Security forces killed at least 38 people and wounded more than 100 in protests across Myanmar on Wednesday. At least 54 people have been killed since the military coup, which dissolved Myanmar’s democratically elected parliament and led to the arrests of hundreds of civilian politicians and activists. Protesters are calling for the reversal of the coup and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s elected civilian leader and the head of its most influential political party.
If authorities believed the use of live fire against protesters was going to dampen their defiance, they were mistaken. Unarmed but organized, hundreds of thousands have turned out in Myanmar’s major cities day after day, clamoring for democracy in stirring displays of nationwide civil disobedience. In some instances, they’ve taken inspiration from Hong Kong’s year of dissent, donning construction helmets and carrying umbrellas as makeshift protection.
Women from a cross-section of society — from doctors to students to garment workers — are ubiquitous on the front lines. In photos that have gone viral, Kyal Sin was last seen among throngs of protesters, clad in a simple black T-shirt bearing an even simpler message: “Everything will be OK.”
But there’s every indication that the situation could worsen: The military junta that orchestrated the coup is hunkering down, no matter the widespread international condemnations. Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, has a grim reputation for violence against the country’s own people. It is implicated in atrocities against ethnic minorities, including allegations of carrying out genocide and systematic gang rape. In the wake of the coup, researchers unearthed hundreds of videos circulating on social media of uniformed soldiers threatening to slaughter ordinary citizens.
“As the protest movement gains traction, the Myanmar military is responding with brutality, shooting randomly into crowds and gunning down protesters,” wrote my colleague Shibani Mahtani. “Shooting to kill — aiming for protesters’ heads or chests — has emerged as a crowd-control tactic, as snipers pick off targets and hope their deaths will send protesters fleeing and disperse crowds.”
“Myanmar’s security forces now seem intent on breaking the back of the anti-coup movement through wanton violence and sheer brutality,” said Richard Weir, crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “The use of lethal force against protesters rescuing others demonstrates how little the security forces fear being held to account for their actions.”
The crisis in Myanmar will be the subject of closed-door U.N. Security Council deliberations on Friday. It’s unclear if anything substantive will emerge from the session. Western governments have already passed a string of sanctions targeting the military top brass, while members of the United States, European Union and a number of European chambers of commerce in Myanmar declined an invitation to meet officials in the military regime. On Thursday, Reuters reported that top generals in the junta attempted to move some $1 billion in government funds held by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York just days after the coup, but were thwarted by U.S. government officials.
Officials in both the White House and the State Department have decried the violence against protesters. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that the administration is also calling on China — which has extensive, if complicated, ties with Myanmar’s ruling establishment — “to play a constructive role in the restoration of civilian-led government” in the country.
Even then, the military regime appears willing to accept a return to the pariah status it held not long ago. In a briefing with reporters, Christine Schraner Burgener, the U.N. special envoy to Myanmar, relayed an exchange with the country’s deputy military chief, Soe Win, in which she pressed him on the junta’s path to isolation. “The answer was: ‘We are used to sanctions, and we survived,’ ” she said. “When I also warned they will go into isolation, the answer was: ‘We have to learn to walk with only few friends.’”
In the face of escalating violence, Myanmar’s protesters now have to summon even more courage. “We might lose some heroes in this revolution,” Ma Sandar, an assistant general secretary of the Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar, told the New York Times. “Our women’s blood is red.”
One thin hope lies in the prospect of defections and mutinies within the security forces, amid scattered reports of police officers joining protesters on the streets and troops deserting their regiments to avoid following the junta’s orders.
“Lacking any popular mandate, the generals rely entirely on the state’s coercive apparatus to exercise power and maintain controls over the civil population,” wrote Andrew Selth, adjunct professor at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. “Should there be a serious breakdown in discipline, let alone a mutiny in the army, or a split between the army and the police force, then they are in real trouble. Based on past practice, they would react rapidly and forcefully to crush any dissident elements.”