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Inside the Myanmar army: “They see protesters as criminals”

The New York Times recently interviewed four military officers in Myanmar who shared about life in the Tatmadaw (Myanmar army), the organization that pointed its guns at civilians. “The Tatmadaw is the only world for most soldiers,” said one.

The Tatmadaw, a standing force of half a million people, is often portrayed as robotic warriors bred to kill people. Since the overthrow of Myanmar’s civilian leaders last month and triggering protests across the country, the force has only increased its barbaric reputation for killing, according to a monitoring group. died hundreds of people and assaulted, detained or tortured thousands more.

On Bloody Saturday (March 27) – the bloodiest day since the February 1 coup, security forces killed 141 people, including 7 children, including two 13-year-old boys. and a 5 year old boy.

NY Times in-depth interviews with four officers, two of whom have deserted since the coup, paint a complex picture of an institution that has completely dominated Myanmar for six decades. .

Right from the moment they entered the Tatmadaw army training camp, they were taught that they are the defenders of a nation and a religion, and that all would collapse without them.

The military enjoys privileged status in Myanmar, in which soldiers live, work and integrate into a “society” separate from the rest of society, imbued with the idea that they are superior to civilians. . The officers described are under constant surveillance, in the barracks and on Facebook. A regime of relentless propaganda caused them to form the concept of the enemy in every corner, even on the street.

The overall effect is a mysterious worldview in which orders to kill unarmed civilians must be followed without a doubt. While the soldiers said there was some dissatisfaction with the coup, they considered disobedience to orders as unlikely. This makes the bleeding more likely to continue in the coming days and months.

“Most of the soldiers were brainwashed,” said a captain who graduated from the prestigious Academy of Defense Services in Myanmar, the American equivalent of the West Point school concept, said. His name was not released due to the danger of being punished because he is still in the service.

“I joined the Tatmadaw to protect the country, not against our own people,” he added. “I am very sad to see soldiers killing people.”

Tatmadaw has been in the war since independence in 1948, fighting communist guerrillas, national rebels and democracy supporters forced into the jungle following military oppression. team. Within the Tatmadaw’s cult limits, the majority of the Buddhist Burmese are honored more than many other minorities of Myanmar, who have faced military repression for decades.

The enemy can also be inside. The target Tatmadaw cares about is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the ousted civilian leader. Ironically, her father, General Aung San, was the one who founded the Tatmadaw.

Today, Tatmadaw’s enemies are at home, not abroad: millions of people have flocked to the streets to protest against coups or to participate in strikes.

On Saturday (March 27), Armed Forces Day, General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief and mastermind of the coup, delivered a speech swearing “to protect the people from danger”. As tanks and soldiers marched on the vast boulevards of Naypyidaw, the military-built bunker capital, security forces shot protesters and roadside people in more than 40 towns. town.

Captain Tun Myat Aung leaned on the hot sidewalk in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, and picked up a shell. A feeling of nausea crept through my throat. The cartridges, you know, meant the rifle was used, it meant real bullets shot at real people.

“They consider protesters to be criminals because if someone disobeys or opposes the army, they are criminals,” said Captain Tun Myat Aung, who later defected. “Most soldiers have never tasted democracy in their entire lives. They are still living in the dark.

“I love the military,” he said. “But the message I want to send to my soldiers is: If you are choosing between the country and the Tatmadaw, choose your country.”

Although Tatmadaw shared some power with an elected government in the five years prior to the coup, it still held its stance toward the country. It has its own corporations, banks, hospitals, schools, insurance agents, stock options, mobile networks and vegetable farms.

The military runs television stations, publishers and a film industry, with films like “Happy Land of Heroes” and “One Love, One Hundred Wars” (One love, one hundred battles). In addition, there are Tatmadaw dance troupes, traditional music performances and counseling agencies that encourage women to dress simply.

Most officers and their families live in military zones, and their movements are monitored. Since the coup, most of them have been unable to leave the complexes for more than 15 minutes without permission.

Another defector after the coup said: “I will call this state modern slavery. We must obey all orders of our superiors. We cannot question whether it is justified or unfair.

The children of officers are often married to the children of other officers or the descendants of tycoons who benefit from relations in the military. Usually, infantrymen make the next generation of infantrymen.

Even in the post-political opening period, a quarter of the seats in Congress were defaulted to the military. They do not mingle with other lawmakers or vote individually, but always vote in a unified bloc. The most important government departments are still in the hands of the military.

A military doctor in Yangon said: “I am very happy to be a servant to the people, but being in the army means being a servant to the Tatmadaw chiefs. “I want to quit, but I can’t. If I do, they’ll put me in jail. If I run away, they will torture my family members. ”

The Tatmadaw’s asexual nature may help explain why its leadership underestimates the level of opposition among factions. Psychological warfare-trained officers routinely present democratic conspiracy theories in soldiers-favored Facebook groups, according to social media experts and one of the officers who spoke to NY Times.

In this paranoid world, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won the election last November easily described as electoral fraud.

An Islamist group, financed by oil-rich kingdoms, allegedly tried to destroy the Buddhist beliefs of a majority of Burmese. Influential monks often fellowship with military generals, preaching that Tatmadaw and Buddhist monks must unite to fight Islam.

According to what Tatmadaw had propagated, an aggressive West could invade Myanmar at any time. Fear of foreign invasion is thought to be one reason the military rulers moved their capital earlier this century from Yangon, near the coast, to the Naypyidaw coastal plain.

“Now, the soldiers are killing people thinking they are protecting their country from foreign interference,” said the captain on active duty. His brigade was among those deployed in a city to subdue angry citizens by force.

The fearsome invasion did not have to be by plane or sea, but by the “black hand” of foreign influence, information often transmitted in the military said. Billionaire George Soros has been accused by the Tatmadaw circles of trying to topple the country with tons of cash available to activists and politicians. During a press conference, a military spokesman hinted that those who opposed the coup were also sponsored by foreign funding.

Captain Tun Myat Aung said that during his first year at the Defense Services Academy, he had seen a film that depicted democracy activists in 1988 as crazy animals cutting off soldiers. In fact, thousands of protesters and others were killed by Tatmadaw that year.

Tatmadaw’s Facebook timeline shows soldiers surrounded by violent protesters armed with homemade flamethrowers. But it was the security forces that assaulted medical staff, killed children and forced bystanders to obey orders.

According to soldiers speaking to the NY Times, the suspension of mobile data access for the past two weeks was aimed at isolating soldiers who began to question the orders given to them, as well as cutting access to them. wider population.

Immediately after the coup, a number of soldiers expressed solidarity with the protesters on Facebook. “The army is losing. Don’t give up, everyone, ”a captain, currently hidden, wrote on his Facebook page. “Truth will eventually prevail.”

The Tatmadaw insanity serves a different purpose. For decades, the military has fought with enemies on many fronts, mainly ethnic armed groups demanding autonomy. A tight legion is required to keep the number of defections low and loyalty high.

Casualties are not disclosed in Myanmar as they are considered a state secret. But the leaked documents viewed by the NY Times, such as a tally of soldiers who fell in Rakhine state a few years ago, indicate that at least hundreds of soldiers die each year.

The captain who is on active duty said it is normal for unmarried soldiers to draw to marry the widows of those who died in the battle. The woman, he says, has very little choice over who her new husband will be.

“Most of the soldiers were disconnected from the world, and for them, the Tatmadaw was the only world,” he said.

Ethnic minorities, which make up about a third of Myanmar’s population, live in fear of the Tatmadaw. The organization has been accused by UN investigators of genocide, including rape and mass executions. Such campaigns against the Rohingya Muslims became popular, but they also targeted other ethnic groups, such as the Karen, the Kachin and the Rakhine.

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