Myanmar's Unending Civil War
Attacks and counter-attacks, retaliatory attacks by, underground guerillas continues 24x7 in Myanmar
If you look at the student's Facebook page, it appears that the person is yet another happy-go-lucky youngster out to enjoy life: happy birthdays, get-togethers, excursions in the hills, family gatherings, ice creams and fast food. This is an intelligent and successful 'deception'.
This is because when one is able to reach out to the student, or other youngsters, in obscure towns in the distant border states of Myanmar, under total military clampdown, and partial internet ban, with mass fear stalking the land, one realises that these youngsters are hidden supporters of the mass movement being waged against the military junta. And that this student is one among the majority who want democracy back, at all costs.
This is because after the tyranny and entrenched corruption of prolonged army rule since after the British left, in recent years, under 'State Counsellor' Aung San Suu Kyi, an entire generation of the young (and old) in Myanmar, across all ethnic communities, has tasted and enjoyed the fruits of freedom and democracy, including media freedom, and the seductions of neo-liberalism and globalisation. Hence, they hate the junta and this suffocating return to an oppressive past.
This mass struggle, earlier peaceful and on the streets across the country, has now gone 'underground'. It has spread across the by-lanes of the cities and small towns, and in the remote interiors. It has gone beyond the inaccessible mountain and forest villages, and in the conflict-ridden border terrain where multiple ethnic groups are fighting a guerilla war for their 'fundamental rights and justice' for a long time now – an armed struggle against a ruthless army dictatorship. Indeed, contemporary Myanmar, totally ignored in the Indian media, is in a state of violent civil war, and it is not ending anytime soon.
In an interview with The Citizen, a student, located somewhere in one of the border states of Myanmar, said, "In Myitkyina, Kachin state, there are lots of war refugees from the Kayah state and Sagaing division. They have been brutalised and tortured. They have run for their lives. Across Myanmar, going out of town or coming back, is dangerous, everything is checked, even phones.
"This is happening in almost all the cities and highways. Lots of war refugees from Kayah State are in Taunggyi, languishing in the camps or taking shelter with host communities. The war between the military and the People's Defense Force (PDF), the armed division of the opposition National Unity Government (NUG), is relentless. No one is safe. There are lots of dead."
She continued, "when the Junta took over in 2021 in a bloody coup and Aung Saan Suu Kyi and her MPs, and several journalists and doctors, etc, were jailed. With the internet banned and even peaceful protests attacked brutally, people had nothing. They were helpless.
"Now we have the PDF who are fighting the military. The PDF needs financial, material, medical and other forms of help, but whoever supports them, and who have been identified, have been detained and severely punished. Some have disappeared. Some have been killed, others had their bank accounts frozen. The soldiers shoot whoever they suspect of being aligned with the PDF in any manner, even remotely; they kill those who try to help the PDF."
The student told this reporter that the September 16 attack in the Let Yet Kone village in the northwestern Sagaing region on a school which left a dozen children dead is the most disturbing news in Myanmar. The United Nations' investigators later claimed that military commanders who ordered the attack should be tried for 'war crimes'.
There have been reports that the school was located in a monastery, and it came under attack for many hours, first, from helicopters firing rockets and machine guns, followed by a full-fledged infantry attack. The United Nations' Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) said in a statement that the September attack "may be considered a war crime with commanders criminally liable".
The IIMM, under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council, has been collecting evidence of similar crimes under the army rule. It said it was working to "assess criminal responsibility". "Armed attacks that target civilians are prohibited by international laws of war and can be punished as war crimes or crimes against humanity," it said.
The AFP reported that school teachers stated that some children were playing outside while others were in the classroom when two helicopter gunships suddenly arrived and opened fire with heavy weapons. Shocked and terrified, they gave a graphic description of the killings, while watching a little child screaming in pain, wounded badly, the child was "begging to die".
In response, the Junta stated that they had dispatched the army on helicopters to the village after getting a 'tip-off' that guerillas from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an ethnic, armed, rebel group, fighting a protracted battle for a separate state for decades, and a local 'anti-coup militia' were moving weapons in the area. The army said that the guerillas use civilians as human shields, and that it has seized explosives and mines from the village.
This is merely one example of the on-going skirmishes, attacks and counter-attacks, killings by the army, retaliatory attacks by scattered, underground guerillas aligned with the PDF and other ethnic armed groups, continues 24x7 in Myanmar. 'Myanmar Witness', a group investigating on the ground has claimed to find dead and burnt bodies of citizens in many areas.
With no international media or human rights group allowed inside the country, the actual situation remains hidden in a twilight zone. However, monitoring groups and journalists are constantly reporting about gross human rights violations, killings, and burning of villages, especially in 'resistance areas'.
Just after the coup, when the peaceful protests were still on, the people chose a unique way to protest. They would bang utensils inside their homes, near their windows and on their balconies, and this would spread from house to house, across the neighbourhood, including in Yangon, earlier called Rangoon, the former capital of what was Burma.
Speaking to this reporter at that time, another student had sent a message much after midnight: "At the moment, our nights are not safe anymore. The military has released the prisoners. And tomorrow will be a big day, a lot of people will be on the streets to protest. That is why the army and its mercenaries are taking action to scare the civilians by burning the houses at night.
"I can hear the banging of pots which is the signal of urgent help needed. And I can't sleep because I am constantly worried. The released prisoners, who have a bad criminal record, will be around our house anytime. The civilians protest in the day. The military performs arson attacks at night."
Said journalist Satya Sivaraman, who was based in Chiang Mai in Thailand for several years and has reported from the Thai-Myanmar border, "militarisation has stymied the development of multiple power centers that are essential for establishing a democratic system. Culturally, the Bamar elites, who dominate and control military, economic and political power, are authoritarian and eternally trying to run their country like monarchs and warlords.
This has resulted in the clash with the nascent, literate and educated middle-classes and youth who resent being forced to salute uneducated military leaders. The economy also suffers due to the ignorance and corruption of the military rulers, which, in turn, results in high unemployment among the educated youth."
For reasons still not clear, the United States, the West and most other countries, including India, have left this little country bordering India, Thailand and China, to its cruel fate. Aung Saan Suu Kyi (and her party and civil society members) have been imprisoned in an unknown location, charged with bizarre and cooked-up charges. There is media censorship with scores of editors and journalists in prison, including those working for international media.
Most journalists have gone underground. Political observers say that the West and the US (and the UN) is concentrating on Ukraine. Even while the Chinese hand is visible all over in the political economy and patronage to the Junta, there is little focus on Myanmar and the mass violation of human rights. Even India seems to have turned its gaze away from the volatile situation, with Myanmar's borders touching the sensitive North-east region.
However, the ASEAN, the neighbourhood collective of South Asian nations, has been proactive in finding a solution. There are reports that ASEAN is angry with the Junta for ignoring all its appeals to stop violence, go for a ceasefire and start negotiations for the restoration of democracy.
Instead, the dictator, General Min Aung Hliang, under a cloud during the era of democracy for serious corruption charges, has chosen to meet a smiling Putin, who gladly extended his support to the dictatorship. Putin is perhaps the only head of state who has met the General, while, even China, seems to have maintained a certain diplomatic distance.
Said Satya Sivaraman, "Burma's problems are historically that of other multi-ethnic societies being force-fitted into a box of a modern, unitary nation-state with centralized power, and rigid national and sub-national boundaries.
"The domination of this nation-state by the Bamar ethnic group means perpetual civil war with other ethnic groups, particularly in the absence of clear constitutional provisions for autonomy, functioning democratic institutions and a culture of valuing human rights.
"Militarisation of modern Burma in that sense is a continuation of the pre-colonial system where Bamar kings dominated due to their military strength and ruled with an iron hand- treating other ethnic groups as vassals forced to pay tribute or be quelled into submission."
Mizzima News reports almost daily on bombings of army camps, long gun fights in remote areas, retaliatory actions by the army by burning villages in the conflict-zones, detentions of villagers who gave shelter to the guerillas, mass displacement and refugee camps, and civilian deaths. Even cities and towns under army siege are facing a relentless barrage of guerilla attacks with scores of army soldiers also being killed. The PDF/NUG and other guerilla forces openly claim the attacks, even while they issue press releases, and hold press conferences in the 'liberated zones'.
Rebecca Tan of the Washington Post reported in early October about a tea shop named 'Freedom', at the Thailand-Myanmar border, and how it has become a centre for the armed rebels and refugees. "Food is cooked over a gas stove by a 53-year-old woman forced to flee her home because of her support for the Myanmar opposition, and served by teenage waiters targeted by authorities for attending pro-democracy demonstrations.
"Customers pay at a counter staffed by a young woman with long hair and a sweet smile — a former kindergarten teacher who refused to work under the generals… 'I'll be a saint in the time of the Buddha' reads a 'Burmese poem' scribbled with a marker on an outdoor fridge. 'I'll revolt in the time of the dictator'."
She reports, "More than 176,000 Myanmar nationals have crossed into Thailand since the military takeover, according to the International Organization for Migration. Thousands more are arriving through the jungles every month, desperate to escape the junta's brutal crackdown on the opposition.
"Past the border, the lucky ones get picked up by humanitarian organizations. But far more rely on informal networks of support. Rebel soldiers break bread with military defectors in 20-square-foot rooms rented out by resistance leaders and activists.
"Doctors, factory workers, farmers and orchestra players crowd into empty safe houses, sharing mats to sleep on…'We're trying to stand together,' said Thet Swe Win, who leads the crew behind the 'Freedom' tea shop. '"It's the only thing we can do.'"
Rebecca Tan describes the rebel camp as, "a mural of the revolutionary Che Guevara stretches across a wide wall, visible to passersby. The receipts are printed with the Burmese words for 'freedom'. And the tables are labeled, with torn-up pieces of cardboard, with the names of cities in Myanmar that have seen the deadliest fighting: Mindat in the mountains of western Chin state; Pauk in central Magway; Myaung in next-door Sagaing.
"The effect is such that when waiters call out orders, it sounds sometimes like they're paying homage to the fallen — 'drinks for Mindat'!...They're not looking to be caught, Thet said, breaking into a slight smile. But they're not looking to hide either. Even though most of the employees have spent time in detention or had their homes raided by the military, they still want to be part of the resistance…"
Conflict Has Moved To A Different Level
With the NUG emerging as the main Opposition alliance fighting to restore democracy – with armed struggle and negotiations and backdoor parleys with ASEAN, other nations, lobbies, international media – the conflict in Myanmar has moved to a different level altogether.
The Junta, despite its muscle flexing and brutish rigidity, and consistent violations of international law in terms of judicial accountability, and suppression of fundamental rights, is not exactly in a strong position as it pretends to be, with the entire country in turmoil in the backdrop of a virtual civil war.
In a stunning announcement which outraged the world, the Junta announced in July this year that it has hanged four political prisoners, including a well-known lawmaker from the National League for Democracy, the former ruling party led by Aung Saan Suu Kyi, a democracy activist and two men accused of violence after the coup.
This despite global pleas for clemency, including from the UN and Cambodia, which heads the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. These were the first death sentences carried out in Myanmar since decades, and the absence of a proper trial, and the brazen injustice of it was transparent.
Reported in the official Mirror Daily newspaper, those hanged included Phyo Zeya Thaw, 41, former lawmaker, and a hip-hop musician, Kyaw Min Yu, 53, pro-democracy activist, Kyaw Min Yu, leader of the 88 Generation Students Group, who had already spent over 12 years in jail, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, who were convicted of killing a military informer.
Elaine Pearson, director of Human Rights Watch, Asia, called this "grossly unjust and politically motivated military trials". She said, "The junta's barbarity and callous disregard for human life aims to chill the anti-coup protest movement."
Meanwhile, a series of arbitrary arrests have shocked those who have been watching the country closely, including Australia. On September 29, Australian academic Sean Turnell, who was an adviser to Aung Saan Suu Kyi for several years, was sentenced to three years in prison after a 'closed trial'. Turnell has been an economist at Sydney's Macquarie University, and was picked up on February 6, 2021 after the coup.
All trials currently in Myanmar are closed and invisible, under the military. There seem to be no lawyers in many cases, there are no civilian courts, no media reportage, no witnesses, no testimonies, no chargesheet, no evidence proved, not even the names or identity of judges. It seems like a horror story, a Kafkasque nightmare out there.
Turnell has reportedly been charged with violating the Official Secrets Act. He has earlier appeared in the 'Kangaroo courts' accompanying Aung Saan Suu Kyi, and three of her former ministers. They have pleaded not guilty.
Another junta court, in another draconian judgement, handed a BBC journalist, Htet Htet Khine, her 'second' three-year prison sentence in less than two weeks. No evidence proved, even while the judicial proceedings were held in an alleged 'special court' inside the notorious Insein Prison in Yangon, where she has been imprisoned.
She was found guilty of working for the NUG and charged under Section 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act, her family sources reported. Earlier, she was given a sentence of 'hard labour' by a Bahan Township court. She was picked up in August last year, along with eminent columnist Sithu Aung Myint – reportedly 'wanted' by the Junta for some time.
She was charged for giving shelter to Myint in her house, while clandestinely working for a NUG radio station – Federal FM. Her employers, BBC Media Action, where she worked as a freelance journalist, released a statement expressing concern for her safety, even while her family members are clueless in terms of seeking justice.
A group called 'Detained Journalists Information Myanmar', claims that at least 142 journalists have been arrested since the military seized power on February 1, 2021. At a press conference, the Junta warned that "it would deal harshly" with those who donate even small amounts of money to the NUG or other resistance groups.
Those who support anti-regime forces could face the death penalty if convicted, it said. Any journalist remotely in touch with the NUG can be packed off to jail. Even those who are reporting from the ground and work as independent journalists – are liable to be picked up.
Soon after the coup, the International Federation of Journalists reported that in early March, five major media organisations in Myanmar had their licenses cancelled, even while they were reporting about the coup and the massive peaceful protests which rocked the country. The media outfits hit by this order were: DVB, Khit Thit Media, Myanmar Now and 7DayNews.
Barring the official media, most journalists have gone underground or escaped across the border. There are reports that journalists are routinely hiding their identities even while they travel to the spot to report from the ground, taking great risks.
An American newspaper reported about a journalist hanging out with a guitar, which would hide his/her dismantled mobile phone. In some cases, the journalist would meet rebels and play the guitar, only to start recording on their mobiles soon after.
Indeed, journalists are often only operating with their mobiles, with no notebooks or pens, no press cards or similar identities, often without workstations, editorial teams or offices. Many meet clandestinely and quickly disappear, shifting locations constantly.
They operate through coded messages and do multi-tasking, even while uploading their stories through their mobiles. They are checked routinely by the army, so many of them carry mobiles which have no data to disclose. Other times they dismantle their mobiles and hide the parts.
Sources said that it's a tough task, because they check you routinely, and if you get caught, you will be packed off to jail, or beaten up and tortured badly. "You can be killed too in what are highly dangerous and volatile conflict zones, where the army hates the presence of journalists."
Several journalists are operating in rebel strongholds, even while thousands of students and ordinary folks and professionals, among others, have left their comfortable homes in towns and cities and have chosen to join the armed struggle, where they are trained in the forests and mountains by rebel armies. This mass exodus is a new phenomenon in Myanmar – of people leaving their urban habitats, jobs, campuses and homes to fight in difficult terrains, though the rebel ethnic groups have been waging an armed struggle for years.
Political observers believe that "this is precisely because they just could not protest peacefully anymore – they have been butchering them on the streets, picking people up from their homes, burning homes. They just did not leave any space for non-violent and democratic protests. Students and others, mostly young and able-bodied people, including a large number of women, have joined the NUG/PDF militia.
"Even ethnic rebel groups have aligned with the NUG to forge a united alliance against this brutal junta. There is no option left but to defeat them with guns and armed struggle. Even the Western nations and the United Nations understand this dilemma."
As brazen repression continues, justified by a one-dimensional judicial process, another military court has sent a Japanese documentary filmmaker, Toru Kubota, 26, to prison for 10 years. Charges include: sedition, dissent and a legal category no one can understand, 'communications laws', apparently dealing with telecommunications.
While the Japanese foreign ministry has taken note of this arrest, the filmmaker was reportedly arrested while he was covering a protest in Yangon in July. He has also been charged for violating immigration laws.
Meanwhile, a story which made waves even in the western media was the persecution and imprisonment of a model, Nang Mwe San, also a medical doctor. Arrested in August, she was sentenced to six years in jail for "harming culture and dignity".
Her crime? Putting up her pictures and videos on social media sites, including the adult subscription site 'Only Fans'. Her 'trial' was conducted in North Dagon Township in Yangon, where she has been living, under martial law. It is reported that she was not allowed a 'civilian court', nor a lawyer.
Like the telecommunications law, another strange law – the 'Electronic Transactions Law' has been used against her. It is widely believed that the real reason for which the doctor/model has been jailed is because she joined the peaceful protests, was an ardent supporter of democracy, and that she defied the junta.
Ironically, one of the charges against Aung Saan Suu Kyi is for possessing illegal 'walkie talkies' – an instrument used decades ago for communication. She was charged under another bizarre law – the 'Export and Import Law'.
The first clampdown was on doctors, nurses and health workers, because they were the first to come out openly against the coup and went on strike. They openly called for the immediate restoration of democracy, while protesting inside and outside the hospitals.
Consequently, one of the top doctors of the country, Dr Htar Htar Lin, was arrested on charges of 'treason', among other charges. Several doctors and health workers went underground.
As the deadly Coronavirus spread and ravaged the country, with thousands displaced or on the run due to the clampdown, the lack of health workers, doctors and medical infrastructure was starkly felt. Several doctors set up underground Covid care centres, knowing fully well that they will face long imprisonment if they are caught.
In a seminar held in early October at the Faculty of Law in Chiang Mai University, Thailand, entitled 'Unpredictable Myanmar', experts pointed out the serious crisis stalking Myanmar. Said Sanhawan Srisod, a counselor with the International Commission of Jurists, "…in Thailand, there is a violation of international law by using military courts to judge civilians, in Myanmar as well.
"The lawyer cannot provide legal advice or argue on behalf of their clients. The judges aren't free from political considerations because they are under army command. Normally, people can watch and listen in court but in prison courts, they cannot. The evidence cannot access the trial procedure. It isn't relevant to international law that court trials have to be transparent.
"Those prison courts, they even have a death sentence. Many months ago, they sentenced four political prisoners. Before receiving a death sentence, prosecution is in a trial by a military court. No one can access the trial procedure. It's a closed trial. Those courts also have on the death row 100 prisoners, including children.
"According to international law, it clearly doesn't support the death penalty, particularly on children… Many lawyers tried to help prisoners with legal assistance but they ended up detained and threatened… Some were arrested while they were litigating at court. There are 46 lawyers in prison now.
"Children were forced to be detained with adults, whereas international law stresses that children have to be separated from adults. Many children were threatened, tortured and subjected to sexual assaults. At the point of release, children were threatened to sign confessions."
Thomas H. Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, said, "two weeks ago, I told the Human Rights Council that the (Myanmar) military burned down 28,000 households but the number now is over 30,000. The economy, healthcare, and the education system have collapsed.
"I can confidently predict that… the international community will continue to fail the people of Myanmar. The reason for that failure is a lack of political will and leadership… In four days, the UN acted over the war in Ukraine, but for Myanmar, a year and eight months or more have passed.
Satya Sivaraman, told The Citizen that "the current low-intensity civil war was inevitable though the Opposition under Suu Kyi did try Gandhian methods for a very long time. However, the armed struggle being waged now, including by the educated Bamar youth, is not going to succeed unless they find a way to cater to the aspirations of other ethnic groups without whose military support their fight could be futile.
"Given the record of the military in terms of both brutality and deception, the fight now is going to be to the finish. It is possible at some stage that foreign powers like the US, China and even India may become involved. Though this is not likely anytime soon because each of these countries have too many problems of their own to handle. In the end it is the Burmese people, including the ethnic groups, which have to solve the problem of transitioning to a truly democratic system. The path is likely to be long and bloody."
Cover Photograph: A man tends to the body of a child after Myanmar junta helicopters fired on a school in the Maha Dhammaranthi monastery compound near Let Yet Kone village, Sagaing region, Sept. 16, 2022. Source Radio Free Asia.