Myanmar’s military government intensified its crackdown on the country’s pro-democracy protest movement on Sunday, firing at demonstrators gathered in Myanmar’s largest cities, and killing at least 18 people, according to the United Nations.
For nearly a month, a growing coalition of protesters has demanded the end of military rule in Myanmar, following a coup that led to the arrest of the nation’s civilian leaders on February 1. Demonstrations have taken place continuously across the country, taking the form of student protests, the halting of public transportation, and work stoppages that threaten to derail Myanmar’s economy.
These protests culminated in a nationwide strike last Monday, February 22, that millions participated in, according to the New York Times, generally known as the “22222 uprising.” As Vox’s Jen Kirby explained, the strike saw “protesters take to the streets of Myanmar’s cities; stores, banks, and fast food chains shut down in solidarity. Protesters chose the date because it echoes the August 8, 1988 (8/8/88) protests against military rule, which the military suppressed in a bloody crackdown.”
Ahead of that strike, the military government broadcast a warning that seemed to reference the 1988 crackdown, saying, “Protesters are now inciting the people, especially emotional teenagers and youths, to a confrontation path where they will suffer the loss of life.”
Sunday, the military showed its words were not an empty threat.
In Yangon, a protester named Yan told the Washington Post, “First they shot with real bullets, then tear gas. Later they used rubber bullets,” and stressed that the military gave only a whistle as a warning before shooting into the crowd. Yan said he personally saw at least six people shot, including a protester who was shot in the head and died.
In Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar, protester and doctor U Si Thu told the New York Times he was with a group of about 50 protesters who found themselves being shot at by police and military officials. At least three people in his group were shot, Si Thu said, including a man wearing a motorcycle helmet who medical professionals were unable to save.
“I don’t know where the bullet came from, but the man was shot in the forehead and went down,” Si Thu said, telling the Times that after that man was shot, army vehicles blocked the street his group was on, and fired again, hitting the other two people who were wounded.
Similar narratives have emerged throughout Myanmar, leading to over 30 protesters being wounded, according to the United Nations; a doctor told the Times the number of wounded may actually be far higher, saying that at least 50 people were wounded in his city, Dawei, alone.
Protesters are demanding a civilian government
Broadly, the protesters are demanding that the government they elected last year be restored. Since 2011, Myanmar has had a joint military-civilian government, led on the civilian side by Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party — the National League for Democracy — often dominated elections, including the one that led to the coup.
In November 2020, the National League for Democracy won 83 percent of the seats in parliament, a result that, as Vox’s Alex Ward noted, “seemingly gave them a mandate to pursue constitutional reforms” that the military had long opposed — namely, limited the military’s role in the government.
In response to the NLD’s landslide victory in November, the military and its political arm immediately claimed the elections were fraudulent, though foreign observers and the nation’s electoral commission declared there had been no significant problems. They went so far as to demand a new, military-supervised election, filed 200 complaints to local election agencies, and took their case to the nation’s Supreme Court.
Then ... a military spokesperson warned that the armed forces might “take action” if their assertions of fraud weren’t taken seriously and notably refused to rule out a coup. Citing a provision in the constitution it drafted, the military said it could launch a coup if the nation’s sovereignty was threatened and declare a national emergency.
And the military did indeed launch a coup. While experts have debated exactly why it did so, the result has been clear: Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint (along with dozens of other politicians, officials, and activists) have been detained and face both trial and imprisonment, and millions have demanded that the military give them what they voted for — a civilian government led by the National League for Democracy.
The military government has responded to these demands by working to curtail communication, including by blocking internet access, and by detaining protesters; according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights organization based in Thailand, as of February 28, at least 1,132 people have been arrested, charged, or sentenced in relation to the coup since it began.
Despite these arrests — and shootings like those seen on Sunday — the pro-democracy demonstrations continue, proof that, as Kirby has written, “the Myanmar coup is not going as planned.”
There is some concern violence could escalate, as it did in 1988. Protests that year came to an end after about 3,000 people were killed, another 3,000 were imprisoned, and roughly 10,000 were forced to flee the country, according to NPR.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres “strongly condemned” Sunday’s violence, according to his spokesperson, and called on the world “to come together and send a clear signal to the military that it must respect the will of the people of Myanmar as expressed through the election and stop the repression.”
Guterres’ statement comes after Myanmar’s ambassador to the UN, Kyaw Moe Tun, condemned the military government at the UN on Friday, saying its actions are “not acceptable in this modern world,” and requesting the “strongest possible action from the international community” to end military rule. The ambassador was fired by the government after his remarks, but the UN does not recognize the coup as legitimate, and will reportedly continue to recognize the dignitary as his country’s representative.
A number of foreign governments have signaled solidarity with the protesters. “We stand with the people of Burma,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said ahead of the February 22 strike. The United States has condemned the actions of the military, and imposed sanctions on military leaders, cutting them off from about $1 billion in assets.
But as former US ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell told the BBC recently, the US doesn’t “have a whole lot of leverage” over the military government.
“The key is our allies,” Mitchell said. “That’s a very difficult path, because some of our allies — Japan, India, Korea — have a lot of investment. They will be worried about growing Chinese influence there.”
China, Myanmar’s neighbor to the northeast, has largely taken a hands-off approach thus far, with a spokesperson for its foreign ministry saying on February 22, “We hope that all parties will properly handle their differences under the Constitution and legal framework to maintain political and social stability.”
And many of Myanmar’s other neighbors have advocated for a similar approach. ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member, responded to the coup with a call for “dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy.” Member nations Malaysia and Indonesia released a separate statement saying they “take the political situation in Myanmar seriously,” and have called for a special session to discuss the situation, but thus far no meeting has taken place.
Despite all this, it appears protests will continue. Yan, the protester in Yangon, told the Post that the shootings by security forces have only made protesters “angrier.” However, the military government has shown no signs it is willing to consider the changes Yan and his fellow protesters are calling for.