Lonely ‘Tatmadaw Day’ for Myanmar’s Unloved Armed Forces

Myanmar’s ruling military will mark Armed Forces Day Saturday, nearly two months after it overthrew the country’s elected government, with seemingly little to celebrate as foreign diplomats and ethnic armies plan to shun the army ceremony to avoid any appearance of lending legitimacy to the junta.

The weeks since the Feb. 1 coup that deposed Aung San Suu Kyi and her newly elected government have shocked the world with daily images of blood flowing in the streets of major cities and soldiers firing weapons indiscriminately. More than 300 civilians have been killed, and 50 journalists are among thousands arrested.

On the eve of the ceremony, the junta broadcast on state-run MRTV News a warning that protesters should learn that they “can be in danger of getting shot in the head and back.” 

Adding to the bad look this year for Tatmadaw Day–commemorating the March 27, 1945 start of a rebellion by the Burma National Army that helped defeat the occupying Imperial Japanese Army—is the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of that army’s father, is under house arrest, and not for the first time.

“This is a day of suffering and mourning for the Burmese people, who have paid for the Tatmadaw’s arrogance and greed with their lives, time and time again,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

“The tragedy of Myanmar’s modern history can be largely laid at the door of successive military strongmen who have inflicted rights abuses, looted the economy, and divided the country in a perpetual civil war that shows no sign of ending,” he said.

Myanmar endured harsh military rule from 1962 to 2011, last month’s coup is the second time the Tatmadaw nullified the results of an election swept by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. The first time, in 1990, the junta held Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years between 1989 and 2010.

Sources in diplomatic circles told RFA that most Western countries are unlikely to send their military attachés to the ceremony Saturday.

“U.S. defense attachés received an invitation to attend the Armed Forces Day ceremony in Naypyidaw this year. But the U.S. embassy will not attend,” said Aryani Marning, a U.S. embassy spokesperson in Yangon.

“The United States is one of the many countries that strongly condemn the coup and military’s subsequent actions, including unlawful detention and widespread violence against the peaceful demonstrators. So we will not be attending,” Marning added.

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Myanmar soldiers march in formation during a military parade to mark the 73rd Armed Forces Day, in Naypyidaw, March 27, 2018. Credit: AFP

‘Acutely felt and widely noticed’

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi has confirmed Tokyo will not send any delegates, including a military attaché, to the Armed Forces Day ceremony.

RFA received no reply by Friday to questions about attendance plans sent to the embassies of China, Russia and India. Beijing and Moscow have shielded the junta from criticism at the United Nations.

“I expect the majority will boycott,” said John Blaxland, a former Australian defense attaché to Myanmar and Thailand, who has attended March 27 ceremonies in the past.

“This parade has always featured defense attaches and diplomats being given prime vantage points from which to watch. Their absence will be acutely felt and widely noticed,” he said.

But Blaxland added that “it appears the Tatmadaw, and Min Aung Hlaing in particular, have hardened to the entreaties of foreign counterparts. It seems their approval or implicit support matters less now than simply holding onto power.”

Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has since 2019 been sanctioned by the U.S. and faced the threat of referral to the International Criminal Court in The Hague and for genocide for his role in a 2017 army campaign that killed thousands of Rohingya and drove more 740,000 of the Muslim ethnic minority into Bangladesh.

The junta has shrugged off international criticism throughout the nearly two months since the coup, implicitly reminding critics that it is no stranger to pariah status.

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Posters featuring military chief General Min Aung Hlaing are placed on the road during a demonstration in Yangon against the military coup, March 9, 2021. Credit AFP

Ethnic armies to skip parade

Bangkok-based military analyst Anthony Davis told RFA that Myanmar’s junta “is ultimately not that concerned by international opinion.”

With widespread rejection of the coup persisting despite brutal repression, “in the domestic conflict inside Myanmar it will certainly exploit to the full anything and everything that appears to reflect international recognition of its legitimacy.” he added.

One of the sharpest snubs ahead of Saturday came from inside the country, when the Karen National Union, an ethnic armed group that had been part of a six-year-old peace process with the military and previous governments, tweeted that it “will only attend ceremonies that reflect dignity, humanity, justice, and freedom for all.”

Other ethnic armed groups who are part of a 2016 ceasefire agreement with the military confirmed they would shun the ceremony, which they usually attend.

Still other ethnic armies, some embroiled in conflicts with the Myanmar military that dare back to the then Burma’s independence from Britain in 1947, have supported the nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement and offered haven to activists and workers fleeing arrest or violence from military authorities.

In a sign that Western countries are not going to stop at criticizing the junta, the U.S. and Britain on Thursday levelled economic sanctions on two Myanmar military holding companies, a move Secretary of State Antony Blinken called “the most significant action to date to impose costs on the military regime.”

U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said it had designated the Myanma Economic Holdings Public Company Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation Limited (MEC), for sanctions including asset freezes and curbs on doing business with U.S. entities.

“By designating MEC and MEHL, Treasury is targeting the Burmese military’s control of significant segments of the Burmese economy, which is a vital financial lifeline for the military junta,” said OFAC Director Andrea Gacki. 

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This photo taken and received from an anonymous source via Facebook shows protesters carrying signs during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon, March 26, 2021. Credit: AFP

Oil and gas revenues

Pressure is building from within Myanmar as well as from the human rights community is to cut off oil and gas revenues to the junta, exports worth about $1 billion a year that flow directly to the junta since the military takeover.

“This is the single largest source of revenue flowing into the hands of this criminal enterprise. So I think it’s critical that we that we cut it off,” Tom Andrews, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, told a U.S. Senate hearing Thursday.

“United States can apply these sanctions in such a way, using the Treasury Department’s licensing power to make sure that the gas continues to flow, but that the revenue stream from the oil and gas to the junta stops,” he said.

 “That’s what we want. That could happen. And more importantly that’s what the people of Myanmar are demanding, including the elected leaders of Myanmar,” Andrews told the panel.

 Activists are calling for more protests across the nation of 54 million people Saturday despite the shooting warnings issued Friday night.

Earlier in the day, police opened fire on a crowd of protesters in the southern coastal city of Myeik, killing six, while photos on social media showed police and soldiers shooting at protesters from the inside of an ambulance they had commandeered.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an NGO based in Thailand, reported that at least 328 people have been killed in the crackdown as of Friday, while an RFA tally has counted 270.

“Only with the final deconstruction of the Tatmadaw and the prosecution of its commanders in international courts of law will the Burmese people be free of this continuous nightmare of military misrule,” said Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Paul Eckert.

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