The faces of evil
It has been nearly a year since the coup against Myanmar’s civilian government brought its promising democratic transition to a violent halt. I can remember my odd mixture of concern and exhilaration when I first saw the BBC headline on February 1 alerting me to the news. The source of my concern is obvious; the exhilaration, I admit bashfully, came from feeling that I was finally around for the sort of historical event I’d read so much about in Cold War accounts. These preliminary sensations soon gave way to a more sober combination of sadness and anger as I familiarized myself with this particularly thuggish regime.
At a tense moment in American political life, it’s worth paying attention to Myanmar if only to gain some perspective. (Not intending to downplay the severity of America’s democratic crisis, I say this with slight contempt for those who bemoan it most ostentatiously, seemingly without a thought for the sufferings of other nations.) While the nightmare scenario of authoritarianism portended by January 6 and election denial did not come true, Myanmar endured exactly that. After winning 83% of the vote in the general election, revered leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party looked to continue its progress toward full-fledged democracy. With the military, known as the Tatmadaw, having controlled the country for almost the entirety of Myanmar’s period of independence — that is, from 1962 till 2011 after its emancipation from British colonialism in 1948 — the past decade was one of the brightest for the masses. The blow came after months of dispute as to the validity of election results, repeatedly verified by independent bodies, when the military deposed Suu Kyi and seized power. Led by Min Aung Hlaing, the same class of generals who had bullied and beaten down the Burmese for decades arrogated power on totally false grounds. In doing so, they saw bogus Trump-style claims of election fraud to their logical, frightening end.
In the past ten months, the country has teetered on the brink of civil war. Hlaing’s junta has moved closer to consolidating full power, coaxing support from other authoritarian governments and cracking down on dissent. Concurrently, an energetic opposition has developed in the hopes of restoring Myanmar to its former democratic course. All this has taken place with Suu Kyi, the fading face of the pro-democracy movement, locked away by the junta. Tracking the clashes between protesters and military men, which began as vibrant civilian demonstrations in the streets and have since turned to guerilla warfare in the jungles, has felt eerily like watching a people mature. Or, perhaps harden is the better word. Well aware even before the coup of the particular brand of horror practiced by their military, a new generation of Burmese have now met with it directly and traumatically. The corpus of civilian resistance has developed grander visions for the country’s future than Suu Kyi promised as it valiantly fights the junta. Unfortunately, its prospects look fairly grim.
Military coups are rarely bright affairs. Still, knowing what’s coming in advance can make them particularly devastating. One can only imagine the fear and bitterness elicited by the junta’s rise to power in Myanmar, a nation all too familiar with its ways. So far, Hlaing and the other generals have lived up to their sordid reputation. Hlaing himself had already amassed a sizable docket of human rights abuses as top general of the Tatmadaw before it seized power. Most notably, he presided over the 2017 genocide against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority in which over 730,000 were forcibly displaced (more on this later). He also oversaw several other violent campaigns against ethnic minorities that featured killings and gang rapes of innocent civilians. Since the coup, a similar pattern of crimes against humanity has emerged. Predictably, peaceful demonstrations have been violently quashed by the junta, leading to mass civilian deaths and detentions. (Around 1243 civilians have died and 7000 more detained thus far.) Over the summer, reports suggested that the government had deliberately hindered the distribution of medical supplies, or even withheld them entirely, to weaken the resistance — a particularly nauseating display of cruelty amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
More recently, evidence of especially heinous crimes committed by the military has appeared. These include the barbaric massacre of a group of villagers fleeing fighting on Christmas eve. Near the village of Moso in Kayah state, where conflict has raged due to resistance from the Karenni Nationalities Defense force, junta soldiers blocked off the exit roads. They proceeded to bind fleeing villagers, burn them alive, and leave the charred remains behind — among them those of children and one infant. Four military border guards who tried to negotiate the release of the villagers were shot dead; 35 to 40 civilians died in total. These sadistic raids, known as “clearance operations” and characterized by indiscriminate killings and village burnings, pervaded the Rohingya genocide. Similar instances of these “extreme terror tactics,” as the National Unity Government of Myanmar calls them, took place throughout July in a series of massacres that left another 40 dead. The word evil is employed both too often and not readily enough in political discourse; these days I can think of few groups more deserving of the label and the acid disgust it carries with it than the thugs running Burma.
To call a group or governing entity evil is not necessarily to imply a simplistic good versus evil paradigm. For despite her glories as a Nobel laureate who fought bravely for Burmese democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s international stock has fallen precipitously because of her complicity in and failure even to acknowledge the 2017 Rohingya genocide. (At the time she held a shaky power sharing agreement with the junta, which actually carried it out.) Suu Kyi’s ability to lead the resistance has also diminished with her recent prison sentence, handed down in a show trial on what many countries have called “politically motivated” grounds.
A bright spot in all this, nevertheless, is the nature of the resistance movement formed in Suu Kyi’s absence. Myanmar is home to a diverse array of ethnic groups who have long fought individually against the military for autonomy, groups like the Chin or the Karenni. Now, united under the yoke of Hlaing’s junta, many of these groups have coalesced into the People’s Defense Forces. Courageous civilians have gone to train in the jungles with experienced ethnic militiamen, and forces around the country have endured continual bombardment from the Tatmadaw. These fighters are reinforced by the National Unity Government, a shadow administration comprised of Suu Kyi’s allies and former pro-democratic government officials. While it’s heartstopping to watch footage of young teenagers taking up arms, the movement’s youth-driven vision offers a rare, faint gleam of hope. Their narrative seems to stretch beyond Suu Kyi’s reign into a new, more equal age of Burmese democracy. Younger leaders, including those of the Bamar ethnic majority, believe in a federalist democracy that would finally ensure equal rights for all Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. Suu Kyi would have to be pivotal in a successful counter revolution against the junta, but these new voices are presently the most noble.
Yet the question of the practicability of such a counter revolution remains, or rather blares. The People’s Defense Forces simply may not have the resources to fight the junta, especially with the latter’s new (if wary) allies, China and Russia. Unilateral action by the United States or another Western power would be fraught; intervention would be a mistake and covert rebel-arming has an unsavory history of its own in this country. (Though it likely could never be this simple, the moralist in me finds the rosy notion of giving the PDF just enough weaponry to defeat the junta tempting.) This leaves the boring option of sanctions. The Biden administration has already led the West in sanctioning the junta, but this strategy tends mainly to harm innocent civilians. A slightly more enticing possibility involves a highly coordinated multilateral effort led by the UN to cripple the junta into resignation, perhaps through a mass network of temporarily draconian sanctions. Something this forceful and targeted seems to be the best and possibly only way short of military intervention to knock the junta from power; unfortunately, China is always there to block the security council vote. One concrete action the Biden administration can and should take, in addition to continually pressuring the futile ASEAN to exert some influence, is to demand that India officially open its borders to the thousands of Burmese refugees fleeing violence in the Chin state. And if nothing else, the UN shouldn’t rule out a peacekeeping mission.
How does one understand the dismal fate of Myanmar, then, in the present global context? Some have argued it’s another unfortunate case of creeping authoritarianism as seen in Poland, Hungary, Brazil, the US, and elsewhere. In a narrow sense this is true. But it may prove more instructive to view Myanmar separately as an historical warning — playing out in front of our eyes — of the dangers of democratic backsliding. In Myanmar, the world is witnessing the filth and misery of past and future rolled into one ugly regime. Myanmar is the country that once inhabited and is now returning to the lowly place democrats worldwide fear they too are headed. It might serve as an urgent reminder not just to prioritize serious diplomatic and humanitarian efforts on behalf of the Burmese people, but also to prevent strongmen from normalizing authoritarianism elsewhere in the world. What a shame it would be if Brazil or Budapest became another Burma.