Six weeks after a coup the military repression is escalating with human rights activists saying ‘crimes against humanity’ are likely being committed. Foreign Editor David Pratt examines a brutal crackdown by an army with form in committing atrocities

For many Burmese it has brought new meaning to the term “night terrors”. Online the hashtag #nightdragging is used by many residents among Myanmar’s towns and cities to help band together and co-ordinate warnings and resistance to the night-time raids by security forces looking for daytime protesters.

It has now been six weeks since the armed forces under General Min Aung Hlaing ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, detained her and officials of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, and set up a ruling junta.

In the intervening period since the putsch, the country has been plunged into a kind of Orwellian nightmare that’s become real, where disappearances have become the order of the day. The hours of darkness are an especially terrifying time for many hunkering down in this long troubled Asian country of 54 million people.

In a message replete with the sort of doublespeak that could have come straight from the pages of George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the State Administration Council – a title chosen by the coup-makers – announced that it was taking away basic civil liberties, allowing for indefinite detention and for the police to search homes with impunity. And in the same vein, the Military Information Unit issued a statement that made a rather duplicitous attempt at explaining the security forces presence across Myanmar.

“Security forces will be performing day and night security for the public to sleep peacefully in the community,” the statement said, even if most ordinary citizens interpreted this for what it really meant.

Despite a crackdown on the internet and online provision by the junta, video and other reports still come out of the country and tell a very different story. From two of Myanmar’s biggest cities, Yangon and Mandalay, there have been reports of unidentified men at night setting fires to frighten and perhaps provoke residents onto the streets.

Videos posted online almost nightly show heavily-armed security forces prowling the streets shooting bullets and tear gas at homes and around residential areas while terrified citizens cower at their windows.

They also show truckloads of soldiers arriving at households from which suspected protesters and other activists can be seen being beaten and bundled into trucks before their own cars are sometimes also taken away by the army.

Threat of arrest

IN response, civilians in local neighbourhoods do what they can to resist or warn those in peril of arrest. Some bang pots and pans as early warning signs as the troops fan out in their neighbourhoods while others swarm the streets to try and prevent the arrests.

“Our nights aren’t safe anymore” and “Myanmar military is kidnapping people at night” are common captions on messages shared widely online.

“This is an army with a heart of darkness,” David Scott Mathieson, an independent analyst who has long studied the practices of the Myanmar military was cited by numerous news outlets as saying a few days ago. “This is an unrepentant institution,” Mathieson added, speaking of the Tatmadaw, as the army is known and which first came to power in a 1962 coup, saying that it had to safeguard national unity.

Human rights observers say that with the generals now back running the country the army is using lethal tactics and an arsenal of battlefield weapons to carry out a “killing spree” against peaceful protesters who oppose this year’s February 1 coup.

Amid the deteriorating situation, a leading UN expert said the military has likely committed “crimes against humanity” in its attempt to stay in power.

While stressing that such offences can only be determined in a court of law, Thomas Andrews, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said the crimes likely included “acts of murder, enforced disappearance, persecution, torture” carried out with “the knowledge of senior leadership”, including junta leader General Hlaing.

For some Myanmar watchers, though, such behaviour by the army comes as little surprise. Military analysts point to the fact that the Tatmadaw’s lower ranks have for a long time now been at the sharp end of ethnic wars in the country.

During the last three years, the Tatmadaw has waged war intermittently against ethnic rebel armies in three states: Rakhine, Shan, and Kachin.


BATTLEFIELD atrocities include the rape of women and girls, and the use of civilians as human shields have brutalised the same infantrymen that are now patrolling Myanmar’s streets.

Witnesses in Mandalay recently reported seeing soldiers from the 33rd Light Infantry Division, which led the deadly campaign against Rohingya Muslims in western Rakhine state in 2017.

Rights groups have voiced alarm at the junta’s deployment of a unit blamed for atrocities against civilians, including a massacre of 10 Rohingya men. The US Treasury imposed sanctions against Aung Hlaing, the division’s commander, in 2019.

“These Myanmar military tactics are far from new, but their killing sprees have never before been live-streamed for the world to see,” said Joanne Mariner, the director of crisis response at Amnesty International, speaking about the latest crackdown.

She was speaking after Amnesty’s Crisis Evidence Lab verified the more than 50 videos of the ongoing crackdown and confirmed that security forces “appear to be implementing planned, systematic strategies including the ramped-up use of lethal force”.

“Many of the killings documented amount to extrajudicial executions,” the rights group said.

Meanwhile, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a long-established group that helps political detainees in Myanmar, has warned that if the military coup is not reversed, then the arbitrary arrests will only increase.

“Family members are left with no knowledge of the charges, location, or condition of their loved ones. These are not isolated incidents, and night-time raids are targeting dissenting voices. It is happening across the country,” the AAPP said in a statement.

In cracking down so violently, the Tatmadaw has once again cast Myanmar as a pariah state and turning the clock back to the isolationist era that preceded the past decade’s slow opening in the country.

Not surprisingly, there has been deepening international condemnation these past weeks against the coup and military rule, but General Hlaing and his cadres have shown no signs of backing down. Why would they, some ask, when their seizure of power has as much to do with protecting the military’s sprawling, and highly lucrative, business interests?

For decades, the generals have amassed fortunes by controlling the state bureaucracy and establishing

near-monopolies in key sectors.

Through two highly shadowy military-controlled giants, Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), it is estimated that at least 133 companies in the country are wholly or partially overseen by generals, according to a report by Justice For Myanmar (JFM), a covert group of activists who campaign for justice and accountability.

Such conglomerates control businesses and investments in sectors ranging from beer, tobacco and consumables to mines, mills, tourism, property development and telecommunications.

Much of the lucrative – and largely unregulated – jade and ruby trade is controlled by military-owned businesses.

Jewel control

SINCE 2011, the disaster-prone jade industry has remained “controlled by a network of military elites, drug lords and their cronies”, according to NGO Global Witness that tracks corruption and exploitation.

Although Myanmar is the world’s largest producer of jade, and the trade is estimated to be worth billions of dollars a year, only a very small part of the financial windfall ends up in state coffers with most high-quality stones believed to be smuggled over the border into China.

Indeed, China’s closeness with the Myanmar coup’s generals and its reluctance to condemn their takeover stems, say analysts, from Beijing’s substantial vested economic interests in Myanmar.

Ruling for nearly half a century, “the military top brass had time to enrich themselves”, said Francoise Nicolas, Asia director of the French Institute of International Relations. The brief stint of quasi-civilian rule from 2011/21 did little to change that. But the military may have feared for its future prospects after Suu Kyi’s party won by a landslide in November, Nicolas told Agence France Presse (AFP) recently.

“This risked endangering part of their wealth and was very probably part of their decision to launch a putsch,” she added.

The junta, however, appears determined that the world interprets the situation very differently. So determined, in fact, that it has hired an Israeli-Canadian lobbyist who will be paid $2 million to “assist in explaining the real situation” of the army’s coup to the US and other countries, according to documents filed with the US government.

Ari Ben-Menashe and his firm, Dickens & Madson Canada, will represent Myanmar’s military government in Washington, and lobby Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Russia, as well as international bodies like the United Nations, according to a consultancy agreement, Reuters news agency reported.

Ben-Menashe’s client portfolio – which has included late Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe – has drawn attention before. But by working with Myanmar’s military, legal experts say he risks violating US sanctions imposed on top generals.


BEN-MENASHE told Reuters his task was to convince Washington that Myanmar’s generals wanted to move closer to the West and away from China. He said they wanted to resettle Rohingya Muslims who fled a 2017 assault for which the UN has accused the military of overseeing a genocide. Few human rights observers, however, believe Ben-Menashe has any chance of persuading the Americans.

“It is highly implausible that he could convince the United States of the narrative he’s proposing,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

Meanwhile, as all these geopolitical machinations continue, so too do the dark deeds being enacted on the street of Myanmar’s town and cities.

Alongside the army’s paranoid and uncompromising worldview, it has only intensified its repressive campaign against its own citizens. In turn, protesters have adopted myriad strategies in their efforts to counter the security forces on the streets.

Many women have been at the forefront of the protests and adopted some unusual tactics. Several news reports have told how some taking advantage of the misogyny and superstition of the security forces have hung up the traditional sarongs they wear in Myanmar, and their underwear and bras, on clothes lines around protest zones.

Soldiers and police are said to be hesitant to walk under them because of superstitious beliefs that these women’s garments can sap them of their masculinity and bring them bad luck.

“The younger generation nowadays doesn’t believe it anymore, but the soldiers still do, and it’s their

weakness. So, we might gain more

time to run if they come towards us in case of emergency,” said one 20-year-old protester who declined to give

their name to reporters for fear of reprisals.

Already the junta has responded by outlawing the practice, and security forces have been photographed removing the clothes lines and even burning the sarongs.

Digging in

SIX weeks after the coup both sides appear to be digging their heels in. In Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, eyewitnesses describe the protests as resembling siege warfare.

Many of the predominately young people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who have taken to the streets, wear helmets and gas masks and carry shields.

,In a deadly game of cat and mouse, they stand their ground, one moment slowing down the security forces

before fleeing then reassembling the moment the police and army leave.

But Myanmar’s army is well equipped, battle-hardened and brutal – and the only side that carries the


This weekend, worried at the escalating violence, the UK Government has urged its citizens to flee Myanmar warning that “political tension and unrest are widespread since the military takeover and levels of violence are rising”.

Tensions have heightened, too, after the civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been detained since day one of the coup, was accused by the military of taking bribes worth $1.3 million in cash and gold.

“Myanmar’s military seems sadistically intent on breaking the nation’s spirit,” read an editorial written by staff at the English and Burmese language news site, Myanmar Now, which was raided by soldiers last week in a crackdown on independent media.

Retreat for either side, it would seem, is not really an option and only time will tell whether the “nation’s spirit” can indeed be broken by the military.

Meanwhile, the dark deeds being carried out by the army are unlikely to stop anytime soon.