For most in Myanmar, Thingyan—the country’s traditional New Year’s holiday—is a time to do good. Famous for its often raucous water-throwing parties, it is, more essentially, an opportunity to wash away thoughts of ill will and renew one’s commitment to acting with the best of intentions.
It was in that spirit that nearly 200 people had gathered in the Kanbalu Township village of Pa Zi Gyi on Tuesday morning to mark the opening of a new administration office by the National Unity Government (NUG), the governing body that represents the aspirations of Myanmar citizens seeking a return to civilian rule.
As is the custom on such occasions, those in attendance—who included elderly guests of honour, as well as many young mothers and their children—were offered food and drink. Such merit-making is a time-honoured tradition in Myanmar, and one that has done much to strengthen its social fabric through the centuries.
For the country’s military dictatorship, however, this attempt by the NUG to establish its authority even in a tiny, remote Sagaing village was an intolerable affront. And so it unleashed hell on those who dreamed of a future without the generals in charge.
By the latest estimates, the death toll from yesterday’s attack on Pa Zi Gyi now exceeds 100, making it the single-worst atrocity committed by Myanmar’s junta since it seized power more than two years ago. Even more appalling is the fact that nearly a third of the victims were children under the age of 15.
The fact that it happened at a time when the regime has been attempting to signal a “return to normal” by encouraging Thingyan celebrations elsewhere in the country is also significant. Far from demonstrating its strength, this latest show of force has only proven its continuing weakness in the face of ongoing opposition.
The current junta, however, is distinguished by being the creator of the chaos that Myanmar now faces. Prior to the coup in February 2021, the country was struggling with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, but was still stable enough to hold elections that delivered another landslide victory to the ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).
While Min Aung Hlaing regarded this as nothing short of catastrophic, it was seen by most as evidence of the sort of steady, if difficult, progress that the country was striving to make towards its goal of achieving genuine democratic rule.
By ousting the NLD on the day that it was set to form a new government, the junta attempted the impossible: to reverse the tide of time and push Myanmar back into an era when challenges to military rule were all but unthinkable except among a tiny cohort of committed activists.
No longer able to rely on sheer inertia to maintain its pre-eminent place in Myanmar politics, the new regime has had to lean heavily on its other major source of power: brute force.
This has spawned not only unprecedented levels of resistance among a generation that came of age during a decade of limited reforms and newfound freedoms, but also a degree of delusional thinking in the minds of the generals that can only be described as psychotic.
While previous dictators did not shy away from using violence to achieve their ends, they also had some semblance of a plan to win over at least a segment of the population. But having overturned one election, Min Aung Hlaing can only promise to hold another. And even that is far from a sure thing, as his control over much of the country remains strongly contested.
And so the regime has doubled down on its terrorist tactics, committing horrific acts of violence against its opponents and civilians alike. It does so despite deriving no demonstrable advantage from such attacks, partly because it feels a need to lash out over its own significant losses in the battlefield, but also because it has no other strategy in place.
Since last year, it has intensified its use of airstrikes, no longer so much with the aim of taking control of their targets or supporting troops on the ground, but chiefly to inflict as much suffering as possible on those at the receiving end.
In a country that has been witness to such horrors on an almost daily basis, the Thingyan massacre of April 11, 2023, still stands out. By committing a war crime of this magnitude, especially at a time when many might have been inclined towards forgiveness of past sins, the Min Aung Hlaing regime has effectively killed all possibility of future reconciliation.
It remains to be seen how the country, and the rest of the world, will react. On the international front, it can only be hoped that this will finally move those who profess to support its struggle to attain democracy to take stronger action against the regime.
At home, meanwhile, junta opponents will have to continue to do their best to defeat the regime not only on its own terms—i.e., militarily—but also by pushing forward with a political vision that promises a return to human decency.