On 1 February, the military seized control of Myanmar after detaining National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other elected leaders, claiming that recently held elections were neither free nor fair. The move was widely condemned by the people of Myanmar, many of whom continue to take to the streets in protest. Yet much of the coverage of the coup and the ensuing violence has focused on the country’s largest city Yangon, and not on the situation in other states. This week, Himal Southasian interviewed Nai Aue Mon, Programme Director of the Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM), a grassroots civil-society organisation in Mon state, southern Myanmar. He describes the unfolding crisis in regions outside the capital, and how the country’s civil society is responding to the military’s escalating violence. The interview includes inputs from Maggi Quadrini, editor and senior researcher at HURFOM. Below are excerpts from the interview.
Himal Southasian: Much of the media coverage on the unfolding military coup in Myanmar has focused on events in Naypyidaw and Yangon. But what is the situation like in the areas you cover, in the Mon, Karen and Dawei region?
Nai Aue Mon: Since the military coup on 1 February, the situation has changed a lot in the areas you mentioned. Protests began on 6 and 7 February in Mon State, and then Dawei and Karen States shortly after. There is a lot of support to delegitimise the military’s seizure of power, and the civil-disobedience movement has gained significant momentum. Since 15 February, several people have lost their lives, especially young people. Many more have been arrested and we are worried for them because we do not know what type of conditions they are faced with. According to our documentation, in the areas we cover, there are over 125 people detained and at least nine people have been killed. The military is reacting harshly to the resistance of the people. At the moment, Mon State is not under martial law, but there are movement restrictions under Section 144 [of the Penal Code]. There are a lot of direct threats to people’s personal safety, including the confiscation of phones, money, motorcycles and property. There are also many checkpoints where police are checking people’s phones for evidence of involvement in the protests. People on the ground in our target areas have been facing these direct and indirect threats since 15 February.
HSA: As the military increases levels of violence and intimidation, how do you think the protest movement will change or adapt?
NAM: As the violence worsened, we also saw changes in the ways people were protesting. Restrictions under Section 144 meant that there were curfews in the evening. The protesters’ strategy shifted. There was more restraint and people were gathering in small groups in different quarters. Big groups were more likely to be met with force by the military. These new ways were restructured to protect protesters. They’re avoiding face to face confrontation because they care about their security and do not want to lose more lives. We have learned a lot and are continuing to adapt as the situation changes.
HSA: The military has begun imposing martial law in several townships, especially industrial areas, over the past couple of days. Could you explain to us how these martial laws operate, and what will this mean for the ongoing movement for restoration of democracy?
NAM: It’s important to differentiate between Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code and martial law. The military as well as media often use both terms, implying they are the same. But martial law has more serious ramifications. From what I understand, martial law involves the direct control of the situation in the country. This means soldiers have the authority to shoot to kill and to conduct investigations without a warrant or permission from any department. They can raid political offices and organisations at any time. While Section 144 imposed restrictions within a set time under a curfew, martial law is in place at all times. It was used twice in 1988, when the whole country was under martial law. There are six townships that are already under martial law. If more are placed under martial law in the following days, there will surely be more violence and lives lost.
HSA: And how is civil society viewing the situation? What strategies are being put in place for civil society to continue carrying out their work? Or will there be a shift in priorities given the escalating violence?
NAM: Overwhelmingly, civil society does not accept the military coup. This is not the time for war or these types of actions; we are in the year 2021 and progress has been made. Civil society is standing with the people of Myanmar, especially in this hour of danger. The protesters deserve nothing less than our support and so we are doing the best we can to show our solidarity and provide them with the tools, resources and strategies they require.
There are a lot of direct threats to people’s personal safety, including the confiscation of phones, money, motorcycles and property. There are also many checkpoints where police are checking people’s phones for evidence of involvement in the protests.
Civil society is also trying to minimise risk while supporting the people as much as we can with our own resources. HURFOM has shut down its office; we cannot continue our work if we are arrested. When we were established, we adopted a policy of ‘do no harm’, which we are still abiding by. Many civil-society organisations have also shut down their offices and are working in hiding. We had to adjust a lot of our priorities, especially as an organisation which documents human-rights abuses. We are responding to the situation on the ground in real time as much as possible, by staying connected to our team and making sure they are also safe. We are sharing information on our social media to keep the world informed about the challenges we are facing. We are also in discussions with donors to request that existing funds be used to support protesters and the civil-disobedience movement. These costs can cover protective gear and support families who are grieving loved ones. We are also trying to engage with the international community so they are informed when making decisions that will impact the military and the people of Myanmar.
It’s important to note that there are different generations involved in these protests. There are those who participated in the 1988 uprisings, 1996, 2007 and now again in 2021. Different revolutions have taken place in Myanmar’s history.
HSA: Even prior to the coup, Mon State and the surrounding regions were already contested areas – with conflict between the central government and ethnic armed organisations. How has the coup affected the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement? Are the ethnic armed organisations now working with the military?
People were using Facebook and WhatsApp, but they have been blocked by the military. These actions have changed the way people send and receive information since the blackout started.
NAM: When I asked the Karen National Union (KNU) and the New Mon State Party (NMSP) what they thought of the military coup, they said that they do not support it. The military claimed that the election was not free or fair, but this is not good enough because there was no evidence of the election fraud they asserted. Ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) such as the KNU and NMSP are also aware of the human-rights abuses the military has committed in northern Rakhine and some ethnic minority areas. This is how the army takes and holds power. Most EAOs are standing with the people and condemning the coup. However, some have considered military cooperation. Groups like the KNU and NMSP feel that the military’s actions violate the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.
HSA: Has the military been using the spread of COVID-19 to try to crack down on the protests unfolding across the country? Or has COVID-19 been forgotten in the face of more urgent concerns?
NAM: Since the coup on 1 February, the response to COVID-19 has been severely impacted. The support system responding to the pandemic has stopped. When the Civil Disobedience Movement started, many healthcare workers went on strike. It seemed like the Commander-in-Chief, Min Aung Hlaing, felt that this would weaken the people’s resolve.
Medical services have indeed been compromised. On 8 February, I read news of more COVID-19 positive patients seven days after the coup, and the number of those infected is rising. But the military does not care. Since the military took over, the COVID-19 response has stalled without adequate testing, and there is not enough clinical care. However, this is not to be blamed on the health workers in any way. They are an important part of the revolution and are responding to injured protesters on the ground.
HSA: With the frontline health workers joining the civil disobedience movement, how have health systems been impacted in Mon state and surrounding regions by the protests? Are there adequate facilities to treat people who are being injured?
NAM: On one side, there has been a lot of success with the civil-disobedience movement. But on the other hand, healthcare departments and systems and emergency response systems are overwhelmed. There is a lack of services, ambulances and medics, especially in Dawei where the death count has steadily risen. On 3 March, 6 people died in one day. We see a great need for medical support, but there are not enough doctors in the hospitals. There isn’t enough blood or equipment because medical staff have joined the movement. Due to the civil-disobedience movement, the health system has been disrupted and cannot effectively function.
If more are placed under martial law in the following days, there will surely be more violence and lives lost.
There are inadequate facilities to treat injured protesters who urgently need care. To fill this gap, volunteer medic groups in each township are providing support. We must not and cannot blame the health care workers because they are still trying to help the people. We have to ask: who disrupted the social order? Who made this happen? The military. This is where the blame must fall and they must be held accountable.
HSA: How are the frequent internet blackouts affecting organising? Has this contributed to the spread of misinformation and rumour? What is the situation like in Mon state?
NAM: The internet blackouts affect us a lot. Right now, even in Yangon and Mandalay, people cannot organise as easily. Some technical experts are suggesting secure messaging applications such as Telegram and encrypted messaging applications. People were using Facebook and WhatsApp, but they have been blocked by the military. These actions have changed the way people send and receive information since the blackout started. There is a lot of misinformation within our community as all news – even news that is not true – spreads quickly. Internet service providers like Telenor and Mytel have very limited services in rural areas. The Ministry of Transportation and Communications can easily control and command these service providers to not allow internet services. This is why a lot of communication is cut off. Protestors and movement organisers, community-based organisations and non-governmental organisations in the areas we monitor have been affected. We face many challenges accessing information, so we have to wait for people who have satellite service to share updates. As a human-rights organisation, our right to know and to inform has been violated.
HSA: From a humanitarian perspective, in your opinion, what are some of the ways that the international community could respond to this crisis? Conversely, what are your thoughts on sanctions as a form of intervention?
NAM: In this current situation, all efforts need to be focused on cutting off the military’s flow of income. We must boycott their businesses and encourage companies they have business dealings with to do the same. We need targeted sanctions against them and their military conglomerates, including the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) in which the majority of the revenues benefit the military and not the people of Myanmar. We are also calling for a global arms embargo and for the UN Security Council to take immediate action by dispatching an enhanced monitoring and intervention mission to Myanmar to stop the violence against peaceful protesters, and to prevent further loss of life.
It’s important to note that there are different generations involved in these protests. There are those who participated in the 1988 uprisings, 1996, 2007 and now again in 2021.
We are also calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all those who have been arbitrarily arrested and detained. The people’s right to peaceful assembly and freedoms of expression are guaranteed under international law and they must be upheld. The international community also must take great care to listen to the voices on the ground – those who are living in fear but nonetheless bravely taking to the streets to challenge the military and their lack of humanity. The time to act is now, and I say that with great urgency and concern for what is to come.