It was not long ago that Aung San Suu Kyi came to the Hague to defend Myanmar to rebuff charges that Myanmar carried out a systematic campaign of mass murder, rape and terror against the Rohingya.

Here fiery speach where she claimed the Rohingya were in fact the guilty party which did little to convince the UN Security Council which referred the matter to the International Criminal Court, in order to establish an ad-hoc tribunal on Myanmar or having countries with universal jurisdiction use it to deal with the plight of the Rohingya Muslims who fled military crackdowns to Bangladesh.

During a 17 Sept. news conference in the Palais des Nations a UN panel stated that Myanmar incurs state responsibility under the prohibition against genocide and crimes against humanity, as well as for other violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. And that Myanmar’s civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, could face prosecution for crimes against humanity committed by the military.

Whereby now Suu Kyi herself became the victim of the military she once so violently defended.

Given the current situation however the U.N. special envoy for Myanmar now warns that the country faces the possibility of civil war at an unprecedented scale.

 

Does Myanmar now face civil war?

On Friday, most Myanmar citizens woke up to no internet access.

Myanmar's military junta has cut all wireless internet services until further notice, in what appears to be part of a concerted effort to control communications and messaging in the Southeast Asian country.

Rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Friday that the junta had also "forcibly disappeared hundreds of people" -- including politicians, election officials, journalists, activists and protesters -- since the February 1 coup.

The co-chairs of the United Nations Group of Friends for the Protection of Journalists on Thursday issued a statement voicing "deep concern over the attacks on the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the situation of journalists and media workers in Myanmar and strongly condemn their harassment, arbitrary arrests and detention, as well as of human rights defenders and other members of civil society."

Myanmar’s rulers this week crossed a threshold few governments breach anymore: They have killed, by most estimates, more than 500 unarmed citizens of their own country.

Such massacres by government forces have, even in a time of rising nationalism and authoritarianism, been declining worldwide. This is the seventh in the past decade, compared with 23 in the 1990s, according to data from Uppsala University in Sweden.

And the violence in Myanmar was carried out by a sort of government that has grown rarer still: outright military rule.

Myanmar does not signify a return to an earlier era, experts believe, so much as an echo. Its violence hints at the ways in which the world has changed, and hasn’t.

Governments are more oppressive but, with a handful of exceptions like Syria, less likely to kill their own people at scale. Dictatorships are more common but less overt. And world powers have come to shun the government crackdowns they once encouraged.

Myanmar is unusual partly because it is a country out of time, resembling a bygone style of autocracy, but also for the ways in which it is unique.

And those traits, experts say, helped enable the February coup led by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and the subsequent crackdown on peaceful protesters. They also point to a long and difficult road ahead.

No two crackdowns are alike, each brought about by events and personalities particular to its time and place. But scholars have identified a set of factors that make a government likelier to kill large numbers of its own citizens. And virtually all are present in Myanmar.

Perhaps the most important warning sign: direct military rule.

Military rulers tend to be more aggressive in deploying troops to crush dissent. And unlike civilian autocrats, they have little reason to fear the troops turning on them, as happened when Romania’s armed forces ousted the communist rulers who’d ordered them to open fire on protesters in 1989.

Most primes military rulers get paranoid and don’t have a sense for what levels of dissent are acceptable in society, so they might be quicker to use force against their citizens, such rulers usually tend to have a kneejerk reactions to threats.

Myanmar’s generals are typical in this sense: experienced at fighting, politically powerful, but unfamiliar with the give-and-take required of even autocratic rule. Force is the tool they know best.

The country bears another serious risk factor: its civil war, raging against various ethnic militias since the 1940s.

Most militaries see themselves as protectors against foreign threats, with a strong taboo against committing violence at home.

But civil war can break that taboo, normalizing the idea that deploying domestically is legitimate, and making it easier to see fellow citizens as enemies.

And it accustoms generals to the idea that their proper place is not guarding the borders but imposing order at home. Myanmar’s military has considered this its role for decades — even when it allowed elections and limited civilian government in the years before the coup, it granted itself permanent seats in the legislature.

Few factors predict future government massacres like past ones. And it has been less than four years since Myanmar’s conducted one of the bloodiest of the 21st century, targeting thousands of members of the country’s Rohingya minority in what the United Nations and human rights groups called a genocidal campaign.

International outrage, though severe, did little to the leaders’ calculus. And much of the domestic response to the Rohingya killings was supportive. Social media filled with praise for the campaign and the military officers who led it.

The current violence is not surprising “because of the genocide and the fact that they were able to get away with it with very little repercussions,” Dr. Frantz said.

Once a military kills its own with impunity, and even feels it benefited from the bloodshed, there is very little to stop it from doing so again.

 

Country missed out on a change how dictatorship works

The era of armed forces rule peaked between 1960 and 1990, when dozens of countries around the world came under full or partial military dictatorships, many of them propped up by the United States or the Soviet Union.

When the Cold War ended, that number collapsed to just a handful, and has been steadily declining ever since, according to data maintained by One Earth Future, a research foundation.

Government-sponsored massacres became less frequent too. But a wave in the 1990s were mostly in countries that, like Myanmar, had histories of civil war, weak institutions, high poverty rates and politically powerful militaries — Sudan, Rwanda, Nigeria, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, among others.

Though they largely failing to stop those killings as they happened, world leaders and institutions like the United Nations built systems to encourage democracy and avert future atrocities.

Myanmar, a pariah state that had sealed itself off from the world until reopening in 2011, didn’t much benefit from those efforts.

The country also missed out on a global change in how dictatorship works.

A growing number of countries have shifted toward systems where a strongman rises democratically but then consolidates power. These countries still hold elections and call themselves democracies, but heavily restrict freedoms and political rivals. Think Russia, Turkey or Venezuela.

Repression in the last couple of years has actually gotten worse in dictatorships. But large-scale crackdowns are rarer, in part because today’s dictators are getting savvier in how they oppress.

Only 20 years ago, 70 percent of protest movements demanding democracy or systemic change succeeded. But that number has since plummeted to a historic low of 30 percent, according to a study by Dr. Erica Chenoweth of Harvard University.

Much of the change, Chenoweth wrote, came through something called “authoritarian learning.”

New-style dictators were wary of calling in the military, which might turn against them. And mass violence would shatter their democratic pretensions. So they developed practices to frustrate or fracture citizen movements: jailing protest leaders, stirring up nationalism, flooding social media with disinformation.

Some Myanmar experts argue that the country’s civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was pulling the government in this direction before the generals seized power for themselves.

But there is one way, experts stress, in which the world has not much changed: its seeming inability to stop government-sponsored killings once they begin.

Once the military is involved in politics, it’s hard to get them out if they don’t want to get out.

Most military rulers do step down after a few years, usually in response to an economic downturn, protest movement or other headache that they decide they don’t want. And usually with a promise that they can keep their ranks and salaries.

But there is a big exception: Rulers who oversee atrocities tend to stay in office more or less for life.

They usually cling on until the end because they know there’s a lot of uncertainty should they leave power. Rather than risk prison time or war crimes charges, they do whatever it takes to hold power.

As to what next, the restoration of ‘democracy’ should not be the goal of Western policies vis-à-vis Myanmar. Instead, the goal should be restoration of some form or semblance of civilian and constitutional rule.

 

Conclusion

The military regime’s brutal killings and extreme violence against peaceful anti-regime protests since its coup have led Myanmar to the verge of a full-blown civil war and urban combat.

For weeks following the coup, the approximately 20 ethnic armed groups that have fought for autonomy for decades, but which signed ceasefire agreements with previous governments in recent years, did nothing in regard to the nationwide anti-regime protests. But more recently, some of them, including the KIA and the Karen National Union (KNU), based in the eastern part of the country, have started announcing that they stand with the people against the military dictatorship. 

On March 27, Brigade 5 of the KNU’s military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), seized a hilltop outpost held by the military regime in Karen State. The KNLA killed 10 soldiers including an officer and arrested eight soldiers as prisoners of war.

In retaliation, within a few hours the regime launched airstrikes against the KNLA using two fighter jets in Papun District, Karen State. More than a dozen Karen people were killed and thousands of people fled their villages in the wake of subsequent airstrikes.

In northern Kachin State, the KIA launched offensives against a military outpost in the jade-mining hub of Hpakant and another military outpost in Injangyang Township on March 15, days after the regime’s troops killed at least three young protesters in Myitkyina, the state capital. In the following days, the KIA launched more offensives and clashes continued between the KIA and the regime’s troops.

The KNU is among 10 ethnic armed groups that signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the previous government, as well as the military itself. But the regime’s brutal killings have forced it officially to break the agreement. More clashes between the KIA and the KNU and the military are highly likely in Karen and Kachin states. And police stations and military outposts in the towns and cities in those areas are likely to continue to be targeted in the coming days, weeks and months.

And that’s not all.

In late March, the Brotherhood Alliance of three armed groups warned the military that it would collaborate with other ethnic armed organizations and pro-democracy supporters to defend the people from the regime’s brutal crackdowns if the violence continued. The Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) issued their condemnation of the regime amid daily increases in the civilian death toll.

These armed groups are active in their territories in western Rakhine State and in northern Shan State. Unlike the KNU, they have not signed the NCA.

The anti-military dictatorship movement sees no room for compromise at all. Civil war and urban conflict, therefore, seem unavoidable. Myanmar has already suffered a more than 70-year-long civil war since independence in 1948, though the fighting has mostly been confined to remote or border areas. But the war this time will be different. Not only will the civil war spread inland from the borders, but urban warfare will erupt from within our cities.

All five of the above armed organizations have urged the coup leaders to stop their violent crackdowns, release all civilian leaders and detainees, restore democracy and accept the results of the 2020 general election, which the NLD won in a landslide.

More of the 20 armed organizations are likely to join the fight that erupted in response to the anti-coup movement in the cities if the military regime keeps killing innocent people and terrorizing the entire population. If that is their plan, however, they should act soon, as the military regime pays no heed not only to its own people but also to the international community. Over the past two months, the world has repeatedly made the same demands as those listed above. But the coup leaders have just ignored them, which shows they will not stop killing and violently oppressing their own people.

And with the anti-military dictatorship movement sees no room for compromise at all. Civil war and urban conflict, therefore, seem unavoidable. Myanmar has already suffered a more than 70-year-long civil war since independence in 1948, though the fighting has mostly been confined to remote or border areas. But the war this time will be different. Not only will the civil war spread inland from the borders, but urban warfare will erupt from within its cities it seems.

As a recent article in Australia mentioned Aung Maunge was warned he faced life imprisonment if he rejoined demonstrations. That has only strengthened his conviction that peaceful protest alone cannot dislodge the junta. He is now headed north to Kachin State, where rebel forces are training young protesters in armed resistance.

“The military will do anything, kill anyone, to stay in power,” he said. “We have to combine this social movement with armed struggle. I know a lot of other people also going to Kachin and Kayin State, because we have no choice.

Also, one of the oldest and largest ethnic armed groups, the Karen National Union (KNU), said that protesters coming from the lowlands of central Myanmar have been trekking to the rebels’ hilly jungle holdouts for training since late March. “We train people who want to be trained and who want to fight against the military regime,” said Maj. Gen. Nerdah Bo Mya, chief of staff of the Karen National Defense Organization, an armed wing of the KNU. “We are [on] the same boat, helping one another. [We] help each other to survive and get rid of the military regime and to re-establish what we call the democratic government,” he said. 

The general said ethnic Karenni, Rakhine, and Shan rebel groups were doing the same.

 

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