beijing for its long-term survival.

Even if this doesn’t happen, the Tatmadaw must be prevented from crushing the country under its boot heel. This will require a concerted international effort that must include China, which should recognize that the junta and the atavistic impulses that it represents are the source of most of Myanmar’s instability.

The unity now being shown by Myanmar’s people is overwhelming evidence of what they could achieve with a government that isn’t at the mercy of the military’s whims. Far from holding the country together, Min Aung Hlaing and his henchmen are tearing it apart. So far, however, they haven’t broken its spirit.

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