top of page

‘Shoot Till They Are Dead,’ Behind the Myanmar Coup


An image can speak a thousand words, yet it doesn’t seem like enough people are talking about the confronting photo of Sister Ann Rose Nu Tawng kneeling in front of policemen in the town of Myitkyina. “I begged them not to shoot the children” she later remarked, “I told them that they can kill me, I am not standing up until they give their promise that they will not brutally crack down on protesters.” But even after receiving assurance from senior officers, the sounds of gunfire rang out.

Myanmar’s November parliamentary election saw the National League for Democracy (NLD) reach another influential victory, awarding Aung San Suu Kyi a second term as President. The landslide victory saw the military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) demand a re-vote, citing claims of bias and unjust campaigning. In conjunction with the military, the USDP have repeatedly disputed the vote, claiming that over 10.5 million votes were fraudulent. Demands were also made for final polling data to be made public immediately.

By March, the military were in power and announcing a year-long state of emergency. Suu Kyi and other cabinet members were detained. Whilst it may seem as though the country’s political environment was abruptly thrown into upheaval, Myanmar’s political history has been anything but steady.

Previously known as Burma, Myanmar was a province of India under the British in 1886 and has a long history of political resistance. Resentment to British rule saw the British destroy entire villages and British governance favour certain ethnic groups throughout the end of the 19th Century. Student-led protests in 1920 saw a new wave of resistance against British rule, with Buddhist monks leading numerous armed rebellions. Suu Kyi’s father Aung San was a prominent figure in the movement for national autonomy. He was seen as an independence hero who was eventually assassinated in 1948. Following the devastation of World War II, Myanmar became independent from Britain, deciding to not join the British Commonwealth and a brief period of democracy followed. By 1962, a coup was staged and the country’s military dictatorship remained until 2011.

Throughout this period of military dictatorship, the country was closed off to the rest of the world. Opposition political parties were banned, the constitution was suspended, and the newly established Burma Socialist Programme Party established the Burmese Way to Socialism ideology.

In 1988, large numbers of demonstrations broke out across the country and in retaliation troops began firing into the crowds. Over 3000 people were killed. Amidst the chaos Suu Kyi became an international symbol of non-violent resistance in the face of oppression and a key figure of Myanmar’s democracy movement.

In May 1990, the military led council allowed the country to hold multi-party elections. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won, however the military refused to hand over power. Once again, the country was under military regime and Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, only to be released almost 15 years later.

This tumultuous past is important when understanding Myanmar’s present situation, with many similarities between both past and current events. Following her release, Suu Kyi led her party to victory in 2015 at the country’s first openly contested election in over 25 years. Whilst she became an international symbol of peace in her effort to bring democracy to Myanmar, her image has recently suffered due to the country’s treatment of the Rohingya minority.

She is however still hugely popular amongst the majority of Myanmar’s population, which is why it was unsurprising when her party once again saw victory at the voting polls late last year. But now the military is once again in power with leadership in the hands of Army Chief Senior General Min Auung Hlaing. Once again Suu Kyi has been placed under house arrest, alongside the other members of the NLD party.

The timing of this military coup coincided with the first session of parliament post-election and the military quickly seized control of Myanmar’s infrastructure. The coup was announced on the military operated and owned television station, with presenters reading the 2008 constitution which allows the military to declare a national emergency. A night-time curfew was enforced, and troops patrol the streets. Television broadcasts have been suspended, both international and domestic flights have been cancelled. Commercial banks have been closed, telephone and internet access is down in most major cities.

Whilst initially the coup saw peaceful protests break out, February 20th saw the protests quickly turn deadly. Two protesters were killed by security forces, with one of the protesters only 16-years-old. The protests have become increasingly violent with the military deploying soldiers in riot gear and reports of snipers stationed along protest routes.

Myanmar’s repeated history of peaceful protesters meeting violent ends at the hands of the military has seen tensions rise. More than 60 people have been killed, with 38 of them dying on March 3rd alone. Over 1800 people have been detained and many more injured protesting.

Reports have emerged of police orders to shoot at protesters in an effort to disperse them. One now-resigned officer was given orders by his superiors to “shoot till they are dead” when patrolling protests in the town of Khampat on February 27th. As the political situation becomes increasingly volatile one has to ask, what comes next?

The military has announced a one-year state of emergency but what will come after that?

General Hlaing has since tried to justify the coup, urging the people of Myanmar that the military are on their side and would seek to form a “true and disciplined democracy.” The military has also revealed the plan to hold a “free and fair” election once the year-long state of emergency is over but only time will tell. Looking back at the country’s history it is clear a familiar pattern is emerging.

Globally there has been less outcry than expected following a military coup. Whilst the UK and the US have responded with sanctions and numerous countries have condemned the military takeover, the UN Security Council failed to reach a unanimous agreement on a statement to condemn the coup, only threatening to consider “further measures” and calling for restraints by the military. Neighbouring countries have also taken little to no action. China urged both sides to “resolve differences,” whilst Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines have chalked the military coup up to an “internal matter.”

As political tensions continue to escalate and protesters meet increasingly violent ends, it is clear Myanmar is in dire need for peace. Whilst one can hope the military will follow through with their apparent intentions, only time will tell if the country will break free from military dictatorship.


bottom of page