Months ago, the banging of pots and pans each night by residents of Myanmar’s largest city symbolized resistance to the military coup that deposed the country’s elected government.
Now, the thud of bomb blasts marks the defiance against the military, known as the Tatmadaw, since its Feb. 1 takeover and brutal crackdown on dissent that activists say has resulted in more than 1,100 civilian deaths.
The explosions ring out in Yangon as urban guerrillas step up their attacks on the security forces and their suspected informants. Six police officers were killed by militia members in the back of a train. Five soldiers were injured when a bomb was thrown into a military truck. A junta-supporting boss was also shot and killed in his home.
The military has responded by sealing off neighborhoods for hours to hunt down suspects. It has unsettled residents with surprise nighttime raids, detained many young people who make up the core of the protest and resistance movements and caused the disappearances of many people suspected of working with underground rebels.
“Anyone who goes outside risks being stopped, beaten and detained,” said Min Min, a 25-year-old anti-coup activist in hiding in Yangon to elude arrest. “There are security checks everywhere. Even in your own home. Officers will check the phones of people and arrest anyone they find suspicious. Everybody is in trouble. The junta can take your life away at any time.”
Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a nation of about 55 million people now teetering on full-blown civil war. The Tatmadaw is fighting an increasing number of resistance forces in nearly every region of the country, which covers roughly the same area as Texas. These include long-standing ethnic insurgent groups and dozens of new civilian defense forces. There are also loosely connected militias called the Kind Hearted Boneheads and Zero Guerrilla Force.
The groups have launched hundreds of strikes across the country. These include ambushing military convoys, detonating improvised bombs and destroying state-owned telecom towers. Local news reports and analysts agree.
The military has justified its takeover by claiming widespread voter fraud in the Nov. 8, 2020, general elections in which the Tatmadaw’s proxy political party was soundly defeated by the ruling National League for Democracy party led by the now- detained Aung San Suu Kyi. Independent observers have found no evidence of irregularities in voting.
The coup ended a decade of democratic reforms in Myanmar, which had been under a military dictatorship for nearly 50 years. Massive protests erupted after the takeover, which the Tatmadaw suppressed with deadly force and called the demonstrators violent criminals.
What started as a nonviolent struggle inspired by Suu Kyi has morphed into a nationwide campaign of armed resistance, highlighted by last week’s call for a popular uprising by the National Unity Government, a group of deposed civilian leaders claiming to be the country’s legitimate representatives.
The attacks were justified under the pretext of self-defense, claim the opponents to the military rulers. The junta toppled a democratically elected civilian government and is responsible for atrocities such as torture, rape and rampant killing of unarmed civilians, including children. Tatmadaw continues to use artillery and airstrikes against defenseless villages in border regions under the control of ethnic insurgents. And it keeps thousands of political prisoners in crowded jails where COVID-19 has spread uncontrollably.
“Many people in Myanmar struggle to see how nonviolence can be effective in a situation where the regime is willing to unleash extraordinary levels of violence against ordinary people,” said Richard Horsey, a longtime analyst on Myanmar at the International Crisis Group. “They believe the only way to dislodge the regime is also with violence.”
Foreign sanctions and diplomatic pressure have so far yielded no tangible results. The Assn has been blamed by the West democracies for not being able to solve the crisis. The Assn of Southeast Asian Nations is a regional organization consisting of states that adhere to the principle of noninterference.
A furious bid by the National Unity Government and international legal scholars to persuade a United Nations committee to certify the shadow government’s envoy over the junta’s has yet to be resolved after the United States and China reportedly brokered a deal to delay any decision. Analysts believe this was done to preserve the status quo, rather than to deal with the diplomatic fallout from supporting one side over another.
Both sides of the conflict in Myanmar are seeking recognition as the nation’s true government, partly to gain access to about $1 billion in frozen assets held by the U.S. Federal Reserve.
“With the failure of various political and diplomatic efforts to stop the military’s brutality in the past eight months, local communities are forced to form defense forces and to defend themselves from continuous military atrocities,” the National Unity Government said in a statement Monday after international experts and various nations, including the U.S., expressed concern that an uprising would lead to dramatically more violence. The shadow government has been advocating armed resistance since May when it created a “People’s Defense Force.” It also established a code for conduct that prohibits resistance fighters from targeting civilians.
Serious concerns remain about the potential loss of innocent life in an armed revolt. A bomb found in a gift was set off at a Yangon wedding, killing the bride and her two family members. Numerous guests sustained injuries. According to the groom, he was an informant for military personnel.
Min Min said he lives in a constant state of fear, daring to go outside only when he needs to buy necessities such as food. He stays vigilant for any suspicious persons, such as the taxi drivers outside railway stations and bus stations refusing to take passengers.
“They wait and watch people all day,” he said.
It’s not clear how resistance fighters decide who is legitimately targeted for assassination. It is possible that attacks are based on the settlement of old scores and rivalries, rather than solely targeting the junta.
“It gets into very murky territory because who decides who is an informant and on the basis of what evidence?” Horsey said. “There’s a lot of difficult questions that are hard for even large militaries to get right, much less diffuse revolutionary activity with individual cells and small groups who are making decisions more or less autonomously.”
Lightly armed and hastily trained, the opposition forces pose little threat of defeating the Tatmadaw, a war-hardened modern army of at least 300,000 troops that’s spent decades fighting insurgencies and inflicting terror on civilian populations.
Analysts believe that the Tatmadaw could be defeated if enough resistance groups are able to launch guerrilla operations across large areas of territory. This would lead both sides towards a bloody stalemate, or even a war.
“This could easily be a protracted war that goes on for years,” said Kim Jolliffe, a researcher who has worked with civil society and international aid organizations in Myanmar since 2008.
“Barring a wild card event that suddenly tips the scales, the trend will likely be the [junta] becoming increasingly crippled and giving up portions of territory to the resistance, while remaining an ever-present extremist violent threat,” Jolliffe said. “A lot will then depend on whether the democracy movement can seize opportunities to take each next big step forward.”
That could mean establishing international trade routes from rebel-controlled territory or integrating some of the more than 1,500 soldiers who have reportedly defected, Jolliffe said.
Resistance fighters claim they are growing in strength, but still lack food and ammunition. There’s also the administrative headache of creating an army and trying coordinate with politicians, ethnic minority groups and those who aren’t willing to take orders from ethnic majority Bamar fighters.
Aung Kyaw, commander in chief of the All Burma Independence Army, a coalition of ethnic armed organizations, civilian defense groups and the National Unity Government, said it took weeks to draw up documents to establish the new force. He blamed a lack of virtual meetings.
“Decision makers need to make their decisions quicker,” said the 36-year-old former teacher now hiding out in Myanmar’s border region. “Holding a Zoom meeting with 80 or 100 participants is totally unacceptable.”
Aung Kyaw said his alliance comprises 50 anti-junta groups from across the country, suggesting the resistance movement is growing more cohesive. Volunteers are trained for months to make explosives and place them on army positions.
The former protest leader from Yangon said he once supported peaceful activism before the Tatmadaw began slaughtering civilians to quell demonstrations.
“I used to think armed resistance wasn’t the answer,” Aung Kyaw said. “But I was shocked to see the junta kill [hundreds], and then detain many others. This must be the end for the military. This is the final battle for Myanmar. That’s why we had to take up arms.”
Times staff writer Pierson reported from Singapore and special correspondent Kyaw Hsan Hlaing from Chiang Mai, Thailand.