Horror stories are arriving from Myanmar, in our own neighbourhood, but, obviously, much of mainstream India and its mainline media care two hoots for these. The world, and the West, it seems, does not care a damn either.
Well, until it becomes an endless spiral of a bloody civil war, a war which will not be easy to roll back, is it?
Or, a protracted guerilla war in the rough, hilly border terrain with ethnic minority rebels fighting an endless armed struggle against the military, and the ‘democratic’, pro-mainland regime earlier, led by the dominant community of Bamars. The democratic government was toppled on February 1 by the Military Junta led by General Aung Hlang!
So, will this coup be accompanied by the organised killings of citizens and young protesters by the military apparatus, the torture and imprisonment of innocents, a total clampdown in the prevailing realm of fear and condemnation, a virtual suspension of all human and fundamental rights, the complete decimation of the idea of democracy, and a consistent, scattered rebellion in the ethnic countryside, along with urban guerilla war in the big cities and towns as in Yangon and Mandalay, among the epicenters of the peaceful protests?
Amidst all this mayhem and madness, a third wave of the mass killer pandemic stalks Myanmar and its neighbourhood, especially India. So look at the sad mirror of Myanmar. It’s full of predictable possibilities, and they are loaded with pessimism and despair. And, of course, the infinite spiral of resistance – peaceful and armed!
In the first instance, the protests after the coup began at the hospitals where brave doctors, nurses and health workers refused to work for the Junta in the midst of a pandemic! They openly assembled inside and outside hospitals and shouted slogans, got themselves photographed by the international and local media, and sought immediate restoration of democracy under ‘State Counsellor’ Aung Saan Suu Kyi, the supreme and most popular leader in Myanmar.
So what are the new dictators doing with the doctors and health workers during the pandemic which is spreading like hell fire in the country?
Unbelievable, but yes! A crackdown on doctors and health workers, among others, is presently on in Myanmar.
They are picking them up and packing them off to prison –medical and health service professionals. They are raiding underground clinics where doctors have set-up make-shift and secret Covid care centres for citizens. They have put doctors and nurses under surveillance even while the deadly virus is spreading post-second surge across the landscape, especially in the conflict zones of pitched battles between guerillas, civilians and army. Besides, the entire health industry under the military regime, including state health services, amidst a raging conflict where 100,000 people have reportedly been displaced according to UN figures, is reportedly on the verge of collapse.
The Guardian reports that a former head of the country’s Covid vaccination campaign, Dr Htar Htar Lin, has been arrested; he faces several charges, including ‘high treason’ — “for working with pro-democracy politicians. Hundreds of medics are wanted for incitement”.
An alarmed Joy Singhal, Myanmar head of delegation at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told The Guardian: “It’s confirming our worries that the virus is spreading fast now, that the more contagious and dangerous variants are being identified in various parts of the country… Hospitals and the whole health system remain fractured and we need to urgently step up treatment, testing and prevention measures to avert a repeat of the tragedy experienced in other parts of South Asia.”
Hence, to be precise: are the powerful nations of the world, especially the Western democracies, and the United Nations and the countries of South Asia, waiting for a mass pandemic tragedy unfolding in this nation, accompanied by a protracted and bloody battle across the rapidly mushrooming armed conflict zones in the underground. Do they at all care for this beautiful and rugged country, sharing borders with Thailand, India, Bangladesh and China? So, if Myanmar is currently simmering in suffering, despair and unrest, does it matter for its neighbours and the rest of the world?
Reportedly, hundreds of youngsters in cities and towns, among others, are joining the underground rebels in the border states of ethnic minorities and elsewhere, and getting trained as armed guerillas. It is well known that most ethnic rebels are fighting a long armed struggle with the Myanmar regime, whatever be its nature, and they are not on the same page. It is also well-known that China tacitly backs many of them, even while China backs the Tatmadaw, the Junta, at its new sanitized, sinister and clinical capital, Nay Pyi Taw.
The Guardian reports (June 1, 2021): “The people of Myanmar have been left with no other choice. They just have no other option left,” said Dr Sasa, spokesperson for Myanmar’s national unity government (NUG), which was set up by pro-democracy politicians. The constant threat of military raids, arrests, torture and killings have pushed communities to take up arms, he said. “It is just the beginning. The situation will become out of control. Even if it is one man in a village, they will not just bow in front of these murderers. It is the whole country on the road to civil war,” Sasa said.
The London newspaper reports that in the last week of May, 2021, “tens of thousands of people have been displaced in eastern Kayah state by intense fighting between the military, the newly formed Karenni People’s Defence Force and the Karenni Army, an established ethnic armed group… The military used helicopters to bomb and fire at civilian fighters, the Karenni People’s Defence Force told local media… At least 58 defence forces have formed across the country, of which 12 are active, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (Acled), an NGO. These groups are formed at a local level and are not necessarily officially linked to the NUG.”
Scattered urban and civilian guerilla networks have been formed across Myanmar, especially in the big cities like Yangon. They are attacking ‘army informers and sympathizers’, including wedding parties – yes, violent, fatal attacks designed to kill and send a message across the monolithic military establishment and its support base among the civilians.
More than 850 people have been reportedly killed by the army – most of them peaceful protesters and dissenters, mostly youngsters. The army raids in the nights, burns property, assaults them, picks up people, and it cracks down in the day time on the barricades and elsewhere. It’s virtually impossible to protest peacefully. It’s like what they are doing in Hongkong – the Chinese government. Surely, the Junta has a ready-made role model across the border, and what dissenters call – a full-fledged mentor in Beijing.
Hundreds have been packed off to jail, including journalists, including at least two American journalists working in Myanmar. At least 20 civilians, mostly villages, were reportedly killed by the army in the river delta region of Ayeyarwady, not far from Yangon, in a village called Hlayswe.
Local media outlets and citizens have testified to the army unleashed brutality in the name of searching for weapons. Suprisingly, the villages fought one of the well-equipped armies in the world with crossbows and catapults, in what seemed a striking resemblance to clashes in the occupied zones of Palestine, or, old Vietnam War stories. The clashes began when the army routinely entered the area, hauled up the locals; beat them black and blue, while claiming to be searching for arms, according to reports.
Predictably, India, led by a Right-wing government in Delhi which has decisively seen a paradigm shift in its post-Independence foreign policy (for instance, on Palestine and Israel), decided to abstain at the United Nations on a resolution on Myanmar. While 119 countries voted in favour of a resolution which sought to stop arms flow to the military regime in Myanmar while blocking any means of legitimacy being given to it, India chose to abstain along with 36 countries led by China and Russia, saying the resolution was hasty and tabled without adequate consultations with neighbours and regional countries.
Amidst the mass deaths and infinite distress of the pandemic, and its own dismal share of an abysmal human rights record and media scenario, post-coup Myanmar, under a brutish military clampdown, is obviously not important in India. Besides, villagers running away from the crackdown, hungry and terrorised, looking for temporary food and shelter in the border areas of India in the North-east, were officially denied any hospitality – even though the locals on either side share a long history of bonding, material transactions and human relationships across the often porous border.
Indeed, Myanmar and its sorrows are not exactly news in most parts of the world, including in the West, not even in America which reportedly has two of its citizens, both journalists, in prison, among the 80 plus journalists who are in jail, many of them in unknown locations. American threats of sanctions etc have not worked on the generals, who, in a dark irony, take great offence to be branded as a ‘Junta’ by journalists, and hate the armed toppling of a legitimate and democratic government being called a ‘coup’.
The crackdown started soon after the coup in February, 2021. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) then reported that security forces raided local media outlet Myanmar Now’s headquarters, seizing computers and part of the newsroom’s data server, among other equipment. Myanmar Now was one of the leading media outfits which covered the protests and reported on the military; in anticipation of the crackdown they had evacuated their offices on January 28, 2021. They were the first media publication to be targeted.
The IFJ reported that on March 8, five top media outlets had their licenses cancelled. They were reporting about the coup extensively. These major media outfits are: DVB, Khit Thit Media, Myanmar Now and 7DayNews. “They are “no longer allowed to broadcast or write or give information by using any kind of media platform or using any media technology,” the military declared.
During the peaceful protests soon after the 1 February coup, journalists were routinely attacked and chased by the security forces on the streets as they covered the peaceful protests. Many of them camouflaged themselves, while others refused to declare themselves as ‘Press’. There were routine pictures of camerapersons being chased by what are called the “armed thugs” of the security forces.
There are reports that many brave journalists are refusing to succumb and operating clandestinely, risking their own lives and the lives of their friends and families who give them shelter. Journalists are now routinely operating with camouflaged identities, shifting locations, working underground and solitary, with no organizational support or office, travelling long distances to save their body and soul, disguising themselves, and not connecting with their colleagues and homes/families for days.
Many families of journalists too seem to have gone underground –even as military raids continue. Some multi-media journalists are reportedly dismantling their equipment and hiding them from the security checks, before assembling them yet again. Talking to international media, journalists are saying that it is perhaps one of the most difficult and dangerous times of their lives in terms of professional work from the ground. Locals and citizens have taken over as journalists in many places, even while internet is banned, and the social media is under surveillance.
The Guardian (June 7, 2021) reported about Cherry Htike, 39, executive editor of Tachileik news agency, based in Shan state. She is on the run. Her media outfit is banned by the Junta. “Her team reports daily on the crackdowns, the bombings and other vital local information, but they pay a heavy price. Soldiers stalk them, hoping to catch a colleague off guard. They succeeded on 13 May when a photojournalist was detained after returning from a safe house to his own home.”
“I worry for the safety of my team and myself every second,” she said. “Now uncertainty is a part of our life.”
In March, after the coup, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), Indonesia, and Malaysia’s Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geram) issued a joint statement asking for international action to end the violence and arrests of journalists in Myanmar. They asked the military regime to immediately release the detained journalists. The military did not move one inch. Nor it seems the international community. When it came to the freedom of speech, expression and dissent, including the freedom of the journalists to report the truth from the ground, strong global action against the Junta seems to be missing.
The joint statement said, “We call upon the Indonesian and Malaysian government to work together with Asean countries in order to support the United Nations to send its investigation team to Myanmar.”
The IFJ said: “By limiting journalists’ information and ability to report, the true extent of the atrocities committed against journalists and the public remains unknown. The IFJ condemns the renewed attack on journalists and supports the call for the United Nations to send an investigative team to Myanmar to uncover and report on the conditions.”
Indeed, the case of two Reuters journalists, who were jailed in December 2017, is a tragic reminder from the past; their arrests happened under the democratic regime led by Aung Saang Suu Kyi! They were packed off to jail, despite international outrage, and branded as ‘traitors’ by the Myanmarese people who backed the genocide of the Rohingyas at the Rakhine state. They were condemned for documenting meticulously the murder of 10 Rohingya boys and men by Buddhist monks and the army.
Aung Saan Suu Kyi, a winner of the Noble Peace Prize who was under house arrest for many years, is yet again in jail and is facing, what is, undoubtedly, a kangaroo court. It’s yet another ironical twist of history that she has been put behind bars and is being hounded as a public spectacle by the same military general whom she backed after the organised massacre of the Rohingyas in Rakhine state. General Aung Hlaing, who is leading the coup now, was the man who led the genocide and mass rapes of women, which compelled 700,000 Rohingyas into Bangladesh.
Finally, Aung Saan Suu Kyi, who was captured and imprisoned in an unknown location on the day of the coup, February 1, 2021, and who practically disappeared from public view, was recently seen in a trial, ostensibly on corruption charges. While most media organizations have been shut, hounded or banned, the Junta’s propaganda mouthpiece, Global New Light of Myanmar, reported that the charges involved land misuse for the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, a philanthropic organisation headed by Suu Kyi. It is alleged that she was involved in the illegal activity of accepting $600,000 in cash and 11 kg of gold from a former chief minister of the Yangon region. She can get up to 15 years in prison, even while her lawyer called the charges, “absurd”, Reuters reported.
Soon after the coup, she was charged with an equally absurd allegation: for possessing Walkie Talkies! This too was charged under a ridiculous law called the Export and Import Law.
Indeed, Myanmar, earlier Burma, has had a chequered democracy, despite its rich cultural and social history, the amalgamation of various cultures and communities in its society, including vast number of Indians and Bengalis in Rangoon, and its historical interactions and linkages with other nations, including India. The famous old song from Bombay cinema is still extremely popular among old-timers. The song follows a long distance ‘trunk call’ where a male voice calls out from the far away: Hello.. Main Rangoon se bol rahan hoon… The song follows … Mere piya gaye Rangoon, wahan se kiya hain telephoon… tumhari yaad satati hai…(Patanga, 1949, Shamshad Begum and C Ramchandra).
Surely, The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh is also a rich narrative of the’ Burma’ of the past, and its intrinsic linkages with India. Indeed, during the earlier phase of military rule in the 1980s and 1990s, several Burmese rebels and refugees took shelter in India, including at the house of George Fernandes. Burmese students then fleeing the oppressive regime in Rangoon also took shelter in university campuses like JNU in 1989 and after; they were whole-heartedly welcomed by the JNU Students’ Union of that time, and the wider students community.
Aung Saan Suu Kyi is the youngest daughter of Aung San, a student leader, editor, founder of the armed forces in Burma, freedom fighter and leader of the armed struggle, founder of the Communist Party of Burma and the Socialist Party of Burma, the first premier who led the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League and formed the “post-independence’ government after a deal with the British. He led the ‘independent’ nation for a brief stint at the head of an anti-fascist alliance, but was soon assassinated along with his entire cabinet, and his brother, by his political rivals. He is still revered as the Father of the Nation and is highly respected in Myanmar.
The AFPFL led a fledgling democracy, led by U Nu, ally of Aung San, and aligned with China and the communists. Significantly, under Aung San, most ethnic minority groups like the Chin, Kachin and Shan, barring the Karen and section of the communists and army, joined the government wholeheartedly. Since then, this legacy has been largely troubled; most ethnic minority communities in the border states are totally or partially alienated with the mainland regime led by the Bamar majority community, including the ‘democratic government’ led by Aung Saan Suu Kyi.
The next coup was led by Ne Win, the second-in-command of Aung San. The army thereby ruled Burma for 50 years since 1962 until a semblance of democratic reforms were introduced very late in 2011. It was a quasi-democracy with Aung San Suu Kyi at the helm, but it created its own flip side of reforms, education, free market and social mobility, globalisation, internet freedom, free media and social media, international interactions, and a huge young generation which did not carry the suffocating baggage of being ruled by the military.
Earlier, the ‘8888 uprising’ began on 08.08.1988; it was led by students of ‘Rangoon’ with the huge participation of citizens, especially Buddhist monks. It was crushed. In 1990, her National League for Democracy won an overwhelming victory in the elections. She was not allowed to assume power by the military despite this internationally sanctioned victory with a majority of Burmese people voting for her party, almost 81 per cent. She remained under arrest for 21 long years, house arrest for 15 of these years, received the Noble Prize for Peace, became an international celebrity of peace and democracy, and a darling of the West.
Yet again, in 2020-2021, her election victory, overwhelming and reducing the military-backed party into a miserable minority, triggered yet another coup. She was reportedly not in good terms with General Aung Hlaing in recent times. The general appears to be having other things in his mind.
The February 1 coup led to mass protests, mostly peaceful, especially in Yangon and Mandalay. Initially, there was no violent reaction by the army at the barricades or the streets. At some places the cops allowed the students to proceed, or even showed solidarity gestures. The students were backed by citizens across Myanmar. The cities like Yangon have always been the epicenter of mass protests led by students and Buddhist monks. They have also witnessed bloody clampdowns as in 1988, and in 2007. The cities yet again turned into fortresses and with simmering unrest stalking the streets.
Post-coup, when an eerie silence descended over the streets of the cities, the people soon organised a unique protest – responding to the last-minute call by their imprisoned leader, Aung Saan Suu Kyi. They banged on cups, saucers, frying pans, and utensils, inside their homes, and this went on for hours, turning into a huge orchestra of domesticated protest, along with the symphony of car horns, bells, and other sounds. Myanmar had created another wave of revolution, with a new protest music.
Predictably, army raids started happening soon after in the night and people were hauled up from their homes, even as burning and looting was reported – by the army. This was reported by locals in the social media, as and when internet was allowed.
Significantly, the peaceful protests, which arrived in waves and spread across the cities and towns and rural areas, was marked by the three-finger ‘salute’. This was inspired from the ‘Hunger Games’ by Suzanne Collins; the salute is a sign to express solidarity, friendship, respect, thank you, and admiration – soon, clearly, it became a symbol of defiance and resistance against the military dictatorship.
General Hlaing, leading the ‘Tatmadaw’, the army, at the sanitised army fortress of Nay Pyi, is himself under the scanner for his reported links with arms and business deals, and the business interests of the army. Apparently the most popular beer in Myanmar is an army product: Myanmar Beer produced by the Myanmar Brewery. People have started boycotting army products, including this particular beer.
The general has had political ambitions, and his retirement is due one month later, in July 2021. He leads the army’s political front, Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which lost the recent polls, despite huge backing by the army. Ironically, 25 per cent seats are reserved for the army in Parliament — without elections. Besides, the important ministries of defence and interior are controlled by it.
The Constitution has been drafted by the army – and all civilian governments are hemmed in by the army through tacit and overt means In other words, it has always been a ‘flawed democracy’ in Myanmar, even under Aung Saan Suu Kyi, with the army as a perennial and sinister shadow lurking in the backdrop.
The irony is that the new generation of the young (and the old) is refusing to accept the military regime anymore in their post-modern reality. They have tasted the fruits of this ‘flawed democracy’, and they have enjoyed it thoroughly. They want more democracy, more choices, and more freedom. They want to live as free citizens of a free country. They want enlightenment and they want to celebrate dissent. The Junta, led by old, discredited and scheming generals, with corrupt relatives and networks, is a diabolical and fossilised monster of the past. The new generation hate it with the eclectic, rainbow aspirations of the young, and they don’t want it in their existential, social and political lives anymore. They want a new Myanmar with a new dream.
That is why they are refusing to admit defeat. That is why young journalists are staking their lives to report from the underground, doctors are setting up underground clinics, urban guerillas have emerged in cities and towns, and youngsters are moving into border areas to join armed guerilla armies, even while all avenues of peaceful protests seem to have been shut, people have been shot dead on the streets, including scores of students, and hundreds are rotting in jail.
That is why the window, presently shut out to Myanmar should be reopened. The world must receive this epical narrative with an open mind. Myanmar is weaving many threads of multiple narratives of rebellion, resilience and liberation, amidst a brutal crackdown, against all odds. These stories must be told, re-told, written in text, and captured on camera. Especially in India, Myanmar’s neighbour, and friend, for decades. And, surely, also, all over the world.
(The author, a senior journalist has previously covered Myanmar after the coup).