By early April, the number of anti-coup protesters killed at the hands of police and soldiers in Myanmar had passed 550. The military, unable to appease the resistance movement with its promises of elections in a year’s time, has both escalated its use of violence and shifted to a more unbridled form of terror in an effort to force protesters into submission. Soldiers have launched grenades into crowds in eastern Yangon, deploying weaponry normally reserved for ground warfare. Children have been killed by shots to the back and head. Villagers in the east of Myanmar have sought refuge in caves and forests following airstrikes. The mutilated bodies of opposition figures arrested by police have been returned to their families.
The use of both public and intimate acts of violence – aerial bombing, massacre, torture – is fully consistent with the military’s historic approach to countering opposition, albeit now in a modified form. The Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is locally known, has sought, since the 1 February coup, to make clear that the strategies it has used for decades against ethnic minority communities in the border regions would be brought to towns and cities in the centre. Battalions who spearheaded what UN investigators have described as genocidal attacks on Rohingya in 2016 and 2017 have led operations in urban areas. Members of the Bamar majority who predominate in the country’s geographical centre may have once thought themselves relatively safe from the worst inclinations of frontline troops, but the military has made clear that, in its use of violence, it no longer discriminates.
The State Administration Council that took power on 1 February, annulling the results of November elections that had secured a parliamentary majority for the civilian National League for Democracy party, is the latest in a succession of military juntas that have ruled Myanmar for the majority of the past 60 years. In that time, and with the help of various tacticians specialised in both psychological and combat warfare, they have developed a strategy for countering opposition during periods of political upheaval and conflict that manifests as a form of total violence. The murder, maiming, arrests and disappearances of the past two months are central to this, yet equally so is the military’s capture of the infrastructure required to keep people alive.
In the borderlands, where armed ethnic groups have long been fighting for greater autonomy from the central state, this second aspect of the military’s strategy has for decades involved mass displacement of minority communities, the confiscation of farmland and crops, the burning of villages, and purposeful underdevelopment and underfinancing of education and healthcare. Now that a far larger cross-section of the population, both rural and urban, is effectively at war with the junta, the strategy has required some adaptation. Since February, soldiers have destroyed shops and restaurants in city centres, occupied hospitals and wrecked hospital equipment, fired into wards where protesters are being treated, beaten and shot at first responders, and commandeered emergency vehicles – in some cases destroying those too – in order to manoeuvre troops near to protest sites.
The effects, both material and psychological, of this form of collective punishment are intended to far outlast those of more explicit violence. It signals that for as long as the State Administration Council’s authority is opposed, there will be no neutral space, and no site of safe refuge and care; that the state will, if it wants to, turn wholly, and ruthlessly, against the entire population.
Its all-out assault may, to an unfamiliar eye, appear to be the result of some kind of mental snap within the military’s top-level command. After all, a decade ago the idea of the Tatmadaw as a reform-minded institution had brought about a complete overhaul in western policy towards Myanmar. But this reading of its recent behaviour elides the continuity at play here. The coup, and the war-like operation it has run since 1 February, signal that the Tatmadaw’s bid to maintain supremacy is just as singularly focused as it has always been, ever since Myanmar’s first coup in 1962. In this light, the political and economic liberalisations of the past decade appear to have been a test not of whether it might one day feel comfortable retreating altogether from political life, but of how to sustain its control under a more publicly acceptable guise. Western governments that saw the reforms as indicative of an easing of that mindset and a willingness to cede power know they are guilty of a costly misreading of the military’s psychology and intent.
It should now also be clear that the military’s belief in violence as the most effective instrument of rule is ingrained, and perhaps immovable. Historic testimony from army deserters illustrates the psychological transformation many of the soldiers now attacking protesters will have undergone to habituate themselves to violence: the vicious and regular beatings they themselves received from commanders, the requirement that they beat their fellow soldiers, the orders to kidnap teenagers from train stations and elsewhere to enlist in battalions; the instruction, given time and again, that their suffering is for the good of the country. Years of brutal counter-insurgency operations in Myanmar’s periphery would have taken that conditioning process to a more advanced stage.
Torturing a husband and returning the body to his wife, or pulling a child from her house at night to watch her parents being beaten and led away, might well appear barbaric to most. But when it is understood as a product of the mental state the Tatmadaw cultivates in its men, the rationale that drives some towards ever greater excesses becomes clearer. The threat of physical punishment from commanders or of shaming by peers may be enough to prompt reluctant soldiers to action; for others, however, sustained indoctrination has taught them that brutality can, if directed at the right target, be spun as a principled display of loyalty to a fragile nation.
The ability to be violent, and to construe lethal aggression as defensive, if not virtuous, is essential to surviving life inside Myanmar’s security forces. As the writer Carlos Sardina Galache notes, serving troops, often young and poorly educated, are stationed in compounds isolated from the rest of Myanmar society, where they socialise only with one another. This is likely purposeful, a way to quicken their dissociation from the people they may soon attack.
The junta’s faith in the utility of cruelty thus sets the country up for a long night. The fact that it shows no sign of changing tack suggests that it believes its strategy of total violence will eventually work. Yet those still defying the military think otherwise. They have already lived a lifetime under its rule, and know the human cost that would come with any compromise.
Francis Wade is the author of “Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’”.