The United States has introduced trade sanctions against Myanmar in the aftermath of security forces killing thirty-eight protesters on Wednesday. Specifically, the sanctions will be made up of export controls against Myanmar’s Defense Ministry, and a trio of corporations that have close ties to the military. As the military continues to escalate the situation on the ground in Myanmar, the US sanctions signal that Washington is moving to set an example for the international community to follow. The State Department has also called on China to use its close relationship with Myanmar to restore calm and return the civilian government to power. The chances of Beijing doing this are remote, however. In February, China blocked the UN Security Council from issuing a condemnation of the coup and at the moment, China has more pressing issues to deal with.
Inside of Myanmar there is growing anxiety about what the weekend will bring. Activists and protest groups have defiantly promised to continue demonstrations even in the face of security forces firing live ammunition at protesters. Meanwhile, as Myanmar braces for a potentially violent weekend, the military government is indifferent about blowback from the international community over the February coup. ‘We are used to sanctions, and we survived,’ Myanmar’s deputy military chief Soe Win informed the UN envoy to Myanmar last month. It will be interesting to see if the military government’s stance changes following the bloody day of protests this week.
This weekend has seen the crackdown in Myanmar intensify. Police and security forces confronted peaceful demonstrators at protest sites across the country. The use of lethal force has been reported by the UN human rights office, which claims to have received the information from highly credible sources. In Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, a large demonstration was confronted by police. The police charged at unarmed, non-violent protesters and when the protesters moved to reassemble, the police started using more heavy-handed tactics, according to an Al Jazeera journalist who witnessed the scene. Reports of police opening fire at other points in Yangon were soon published on social media outlets. Although most news outlets were unable to confirm the claims, or number of casualties, the UN human rights office has reported that at least 18 protesters have been killed over the weekend.
On the geopolitical front, Kyaw Moe Tun, Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations was fired by the nation’s military rulers after a speech he gave at the UN General Assembly on Friday. Tun urged the international community to use “any means necessary to take action” against the military to “ restore the democracy.” Tun concluded his remarks by saying he was representing Aung San Suu Kyi’s ousted government.
Protests blossomed in Myanmar on Monday despite stern threats by the military government to use lethal force against citizens who join a nationwide general strike. Businesses, factories and markets were closed in response to the call for a general strike across Myanmar. On Sunday evening, the military government made a public announcement on state television. “It is found that the protesters have raised their incitement towards riot and anarchy mob on the day of 22 February. Protesters are now inciting the people, especially emotional teenagers and youths, to a confrontation path where they will suffer the loss of life.” The government also blames criminals for inciting violence during past demonstrations which led the deaths of three protesters at the hands of security forces.
Reports, photographs and video from Monday’s protests show crowd numbers in the tens of thousands across Myanmar’s largest cities. The police have moved in to break up a number of anti-military demonstrations and have arrested upwards of 200 people. The military appears to have held back on its promise to use lethal force, but the reason for that decision remains a mystery. It’s very possible that increasing outside scrutiny is compelling the military government to restrain police and security forces.
An example of the growing foreign attention on Myanmar is the US warning that it will seek “against those who perpetrate violence against the people of Burma as they demand the restoration of their democratically elected government.” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken released this statement on Twitter. A State Department spokesperson released this follow up statement on Twitter shortly thereafter. “We call on the military to stop violence, release all those unjustly detained, cease attacks on journalists and activists, and respect the will of the people.”
Sixteen days have passed since Myanmar’s military seized control from the civilian government. The military continues to cement its hold on power and marginalize opposition to its actions. How successful they have been in that endeavor depends on who you ask. International media outlets continue to loudly trumpet the effects large-scale protests taking place across Myanmar are having, without reporting specifically what those effects are. Yet the fact remains that the military has made no overtures to the protesters, or the political parties represented in the streets. Hundreds of citizens have been imprisoned, dozens of national government officials and political party members have been arrested, and the crackdown on social media and internet platforms continues.
An additional charge against former leader Aung San Suu Kyi was announced when she appeared in court today via video link. The details of the new charge remain unclear though it seems Suu Kyi’s new charge is related to alleged violations of the nation’s Natural Disaster Law. Realistically, this charge is more likely just legal cover to keep her under house arrest for an indefinite period.
The military also held a press conference on Tuesday. It defended the seizure of power on 1 February and made a promise to hold elections and hand over power to the victorious party. A date for the new election was conveniently left out, arousing suspicion that the promise is little more than empty words aimed at placating international opinion for the time being. Condemnation and concerns have been voiced by governments and supra-national bodies around the world since the military took power. Unfortunately, world opinion has not motivated the military to reassess or walk back its actions.
Almost a week after Myanmar’s military leaders assumed control of the nation’s government and detained its civilian leaders, mass protests are beginning to take shape across the land. Over the weekend tens of thousands of citizens marched in cities and towns, carrying signs demanding the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and flags of the National League for Democracy party. On Monday, the size and scope of the protests grew, and a national strike was called. So far the protests appear to be relatively peaceful with few reports of violence. Outside observers are closely monitoring the situation closely, given that the army has met protests like this with violence in the past. This has not deterred citizens from taking to the streets, however.
The military has been slowly imposing restrictions on gatherings and curfews in select areas of Myanmar, building upon communications and digital restrictions put in place shortly after the coup occurred on 1 February. Internet service was restored 36 hours later, yet the threat of another outage looms.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the coup, addressed the nation over the weekend. He justified the transfer of governmental power by claiming the November election, a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s party was fraudulent. Whether Hlaing’s speech will resonate with Myanmar’s civilian population or not remains to be seen. Given the number of protesters out in the streets in the past 12 hours or so, it would appear unlikely Hlaing’s words have had a positive effect.