In Myanmar, the Tatmadaw’s Frustration Fuels a Cycle of Violence

The junta’s tactics have grown more brutal in the face of resistance. The international community doesn’t have an answer.

By , a journalist covering politics, human rights, and Chinese development in Southeast Asia.
Democratic resistance fighters escort protesters in Myanmar.
Democratic resistance fighters escort protesters in Myanmar.
Democratic resistance fighters escort protesters during a demonstration against the military in Sagaing, Myanmar, on Sept. 7. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, remains locked in an armed struggle with its own people, but the crisis barely reached the surface at last week’s United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York. Officials from the United States and Malaysia met on the sidelines with representatives from Myanmar’s National Unity Government, a cabinet formed by elected lawmakers ousted when the military seized power in February 2021. The United Nations has delayed responding to the junta’s request for a seat; Myanmar’s current representative at the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, remains loyal to the overthrown government.

As diplomacy sputters, violence in Myanmar is spiraling. At least 11 children were killed on Sept. 16 when military helicopters fired on a school in Sagaing region, a resistance stronghold. The killing of students was shocking, but extreme violence has come to characterize the junta. Last month, the military allegedly rampaged through a village in Kachin State, burning down homes and killing civilians. These attacks followed a trend: The monitoring group Data for Myanmar said the military has torched more than 28,000 civilian homes since the coup, and August was the worst month on record.

The increasingly brutal tactics are a sign of the military’s growing frustration as it fails to assert control more than 18 months after seizing power. In another illustration of this dynamic, the military regime executed four political prisoners in July, the first known judicial executions in Myanmar since the 1970s. All were accused of organizing or participating in armed resistance to military rule; they were hanged at Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and economic center.

Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, remains locked in an armed struggle with its own people, but the crisis barely reached the surface at last week’s United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York. Officials from the United States and Malaysia met on the sidelines with representatives from Myanmar’s National Unity Government, a cabinet formed by elected lawmakers ousted when the military seized power in February 2021. The United Nations has delayed responding to the junta’s request for a seat; Myanmar’s current representative at the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, remains loyal to the overthrown government.

As diplomacy sputters, violence in Myanmar is spiraling. At least 11 children were killed on Sept. 16 when military helicopters fired on a school in Sagaing region, a resistance stronghold. The killing of students was shocking, but extreme violence has come to characterize the junta. Last month, the military allegedly rampaged through a village in Kachin State, burning down homes and killing civilians. These attacks followed a trend: The monitoring group Data for Myanmar said the military has torched more than 28,000 civilian homes since the coup, and August was the worst month on record.

The increasingly brutal tactics are a sign of the military’s growing frustration as it fails to assert control more than 18 months after seizing power. In another illustration of this dynamic, the military regime executed four political prisoners in July, the first known judicial executions in Myanmar since the 1970s. All were accused of organizing or participating in armed resistance to military rule; they were hanged at Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and economic center.

Junta leader Min Aung Hlaing has had ample opportunity to make minor concessions to the international community, such as allowing a meeting with detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, that would have allowed him to reenter the fold without fundamentally threatening the military’s power. At every turn, the regime has instead chosen the path least conducive to compromise. The July executions took place against a backdrop of global outcry, including from authoritarian Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who currently chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But like most of the junta’s decisions since the coup, the killings were intended for a domestic audience, not a global one.

The military regime choosing to execute four political prisoners also served as a grim reminder that the Tatmadaw is prepared to kill virtually anyone to stay in power. Among those executed was Phyo Zeya Thaw, 41, an elected member of parliament for the ousted National League for Democracy party, and Kyaw Min Yu (known as Ko Jimmy), 53, a renowned democracy activist. With most civilian political figures in military custody—including Aung San Suu Kyi, held in solitary confinement in the capital, Naypyidaw—the military sent a powerful warning to the population.

It also may have sent another message: The executions are one of “several obvious incidents that evidence the military’s desperation,” said Ye Myo Hein, a researcher on civil-military relations and a fellow at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank.

Although Myanmar’s democratic resistance forces have shocked many observers with their success so far, arguments that they are on the verge of victory or that the military is on the verge of collapse are overly optimistic. The military has far superior firepower—using weapons from China and Russia—and complete air supremacy, whereas the resistance often relies on hunting rifles or homemade weapons and has no international support. The helicopters that fired on children in Sagaing were reportedly Russian-made Mi-35s.

Furthermore, the junta’s losses, while bolstering opposition morale, prompt further extremism from a regime that acts impulsively—and brutally—under pressure. Some of the deadliest atrocities since the military took power occurred in the weeks after the coup, when mass protests and strikes shut down cities, with neighborhoods barricaded, public services suspended, and trade frozen. The military unleashed violence to wrest back control. In March 2021, at least 65 people were killed in a single incident in Yangon.

Similar atrocities have followed in rural areas where armed resistance is the fiercest. With many of these regions under internet blackouts, some of the violence may go unreported. More than 40 civilians were killed in massacres in Sagaing region last July, and at least 35 people were executed in one incident in Kayah state last December. The military ramped up these campaigns last October, “but such campaigns eroded its military objectives,” fueling a cycle of violence, Ye Myo Hein said. The more ground the military loses, the more brutal it becomes, which only creates stronger resistance. “I have not seen any sign that the generals will back off in the foreseeable future,” Ye Myo Hein added.

Some analysts say the military hasn’t reached a tipping point yet. The military is “frustrated and vengeful” but not necessarily desperate, said Richard Horsey, the Myanmar advisor for the International Crisis Group. “Its frustration comes from the fact that local resistance remains determined and effective rather than quickly crumbling as the generals may have thought,” he added. “They seem to be hoping that by imposing a severe cost on civilian populations, they can undermine the support base for resistance groups without the military risks of a major offensive.”

Myanmar’s military is still capable of significantly worse violence, as the experience of the persecuted Rohingya minority shows. Although the regime has killed more than 2,300 civilians since the coup, this toll pales in comparison to the horrors of the 2017 Rohingya crisis, when the military slaughtered between an estimated 10,000 and 25,000 civilians in a matter of weeks in just the northern part of Rakhine state. The military’s dehumanization of the Rohingya is unique, but the junta leadership would not hesitate to use similar tactics against the civilian population if it felt that it truly risked being overthrown.

“If the past is any guide, I would expect the military to double down on its current strategy rather than changing course,” Horsey warned. “That implies continued punitive attacks and more atrocities for months and possibly years.”

An institutional collapse of the military or an internal coup against its senior leadership could hasten the end of Myanmar’s crisis, but Ye Myo Hein said he sees no sign of either happening soon. At this point, a “negotiated settlement is highly unlikely,” he said, and the generals will likely continue down this path even if they “ruin the country and their institution.” “The civil-military relations in Myanmar [have] irretrievably broken down,” Ye Myo Hein said.

The military is holding the nation hostage, but its people should not simply give up. The regime hopes that its extreme violence will eventually convince the public that anything, including living under military rule, is better than war. But for now, the people of Myanmar have shown they are willing to endure tremendous hardship—and even lay down their lives—to continue their struggle for democracy. The international community should respect that decision rather than blithely call for a “cessation of violence” and for “all parties” to show restraint, which is effectively a call for the resistance to surrender.

For its part, every atrocity Myanmar’s military commits proves that the regime has no intention of making even basic concessions to the international community. It is an irrational organization that only knows how to solve its problems through violence, which has only incentivized revolutionaries to approach the ongoing crisis as an existential conflict. As the violence spirals without an off-ramp in sight, countries sympathetic to Myanmar’s plight have an obligation to take more creative action to assist the people of Myanmar in liberating themselves from potentially decades of oppression.

Andrew Nachemson is a journalist covering politics, human rights, and Chinese development in Southeast Asia.
Twitter: @ANachemson

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands.

Xi-Biden Meeting May Help End China’s Destructive Isolation

Beijing has become dangerously locked off from the world.

The exterior of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, is pictured on March 27, 2018.
The exterior of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, is pictured on March 27, 2018.

Sweden’s Espionage Scandal Raises Hard Questions on Spy Recruitment

Intelligence agencies debate whether foreign-born citizens are more targeted.

President Joe Biden gestures with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two leaders met in a hallway as Biden was going to a European Commission on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on November 15, 2022.
President Joe Biden gestures with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two leaders met in a hallway as Biden was going to a European Commission on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on November 15, 2022.

The G-20 Proved It’s Our World Government

At a time of global conflict, world powers showed that cooperation can actually work.

An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.
An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.

Only an Absolute Bureaucracy Can Save Us

The West will only restore its stability when civil servants are again devoted to the public rather than themselves.