Viewpoint by Jan Servaes
BRUSSELS (IDN) — During decades of internal conflict, the Myanmar military has been repeatedly accused of atrocities and war crimes. Except between 1948-1958 and 2010-2021, the army ruled Myanmar with absolute control for 73 years. Thanks to social media, the international community is now better informed about the atrocities perpetrated by this military.
Radio Free Asia (RFA Asia), for instance, recently published pictures and videos found on a soldier’s lost cell phone. The files include a video in which regular soldiers brag about how many people they have killed, and how they killed them during military operations in the Sagaing region. It provides proof of the atrocities committed by Myanmar’s army on an almost daily basis: “I had to cut of the head, bro”.
Earlier, military violence against the Rohingya minority in 2017 led to an estimated 750,000 people fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh, with stories of rape, murder and arson. The United States government formally determined in March 2022 that the Myanmar military committed the crime of genocide and crimes against humanity. Current Junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing—who also led the army during the Rohingya genocide—reiterated in March that the army “would destroy groups fighting to overthrow his rule to the end”.
The leaders of the 2021 military coup in Myanmar are trying to crush the resistance. But in 2022 the army is confronted with increased resistance. However, the structural factors that stand in the way of national unity and a collective moral force against military rule are still present. A simultaneous discussion to address the challenge of various regional ambitions in a comprehensive and strategic way and a detailed vision statement is necessary. Otherwise, the resistance will be exposed to structural vulnerabilities and weaknesses that have marked Myanmar’s tragic political trajectory over the past seven decades.
The Tatmadaw are “sit—kwe” (“dog soldiers”)
Traditionally, Myanmar’s military is referred to as “Tatmadaw”, which means “Royal Armed Forces” in Burmese language. This was the name used for Myanmar’s military in the pre—colonial era when Burma was ruled by a monarchy. “Royal” is understood as glorious in Burmese culture.
When covering and discussing the coup, many analysts used the phrase “the military of Myanmar, also known as the Tatmadaw.” But the use of the term Tatmadaw by many outside analysts is offensive and inaccurate. “The word is too good for Min Aung Hlaing’s army, which is just a group of gunmen who kill their own people. There is nothing ‘royal’ about the actions of Myanmar’s current military,” Desmond told The Irrawaddy.
The second disturbing term concerns the use of ‘Myanmar or Burmese army’. For those familiar with Myanmar or Burma, both words refer to the Bamar, the largest ethnic group in the country. However, in the period after 1988, the military regime deliberately promoted the word “Myanmar” as an umbrella term to represent all ethnic groups. The ethnic minorities, some of whom have their own armies, have never accepted this. The ethnic armies, who have fought against the military regime for decades, use the term “Burmese Army”, meaning the armed forces fighting for the Burmese or Bamar people.
Moreover, the military is its own interest group. The Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s powerful army, controls every aspect of its soldiers’ lives. The only voice that pretends the military represents the country is the military’s own propaganda machine. This force controlled the state for six decades and there is no denying that the military is largely manned by the Bamar people, thus promoting a Burmese Buddhist ideology. An anti-Muslim, Buddhism-first propaganda is instilled into soldiers of all ranks.
The use of the term Tatmadaw is becoming increasingly controversial. Some refer to the armed forces as “Sit-tat” or military, with no reference to the glory. Other people also refer to the military as “sit-kwe,” or “dog-soldiers,” referring to the military as dogs that obey only their masters. It’s derogatory, but Desmond thinks it’s the most appropriate term for them.
Contrasted with this is the reference to the People’s Defense Forces led by the Government of National Unity (NUG), which, according to the Burmese in the resistance, is an alternative army in the making to replace the old.
But in international news stories for the international public, who may have little knowledge of the background of Min Aung Hlaing’s ‘sit-kwe’ army, the expression Tatmadaw appears frequently. Using this preferred term for the military is part of the military regime’s propaganda to unwittingly accept them as official representatives of Myanmar.
Four inmates awaiting execution
Although the military has so far failed to completely destroy the resistance and keep the country under control, it is becoming increasingly bold in its terror and war crimes.
The military junta announced last week that it will go ahead with four executions, the first since 1988. The four individuals were tried and convicted in military tribunals and reportedly had no access to legal assistance during their rejected appeals, in violation of international human rights law.
Myanmar Junta uses airstrikes on civilians as ‘collective punishment’
To the spreading armed resistance movement in Sagaing and Magwe regions, Chin state and the Yaw Valley, Myanmar’s military responded with arson attacks reminiscent of previous bloody campaigns in other parts of the country. It fits completely into Myanmar’s military mindset, operational nature and total disregard for the laws of the land or the laws of war of Myanmar, writes David Scott Mathieson in The Irrawaddy of June 10, 2022.
Myanmar’s military has likely used airstrikes and artillery shelling as “collective punishment” against civilians resisting the coup, Amnesty International said on May 31, 2022. More than 30 burned bodies, including those of women and children, were discovered on Christmas Eve 2021 on a highway in Kayak state after a massacre blamed on junta forces. The charity Save the Children later said two of its employees were among the dead.
Data for Myanmar estimates that from February 1, 2021 to the end of May 2022, the military destroyed a total of 18,886 buildings in 435 locations. By far the highest number (13,840) was in the Sagaing region, 3,055 in Magwe and 1,316 in Chin State. It concerns religious buildings and schools, as well as houses where civilians lived.
Between December and March this year, the military stepped up its attack in the states of Kayah and Kayin along the Thai border, with troops carrying out extrajudicial killings and looting and burning villages, Amnesty said. The attacks constituted “a new wave of war crimes and probable crimes against humanity” because “almost all documented [air]strikes appear to have targeted only civilians”.
Investigators also documented cases where soldiers shot civilians who were fleeing, including an eyewitness who said troops shot dead six people trying to cross a river into Thailand. Amnesty said the military’s operations could be seen as “the signature policy of collective punishment of civilian communities seen as supporting an armed group or, in the aftermath of the coup, the wider protest movement”.
Myanmar’s military is rampaging through places of civilian resistance, hunting down the locally established People’s Defence Forces. Their primary choice to harass the civilian population, to deter support for the armed resistance, is to burn down villages, a medieval practice that runs counter to the international community’s drive to “normalize” the crisis in Myanmar. Just in May, widespread and clearly coordinated arson attacks hit the townships of Kale, Khin-U, Mingin, Yinmabin and Kantbalu in Sagaing, most of them multiple times with repeated attacks. In many cases, attacks are preceded by an internet outage, sometimes followed by air strikes. But more often, artillery is used to start and then feed fires, and junta troops even march across the river into Thailand to set fire to settlements on the banks.
Under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), the destruction of civilian property can only be justified on the basis of ‘military necessity’. But setting houses on fire is what the IHL calls ‘arbitrary destruction’ and is a war crime. And that happens every day, at multiple locations. The number of houses burned down in Thantlang, Chin State, is particularly shocking. In August 2021, military commanders warned city elders that they would raze the city to deter local armed resistance. Anti—junta groups estimate that security forces have returned more than 26 times to set fires. More than 1,000 buildings and 19 churches have been destroyed. Sometimes randomly, sometimes aimed directly at Chin resistance leaders.
According to recent figures from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and the US Institute of Peace (UCIP), drug seizures in the region have increased significantly, with new signs of increasing drug trafficking through Laos and production in Cambodia. These and related activities along Thailand’s borders, including some of the world’s major routes for trafficking drugs, people, wildlife and miscellaneous goods, have remained operative during the COVID19 pandemic. Many of these operations are affiliated with, or led by, transnational crime syndicates that have quietly expanded their operations over the past decade near Thai border areas, often in conjunction with Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups, local crime gangs and militias, corrupt police, and political and influential figures. While the intensification of the civil war in Myanmar is a primary concern for illegal businesses, shady activities like gambling are also plaguing the border regions of Laos and Cambodia.
Therefore, Thai authorities report a surge in human trafficking in terms of migrant guest workers, and there has been a wave of human trafficking ending up in scam centres, online gambling operations, or as sex workers in casinos and nightclubs across the border.
Displaced persons permanently on the run
Not surprisingly, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recently reported that the number of Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) in Myanmar has passed one million, with 700,000 displaced since the coup. The Anyar region [central Myanmar] is the heart of Bamar and has remained largely peaceful. But there too, violent repression is increasing.
According to AARP documentation, up to June 15, 2022, some 1,954 people were killed or murdered by the junta. The actual number of fatalities is probably much higher. Tom Andrew, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, told the Democratic Voice of Burma on June 14, 2022 that 142 minors have been killed, more than 1,400 arrested and more than 250,000 displaced since the coup in Myanmar. At least 61 of these minors are children under the age of three. More than half a million child refugees have fled to neighbouring countries. In addition, the special rapporteur said he had seen evidence that Tatmadaw soldiers had deliberately targeted children.
More than 100,000 people in Kachin and Shan have been displaced for more than a decade. They want to stay close to their home but are unable to return due to ongoing instability and dispersed landmines that could make the area uninhabitable for years to come.
Also more than 100,000 Rohingya have been trapped for a decade in squalid camps on the outskirts of the Rakhine capital Sittwe, just a few miles from their former homes in the city. Shelters often cannot be maintained due to a lack of funds or governments unwilling to support long—term displacement and look for ‘sustainable solutions’ that are not forthcoming. Consider, too, the many IDPs who have fled home in despair for low-paid manual labor in the north, the deadly jade mines of Hpakant with their constant threat of landslides, or the ‘factory hellholes‘ of Hlaing Thayar and Shwepyithar.
On top of that, floods, rising temperatures, and lack of investment or development are all drivers and conflicts that drive people away from where they want to live.
In addition, Myanmar is also facing widespread forced evictions across the country, in rural areas, urban slums and working-class areas as the military-linked capital seeks prime real estate without fair compensation. In the past, it even involved the forced evacuation of cemeteries. Even the dead are not left to rest in peace in Myanmar.
Also consider a combination of poverty and conflict, repression and despair that led millions of people to leave Myanmar for many decades. An estimated four million are often illegal guest workers in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the Middle East. In fields, on fishing boats and in factories, hospitals and shopping malls, they are often harassed by predatory police, corrupt traffickers and sadistic criminal opportunists, who use underground banking systems to transfer monthly wages to relatives far from home whom they do not see for many years, while the children are raised by grandparents.
Of course, there is also the “elite” in exile: people who make a living from political activities, work in the media, or ‘development jobs’. They can travel with official passports, credit cards, and some security. But the feeling of disruption, the desire to return home, is no less with them. The sense of distance and the guilt of thinking about friends left behind, or just names of dissidents, poets, and union leaders who are in Insein prison or have disappeared in the armed struggle. The loss of ‘home’ hits many people hard, regardless of differences in place and privileges.
Australian journalist Jessica Mudditt, who worked for the Myanmar Times, described what was happening around her in an honest, detailed and well—structured story. She was “enchanted” and at the same time challenged by a country undergoing rapid changes. Mudditt wrote that “UN and international NGO workers, diplomats and the private sector were all complicit in downplaying past war crimes and crimes against humanity and finding ways to ‘contextualize’ the crimes of the past decade. Perhaps it was the privileged spaces they created for themselves, at work and at play, that separated them from the reality of the land.”
A ‘solution’ is not in sight
Derek Chollet, the US adviser to the State Department, is back in the region on a tour of Southeast Asia. Speaking to Reuters in Bangkok on June 10, 2022, he made bold statements: “It’s hard to see these days how they (the military) can realistically think they can win”. Myanmar’s junta is unlikely to be able to defeat the ‘rebels’, “they are losing ground, and their army is suffering serious losses.”
As the military government becomes isolated not only internationally but also at home, it must end the struggle and return to democracy, Chollet said. So much for wishful thinking! [IDN-InDepthNews – 26 June 2022]
* Jan Servaes was UNESCO—Chair in Communication for Sustainable Social Change at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He taught ‘international communication’ in Australia, Belgium, China, Hong Kong, the US, Netherlands and Thailand, in addition to short—term projects at about 120 universities in 55 countries. He is the editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change https://link.springer.com/referencework/10.1007/978—981—10—7035—8
Photo credit: RFA Asia
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