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Myanmar’s military sows fear and terror in nighttime raids

A man, left, holds his phone aloft as other people carry a man with blood on his fingers
An injured man is carried to safety after police dispersed anti-coup protesters in Mandalay, Myanmar, on March 6, 2021.
(Associated Press)

Aung Ko Ko trembled with fear as the nighttime curfew wore on. He could hear the soldiers and police outside his window firing gunshots and ransacking his neighbors’ homes in a Muslim enclave in the center of Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon.

The uniformed gunmen skipped his door, but they didn’t miss that of his longtime friend Khin Maung Latt. Security forces smashed their way into the 58-year-old’s home, beat him and dragged him away.

The next morning, authorities told Khin Maung Latt’s family to recover his body from a hospital. He lay draped in a bloodstained sheet. Deep wounds marked his hands and back, suggesting he had been tortured.

“No one feels safe,” Aung Ko Ko, a Muslim activist, said of the recent raid. “Even if we stay at home, we can be arrested at night and dead by the morning.”

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A man crosses his arms overhead as he walks along with others in hard hats, also wearing masks and goggles
Anti-coup protesters retreat after police fire flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets in Yangon, Myanmar, on March 11, 2021.
(Associated Press)

Khin Maung Latt was the first of two civilian government officials to die in custody since Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup Feb. 1. The other, Zaw Myat Linn, was killed after he was detained last week.

Their deaths are part of a growing campaign of terror by the junta to frighten and quell a widespread opposition movement at a time of deepening international condemnation against military rule. The generals have shown no signs of backing down even as the nation is gripped by unrest and its economy is in turmoil.

Each night, residents of towns and cities across the country of 54 million hunker down as security forces roam the streets like an occupying force firing their weapons indiscriminately and seizing suspects from their homes.

“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.

People now refer to security forces as “terrorists,” responsible for nearly 2,200 arrests and more than 126 deaths since the coup. Each day brings a deluge of images on social media of unarmed anti-coup protesters with gruesome fatal wounds. On Sunday, nearly two dozen civilians were killed in Hlaing Thar Yar, an industrial suburb of Yangon, after security forces fired live rounds at protesters.

People use a mat to carry a body wrapped in colorful cloth
People carry the body of Chit Min Thu in Yangon, Myanmar, on March 11, 2021. He was fatally shot in the head by security forces during an anti-coup protest.
(Associated Press)

Amnesty International said the country’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, and the police, which are controlled by the generals, are increasingly unleashing battlefield tactics to suppress peaceful demonstrators.

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The group released a report that examined dozens of videos shared on social media showing soldiers and police firing on civilians with combat weapons.

“The weaponry deployed by the Tatmadaw reveals a deliberate and dangerous escalation in tactics,” Joanne Mariner, director of crisis response at Amnesty International, said in a statement. “Not content with indiscriminately using less-lethal weapons, each new day shows an apparent order to deploy semiautomatic rifles, sniper rifles and light machine guns in increasing numbers. Make no mistake, we are in a deadly new phase of the crisis.”

The United Nations Security Council condemned the military’s deadly crackdown in a statement Wednesday, but fell short of threatening more action because of opposition from China, Russia, India and Vietnam.

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Protesters in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, have been calling on the U.N. to send forces, citing the organization’s Responsibility to Protect principle to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. But analysts say opposition from two of the permanent members of the Security Council — China and Russia — will doom that prospect.

The Tatmadaw, whose origins date to Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948, has a long history of brutality, engaging in civilian massacres and mass rapes. It crushed popular uprisings in 1988 and 2007 and drove hundreds of thousands of minority Muslim Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh in 2017, killing thousands in clearance operations.

People holding shields shelter behind a makeshift barricade as trucks with riot police approach
Anti-coup protesters take cover behind makeshift barricades as trucks with riot policemen arrive in Yangon, Myanmar, on March 11, 2021.
(Associated Press)

Many of those atrocities occurred out of sight. But the current crackdown is being captured on cellphones and posted online despite nightly internet blackouts.

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“These Myanmar military tactics are far from new, but their killing sprees have never before been livestreamed for the world to see,” Mariner said.

Violence is expected to grow as the crisis devolves into a war of attrition between security forces and an increasingly enraged populace, including feuding ethnic and religious groups, all united in hatred for the Tatmadaw. Protesters are torn between remaining peaceful and being more confrontational toward security forces, fearing the latter will spur a more violent response.

Residents of Yangon, which is also known as Rangoon, describe a city of increasing paranoia as soldiers, police and plainclothes security forces snatch people in the night. Authorities appear to be targeting officers belonging to the deposed ruling National League for Democracy party, protesters and members of the civil disobedience movement, which has stalled the country’s economy and government functions.

The likelihood of de-escalation remains remote. The Tatmadaw views itself as the rightful defender of the nation’s sovereignty and disdains the civilian government, with which it briefly shared power after democratic reforms in 2011 until last month’s coup that led to the arrest of elected leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

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“They believe only men in uniform can rule the country,” said the son of a former Burmese diplomat who has family members who served in the Tatmadaw.

He spoke on condition of anonymity to protect relatives living in Yangon. Friends with links to the army told him Tatmadaw families have been ordered to move into military compounds. This is partly for safety as animosity toward them grows, he said.

Staged car breakdowns, blocked railway tracks and civil servant strikes are putting pressure on the junta and raising fears of a harsh crackdown.

Still, many children of military officers are supportive of the protests and have appeared at demonstrations, he said.

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“These are war fighters,” he said of the Tatmadaw. “They don’t understand politics or a hearts-and-minds strategy. They only understand combat. They want people to fear them because they believe they will have peace if they can stop the defiance.”

Maung Saungkha said that strategy will fail. The 28-year-old protest leader said the more the Tatmadaw resorts to terror, the more he’ll resist.

“They’re arresting people at night because they know what they’re doing is illegitimate and unjust,” said Maung Saungkha, who barricaded himself with others in the Sanchaung district of Yangon last week during a tense standoff with security forces.

The nighttime raids have been especially harrowing for members of the Burmese diaspora, many of whom feel powerless as loved ones are arrested, their fates left uncertain.

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Ivy Nyo, a 25-year-old nurse in Peachtree City, Ga., learned from family members in Yangon that her uncle was taken by authorities from his home there March 6.

She said 20 armed men stormed her uncle’s apartment building, knocking on every door, looking for him. When they arrived at the fourth and final floor, they threatened to knock down the door because Nyo’s aunt refused to let them in.

“My uncle went willingly because he was scared they would harm his family if he didn’t go,” Nyo said. “They let him take a jacket and his medication.”

Nyo’s uncle, who she said was approaching 70, was a low-level official for the NLD who helped count and verify votes in the November general election, which the Tatmadaw dismissed as fraudulent, without providing evidence.

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“My uncle knew people in the NLD were in hiding, but he said he was so low on the chain that he didn’t matter and didn’t need to hide,” Nyo said.

A cousin eventually found him at Insein, the infamous prison where scores of political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, have been kept. No one knows what Nyo’s uncle has been charged with or if he’ll be released.

Nyo, who left Myanmar for the U.S. when she was 10, has stayed in touch with elementary school friends in Yangon who now keep her abreast of developments in the protests and crackdown. At the end of each day, they erase their texts in case they’re arrested and forced to reveal their conversations.

“It’s devastating,” Nyo said. “I can’t stop crying. I just want someone to help. Please. People are being slaughtered.”

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Women in colorful dresses hold up three fingers as they weep next to a woman carrying a framed photo of a man
Relatives mourn anti-coup protester Chit Min Thu outside his home in Yangon, Myanmar, on March 11, 2021.
Some hold up a three-finger salute, a symbol of resistance.
(Associated Press)

Special correspondent Kyaw Hsan Hlaing in Yangon contributed to this report.


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