Courage and terror in Myanmar

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Courage and terror in Myanmar

People have died and lost their livelihoods for democracy. The economy, too, is dying. The world must support the people to end military rule once and for all, writes Preeti Jha.


We will not move! Anti-coup protesters sit in front of riot police trying to clear roads in Yangon. You can just see a poster asking people to join the Civil Disobedience Movement. PANOS PICTURES

When the soldiers came knocking in the middle of the night, some ministers already had packed bags. After days of rumours, Myanmar woke up to a new reality: its ten-year experiment in democracy was over.

The 1 February coup forced the 54 million people back under military rule. It was another step to autocracy in Asia, where democratic freedoms have been on the way out in Thailand and from Cambodia to Hong Kong. But in Myanmar, the generals had never really left. The constitution gave the military a quarter of parliamentary seats – enough for veto powers. The army also controlled three important ministries and the country which it made poorer in fifty years of authoritarian rule.

In 2015 much of Myanmar and the world celebrated the big victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) as a dream come true. As a 70 year-old, she had been under house arrest for 15 years and she won in Myanmar’s first fair elections since the polls she won in 1990, that the junta refused to recognize.

The celebrations were short. The NLD seemed unprepared, with no real ideas for the future. There were new political and economic opportunities, but not for everyone. They did not reform oppressive laws such as those stopping free speech but used them instead. In recent years press freedoms have begun to disappear and people could go to prison for even the smallest disagreement with the government, and especially the military.

But worse than this for Suu Kyi’s reputation was what happened on Myanmar’s western coast in 2017. The army carried out, what UN investigators called, a genocidal campaign, driving more than 730,000 of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh. It was the biggest human migration in Asia since the Vietnam War. Once people described Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, as ‘the conscience of a country and a heroine for humanity’, but she defended the military at the International Court of Justice.

This was a warning of the crisis we have today, but Myanmar’s Buddhist majority celebrated. Suu Kyi’s popularity was high and it was no surprise when the NLD won a second big victory in November 2020. International media almost did not report it. Everyone was looking at President Donald Trump across the Atlantic refusing to accept the results of the US election. Like ex-US President Trump, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s army chief, refused to accept the results of his country’s elections. He too had no evidence, but three months later, the general carried out a coup.

Why now?

That’s the question everyone was asking with the news of the coup. Myanmar started big political and economic reforms after the junta gave up direct rule in 2011. This ended many years of isolation. A new government freed political prisoners, stopped restrictions on use of the internet, and ended media censorship. Other countries stopped sanctions on Myanmar and businesses rushed to make money in Asia’s newest economy.

Suu Kyi’s election made Myanmar look OK. The military already had a big business with China since the 1990s through narcotics and other businesses, while the people became poorer. Under the new civilian-military system, global investment and the army’s profits grew. The generals seemed to have everything.

But reports said it wasn’t enough for the top chief, who blamed the coup on Min Aung Hlaing’s ambitions. Justice for Myanmar said he had a lot to lose. Justice for Myanmar is a group of secret activists working to show up the military’s business dealings. Min Aung Hlaing was getting closer to retirement and many believe the coup was to protect his wealth. In fact, the junta stopped the retirement age after taking power.

Htwe Htwe Thein, an international business student, writes that the military was worried because they thought a second NLD term would give the NLD control of its money. Gerard McCarthy, another Myanmar student, suggested the coup was to change the election process, following Thailand’s generals, when the military realized its parties could never win under the first-past-the-post system.

But it was clear that very few people knew much about Min Aung Hlaing, who, the UN said, was possibly guilty of genocide over the attack on the Rohingyas. Min Aung Hlaing, a 64-year-old, grew up in a middle-class family in Yangon. In the early 1970s he studied law at Yangon University but wanted a military career. One of his classmates said he slowly climbed the ranks to become army chief just as Myanmar moved to democracy.


The pregnant wife (second from left) and a sister (second from right) of Chit Min Thu, 25, who was shot dead during a protest, at his funeral, 11 March 2021, Yangon. His reported last words to his wife: ‘If I don’t go out today, and if others don’t go out today, we won’t get democracy back.’ STRINGER/GETTY

From the beginning Min Aung Hlaing’s relationship with Suu Kyi, daughter of the army’s founder, was difficult. He didn’t want to change the constitution so that she could become president. And he wanted to keep the number of the military’s parliamentary seats that Suu Kyi planned to change. Sometimes it looked like they learned to work together. In 2018, Suu Kyi said relations with the generals were ‘not that bad’ and said those in her cabinet were ‘quite sweet’. But reports say that by the time of the coup the two leaders hadn’t spoken for months.

At 3.00am on Monday 1 February 2021, security forces arrived at Suu Kyi’s villa in the capital Naypyidaw. People say she had had her mobile phone destroyed three days earlier because she was afraid of arrest. She also wrote a letter asking people to resist the coup. She was back under house arrest.


Transgender activists with the protesters at Hledan Junction, in Yangon. PANOS PICTURES

The coup

With the coup there was a curfew and some internet shutdowns. The military controlled information to shut people off from the world. But it was impossible to keep everyone offline.

The evening after the coup, the streets were full of the sound of banging pots as people protested. Six hundred kilometres north of Yangon, in the second-largest city of Mandalay, doctors prepared to walk out. Youth activists in Yangon did the same. So by day three of the coup, Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) began. Millions of garment workers, civil servants, teachers, truck drivers, shopkeepers, professors, railway operators, bank clerks, and port workers refused to do their jobs.

Support also came from hundreds of police, ambassadors refused to represent the junta, and some soldiers left the military publicly on social media. Leaving the army means death.

The effect was amazing. At the time of writing, most public hospitals, schools, universities and banks were closed. Ninety per cent of national government activity stopped. People were refusing to pay taxes. In 2016 Myanmar’s economy was the fastest-growing in Asia. This year there will be a 20-per-cent reduction. The junta took over from a democratically elected government but it was not winning control. The nonviolent resistance was slower to move onto Myanmar’s streets. It needed planning, said activists, because they knew about the junta’s brutal record from the 1988 student uprising and the movement started by monks in 2007. By the first weekend, tens of thousands marched in towns and cities nationwide.

It was like the protests in Bangkok last year when young people led crowds raising three fingers in the air, a symbol of resistance that Thai anti-coup activists copied from The Hunger Games films in 2014. ‘You messed with the wrong generation,’ was the cry. The movement was multi-generational but there was more Gen Z. Myanmar was now part of the Milk Tea Alliance, a collective for Asia’s pro-democracy activists. They spoke the same visual language. Women marched in wedding dresses and ball-gowns. Bodybuilders came without their shirts. In this way the early protests were full of humour and it was like a festival.


A soldier with a man arrested during a demonstration in Mandalay. STR/AFP/GETTY

New and old ways

Myanmar’s new activists could make their message go viral on the internet. This became more important as the crackdown continued. Within weeks it became clear the junta was ready to use far greater force than in Thailand and Hong Kong. In Myanmar, security forces shot to kill. Their youngest known victim was six-year-old Khin Myo Chit, shot dead at home as she ran to her father. The junta has killed more than 800 peaceful protesters since the coup. There are so many videos of this on social media, often in real time. ‘Myanmar people can finally see the real brutality of the military, so at least that’s a good thing to come from all of this,’ one human rights activist told me.

The movement’s success is not only because of new technology; it also comes from years of earlier activism. The civil society networks from the 1988 uprising are helping activists today. They also support the thousands forced into hiding as the junta tries to find the protesters. At the time of writing, they have arrested around 4,300 people, including MPs, journalists, and actors.

The people of Myanmar have shown great courage in the face of terror. Many protesters grew up in a nation with freedoms their parents never knew and were ready to take risks to keep. Peaceful smaller protests continue even as there is less and less reporting in global media. Because of the violent crackdowns, hundreds of young people have also joined ethnic armed groups as they now see armed resistance as part of the solution. Others are joining together in small militias in different parts of the country to defend themselves against the army.

A bigger change was coming. Now the people were calling for a revolution.

Waking up

For the first time Myanmar’s democracy movement feels bigger than Suu Kyi, although she is still important for many. Labour unions – often female garment workers – are leading the strikes. Ethnic minorities have joined in protest from remote regions. The junta’s attack has brought together different groups. Also the Bamar Buddhist majority now understand the attacks by the army on communities like the Rohingya.

In mid-April protesters against the coup announced a new National Unity Government (NUG) for Myanmar. It brought together MPs who had lost their jobs with ethnic minority and protest leaders. Suu Kyi was still State Counsellor but the new cabinet was more ethnically and gender diverse than before.

The NUG promises to stop the junta charter that went against democratic change and has formed a ‘people’s defence force’ to protect its supporters from military violence. Speaking in hiding, the new minister of international co-operation talked about the importance of the NUG to democracy. ‘Until we replace this military, there will never be democracy,’ said Sasa, who uses only one name.

Important for the NUG now is international recognition: countries should engage with it and not the State Administrative Council, the name of the military regime. But to get international support the NUG should first promise human rights for all. There are no Rohingya representatives on its cabinet. Individuals, such as Sasa, want justice for them. But there are also members who are against them. The NUG must have a clear policy on equal and full citizenship for the Rohingya and for other groups that have had no rights for too long.

The geopolitics

Most people will remember the early calls across Myanmar for R2P asking for international help under the UN’s Responsibility to Protect – protesters spray-painted it on streets and sometimes lit it up with candles. Many people talk about the dangers of bringing in external force – as Afghanistan and Iraq showed. But there is much more the UN can do. It should stop arms going to Myanmar and to the army. It must also make sure the International Criminal Court tries the generals.

Sanctions against military leaders and their businesses – led by Britain, the US, EU states and Canada – play an important role in cutting the junta’s funds. Other nations and global businesses must do the same. There are other sectors to target too, for example, Myanmar’s state-run oil and gas company.

There must be more international diplomacy. China has the most influence over the junta and has an opportunity to bring change. Beijing prefers stability over chaos, especially as it shares a border with Myanmar, but is highly unlikely to intervene publicly. It worked well perhaps with Suu Kyi’s government, but in the past it was happy to do deals with Myanmar’s generals.

Then there is the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). China and the US have encouraged it to play a role in diplomacy. The ASEAN has been more active than some hoped, especially members like Indonesia and Malaysia but with silence from others like Vietnam. But when it invited Min Aung Hlaing to its recent meeting and not the NUG, it sent the wrong message. The general said no to a five-point plan and showed it is a waste of time negotiating with the junta. But ASEAN’s role will be very important for the humanitarian aid needed in Myanmar soon – especially in the border regions where new army attacks have displaced thousands more.

Some countries have suggested reversing the coup but that is no longer a possible solution. The coup showed how weak the previous civilian-army system is and the Civil Disobedience Movement has made the desire for a Spring Revolution clear.

Which road ahead?

So where is Myanmar going? Neoliberalism guided the NLD and the generals after 2011. No-one in the last government spoke about redistribution of wealth or a welfare state to reduce inequality. Myanmar’s people have never had a state to rely on. But the poorest are now in greater danger than before: the pandemic and coup together could bring nearly half of the population into extreme poverty by next year.

History shows us that Myanmar will survive an economic crisis, writes Thant Myint-U, the historian. China won’t pull back and we know the junta is developing closer ties to Russia. It is likely that there will be a lot of illegal trade. Thant Myint-U says the future of democracy will mean remaking the economy in a radical way that no government has ever taken.

The world must match the courage of Myanmar’s people with support. Myanmar’s people will need help in their journey to a new future – free from the military. The final words are from an activist forced to leave her home, ‘We hope countries will support real democracy in Myanmar’.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)