As Myanmar is shred into pieces, can its people unite to stop the Tatmadaw?

The Tatmadaw not only unleashed a bloody nightmare on the civilians but also ensured that they do not get access to medical care, as they attacked hospitals and medical staff tending to the injuries of the protestors. Photo: Reuters

We couldn't stand to watch it so we kept our heads down, crying . . . We begged them not to do it. They didn't care. They asked the women, 'Are your husbands among them? If they are, do your last rites'," a woman from Myanmar's Keni Township, whose brother, brother-in-law and nephew had been brutally murdered by the notorious Myanmar military—also known as the Tatmadaw—told the BBC during an investigation.

In July this year, the Tatmadaw had gone on a revenge-killing spree in the Keni Township—a stronghold of sorts for the forces opposed to the ruling military junta. The People's Defence Force, a militia of civilian groups fighting for democracy, had earlier intensified their anti-military activities in the area, including clashes with the soldiers. The outcome was the Tatmadaw's ruthless and brutal mass killing of the locals of the township. In multiple attacks in July 2021, the Myanmar soldiers had gone from door to door in four villages—Yin, Zee Bin Dwin, Taungbauk and Shikoetat forest—rounding up the men, torturing them with rifle butts, beating them up with stones, and then burying their mutilated bodies, at times in half-alive state, in shallow graves.

At least 40 corpses have been recovered from mass graves in the four villages, including a small body, most likely that of a child. Among the murdered was a 60-year-old man, who had been tied to a plum tree and tortured for hours—the numerous marks on his lifeless body a testament to the unspeakable horrors he had to endure in his final hours. Some of the soldiers involved in the bloody killings were as young as 17-18. The Myanmar military junta did not deny the allegations, saying, "It can happen … When they treat us as enemies, we have the right to defend ourselves." The comment of General Zaw Min Tun, Myanmar's Deputy Minister for Information and military spokesperson, holds ominous portents for the future of democracy and human rights in the country.

The Myanmar junta carried out multiple air strikes since December 22, on the Karen State's Lay Kay Kaw town, in southeastern Myanmar—a stronghold of the Karen National Union. This was the result of fresh raids by military soldiers to subdue the Karen fighters, protesting against the military rule. The clashes since last week and the subsequent air raids—in which the military has not only been firing artillery at the locals but also dropping bombs—have led to the displacement of more than 4,200 Karen people, who fled to Thailand. Unofficial estimates put the figure at nearly 10,000. Some shells even fell on the Thai side, according to The Irrawaddy news site.

The Tatmadaw, in a swift coup d'état, ousted the democratically elected government of National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi, in the early hours of February 1, 2021. Since then, the country has been embroiled in a bloody struggle between the usurpers and the civilians calling for the return of democracy. At least 1,300 protesters and civilians have been killed since then, as conflicts between the two parties continue, according to data from Assistance Association for Political Prisoners—a Thailand and Myanmar based human rights organisation—as cited by UK-based news outlet The Independent.

Countless children have also fallen victim to the atrocities committed by the Tatmadaw. A BBC report from April 2021, citing Save the Children, revealed that since February 2021, at least 43 children have been killed in Myanmar by the country's military. The Tatmadaw not only unleashed a bloody nightmare on the civilians but also ensured that they do not get access to medical care, as they attacked hospitals and medical staff tending to the injuries of the protestors.

In response to the attacks on the Karen community, the Ambassadors, Chargés d'Affaires, and Heads of Mission from Australia, Canada, the Delegation of the EU and European Union Member States with presence in Myanmar—Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden—as well as New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States, have signed a joint statement in which they have reiterated "condemnation of the serious human rights violations committed by the military regime across the country" and called on the "regime to immediately cease its indiscriminate attacks in Karen State and throughout the country, and to ensure the safety of all civilians in line with international law".

While the international community has condemned the misadventures of the Myanmar military after the coup, with the US and some other countries even imposing sanctions against the military generals involved, the measures are too little, too late.

Myanmar has a history of bloody military rule and suppression of civilians. Starting from the regime of General Ne Win to the dissolution of military rule in 2011, the country has witnessed numerous clashes between the military and civilians. During this time, the Rohingya, along with some other minority groups including Karen and Kachin, have been systemically cornered and persecuted by the country's military. The Rohingya especially had been forced to endure genocidal and ethnic cleansing attempts by the country's military. And the Tatmadaw continued these atrocities almost unchecked, with muted, templated responses from the international community.

Over the years, the Tatmadaw has wielded enormous power and in the process has amassed even more. The vicious crimes of the Tatmadaw now feels like a déjà vu, at times it even reminds one of Nietzsche's philosophy of the Eternal Return: "This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!"

The silence of the international community over the ethnic cleansing of the minority communities in Myanmar, and in the heydays, their bolstering trade tied with the Myanmar military held business conglomerates and holdings—some countries have also directly invested in the economic zones in Myanmar, built on lands once belonging to the now uprooted Rohingya—have empowered them with not only the acknowledgment but also economic resources to carry on with their nefarious activities.

In addition, the inaction of the majority during the persecution of the minority communities has also added to the Tatmadaw's power. The communal divide within Myanmar has created just the right environment for the military to continue to belligerently violate the basic human rights of its people.

The Tatmadaw has turned into a monster—a Wendigo to be specific—that is now feeding on its own people to quench its insatiable craving for human flesh. And now this monster cannot be controlled, neither with sanctions nor any other form of threats form external actors. The only way this monster can be contained is by creating a united internal front against it. It is only the people of Myanmar—majority and minority alike, irrespective of religion or ethnicity—united together that can put up a resistance against the crimes of this monster and put an end to its killing spree. That is the only way out for the civilians.

But the question remains, can the people of Myanmar rise above their communal rifts for the greater benefit of the nation, of the future generations? Only time will tell.


Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @tasneem_tayeb


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