The Myanmar military’s execution of four pro-democracy activists during the third week of July sent shockwaves throughout the world. But this was only the beginning of a terrifying new chapter in coup leader Min Aung Hlaing’s cruel reign. A week later, the military executed another six activists who were members of the local People’s Defense Forces (PDF) from Mandalay. Last Friday, four more were walked to the gallows. All of them appeared to have been hung in secret, their families denied last goodbyes. Dozens more political prisoners, including activists and students, are currently awaiting execution. No one knows who might be next, or when. For the family members of political prisoners, this uncertainty is a particular agony.
The revival of executions in Myanmar marks an escalation and a new type of psychological warfare against the pro-democracy movement. It reveals not only the blood-chilling ruthlessness of Min Aung Hlaing and his administration, but the growing desperation of a man who has failed to quell the nationwide resistance to his botched coup attempt. This tactical state-sanctioned murder makes clear that there can be no negotiated solution to the country’s crisis, which has already cost thousands of lives. Ultimately, however, it has already emboldened and enraged the pro-democracy movement and poured fuel on the fire of the revolution.
Psychological warfare is nothing new in Myanmar; the Ministry of Defense has a department dedicated to its cause. Former dictator Than Shwe was reportedly assigned to this unit early in his career, which shaped his leadership. The use of propaganda (including Islamophobic and nationalist rhetoric) as well as cruder fear tactics are examples. This included the jailing and torturing of many pro-democracy activists. Many student leaders and those participating in the democracy movement were freed and then re-arrested again later for minor or entirely bogus infractions as a form of control. In fact, this was a form of psychological warfare. Activists were released but had to live under the shadow or threat of re-arrest at all times. At the same time, the junta’s brutal killings of protesters and activists were used as a strategic tool to terrorize the people and the country. While it has been pointed out that Than Shwe never executed his opponents, he “disappeared” people or tortured them in prison, and many succumbed to their injuries over the years.
But is Min Aung Hlaing’s latest escalation in psychological warfare succeeding? All my conversations with dissidents suggest otherwise. A student leader involved in the resistance movement told me that the executions have made clear there are only two roads forward for Myanmar: either acquiesce to military rule, or fight until the bitter end. Almost everyone in Myanmar will now choose the latter. He added that people like him felt that there is no way out from this except victory over the military junta. He said that the executions took the political crisis past the point of no return. He personally knew one of the activists who was executed. He also echoed the feeling that there can be no negotiations or diplomatic solution for Myanmar’s crisis now: It is a matter of win or die.
Nyein Chan May, co-founder and chairperson of German Solidarity with Myanmar, said that a year and a half after the military coup, the military wanted to send a clear message about their power to the local and international communities. The executions were a brazen act of political posturing, as well as psychological warfare aimed at consolidating the power of Min Aung Hlaing through fear. But instead of generating fear, the executions have sparked a furious backlash from the resistance movement.
“The military must have thought they could terminate the revolution and the movement through their brutal acts and execution,” she said. “In fact, that makes the people even stronger and [more determined] to fight for freedom and democracy, because now we have the legacies of our fallen heroes. This is the endgame but not a war out of hatred; it is the fight for freedom and federal democracy,” she added.
In part, Min Aung Hlaing may have underestimated the strength and geographic spread of the resistance. Under past juntas, ethnic minority communities have borne the brunt of military atrocities — and continue to face heinous crimes today, such as the recent burning of villages in Kachin state by the State Administration Council (SAC) and allied militias. However, since last year, the SAC has launched unprecedented attacks on villages in the Buddhist heartlands in upper Myanmar to crack down on the rise of dozens of local PDFs, massacring villagers and razing towns in Sagaing Region, where the military is facing some of the fiercest resistance. Its inability to take control of the Bamar Buddhist heartlands even a year and a half after the coup has made it look weak.
After the first executions were announced on state media, people once again poured into the streets in Yangon and Mandalay banging on pots and pans. This is based on a traditional Burmese belief that the noise can get rid of evil spirits. The protest tactic was popularized in the early days after the coup last year, but has simmered down since then due to military crackdowns across the country. However, the news of the execution brought the practice back and united people once more. The remaining family members of the activists told media that they were proud of their lost loved ones and would continue to fight in their names.
Comrade Junaid from the Progressive Muslim Youth Front told me he doesn’t even consider the killings executions, since the military junta is not a legitimate ruler of the country and has no authority to enact judicial punishments. These deaths should be considered extrajudicial killings, much like the many other acts of murder the military has perpetrated, which will only further inflame the revolution.
Several PDF representatives have confirmed that they are escalating their attacks against the military and other judicial and correctional facilities staff for their involvement in the execution. A Yangon-based PDF called the United Resistance Force (URF) said that it is working on a “Yangon Operation Blood Debt Reclamation” campaign in a direct response to the executions. URF and its allies have claimed responsibility for a grenade attack on staff housing at Insein prison on July 29. So far, there have been several attacks by urban guerrilla forces in Yangon since last week of July. Similar acts of retribution have been carried out by DNDF-Wetlet and the People’s Dictatorship Revolutionary Force in Sagaing, where administrative offices have been attacked and soldiers killed. These attacks, often explicit campaigns to “repay the blood debt,” have reportedly increased since the executions.
Others, like Junaid, have warned revolutionaries to be careful not to become fascists like the military, warning against vigilante retribution killings undermining the cause. But he added that he and others would not back down from the military.
In attempting to extinguish the hope and motivation of dissidents, the military has instead strengthened and united them. Ko Jimmy, Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw, Ko Hla Myo Aung, and Ko Aung Thura Zaw have become the latest – and most high-profile – martyrs whose sacrifice has spurred the country’s revolution. One way or another, their deaths have pushed the resistance movement into a zero-sum game with the military from which there can be no going back.