(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School).
Disclaimer: Taylor Landis is an independent human rights expert who worked in Myanmar from 2013 to 2020. She is serving as the author of this piece on behalf of an individual in northern Burma who wished to contribute to this series but cannot be identified due to the serious security threats she currently faces. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the unnamed individual in northern Burma and do not reflect those of any institution with which Taylor is affiliated.
Over encrypted video chat, a long-time civil society leader from one of northern Myanmar’s many remote conflict-affected communities reflects on life in the midst of the country’s latest crisis. “We are lucky to be from here,” she explains, referring to her small town situated in a valley among what would be picturesque mountains. She explains that each of the five closest peaks is occupied by a different armed entity: four ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) control one apiece and the fifth is the territory of the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw). The forested hillsides are contaminated with landmines, and the roads cutting through the valley are punctuated by EAO and Tatmadaw checkpoints where heavily armed soldiers closely control all movement. With this layout, travel in and out of town was dangerous and daunting before the military’s Feb. 1 grab for power. Now, with new checkpoints in place, it’s even more difficult. EAOs in this area have been in conflict with the Tatmadaw for decades, some since the country’s 1948 independence. In recent years, escalating armed violence between and among the EAOs has eclipsed their battles with the Tatmadaw. Over this civil society leader’s lifetime, ceasefires, alliances, and new armed entities have come and gone, but active fighting has never been far off. “We really are lucky,” she continues, “we grew up hearing gunfire. Now we are more resilient.”
When the Tatmadaw rolled tanks and troops into cities following the Feb. 1 coup, the woman’s community nervously followed the news, just like others all across Myanmar. The massive urban protests taking place throughout the country remained peaceful for weeks. Then the Tatmadaw began its crackdown. Having seen more than 700 people killed and over 3,000 detained by security forces across Myanmar by the end of April, her colleagues in Yangon have been shocked by the level of Tatmadaw violence they witness everyday. Like most people in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, her colleagues had never seen the Tatmadaw in action before February 2021.
“For them, the first time they saw a Tatmadaw sniper target a woman who was only buying snacks in the street, and they saw her shot in the head even though she was not even participating in the peaceful protest, they were shocked.” She pauses for a moment and goes on, “For us, in the conflict areas, we have seen the Tatmadaw’s human rights abuses. We know they shoot to kill. We are not shocked. We are sad, but we are not shocked.”
In ethnic-minority communities like hers, first-hand experience with Tatmadaw cruelty was common [and well documented] before the crisis brought on by the 2021 coup. Having borne the brunt of Tatmadaw violence, many in ethnic-minority communities had long looked for protection from and been supportive of EAOs, considering them a protective barrier standing between their communities and Tatmadaw violence. Not everyone, however, shared this view. Having tired of the ever-evolving, ever-present armed violence in their areas, some had little patience for any entity taking part. In her community, the civil society leader says people’s views of EAOs varied widely, but no one supported the Tatmadaw.
As protests elsewhere turned violent, the situation has stayed calm in her area. It’s safer in the small towns now, she says. In the cities, online ‘social punishment’ campaigns identify and shame those who perpetrate and benefit from the crackdown, and encourage a range of actions be taken against them—from launching boycotts of Tatmadaw soldiers’ family businesses to calling upon foreign universities to refuse tuition payments made on behalf of generals’ children. But these social punishment campaigns provide only a limited check, at best, on the Tatmadaw’s use of excessive force.
“Here, it would be much easier, since everybody knows everybody,” she explains, suggesting security forces in her area are hesitant to use the kind of extreme violence against community members that has now become routine elsewhere in the country. “If the Tatmadaw shoots a civilian, we would know which commander gave the order. We would know who pulled the trigger. We would know where their families stay. People could seek revenge easily.” So far, in these parts of the rural north, police and Tatmadaw soldiers have thus seemed more restrained in their treatment of civilians, perhaps wary that excessive violence on their part could trigger immediate consequences directed at their own families living in and among the communities where they are stationed. But in these areas, it’s not just the threat of angry civilians that keeps the Tatmadaw in check. It’s the EAOs.
In her town, everyone has heard that the nearby Tatmadaw commanders received a cautionary letter from at least one EAO, though no one is saying which one. The letter is understood to contain a blunt warning: if the Tatmadaw attacks the people, the EAO will burn down the Tatmadaw’s bases and the town’s police station, all of which are built on the edge of forest areas where the EAOs are known to operate. “The EAOs are protecting the people in the rural areas now,” she says. “If the Tatmadaw shoots the people, they know the EAOs could easily go through the forest and burn down their bases.”
This is far from an idle threat. In both Kachin and Shan States, for instance, EAOs began attacking Tatmadaw and police positions in March in response to the junta’s forces increasingly violent treatment of civilians. EAOs have continued these attacks in April and early May. The Tatmadaw has responded with multiple airstrikes, and at least one Tatmadaw helicopter gunship has reportedly been shot down by EAO fire. The escalating violence, however, has displaced nearly 17,000 people, per UN estimates, taking a heavy toll on the conflict-weary region, which was home to roughly 105,000 internally displaced people prior to the current crisis.
At home in the relative “safety” of her native conflict area, the civil society leader says she could go outside, but she doesn’t anymore. Lately, exhausted by the sorrow and trauma of her work, she leaves the shopping to other family members, but worries that it may get more difficult. Joining the ongoing nationwide boycotts of all Tatmadaw-linked products did not affect her much: she doesn’t drink beer, never used State-run mobile networks, and doesn’t play the lottery. Unable to travel, there’s no risk of her supporting Tatmadaw-backed airlines and hotels.
But the newer boycott of Chinese goods and services could be a game-changer in her area. Like many in her community, she says she agrees in principle with the efforts underway to protest China’s long-time support of the Tatmadaw, alleged support of the coup, and ongoing protection of Myanmar within the United Nations Security Council. At the same time, options in her valley are limited. “Everything here comes from China; what will we eat if we stop eating food from China?”
Until February, she went often to the closest market to support local vendors reeling from the economic impact of coronavirus shutdowns. Buying far more than her family could eat, she would distribute extra vegetables to people in need. “I never spent much money, just 500 Kyat (.35 USD) here, 500 there, so the sellers could have cash and the local people out of work could cook something with their rice.”
But with banks shut since the coup and cash hard to come by, she can’t afford such generosity anymore. She can now make just one, small weekly cash withdrawal from her account at a closed bank, thanks to kind staff who quietly suspend their own participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) for a few hours each week to open vital services for their neighbors. With so much uncertainty and so little cash, she has stopped going to the market. She is too sad to see vendors sitting with more than they can sell, while hungry villagers can’t afford to shop. “Maybe if I can get an ATM card, so it is easier to get cash, then maybe I can go again,” she hopes – despite her awareness of the new and lowering daily limits on ATM withdrawals and shortages of currency in machines across Myanmar. “Still,” she worries aloud, “Everything from the market is from China anyway.”
While indoors, she tries to remain focused on her work. “We are only doing ‘life-saving’ activities now,” she explains. An advocate for child protection and child rights across Myanmar, she now spends her days watching seemingly endless videos of police and Tatmadaw brutality. Using a virtual private network (VPN) to circumvent the regime’s Facebook ban and review footage shared across the social media platform, she and her colleagues work to identify children who are beaten, arrested, tortured, killed, and disappeared. Before the crackdown, they would go to hospitals and prisons and directly intervene to ensure children received necessary medical care, could access legal services, and were reunited with their families without delay. Now, this is impossible. “If we go in-person now, they will arrest us. We can only refer the cases to legal services online.”
In this new reality, she and her team spend their days alone in their homes across Myanmar, watching hours of violence against children on their computers and phones, coordinating around the country to determine what, if anything they can do to help. It’s taking a terrible toll on their mental health. Some of the team members work reduced hours and join protests; others stay inside to try to keep safe. She worries about all of them; security check-ins are now required every few hours, but she knows this is not enough. “In the past, if we faced a crisis in one place, we could send a team from somewhere else to support our colleagues there. We could go provide technical and psycho-social support. Now, the crisis is everywhere and we can’t move. We were stuck because of Covid, and now we are even more stuck because of the coup.”
The lower profile she and her team have been forced to keep has not gone unnoticed by families and communities desperate for support. Some take to Facebook to rail against her, her colleagues, her organization, or all of civil society in general. “Where are child protection workers now?” they demand. This has been especially hard to endure. The civil society workers can’t answer to defend themselves, or take credit for the few life-saving efforts they do have underway. Instead, they generate new anonymous profiles for case management, referrals, and advocacy. They try to keep out of sight in order to keep working. It’s exhausting and demoralizing. “We are so, so frustrated that we can’t do more. But even when we can do something, we have to hide it. We are doing our best, but it is very dangerous.”
She and her team are brainstorming ways to support one another at a distance, but so far it has proven difficult. By early March, no one wanted to participate in team-building psycho-social support activities via Zoom after a full day of staring at their computer screens, analyzing authorities’ brutal treatment of children. Now that new obstacles block internet access for the majority of Myanmar’s population, many of her colleagues can no longer even manage to get online to work. With her team in such dire need of psycho-social support but unable to provide it to each other, she can’t ask that they provide psycho-social support to families in their communities – even if it were safe to do so. “When we are not well, how can we take action for children’s well-being?” she asks. When community members in crisis take to Facebook to vent, accusing her and her team of being absent when the communities need them most, it hurts. But for those with access, staying offline is not an option. “Without Facebook, we can’t even do life-saving activities.”
When her team members do finally close their computers at 1 AM – or whenever the Tatmadaw shuts down the internet and mobile networks – few of them sleep. “For them, it is hard to hear gunfire and police raids every night,” the leader explains. Although people everywhere are on edge during the nightly communications blackouts, it’s easier to endure in the countryside, she says. “Here, we know how to sleep through gunfire.” She is well aware of the irony as she reiterates, “We are lucky to be from the conflict area.”