Myanmar is burning: with rage, with demonstrations, with the fierce determination of the civilians to end the newly imposed military rule. From peaceful demonstrations the protests have taken a bloody turn, with pro-democracy protesters refusing to leave the streets and the military using live ammunition to disperse them. On February 28, at least 18 people were killed in what has come to be known as the bloodiest day of the protests. And just yesterday, March 3, at least nine people were killed as security forces fired on protesters.
The military crackdown on the protesters has been swift and brutal. The violence has grown so intense that Myanmar has been described as a "battlefield" by Charles Maung Bo, the first Catholic cardinal of the country. But the protesters have not backed down. From Yangon to Naypyidaw, Myanmar's new capital—where military facilities are said to "form something of a ring around the civilian buildings, which are closer to the centre, effectively reducing the power and strength of popular uprisings in the capital", as reported by The Interpreter—the anti-military protests have spread like wildfire across the length and breadth of the highly conservative country.
Using violence, however, is not a new tendency for Myanmar military. If anything, the Tatmadaw, as the military is commonly known as, has a legacy of brutality and bloodshed. For decades, the Tatmadaw has suppressed its own people with violent means and unleashed unspeakable horrors on the minority communities.
In 1988, when the civilians rose up against the then military regime, the latter resorted to violent means to quash the uprising. The ruthlessness of their actions in 1988 had left everyone speechless. They not only killed the protesters but also the healthcare professionals who were treating the wounded at the Rangoon Hospital. That is why it comes as no surprise that the military is now detaining emergency medical assistants attending to the injured, as reported by multiple media outlets.
While Myanmar military's suppression of its own people has been shameful, its treatment of the minorities is a tale of continued savagery and persecution. They butchered men and boys, raped women and girls, and left orphaned, displaced infants for dead. The Rohingya women and girls were "tied by their hair and hands to trees and gang-raped, for no other reason than being Rohingya Muslims", as recounted in a story published by The Guardian.
In an interview with the Time magazine in March 2019, prominent lawyer and activist Razia Sultana mentioned a 14-year-old girl who had been raped by more than 30 soldiers. "The army is cutting women's breasts off, gouging out their eyes. This is not just rape. This is a weapon to punish the community," she added. Since August 25, 2017, it is estimated that more than 24,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed by the Myanmar military, according to the Ontario International Development Agency. More than 730,000 Rohingya individuals had to flee to Bangladesh for shelter from the mass slaughter.
The ethnic cleansing of the minority took place under the very nose of a regime that was elected by the people. The government was led by Aung Sung Suu Kyi, a leader who refused to utter the word "Rohingya", even in her 30-minute speech during the hearing of a case against the military's actions at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). An Al Jazeera report detailed, "she failed to use one word in the 3,379-word speech to describe the minority, an ethnic group that has been persecuted for years in Myanmar and denied citizenship rights—Rohingya… She only used the word Rohingya when referring to ARSA [Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army]."
"Critics said her refusal to use the word is part of Myanmar's attempt [to] strip the minority of their identity and rights," the report added.
For decades, the Myanmar military has been proactively engaged in ethnic cleansing operations, but the common people did not rise up against those injustices. With regard to the military brutality against the minorities, The Atlantic magazine quoted Myanmar activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi as saying, "For so long people were already aware of all these things, but they didn't stand up." It is only when the civilians have been faced with an existential dilemma of their own that they have decided that it is time to protest.
The protesters are now demonstrating in front of the UN office in Yangon, calling on the international body to come to their aid against this unwanted and undesirable military rule—the same organisation that the people of Myanmar had criticised for many years for its concerns about the treatment of the Rohingya. Even during the Suu Kyi reign, the UN and its staff were accused of aiding "terrorists", and had been barred from entering Myanmar.
The credibility of the UN had been questioned even a few months ago by the very people who are now calling on it for rescue from this bloody mess.
The transformation of the beastly behemoth that the Myanmar military has morphed into has not happened overnight. The reckless confidence that the military is now so assuredly brandishing is the result of years of inaction of the people and political leaders in raising their voices against the former's misdeeds. Even when Suu Kyi was in power, it was a sort of a power-sharing arrangement where the appeasement of the military had been a key priority.
The military had been allowed to consolidate its muscle unchecked. They had been allowed to carry out ethnic cleansing of minorities with impunity, and to amass fortune through two giant conglomerates. The result: a powerful, all-consuming beast that has risen up once again, this time against the very masses and its own motherland.
Most of the Myanmar military generals do not have assets outside the country, most have not travelled abroad ever, and a lot of them do not even speak foreign languages. Therefore, foreign sanctions on military officers would not do much to tame the junta. In fact, if anything, economic sanctions will only aggravate the suffering of the common people who are still reeling from the economic aftershocks of the pandemic.
"And over the past year, Covid-19 has led to a near-collapse of the economy, with those making less than USD 1.90 a day soaring from 16 percent to 63 percent of the population between January and October 2020," said Thant Myint-U, a former member of Myanmar's National Economic and Social Advisory Council, historian and author of The Hidden History of Burma, in an interview with Foreign Policy.
It seems the only way out of this coup will be through the united popular protests. The people of Myanmar need to rise above their religious and ethnic differences and come together to fight against this common enemy of democracy. The military—empowered by years of dominance—can only be moved by internal pressure. With the ongoing civil disobedience movement hampering trade, the Myanmar military's economic arm has already been shaken. If the people can continue to create pressure on the military through this civil disobedience movement, it will be difficult for it to hold onto power for long.
The ethnic minorities are not the enemy of Myanmar—they are part of the country. And they can play a role in the fight against the misadventures of the military. If the majority population can overcome their decades-old hatred and prejudice against the minorities and join hands with the latter, it will send a clear and strong message to military: that the entirety of Myanmar has united against them and it will no longer be allowed to suppress them.
A united internal front against the military is the only way out for the people of Myanmar, and they must not let this opportunity pass to build a truly inclusive and democratic nation.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem