• World
  • myanmar

‘The Military Is Terrorizing Us Day and Night.’ The Human Rights Activist Documenting Horror in Myanmar

7 minute read

Bo Kyi’s human rights organization has been detailing the brutality of Myanmar’s military in meticulously maintained spreadsheets.

“He died of a head injury due to beatings,” says a note next to the name of a 27-year-old man labelled a civilian. “He was severely beaten and arrested while providing medical care during the crackdown,” reads another, about one of four Yangon men. “Shot in the stomach with gunfire,” was the fate of a 17-year-old student. Next to at least 32 names, including those of a 14-year-old boy and several university students, notes read: “Shot in the head with gunfire.” By the name of a 16-year-old boy from Mandalay, the country’s second largest city, is the observation: “He was shot in the head, his head blown off, pronounced dead on the spot.”

The Tatmadaw—the official name of Myanmar’s armed forces—has in recent weeks escalated its crackdown on people protesting against the Feb. 1 coup that ousted the Southeast Asian nation’s democratically elected government.

The Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP), an organization co-founded by Bo Kyi in 2000, says that almost 2,200 people have been arrested, charged or sentenced since the beginning of February, including government officials, civilians and journalists. More than 215 people have been killed.

His organization is one of the most widely cited sources of information about deaths and detentions in Myanmar, where reporting by local and international media is becoming increasingly hazardous due to the violence and a crackdown on the press, and where internet blackouts can make it difficult to transmit information. The group uses news and social media reports, information from people approaching the organization, and details from confidential sources to collect and track its grim data. Staff cross-reference different sources to verify details.

Bo Kyi has firsthand experience with the military’s heavy-handed tactics. When a student at Rangoon Arts and Sciences University, he took part in the 1988 democracy uprising. That year, hundreds of thousands of people launched a nationwide rebellion against the military dictator Ne Win, who had seized power in a military coup in 1962.

Bo KyiCourtesy of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma)

That uprising ended with a violent crackdown by the Tatmadaw, in which thousands were killed. Many more were tortured and imprisoned, including Bo Kyi, who spent more than seven years in prison. Now, he is watching a new generation of pro-democracy protesters endure similar horrors.

TIME corresponded with Bo Kyi via email. (For security reasons, he is unable to disclose his location.) Here’s what the activist had to say about what’s happening in Myanmar now.

What is the latest situation?

This junta is arbitrarily detaining people in night-time raids. Some are being tortured to death. On the streets, medical volunteers are being arrested and assaulted. The location of a great many of these people is still undisclosed. It is beyond concerning. Families have no idea where their loved ones are being kept or what condition they’re in.

Every-day innocent people are being detained, and some horribly beaten. The cruelty of the attacks on the detained is also increasing. Just the other night, a National League for Democracy (NLD) official was tortured to death in detention. There’ll be more if this coup continues.

Some female detainees have reported being sexually assaulted. Live ammunition is being aimed at peaceful protestors. And at night they spray neighborhoods with gunfire. Now the military have stationed themselves in hospitals and other public buildings so they can more quickly raid and detain people.

Why are security forces targeting medical workers for arrest?

It’s all about creating a climate of fear. The illegitimate junta needs people to stop protesting. They can’t govern, the economy isn’t working. So, they’re trying to break the will of the peaceful protestors and those who volunteer to help treat injuries.

What other groups are the military trying to put pressure on with their escalating crackdown?

Activists, journalists, teachers, lawyers, artists, monks and everyone resisting this illegitimate junta. It goes beyond targeting a civil society. The junta is persecuting ordinary civilians, and even children who just happen to be in the wrong place at wrong time.

They want to pressure prominent people in the protest movement and have also outlawed some labor unions, but they will find it difficult to stop the momentum of this movement because it is leaderless.

Police officers (in the background) take position along a road as protesters take cover behind makeshift barricades during a crackdown on demonstrations in Yangon on March 16, 2021.STR/AFP via Getty Images

What methods is the military using to clamp down on dissent?

In the day, water cannons, tear gas, gunfire, and more. The military is routinely blocking our right to information with nightly internet blackouts. They’re trying to mask the night-time raids, arson and firing weapons into residents’ homes. The military is terrorizing us day after day, night after night.

You were a political prisoner for more than seven years. How do detainees cope?

My advice for those who are in prison would be to not think about release. Sooner or later, you must be released. For now, be healthy and be strong. You have many things to learn in prison. Prison is a university of life. I studied English when I was in prison. The military put you in prison because they are afraid of you. They can arrest your body. They cannot arrest your spirit. Do not give up. They will not kill your body, but will try to kill your mind. Keep fighting!

Read More: I Spent Eight Years in a Myanmar Prison. This Is What I Learned About Surviving Confinement

You participated in protests in pro-democracy protests in 1988. How are today’s protesters different?

The wishes [of the] democracy movement in 1988 are the same as now. But the tools this new generation can use are very different. They’re tech savvy, they’ve gotten around these illegal internet blackouts and are recording everything for the whole world to see. There is also no [protest] leader today like there was before. This is better. They cannot detain and torture a leader during this protest movement like this military has before.

That uprising ended with a violent military crackdown, and in recent weeks the military has intensified its crackdown on protesters. Is a similar outcome inevitable?

No. Already the crackdowns have been less severe than in 1988. This isn’t because the military is any less brutal. It is because they know they are being recorded for the whole world to see. As I just mentioned, because this uprising is leaderless the civil disobedience movement will continue until this attempted coup ends. But a larger massacre could still happen, this is why we’re urging the U.S. and U.N. to assist us in our greatest time of need.

Riot police beat a protester after arresting him during a demonstration against the military coup on March 5, 2021.Aung Kyaw Htet—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Can the international community do anything to stop the violence?

Yes, they can. The U.N. must take stern and forceful diplomatic intervention. They have to show the military the cost of brutally repressing Burma’s people—targeted sanctions against the military leaders, the military’s business interests, and civilian business who support the military. There must be no legitimacy given to the junta at any international level. All legitimacy should justly be given to the CRPH [Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, the shadow government established by members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy], our legitimate representatives currently in hiding.

What do you want people outside of Myanmar to know about what’s happening there?

That the military is terrorizing us day and night. That we live in constant fear of arrest, torture, and death. That we’ve been in this dark place before. And that during the last time, in 1988, we were ignored by the international community.

—This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Amy Gunia at amy.gunia@time.com