Every night at 8, the stern-faced newscaster on Myanmar military T.V. announces the day’s hunted. The mug shots of those charged with political crimes appear onscreen. Among them are doctors, students, beauty queens, actors, reporters, even a pair of makeup bloggers.
Some of the faces look puffy and bruised, the likely result of interrogations. They are a warning not to oppose the military junta that seized power in a Feb. 1 coup and imprisoned the country’s civilian leaders.
As the midnight insects trill, the hunt intensifies. Military censors sever the internet across most of Myanmar, matching the darkness outside with an information blackout. Soldiers sweep through the cities, arresting, abducting and assaulting with slingshots and rifles.
The nightly banging on doors, as arbitrary as it is dreaded, galvanizes a frenzy of self-preservation. Residents delete their Facebook accounts, destroy incriminating mobile phone cards and erase traces of support for Myanmar’s elected government. As sleep proves elusive, it’s as if much of the nation is suffering a collective insomnia.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or an unregistered cellphone or a single note of foreign currency — could mean a prison sentence. Some of the military’s Orwellian diktats rivaled those of North Korea.
among them dozens of children.
rule by fear, it is also holding hostage a changed country. The groundswell of opposition to the coup, which has sustained protests in hundreds of cities and towns, was surely not in the military’s game plan, making its crackdown all the riskier. Neither the outcome of the putsch nor the fate of the resistance is preordained.
Myanmar’s full emergence from isolation — economic, political and social — only came five years ago when the military began sharing power with an elected government headed by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. A population that barely had any connection to the internet quickly made up for lost time. Today, its citizenry is well versed in social media and the power of protests tethered to global movements. They know how to spot a good political meme on the internet.
Their resistance to the coup has included a national strike and a civil disobedience movement, which have paralyzed the economy and roiled the government. Banks and hospitals are all but shut. Although the United Nations has warned that half the country could be living in poverty by next year because of the pandemic and the political crisis, the democratic opposition’s resolve shows no sign of weakening.
National Unity Government, a civilian authority set up after the elected leadership was expelled by the military. A popular tactic is to affix an image of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the coup leader, on the sole of a shoe, smashing his face into the ground with each step. During spot checks, the police now demand that people show their soles.
Ms. Thuzar Nwe says she wears her hair down to cover her tattoo, hoping the police won’t be too inquisitive.
“In Myanmar culture, if a woman has a tattoo, she’s a bad girl,” she said. “I broke the rules of culture. This revolution is a rare chance to eradicate dictatorship from the country.”
But the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, has built an entire infrastructure dedicated to one purpose: perpetuating its power for power’s sake.
Its bureaucracy of oppression is formidable. An army of informers, known as “dalan,” has reappeared, monitoring whispers and neighbors’ movements.
The blandly named General Administration Department, a vast apparatus that remained under military control even after the army had started sharing authority with the civilian government, is once again pressuring administrators to keep tabs on everyone’s political views. And local officials have taken to banging on doors and peering in homes, as a dreaded system of household registration is reintroduced.
revoked the publishing licenses of major private newspapers. Democracy will return soon, the military’s headlines insist. Banking services are running “as usual.” Health care with “modern machinery” is available. Government ministries are enjoying English-proficiency courses. Soft-shell crab cultivation is “thriving” and penetrating the foreign market.
acquiring Chinese-made weapons and Russian fighter jets. But its propaganda is stuck in a time warp from back when few challenged its narrative. There is no mention in its media of the military’s killing spree, the broken economy or the growing armed resistance. On Wednesday, the State Administration Council, as the junta calls itself, banned satellite T.V.
For all the fear percolating in Myanmar, the resistance has only hardened. On Wednesday, the National Unity Government said it was forming a “people’s defense force” to counter the Tatmadaw. Two days before, ethnic insurgents fighting in the borderlands shot down a Tatmadaw helicopter.
convince the military ranks that the coup was necessary, Tatmadaw insiders said. Sequestered in military compounds without good internet access, soldiers have little ability to tap into the outrage of fellow citizens. Their information diet is composed of military T.V., military newspapers and the echo chambers of military-dominated Facebook on the rare occasions they can get online.
Still, news does filter in, and some officers have broken rank. In recent weeks, about 80 Myanmar Air Force officers have deserted and are now in hiding, according to fellow military personnel.
“Politics are not the business of soldiers,” said an air force captain who is now in hiding and does not want his name used because his family might be punished for his desertion. “Now the Tatmadaw have become the terrorists, and I don’t want to be part of it.”
In the cities, almost everyone seems to know someone who has been arrested or beaten or forced to pay a bribe to the security forces in exchange for freedom.
Last month, Ma May Thaw Zin, a 19-year-old law student, joined a flash mob protest in Yangon, the country’s biggest city. The police, she said, detained several young women and crammed them into an interrogation center cell so small they barely had room to sit on the floor.
For a whole day, there was no food. Ms. May Thaw Zin said she resorted to drinking from the toilet. The interrogations were just her and a clutch of men. They rubbed against her and kicked her breasts and face with their boots, she said. On the fourth day, after men shoved the barrel of a pistol against the black hood over her head, she was released. The bruises remain.
Since she returned home, some family members have refused to have anything to do with her because she was caught protesting, Ms. May Thaw Zin said. Even if they hate the coup, even if they know their futures have been blunted, the instincts of survival have kicked in.
“They are afraid,” she said, but “I can’t accept that my country will go back to the old dark age.”
The Myanmar military’s disinformation was crude but effective.
Army propagandists claimed an ethnic group called the Rohingya was burning down its own villages and wanted to swamp Buddhist-majority Myanmar with Islamic hordes. The Rohingya were spinning tall tales, the military said in 2017, about soldiers committing mass rape and murder.
The truth — that troops were waging genocidal operations against Myanmar’s ethnic minorities — was perhaps too shocking for some members of the country’s Bamar ethnic majority to contemplate.
But as Myanmar’s military seized power this year and killed more than 750 civilians, Daw Sandar Myo, an elementary-school teacher, realized that the decades of persecution suffered by the Rohingya and other minorities was real, after all.
“After the coup, I saw soldiers and police killing and torturing people in the cities,” she said. “Then I started to feel empathy for Rohingya and ethnic people who have been suffering worse than us for many years.”
mass protests, civil disobedience, worker strikes and even the tentative beginnings of an armed struggle.
But another transformation is quietly underway: a growing acceptance of the nation’s ethnic diversity, something that was notably absent during an earlier political transition. With the military’s violence unleashed once again, some are acknowledging that democracy cannot flourish without respecting the ethnic minorities who have endured decades of persecution.
More than a third of Myanmar’s population is composed of ethnic minorities, who inhabit a vast frontier where the country’s natural resources are concentrated. Their insurgencies against the Myanmar military, which has ruled the country for most of the past six decades, rank among the world’s most enduring civil conflicts.
Tatmadaw, as the military is known. And they say they know better than the Bamar just how unstable Myanmar can be when its armed forces act as an occupying force rather than the people’s protector.
landslide re-election in November, more than a million members of ethnic minorities were disenfranchised during the vote.
During their five years of power-sharing with the Tatmadaw, the N.L.D.’s civilian leaders defended the military’s continuing atrocities against ethnic minorities. Decades ago, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her nonviolent struggle for democracy. Yet she called the 2017 forced exodus of three-quarters of a million Rohingya the byproduct of “clearance operations” against a terrorist insurgency. The Rohingya were, in fact, victims of a well-documented ethnic cleansing campaign.
But the military’s seizure of power has led to soul-searching.
“The blood that has been shed in the aftermath of the coup has brought about a sea change in public views on federalism and inclusion,” said U Khin Zaw Win, a political analyst and former political prisoner who has long pushed for the rights of ethnic groups in Myanmar.
“While the N.L.D. does remain popular, the country has moved on” since the coup, he added. “It isn’t about an N.L.D. restoration any longer.”
So far, the new unity government is little more than a compendium of policy statements sent by encrypted apps. It has no army or international recognition.
an armed resistance to the Tatmadaw. Recent explosions at urban government offices and military-linked businesses signal their intent.
Joining forces with ethnic minorities involves other tactical considerations. Around the time of the coup, many of Myanmar’s most fearsome infantry divisions were transferred from remote bases to cities. Since then, security forces have killed dozens of children with single gunshots. Pro-democracy figures have turned up dead, some with signs of torture.
With the Tatmadaw preoccupied in the cities, ethnic armed groups have launched their own coordinated offensives in the borderlands. Scores of Tatmadaw soldiers were killed in recent fighting when insurgents overran their outposts, according to the ethnic armed organizations and local residents.
The hope is that with ethnic militias pushing in the borderlands and an armed resistance rising in the cities, the Tatmadaw will be forced to battle on multiple fronts.
“If the ethnic armed organizations fight together against the Myanmar military, then it will have better results for the country,” said Colonel Mai Aik Kyaw of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army.
But unity is fleeting among the ethnic armed groups, some of which have reserved as much firepower for each other as they have for the Tatmadaw. Many of the major ethnic groups, such as the Shan and Karen, have more than one armed organization purporting to represent them. Control of these borderlands means access to lucrative mines, forests and illicit drugmaking facilities.
Myanmar is a crossroads culture, squeezed between India and China. Even the notion of Bamar purity is contested. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is part Karen. Other Bamar have Indian or Chinese ancestry. The British, who colonized what was then known as Burma, called the country “a zone of racial instability,” according to Thant Myint-U, a historian and author of “The Hidden Histories of Burma.”
“Myanmar was never a place of neatly packaged racial and ethnic categories,” he said. “Ending Bamar political domination of minority communities may be helped by a more decentralized system of government. But what’s equally important is a radical program to end discrimination in all forms and a reimagining of the country as a place that’s always been home to many different peoples.”
This week, soldiers from the Karen National Liberation Army overran a Tatmadaw outpost across the river from Thailand. Karen forces captured another base in eastern Myanmar last month, prompting the military’s first airstrikes against Karen villages in 20 years. Tatmadaw reprisals in areas populated by ethnic minorities have killed dozens.
As fighting intensifies, tens of thousands have been displaced nationwide, particularly in Karen territory and in the north, where the Kachin Independence Army is making inroads against the Tatmadaw.
For the first time, the Karen National Union has received donations from Bamar people for civilian victims of the Tatmadaw, said Padoh Saw Man Man, a spokesman for the group. “Now we are united with the Bamar people, and I strongly believe that we will win when we fight together against the Tatmadaw,” he said.
In a jungle in the borderlands of Myanmar, the troops sweated through basic training. They learned how to load a rifle, pull the pin of a hand grenade and assemble a firebomb.
These cadets are not members of Myanmar’s military, which seized power last month and quickly imposed a battlefield brutality on the country’s populace. Instead, they are an eclectic corps of students, activists and ordinary office workers who believe that fighting back is the only way to defeat one of the world’s most ruthless armed forces.
“I see the military as wild animals who can’t think and are brutal with their weapons,” said a woman from Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, who was now in the forest for a week of boot camp. Like others who have joined the armed struggle, she did not want her name published for fear that the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, would target her.
reign of terror. The Tatmadaw has cracked down on peaceful protesters and unarmed bystanders alike, killing at least 275 people since the coup, according to a monitoring group.
Other forms of resistance have continued in Myanmar. A mass civil disobedience campaign has idled the economy, with a nationwide strike on Wednesday leaving towns devoid of business activity. In creative acts of defiance, protesters have lined up rows of stuffed animals and origami cranes as stand-ins for demonstrators who could get shot.
But there is a growing recognition that such efforts may not be enough, that the Tatmadaw needs to be countered on its own terms. Last week, remnants of the ousted Parliament, who consider themselves the legitimate government, said that a “revolution” was needed to save the country. They have called for the formation of a federal army that respects various ethnic groups, not just the majority Bamar.
“If diplomacy fails, if the killings continue, the people of Myanmar will be forced to defend themselves,” said Dr. Sasa, a spokesman for the ousted Parliament who is on the run after having been charged with high treason.
ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims.
The country has trembled as the Tatmadaw has brought its war machine to the cities, imprisoning Myanmar’s civilian leaders last month and erasing a decade of political and economic reform.
Since then, dozens of young protesters have been killed by single gunshots to the head. Security forces have fired into homes at random, leaving families cowering in back rooms. On Tuesday, a 7-year-old girl sitting at home in her father’s lap was shot in the city of Mandalay, in what appeared to be a collateral death. (Hundreds of protesters were released on Wednesday after weeks of detention.)
The Tatmadaw is flouting the international rules of war. Security forces have fired at ambulances and tortured detainees. Given the brutality, members of Myanmar’s frontline of democracy say there is no choice but to take up arms.
Most days in the concrete conflict zones of Yangon, Ko Soe Win Naing, a 26-year-old sailor, prepares for war: a GoPro camera affixed to his helmet, a balaclava over his head, vials of tear gas in his vest pockets, a sheathed sword on his back and a gas mask at the ready. His weapon of choice is a firework fashioned into a sort of grenade.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign against the generals who locked her up for 15 years. (The award was tarnished by her defense of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.)
But most struggles in Myanmar have involved guns and slingshots. In the mountainous periphery of the country, ethnic armed groups have been fighting for autonomy for decades. After soldiers gunned down hundreds of protesters in 1988, thousands of students and activists fled into the forests and formed armed groups that fought alongside ethnic insurgencies.
Of late, their tactics have extended to information warfare. On Wednesday, anti-coup protesters said they had launched hacking attacks on two military-linked banks.
For the new generation, the decision to fight is born of a desire to protect what the country has gained over the past decade. Myanmar was once one of the most isolated countries on Earth, as a xenophobic and economically inept junta cleaved the country from the international community. Then came tentative political reforms, an internet link to the world and chances at private-sector jobs.
The notion that Myanmar might return to a frightened past has galvanized some protesters. One young woman, who is about to start military training in the jungle, said she remembered huddling as a child with her family and listening secretly to BBC radio broadcasts, an act that once could have earned imprisonment.
“I decided to risk my life and fight back any possible way I can,” she said. “If we oppose nationwide in unison, we will make the military have sleepless nights and insecure lives, just as they have done to us.”
The security forces, she continued, are following orders and lack a greater purpose.
“We have our political faith, we have our dreams,” she said. “This is the fight in which we have to use our brains and our bodies.”
If any armed rebellion is to succeed, it will need the backing of the ethnic insurgencies that have long been at war with the Tatmadaw. Last week, the Kachin Independence Army, which represents the Kachin of northern Myanmar, launched a surprise strike against the Tatmadaw.
On Thursday, five Tatmadaw soldiers were killed by the Karen National Liberation Army, which fights for the Karen ethnicity. Last year, hundreds of Tatmadaw troops died while battling another ethnic insurgency in western Rakhine State.
“If ethnic armed groups launch offensives, it could help relieve pressure on the protesters in the cities,” said Padoh Saw Hser Bwe, a general secretary of the Karen National Union.
With the Tatmadaw’s most notorious brigades now stationed in the cities, focused on anti-coup protesters rather than ethnic civil war, the military’s killing continues unabated.
On Monday in Mandalay, Ko Tun Tun Aung, 14, wandered out of his home to grab a pot of water. A bullet pierced his chest, killing him instantly, according to his relatives. At least seven others were also shot dead in the same neighborhood that day. Two were rescue workers.
Ko Thet Aung, a 23-year-old frontline defender, is from the same Mandalay neighborhood where the killings occurred. For three weeks, he has been manning barricades and dodging gunfire.
“The more they crack down, the more we are motivated to fight back,” he said. “We are from Generation Z, but I would call ourselves Gen-P — Generation Protection. I will die protecting my country at the front lines.”