Since the Myanmar military – or Tatmadaw – took over power from the elected civilian government in an effective coup on February 1, protests have gripped nearly all corners of the country. The Civil Disobedience Movement, as the historic resistance is now being widely called, has seen unprecedented participation from nearly all sections of Burmese society. In fact, the depth of participation has dwarfed even the iconic 1988 and 2008 uprisings against the military junta.
What has, at the same time, escalated is the new military government’s crackdown on protestors and those refusing to go to work (including bureaucrats and even some police personnel). After a brief period of damp-to-nil police action in the first week of the coup, security forces are now using a slew of measures to close in on rebellious and non-compliant quarters.
One of the tactics that the regime is using is night raids. They began in the second week of the takeover, with police in the late hours of February 9 raiding the Yangon headquarters of the National League for Democracy or NLD, Myanmar’s largest political party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi and winner of the November 8, 2020, general election.
The next night, in a second wave of night raids, police arrested six senior NLD members, including a close aide of Suu Kyi (who had herself been detained, along with President Win Myint, a few hours before the Tatmadaw formally announced the takeover on February 1).
Following these, night raids have become increasingly more frequent across the country, with both local police and military personnel participating in them. The primary targets of these late hour incursions have been civilian political leaders, local protest leaders and others participating in either street protests or workplace civil disobedience strikes. The authorities appear to have identified many of the protestors using surveillance cameras and footage physically recorded by intelligence officers during protests.
Amidst the terror, civilians across cities and towns have set up neighbourhood vigils to protect their fellow citizens from night arrests. Several videos have surfaced on social media showing crowds surrounding police vehicles or running after authorities to prevent random detentions in their localities.
People have also been banging pots and pans – which they were initially doing simply to protest the coup – to warn their neighbours of authorities approaching for night raids.
Are such sweeping detentions legal in Myanmar? They weren’t for a while before the military, following its latest putsch, suspended a set of laws prohibiting search-and-seizure raids without legal authorisation, arbitrary arrests and prolonged detention. This means night raids are no more strictly illegal, which makes it easier for the new military government to sanction them across the country.
In general, night raids aren’t uncommon in strife-torn regions. They have frequently been used by, amongst others, Israeli forces in Palestine, US forces in Afghanistan, and Indian forces in the Kashmir Valley. In Palestine and Afghanistan, particularly, after-hours house interrogations and targeted killings have been a staple part of the counter-insurgency handbook. In fact, it became one of the key points of contention between former Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, and the Western coalition engaged in Afghanistan under the ISAF/NATO banner.
Even in Myanmar, night raids aren’t completely unheard of. In fact, only last year, on September 12, police barged into the house of a Yangon student leader, Paing Min Khant, at night on the pretext of undertaking Covid-19 checks and arrested him along with another on charges of violating the Peaceful Assembly Law. Further, according to Human Rights Watch, on September 18, “20 police officers conducted a pre-dawn raid” on the house of another student federation leader from Sagaing Division, Nyi Lin Htin.
Avoiding the public eye
Myanmar’s security forces have also recently conducted night raids in Rohingya villages in Rakhine State with the intent of rounding up militants. Moreover, during the 2008 Saffron Revolution against the then military junta, security forces had raided several monasteries in the dead of the night.
The key logic of raiding in the dark is simple – discretion. It allows for swift action without scrutiny. In the context of Myanmar today, this means authorities being able to avoid the public eye and skirting any possibility of violent interventions by civilians.
But there is also a second, almost implicit, element in night raids – terror. They are designed to instill a sense of lingering fear and insecurity in the mind of the insurgent population. The constant feeling that uniformed men with guns or even assault rifles could intrude into personal family or community spaces and whisk away anyone at any time after late evening can be daunting. It can wear whole families down, and in turn, weaken popular participation in protests.
But that is also exactly why neighbourhood patrols are so effective in deterring night detentions. They ensure civilian presence around residential blocks, so that authorities can no more be discreet, and offer a sense of mental security to the local residents. In times of ruthless state repression, such community-level mobilisations matter as much as the larger demonstrations. They send a message to the authorities that the common people can’t and won’t be intimidated into submission.
The Myanmar military has long used shadowy tactics to quell resistance and force rebellious quarters to fall in line. There’s no reason it won’t continue to do so now. By striking down legal provisions that bar them, it has created a broad-spectrum mandate for such action. However, the mood in Myanmar seems unusually defiant this time. Night raids are being deterred at the spot and authorities are being denied unhindered access to local communities. If this collective resolve continues, the junta might cede ground as quickly as it took over.
Angshuman Choudhury is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Delhi, and former visiting fellow to the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin.