Myanmar is mourning another harrowing weekend of violence, in which security forces shot dead upwards of 120 people protesting the military’s seizure of power on February 1. On Sunday, soldiers reportedly opened fire on a crowd attending the funeral of student who was shot dead a day earlier, which saw the bloodiest day in nearly two months of anti-coup protests.
Myanmar Now, a local media outlet, reported that the junta’s troops shot at mourners attending a funeral in the city of Bago for a 20-year-old killed in Saturday’s crackdown. Thae Maung Maung was reportedly a member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, an student activist group that has been at the forefront of pro-democracy struggles for decades.
There were reportedly no deaths at the funeral, but at least nine people were killed elsewhere Sunday as the crackdown continued, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which is keeping a running total of confirmed casualties. A day earlier, the warlike crackdown took the lives of at least 114 people across the country, including several children under 16, prompting a U.N. human rights official to accuse the junta of committing “mass murder.”
Nearly two months after the military’s seizure of power, the violence of the military’s long-term project of internal colonization has returned home, as military units normally used to suppress ethnic rebellions are being used to crush urban protests in central regions of the country. At least 459 people have now been killed since the military’s seizure of power, according to AAPP, which noted that “the actual number of fatalities is likely much higher.”
The killings spiked as Myanmar’s military celebrated the annual Armed Forces Day holiday with ceremonies in the country’s capital, Naypyidaw. The pomp and military parades concluded with a lavish banquet in which coup leader Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing celebrated the military’s “glorious” history, culminating with a portrait of himself being drawn in the night sky by a swarm of illuminated drones. Dr. Sasa, spokesperson for the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a coalition of ousted parliamentarians that is spearheading the opposition to the junta, described Sunday as “a day of shame for the armed forces.”
Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day parade is usually widely attended by diplomats, but most missions chose to boycott the event out of disgust for the ongoing violence, with the chiefs of defense of Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States issuing a joint statement condemning the Tatmadaw and offering a de facto reason for their absence from the event.
“A professional military follows international standards for conduct and is responsible for protecting – not harming – the people it serves,” the statement read. “We urge the Myanmar Armed Forces to cease violence and work to restore respect and credibility with the people of Myanmar that it has lost through its actions.” The notable inclusion in this statement was Japan, which has close ties with the Myanmar armed forces, and has generally been muted in its response to the coup and its bloody aftermath.
In the end, only the defense attaches from Bangladesh, China, India, Laos, Pakistan, Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam attended the event. Russia’s deputy defense minister, Alexander Fomin, also met in the capital Naypyidaw on Friday with Min Aung Hlaing, inexplicably pledging to deepen military relations with Myanmar.
Meanwhile, as blood was shed in the central regions of the country, the military was also fighting along the periphery. About 3,000 villagers from Myanmar’s southeastern Karen State reportedly fled to Thailand on Sunday following air attacks by the army on an area held by the Karen National Union, which has been fighting for autonomy for more than seven decades. Reports of increased clashes emerging has also emerged from Kachin State in the north of the country.
The tragic news from Myanmar was accompanied by a stream of increasingly unvarnished criticism from Western officials. U.S. Ambassador Thomas Vajda called the violence “horrifying,” while his British counterpart Dan Chugg said the security forces had “disgraced themselves” in turning their guns on protesters.
The condemnations were accompanied by increasingly urgent calls for the world to close ranks and intensify its pressure on the junta. “Words of condemnation or concern are frankly ringing hollow to the people of Myanmar while the military junta commits mass murder against them,” said Tom Andrews, the U.N.’s independent expert on human rights for Myanmar. “It is past time for robust, coordinated action.” Last week, the U.S. and U.K. imposed sanctions on two military conglomerates that funnel profits to the Tatmadaw, but activists continue to press for Western countries to interdict the oil and gas revenues that continue to flow to the military government.
Yet it is far from clear what can be done to improve the situation. The U.N. Security Council (UNSC) has condemned the violence but not advocated concerted action against the junta, such as a ban on selling it arms, given that China and Russia both have their reasons to use their veto to block any harsh coordinated measures.
The Chinese government, opposed to outside intervention in principle, remains concerned that further pressure on Myanmar’s junta will further destabilize the country, threatening its strategic interests in the country. Meanwhile, the visit by Russia’s deputy defense minister demonstrates the cynical way in which it is seeking to turn use the Myanmar crisis to undermine Western influence and profit from the crisis.
Ming Yu Hah, the organization’s deputy regional director for campaigns, said that the U.N. Security Council’s “continued refusal to meaningfully act against this never-ending horror is contemptible.”
Even with Chinese and Russian support, it is still far from clear that any outside pressure short of a military intervention would sway a military that seems to have chosen its path and is willing to see it through to its destination – however much blood it has to shed along the way.
Concerned outside powers thus face a dilemma: either stand back and refuse to engage with the Tatmadaw on the grounds that it has put itself beyond reasonable intercourse, or engage in an attempt to halt the bloodshed, at the risk of legitimizing the regime or being seen to abandon the CRPH and the Civil Disobedience Movement, which has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for 2022.
In the meantime, the possibility of the struggle between the military and the people drifting toward some kind of full-blown state collapse looms as an increasingly realistic prospect, with ramifications that are hard fully to anticipate. Yesterday, the author and historian Thant Myint-U said on Twitter that the world seemed unaware “that a failed state in Myanmar has the potential to draw in all the big powers – including the U.S., China, India, Russia, and Japan – in a way that could lead to a serious international crisis (as well as an even greater catastrophe in Myanmar itself).”