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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar's infantry tied to protester deaths: Five things to know

Use of troops implicated in Rohingya campaign raises danger for coup resisters

BANGKOK -- As Myanmar's street protests spread, drawing tens of thousands of people nationwide against the Feb. 1 coup, the armed response by the junta raises fears that history will repeat with another deadly crackdown by the country's military.

Mandalay, the country's second-largest city, was the scene of bloodshed Saturday. Two protesters, including a teenage boy, reportedly were shot dead when troops opened fire with live rounds and rubber bullets, raising the known death toll at the hands of the security forces to four.

The victims were among the crowds who gathered near a shipyard for a pro-democracy demonstration, part of what has been dubbed the Civil Disobedience Movement. Scores were injured during that confrontation.

The deaths were not all that prompted a response from foreign governments and international human rights campaigners. An equally ominous sign of Myanmar's military muscle was spotted during that crackdown: the presence of troops from the 33rd Light Infantry Division, an elite combat unit.

"The 33rd Light Infantry Division was reportedly involved in the lethal attacks in Mandalay today -- the same division responsible for mass atrocity crimes against the Rohingya in 2017," tweeted Tom Andrews, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar.

Flowers are left at a makeshift memorial for people killed during a Mandalay protest against the military coup the previous day, in Yangon on February 21.   © Reuters

Here are five things to know about the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar's military is known, as tensions in the Southeast Asian nation worsen:

What are the light infantry divisions in Myanmar's military?

The Tatmadaw, like many of its Southeast Asian counterparts, keeps a tight lid on its numbers and military assets. But conservative estimates put its strength at 350,000 troops, making it the region's second-largest army after that of Vietnam. And Myanmar's 10 light infantry divisions have a reputation for their mobility in clashes with the country's multiple ethnic rebel armies, estimated to total 100,000 fighters by 2015.

The 33rd LID was exposed by a Reuters investigation of the division's alleged brutal campaign in western Myanmar during 2017 that forced 700,000 members of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. The 33rd Division's presence amid the killings in Mandalay signals a dangerous escalation by the junta in what appears to be a war against the people of Myanmar, Andrews said.

"Many of the LIDs instill a sadistic esprit de corps and brag about their abusive excesses," said David Scott Mathieson, a seasoned analyst of Myanmar's political and human rights issues who has spent years in Yangon, the country's largest city. "When they rotate through different parts of Myanmar, they often intimidate civilians with tales of their cruelty elsewhere."

Army commander and coup leader Min Aung Hlaing is a veteran of the LID, having served in the 88th Division during his rise through the ranks. His LID commander at that time was a little-known colonel, Than Shwe, who later rose to be Tatmadaw chief and junta strongman prior to Myanmar beginning its 2011 experiment with democracy.

What image has Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing cut within the Tatmadaw?

Senior Gen. Than Shwe picked a relatively young Min Aung Hlaing over higher-ranking generals to succeed him as Tatmadaw chief in 2011. As Myanmar's political space opened with tentative democratic reforms, Min Aung Hlaing portrayed himself as a reformer to modernize the military. Some of his thinking was reflected in the white paper released by the Tatmadaw in early 2016, and was quickly scrutinized by foreign diplomats based in Myanmar who got their hands on that 99-page document.

While signaling plans to upgrade hardware from such sources as Russia and China, Min Aung Hlaing also took a page out of Than Shwe's playbook to cultivate loyalists among the Tatmadaw leadership through promotions.

Senior Gen. Than Shwe in 2011 picked a relatively young Min Aung Hlaing over higher-ranking generals to succeed him as Tatmadaw chief. (Source photos by Retuers)

"He skipped his own generation and went for the senior officers just below," remarked an Asian diplomat who was posted in Myanmar during the country's transition.

One beneficiary was Gen. Mya Tun Oo, who was promoted to chief of the general staff in 2016, becoming the third most powerful officer in the Tatmadaw. Mya Tun Oo, then 55, was even tipped by Myanmar media to succeed Min Aung Hlaing as the next military chief. Since the coup, Mya Tun Oo's name has appeared on the U.S. and U.K. governments' list of targeted sanctions after he was picked to serve as defense minister in the State Administrative Council, the formal name of the post-coup junta.

How united is the Tatmadaw?

Questions have emerged since the coup about possible cracks within the Tatmadaw, now facing the ranks of social-media-savvy youth in the Civil Disobedience Movement. But specialists on Myanmar's politics and military culture say the history of the Tatmadaw affirms its bedrock loyalties, where hard-liners in command have always prevailed.

"Given the hierarchical nature of the Tatmadaw, and the incredible capacity for the military to remain mostly united against all odds -- even after it has gone through several rounds of internal purges throughout its history -- it seems unlikely that the [State Administrative Council] will collapse from within," said Roger Lee Huang, author of "The Paradox of Myanmar's Regime Change" and a political scientist at Australia's Macquarie University. "I do not envision that there are Young Turks within the Tatmadaw that have the capacity to challenge and overcome the high command."

Did Min Aung Hlaing miscalculate by staging the coup?

Southeast Asian intelligence operatives in Yangon are reporting back to their capitals that Myanmar's new strongman has been taken aback by spreading backlash against his move to annul the verdict of the November general election, where the ruling National League for Democracy headed by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi buried the pro-military party in a landslide.

"He is riding the tiger and unable to get off," a government insider in one capital told Nikkei Asia on the basis of such reports, drawing from the Chinese proverb that conveys a leader's precarious position. "He misjudged the people's reaction ... [and] is out of touch with the public's mood."

Will the protests lead to another bloodbath?

The presence of the 33rd Light Infantry Division during the weekend security presence has invited parallels by some seasoned Myanmar watchers to the hard-line approach taken by the country's previous juntas against street protests.

In 1988, the generals deployed LID troops against a student-led pro-democracy uprising, in which an estimated 3,500 people were killed. They used the same battle-hardened troops in 2007 to silence anti-junta protests led by Buddhist monks, with as many as 31 people reportedly killed.

Bloody military crackdowns have followed when the Tatmadaw has been forced to retreat against public rage. A grim repeat of the bloodshed on Myanmar's streets in 1988 and 2007 cannot be ruled out, analysts say, as the Civil Disobedience Movement deepens its resolve to resist the country's third coup since gaining independence from British colonization in 1948.

"If Min Aung Hlaing believes they are losing ground, they could potentially throw a whole array of troops at quelling dissent," Mathieson said.

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