It marked the bloodiest day in Myanmar since the coup-plotting junta interrupted its fledgling democracy Feb. 1, arrested hundreds of politicians and activists and invoked emergency rule. Authorities launched a rolling crackdown on protesters, who have repeatedly defied the threat of violence to take to the streets and clamor for a restoration of democracy. More than 400 people have been killed so far, while hundreds more have been detained. On Sunday, as victims’ friends and relatives mourned their loved ones, there was at least one report of troops firing on a funeral.
Among the dead this weekend were several children — including two 13-year-old boys and a 5-year-old. Witnesses and survivors recounted scenes of seemingly indiscriminate gunfire into crowded neighborhoods by security forces in major cities like Yangon and Mandalay, which saw the brunt of the casualties Saturday.
Meanwhile, the generals staged a celebratory gala. “While the night sky in the purpose-built capital of Naypyidaw was momentarily aglow with a drone display of junta leader Min Aung Hlaing, his troops burned alive a snacks vendor in Mandalay,” reported the Guardian. “A witness said the man screamed for his mother as the flames enveloped him.”
“It was the randomness of the killings that was particularly shocking,” reported Moe Myint of the BBC’s Burmese service. “Armed with battlefield weapons, the security forces appeared willing to shoot anyone they saw on the streets. The brutality they showed they were capable of is on another level from what we have seen since the coup.”
International condemnation was swift and widespread. The defense chiefs of a dozen countries, including the United States, Britain, Australia and Japan, released a statement denouncing the lethal crackdown. “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,” it read.
British foreign secretary Dominic Raab described the carnage Saturday as a “new low” for the country’s military. The European Union deemed it “unacceptable.” Tom Andrews, the U.N.’s special rapporteur for Myanmar, called for an emergency Security Council meeting and international coordination to punish the country’s military, including measures to curtail the top brass’s plundering of Myanmar’s oil and gas sector as well as its acquisition of arms used against civilians.
“Words of condemnation or concern are frankly ringing hollow to the people of Myanmar while the military junta commits mass murder against them,” Andrews said in a statement.
“It’s terrible,” said President Biden on Sunday, indicating that his administration was looking into new rounds of sanctions and describing the violence as “absolutely outrageous.”
Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), chairman of the House foreign affairs subcommittee that focuses on Asia, pointed to the Biden administration’s sanctioning of two major military conglomerates in Myanmar as a welcome step. “I encourage our allies and partners to continue to work jointly with the United States in holding the Burmese military accountable for derailing Burma’s nascent democracy, and to put pressure on the Tatmadaw” — the term for the country’s military — “to end the violence and return to civilian rule,” Bera told Today’s WorldView in an email. “This desperate cling to power at the expense of the lives of those the military is supposed to protect is unacceptable.”
Of course, there’s little indication that the Security Council can deliver tough action. Russian and Chinese officials were present at the junta’s ceremonies on Saturday. After Myanmar’s military launched nighttime airstrikes over the weekend against ethnic militia in the country’s southeastern Karen State — forcing thousands of villagers to flee across the border to Thailand — activists suggested the military’s capabilities had been boosted by years of Chinese and Russian support.
The military authorities, meanwhile, are demonizing the protest movement as a menace backed by shadowy foreign interests. “They see protesters as criminals because if someone disobeys or protests the military, they are criminal,” Captain Tun Myat Aung, an officer who defected to the ranks of the anti-coup demonstrators, told the New York Times’s Hannah Beech, in a piece that delved into the paranoid, cloistered state-within-a-state that the Tatmadaw occupies. “Most soldiers have never tasted democracy for their whole lives. They are still living in the dark.”
The protest movement, on the other hand, comprises a young generation that wants no part in the country’s retreat from a decade of liberalizing — if far from ideal — political and economic reforms. “Neither side — the military nor the pro-democracy movement — is willing to back down,” wrote Myint. “The military thinks it can terrorize people to achieve ‘stability and security.’ But the movement on the streets, led by young people, is determined to rid the country of the military dictatorship once and for all.”
“The demonstrations have not yet — and may never — reached critical mass, whereby there are enough people taking up the cause to make the movement self-sustaining,” said Lee Morgenbesser, a senior lecturer who studies authoritarian regimes at Griffith University in Australia, to my colleagues. “This means the coup will only be reversed by a split within the Tatmadaw which comparatively has been one of the most cohesive and durable militaries anywhere in the autocratic world.”