Junta Restores Reign of Terror For Myanmar

Police are now stopping random people on the streets. A group of secret informers has reappeared. The killings continue, but so does the resistance.

Protesters running as security forces arrive during a crackdown, in Ahlone township, in April. Credit...The New York Times

Every night at 8, the stern-faced newscaster on Myanmar military TV announces the day’s hunted. The mug shots of those charged with political crimes appear onscreen. Among them are doctors, students, beauty queens, actors, reporters, even a pair of makeup bloggers.

Some of the faces look puffy and bruised, the likely result of interrogations. They are a warning not to oppose the military junta that seized power in a Feb. 1 coup and imprisoned the country’s civilian leaders.

As the midnight insects trill, the hunt intensifies. Military censors sever the internet across most of Myanmar, matching the darkness outside with an information blackout. Soldiers sweep through the cities, arresting, abducting and assaulting with slingshots and rifles.

The nightly banging on doors, as arbitrary as it is dreaded, galvanizes a frenzy of self-preservation. Residents delete their Facebook accounts, destroy incriminating mobile phone cards and erase traces of support for Myanmar’s elected government. As sleep proves elusive, it’s as if much of the nation is suffering a collective insomnia.

Little more than a decade ago, the most innocuous of infractions — owning a photograph of pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or an unregistered cellphone or a single note of foreign currency — could mean a prison sentence. Some of the military’s Orwellian diktats rivaled those of North Korea.

Security forces search for protesters as they crack down on a peaceful demonstration against the military coup in Yangon, in April.Credit...The New York Times

Three months after Myanmar’s experiment in democracy was strangled by the generals’ power grab, the sense of foreboding has returned. There is no indication that it will ease. For the better part of 60 years, the military’s rule over Myanmar was animated not by grand ideology but by fear. Today, with much of the population determined to resist the coup-makers, a new junta is consolidating its grip by resorting, yet again, to a reign of terror.

What We Know

Why is there unrest in Myanmar?

“Myanmar is going back to the bad old days when people were so scared that their neighbors would inform on them and they could get arrested for no reason at all,” said Ko Moe Yan Naing, a former police officer who is now in hiding after opposing the coup.

Prisons are once again filled with poets, Buddhist monks and politicians. Hundreds more, many young men, have disappeared, their families ignorant of their whereabouts, according to a group that tracks the military’s detentions. More than 770 civilians have been killed by security forces since the putsch, among them dozens of children.

As they did years before, people walk the streets with the adrenaline-fueled sense of neck hairs prickling, a glance from a soldier or a lingering gaze from a passer-by chilling the air.

Protesters fight with security forces in Yangon in March. Credit...The New York Times

Yet if the junta is reflexively returning to rule by fear, it is also holding hostage a changed country. The groundswell of opposition to the coup, which has sustained protests in hundreds of cities and towns, was surely not in the military’s game plan, making its crackdown all the riskier. Neither the outcome of the putsch nor the fate of the resistance is preordained.

Myanmar’s full emergence from isolation — economic, political and social — only came five years ago when the military began sharing power with an elected government headed by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. A population that barely had any connection to the internet quickly made up for lost time. Today, its citizenry is well versed in social media and the power of protests tethered to global movements. They know how to spot a good political meme on the internet.

Their resistance to the coup has included a national strike and a civil disobedience movement, which have paralyzed the economy and roiled the government. Banks and hospitals are all but shut. Although the United Nations has warned that half the country could be living in poverty by next year because of the pandemic and the political crisis, the democratic opposition’s resolve shows no sign of weakening.

More than 770 civilians have been killed by security forces since the putsch. Credit...The New York Times

In late March, Ma Thuzar Nwe, a history teacher, branded her skin with defiance. The tattoo on the nape of her neck reads: “Spring Revolution Feb. 2021.”

The police are now stopping people on the streets, looking for evidence on their phones or bodies of support for the National Unity Government, a civilian authority set up after the elected leadership was expelled by the military. A popular tactic is to affix an image of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the coup leader, on the sole of a shoe, smashing his face into the ground with each step. During spot checks, the police now demand that people show their soles.

Ms. Thuzar Nwe says she wears her hair down to cover her tattoo, hoping the police won’t be too inquisitive.

“In Myanmar culture, if a woman has a tattoo, she’s a bad girl,” she said. “I broke the rules of culture. This revolution is a rare chance to eradicate dictatorship from the country.”

But the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, has built an entire infrastructure dedicated to one purpose: perpetuating its power for power’s sake.

Its bureaucracy of oppression is formidable. An army of informers, known as “dalan,” has reappeared, monitoring whispers and neighbors’ movements.

The blandly named General Administration Department, a vast apparatus that remained under military control even after the army had started sharing authority with the civilian government, is once again pressuring administrators to keep tabs on everyone’s political views. And local officials have taken to banging on doors and peering in homes, as a dreaded system of household registration is reintroduced.