Editor’s Note: CNN was granted access to Myanmar by its military. The trip was coordinated through the military’s consultant, Ari Ben-Menashe. The military escorted the team and controlled its access and movements throughout. A journalist from the Southeast Asia Globe, who was also reporting for Al Jazeera, was on the trip along with CNN.
“This is not a coup,” said Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun from a gilded hall in Myanmar’s purpose-built capital Naypyidaw, the city where his comrades recently ousted an elected government, detained the country’s leadership, and installed a military junta.
During an hour-long conversation with CNN, the military spokesperson was steadfast in upholding the junta’s official narrative: that the generals are merely “safeguarding” the country while they investigate a “fraudulent” election. The bloodshed on the streets that has killed at least 600 people is the fault of “riotous” protesters, he said.
At one point, Zaw Min Tun said if civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s father – the assassinated independence hero Aung San, who founded the country’s modern military – could see the situation now, he would say: “You are such a fool, my daughter.”
The interview took place during a week-long press tour of Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon, and Naypyidaw from March 31 to April 6. Prior to the trip, the military assured CNN it would be able to report independently and be given freedom of movement, but the journalists’ request to stay in a Yangon hotel was denied and the team instead were housed in a walled military compound, given only intermittent and heavily controlled access to the public.
The following interview with Zaw Min Tun offers an insight into how Myanmar’s military junta are trying to justify their bloody takeover to the world, while at the same time cocooning themselves in government buildings far from a populace fiercely resistant to their rule, as they order deadly crackdowns on their own citizens in villages, towns and cities across the country.
CNN was provided with military interpreters, but conducted its own translations afterward.
The back story
Hours after commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces Gen. Min Aung Hlaing ordered his troops to seize the capital before dawn on February 1, he announced on television that a state of emergency would be in place for one year, after which elections would be held. His takeover came as newly-elected lawmakers were due to take their places on the opening day of parliament.
The state of emergency caused all legislative, executive, and judicial power to be transferred to Min Aung Hlaing.
Zaw Min Tun said the state of emergency could be extended for an additional “six months or more” over “two terms” and “if the duties are not done yet.” He did not give a firm date for when elections would be held, but said that according to the 2008 military-drafted constitution, “we have to finish everything within two years. We have to hold a free and fair election within these two years.”
“We promise that we will make it happen,” he said.
Many observers have questioned whether the military, which ruled Myanmar for half a century between 1962 and 2011, would be willing to relinquish power again, whether elections would indeed be “free and fair” – and whether ousted leader Suu Kyi and her popular party the National League for Democracy (NLD) would be allowed to contest.
Zaw Min Tun pointed to a string of reforms the quasi-civilian government embarked upon in 2011 after the military gave up direct rule, which paved the way for the 2015 elections, in which Suu Kyi won a resounding victory. “If we didn’t want her from the beginning there would be no process like this,” he said.
However, the 2008 constitution was designed so the military would retain power despite a civilian government. It allocated the military a quarter of seats in parliament, giving it effective veto power over constitutional amendments, and the generals kept control of three powerful ministries – defense, border and home affairs.
Zaw Min Tun also highlighted that Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest and has not been seen in public since the coup, is facing five charges, including illegally importing walkie-talkie radios, and for breaking Covid-19 regulations. She has also been accused of corruption and bribery. The most serious charge, however, is violating violating the country’s Official Secrets Act, which carries a prison sentence of up to 14 years.
“What happened is because of the corruptions on national level and errors on state level procedures and we are accusing on the facts,” Zaw Min Tun said. “Daw Aung San Su Kyi is a well-known person both in Myanmar and the world and we will not accuse that person without any reason.”
But slapping perceived opponents with charges under vaguely-worded colonial-era laws has been a well-used tool by the military throughout its rule, and during the reform period. The charges against Suu Kyi have been described as “trumped up” by her lawyer, who called the bribery accusations a “complete fabrication.”
To justify the coup, the junta has alleged widespread election fraud in the November vote that would have given the NLD a second term and a mandate to continue its reform agenda, which included attempts to amend the constitution to limit the military’s power. Zaw Min Tun said the military had tried to negotiate with the NLD government but “no action was taken.”
In pictures: Aung San Suu Kyi
Zaw Min Tun said the junta had “solid evidence” the elections were fraudulent, but did not show any to CNN.
“The voting fraud we found in the election is 10.4 million, the number of eligible votes announced by the Election Commission was around 39.5 million and the voting fraud is a quarter of the vote,” he said.
The election commission denied there was mass voter fraud and independent election monitors said there were no substantial problems that would be enough to overturn the result. Suu Kyi won with 83% of the vote.
Bloodshed on the streets
It is evident from the interview that Myanmar’s military leaders want the world to believe they are acting in line with the country’s laws and constitution, and say they are committed to building a “multi-party democratic county.”
But the bloodshed on the streets, in which soldiers and police have shot dead protesters, bystanders and children, belies that claim.
At least 600 civilians have been killed by security forces, according to advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. The UN envoy has reported enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture in prisons. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said authorities have “increasingly resorted to heavy weaponry such as rocket-propelled and fragmentation grenades, heavy machine guns, and snipers to kill demonstrators in massive numbers.”
Around 3,000 people have been detained, many kept out of contact from their families, their condition or whereabouts unknown. Meanwhile, protesters, activists, journalists and families of those killed by the junta, have been forced into hiding as they fear security forces will hunt them in nighttime raids.
On Wednesday, a special envoy of Myanmar’s ousted civilian government to the UN warned of a civil war if the world fails to stop the junta from seizing power and killing pro-democracy protesters.
“The bloodbath is real. It is coming, more people will die. I am afraid,” Dr. Sasa said on CNN. “It is the time for the world to prevent another genocide, another ethnic cleansing, another massacre, so the world has the power to stop it before it’s too late.”
Zaw Min Tun blamed the violence on protesters “provoking” the crowd and said security forces cracked down because protesters “blocked the civil servants” from going to work.
In reality, thousands of civil servants, as well as white- and blue-collar workers, including medics, bankers, lawyers, teachers, engineers and factory workers, left their jobs as a form of resistance against the coup. The strikes, called the Civil Disobedience Movement, have disrupted sectors of the economy.
“The crowds were throwing stones and slingshots at them in the beginning but later the crowd are blocking with sand bags, shooting with handmade guns, throwing with fire, throwing with molotov (cocktails) and the security forces have to use the weapons for the riot,” Zaw Min Tun said.
Asked whether he was seriously comparing slingshots to assault rifles, Zaw Min Tun said the security forces were using “minimum force.”
“There will be deaths when they are cracking down (on) the riots, but we are not shooting around without discipline,” he said.
According to the military, the death toll at the time of the interview was 248 people, including 10 police officers and six soldiers, he said – less than half the toll documented by multiple human rights groups, which have repeatedly said security forces are violating international humanitarian law by shooting indiscriminately into crowds of peaceful protesters.
Bullet wounds in the heads and necks of many of those shot also suggest the soldiers are shooting to kill. Video and images captured by local journalists and eyewitnesses and verified by CNN show security forces shooting into crowds. In others, security forces are beating detainees with their rifles, or dragging bodies through the streets.
The killing of children
According to the UN Children’s Fund, 46 children have been killed since the coup. CNN has documented instances of children being shot in their homes or while playing outside.
When asked about three teenagers who have died at the hands of security forces – Kyaw Min Latt, 17, Htoo Myat Win, 13, and Tun Tun Aung, 14, – the military spokesperson blamed protesters for “using” children on the front lines.
“In some places they provoke the children to participate in violence riots … Because of that they may get hit when the security forces were cracking down (on) the crowds,” he said. “There is no reason we will shoot the children, this is only the terrorists are trying to make us look bad.”
He said it was “not possible” that a child would be shot inside their house and an investigation would be carried out if that was the case. Videos posted on social media corroborate that security forces have shot at houses.
Htoo Myat Win’s father said his son was shot when several bullets smashed a glass window in his house in Shwebo city on March 27. “I dodged the bullet but my son was coming up to the glass window and got hit,” he said, adding that his son was hit in the chest. “I don’t understand why they have to shoot us when we were inside our house.”
“They were shooting at protesters before and the protesters were running and we hid some of them because we worried that they might get arrested. They (army) must have positioned themselves in this neighborhood,” he said.
Video widely circulated online showed Htoo Myat Win’s distraught father screaming with grief in the back of a taxi as he rushed to his son’s lifeless body for help. Forced to go to a military hospital, Htoo Myat Win’s father said doctors there did an autopsy and told him to sign a document stating there was no bullet.
“I asked them my son die with a bullet wound why you want to say it is not from a bullet?” he said.
Perhaps keen to avoid creating martyrs, the military has sought to control the narrative over some high-profile deaths. Junta forces exhumed the body of one young protester and carried out an autopsy in which they determined the bullet that killed her did not come from a police gun.
In another incident, a military hospital claimed Kyaw Min Latt died after falling off his motorbike in Dawei city. CCTV footage, however, captured the moment a soldier standing on the back of a truck shot at the teenager as he rode with two others, who managed to run away. His mother verified the footage to CNN.
“The doctor told us that my son is suffering from the injuries of fall from motorbike, we couldn’t say back anything except just kept say yes to everything,” his mother Daw Mon Mon Oo said. She said X-rays of her son’s body conducted at a second hospital were taken away by officials from the military-run hospital.
His death certificate, seen by CNN, states Kyaw Min Latt died on March 30 because of “the primary brain injury due to the fall from cycle (motorcycle).”
When his family were able to take his body home, his mother said “there was no injury from the fall of the bike but only when there the bullet went in and out, and bruised on his right eye.”s
Pressed by CNN about the allegations from families of soldiers shooting into houses and of the military attempting to cover up the causes of deaths, spokesperson Zaw Min Tun demanded CNN show him evidence. “If that kind of thing occurred, we will have investigation for it,” he said. “There may be some videos which look suspicious but for our forces, we don’t have any intention to shoot at innocent people.”
It is unclear whether the military has launched any internal investigations into repeated claims of extrajudicial killings.
CNN also pressed Zaw Min Tun on why at least 11 people were detained shortly after speaking with the CNN team in Yangon. Some were detained merely for flashing the three-finger salute from the Hunger Games movies that has become a symbol of resistance. According to three sources close to those detained, who spoke on condition of anonymity over fears of reprisal, eight were later released.
Zaw Min Tun confirmed security forces detained three people from the first market and eight others at a second after interacting with the team on the ground. When asked by CNN what crime they had committed, he said they hadn’t broken the law.
“The security forces were worried they would provoke others and start the protest in the market, and that is why they got arrested,” he said, adding the military expressed “regret” over the arrests.
CNN has since learned those eight are now in hiding, fearing rearrest.
The coup and subsequent deadly crackdown have been widely condemned internationally. The United States, United Kingdom and European Union have imposed sanctions on several generals in charge of the coup, as well as on military-owned companies.
However, while Zaw Min Tun insisted elections would be held in the future, he warned the military’s version of democracy would perhaps not be a Western-style liberal system.
“The democratic country we are building is the one suitable with our history and geography. The standard of democracy in Myanmar will not be the same as from Western counties,” he said.
Despite the dangers, protesters from all walks of life in Myanmar continue to demand the military hand back power to civilian control and are held fully accountable. They continue to call for the release of Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders. Myanmar’s many ethnic minority groups, which have long fought for greater autonomy for their lands, are also demanding the military-written 2008 constitution be abolished and a federal democracy be established.
Having grown up with a level of democracy, and political and economic freedoms their parents and grandparents didn’t have, Myanmar’s young people leading the resistance movement remain determined to fight for what they see as their future – and they say they will not give up.
CNN’s Helen Regan wrote from Hong Kong.