My heart is very much with Ma Thu Thu Zin, a 25-year-old peaceful, unarmed demonstrator who was shot through the head yesterday during a protest in Mandalay. I write in her memory.
With its jet bombers, attack helicopters, artillery, rocket-propelled grenades, automatic rifles, sundry other weapons of destruction, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers, the Tatmadaw wants to believe that it has put an end to the nonviolent protests of millions of weaponless, defenceless citizens who took to the streets following the attempted February coup. In an effort to win international approval and support, the junta recently proclaimed that, with the exception of a few small areas, the country is now peaceful and stable.
No doubt the uppermost echelon of the military sees its ability to temporarily clear the streets as some great triumph, but in actuality, it is nothing but the hollow achievement of cowards. How can anything such as stability be proclaimed when soldiers, with a staggering array of modern weapons, continue to maim, torture, and kill unarmed civilians? Are they proud of themselves? Do they view themselves as gallant fighters? That soldier, the one who purposefully took aim at the head of Thu Thu Zin and pulled the trigger, does he imagine himself a brave and brilliant warrior? Do the mothers, wives, and children of these tin soldiers lavish them with praise when they return home after a long day hunting and slaughtering their helpless fellow citizens? How can it be? Certainly, and sadly, something in each of them must also have died.
Now, six months into the people’s rebellion, the battle continues with a view to ejecting a brutal and merciless regime that overthrew the people’s democratically elected government in a bloody coup d’état. And while currently, the streets are largely clear of protesters, the resistance is busy confronting another enemy, which, similar to the Tatmadaw, also terrorizes, tortures and kills.
As the COVID-19 pandemic extinguishes the lives of hundreds every day, the Tatmadaw has developed ways of weaponizing the virus in hopes of exerting total control over not just government, but also private hospitals, oxygen production plants, pharmaceuticals, desperately needed medical supplies, and all forms of humanitarian aid—to keep them beyond the reach of desperate citizens. The military itself has confirmed that hospitals and quarantine centres are over capacity, and with thousands of doctors and nurses on strike in defiance of the regime, the citizens have been forced to care for their sick at home with whatever meagre medical supplies they have at hand. But even if they had a choice, the people would continue to do everything possible to resist any form of help from the military. If that means caring for their sick at home, most do so willingly rather than engage with their oppressors.
But the people’s resolve to resist the military has required a new type of strategic anti-COVID-19 battle plan. Once again the citizens’ forces have mobilized; once again they’ve taken to the streets. But this time not to protest, but to scour cities, towns, and villages for every ampule of medicine or small bottle of oxygen. They fight this new battle in obscurity. Striking doctors and nurses and other health care professionals continue their rebellion: rather than returning to government hospitals and risking arrest, they serve without pay in underground clinics.
That, too, is a campaign fraught with many risks. About a month ago, a group of five doctors operating an underground outpatient clinic were lured into a trap by soldiers posing as COVID-19 patients. When two doctors arrived at a house intending to care for them, they were arrested, and under interrogation and probable torture were forced to reveal the location of their clinic, where the three remaining doctors, as well as support staff, were taken into custody.
Even organizations like UNHCR and UNICEF must contend with the Tatmadaw as their trucks, laden with relief supplies, have been denied access to the many thousands of internally displaced refugees forced into hiding by artillery fire and bombs from warplanes. As the terrified people retreat further into the jungle with whatever they can carry, the pursuing soldiers linger to loot and burn their flimsy temporary villages. Nevertheless, valiant volunteers continue, at great risk, to bring food and other necessities to those compelled to flee.
Unlike the so-called “victories” that the military likes to claim, the victories of the people are exemplified by successful quests for a single ampule of blood thinner that will keep a COVID-19 patient breathing for another day. Unlike the ignoble military forces who measure their “victories” by counting bodies, the true victories of the people are measured by counting the lives they have saved.
These are noble victories, the type that the soldiers who oppress their compatriots will never experience. The regime can claim neither stability nor victory as long as it feels a need to shoot a harmless young woman for daring to protest. The people, by co-operation and determination, rather than by pulling triggers against the innocent, will surely defeat this immoral enemy.
While the people fight each day to save lives, the Tatmadaw’s apparent disdain for such benevolence is evidenced by a story that appeared yesterday on Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV), the official mouthpiece of the junta. One of the acute problems now faced by funeral homes throughout the country is their inability to keep up with the surge in cremations, the result of hundreds dying daily from the coronavirus. On MRTV, the junta proudly announced that it will soon construct ten new crematoria in Yangon to deal with the demand and that people “now no longer need to worry. The new crematoria will be able to handle an additional 3,000 bodies per day.” While the people struggle to minimize deaths, the Tatmadaw focuses on disposing of the bodies.
To the soldiers I say, Go home to your wives, your children, your mothers, and fathers, and explain to them your valorous deeds. Compare your day to other young men and women who struggle to avoid arrest or death at your hands, who walk into the homes of their neighbours with a single, thin cylinder of oxygen. How differently will their characters be assessed by their parents, spouses, and children compared to yours? Your families, forced to share your shame, will look down at their feet and silently weep, while the true soldiers of the people will everywhere be greeted with warm smiles of appreciation and gratitude.