Courage and terror in Myanmar
When the soldiers came knocking in the middle of the night, some ministers had already packed a bag. After days of hushed rumours, Myanmar awoke to a crushing new reality: its decade-long experiment in democracy, for all its flaws, was over.
The 1 February coup forced the nation of 54 million back under military rule. It marked the latest slide to autocracy in Asia, where democratic freedoms have been in retreat from Thailand and Cambodia to Hong Kong. In Myanmar, though, the generals had never even left the chamber.
Under a constitution they engineered for a ‘disciplined democracy’, the military was guaranteed a quarter of parliamentary seats – enough for veto powers. The army also controlled three key ministries, enshrining its grip over a country it had impoverished over half a century of authoritarian rule.
Still, in 2015 much of Myanmar and the world had celebrated the landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) as a dream come true. The septuagenarian, who had been held under house arrest for 15 years, had trounced her captors in Myanmar’s first fair elections since the last polls she won in 1990 (that the then-junta refused to recognize).
The euphoria was short-lived. In office the NLD appeared poorly prepared, offering little vision for the future. There were new political and economic opportunities, but not for everyone. And instead of reforming oppressive laws such as those quashing free speech, it wielded them. In recent years hard-won press freedoms had begun to deteriorate and even the mildest of dissent against the government, and particularly the military, could land critics in jail.
None of this would damage Suu Kyi’s global reputation like the catastrophe that unfolded on Myanmar’s western coast in 2017. The army waged what UN investigators called a genocidal campaign, driving more than 730,000 of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority into neighbouring Bangladesh – the largest human exodus in Asia since the Vietnam War. The Nobel Peace Prize winner, once described as ‘the conscience of a country and a heroine for humanity’, went on to defend the military at the International Court of Justice.
What should have stood as a forewarning of the crisis today was celebrated by Myanmar’s Buddhist majority in a fervour of ultranationalism. Suu Kyi’s popularity soared and it was no surprise when the NLD won a second resounding victory in November 2020.
It barely made international news: all eyes were on a man across the Atlantic refusing to accept the results of another election. Like ex-US President Donald Trump, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s army chief, claimed his country’s polls were rigged. He too put forward no evidence and was robustly dismissed by poll watchdogs. But three months later, the general would stage a textbook coup.
That’s the question everyone was asking as news of the putsch reverberated worldwide. Myanmar had embarked on a dramatic set of political and economic reforms since the junta stepped back from direct rule in 2011, ending decades of isolation. A new quasi-civilian government freed political prisoners, lifted internet curbs and ended media censorship. Countries, in turn, rolled back sanctions while businesses rushed to capitalize on Asia’s newest frontier economy.
Suu Kyi’s election to office had coated Myanmar with a fresh veneer of legitimacy. The military had already built a lucrative business empire since the 1990s at the expense of a population it plunged into poverty – through a system of crony capitalism, trade in narcotics and business with neighbouring China. Under the new civilian-military system, global investment grew and with it the army’s profits. The generals seemed to have it all.
But it wasn’t enough for the top chief, said reports of people close to the military, who pinned the coup on Min Aung Hlaing’s personal grievances and ambition. He had a lot to lose, according to Justice for Myanmar, a group of covert activists working to expose the military’s secretive business dealings. With Min Aung Hlaing edging closer to retirement, many believe the coup was timed to shore up the huge wealth he had personally amassed. Indeed the junta scrapped the retirement age shortly after seizing power, and previous Myanmar generals too have stage-managed their exits.
Htwe Htwe Thein, an international business scholar, writes that the military was worried by the threat a second NLD term posed to its wallets through the promise of fresh civilian oversight over its autonomous reign. Gerard McCarthy, another Myanmar specialist, suggested the coup was aimed at redesigning the electoral process, emulating Thailand’s generals, once the military realized its parties could never win under the first-past-the-post system.
Whatever the catalyst, it became clear that few knew much about the bespectacled general who UN envoys have said should be tried for genocide over the Rohingya crackdown. The 64-year-old grew up in a middle-class family in Yangon. In the early 1970s he went to study law at Yangon University, long an anti-authoritarian hub, but was drawn instead to a military career. A former classmate remembers an average cadet, one who slowly climbed the ranks to become army chief just as Myanmar began its transition to democracy.
From the outset Min Aung Hlaing’s relationship with Suu Kyi, daughter of the army’s founder, was strained. He was unwilling to amend the constitutional clause that barred her from becoming president. And he would be equally unshakeable on the military’s parliamentary quota that Suu Kyi devoted her first term to changing. At times it looked like they had learned to work together. Relations with the generals were ‘not that bad’, Suu Kyi said in 2018, describing those in her cabinet as ‘rather sweet’. But the two leaders hadn’t spoken for months, say reports, by the time of the coup.
At 3.00am on Monday 1 February 2021 security forces arrived at Suu Kyi’s villa in the capital Naypyidaw. Sources told Reuters she had had her mobile phone destroyed three days earlier in anticipation of arrest. She also wrote a letter urging people to ‘resoundingly’ resist the coup. The Lady was back under house arrest. Was Myanmar thrust back in time? No. This is where the military’s carefully choreographed coup veers off script.
The pot boils over
There was an uneasy calm as dusk fell on Yangon, the former capital at the heart of earlier democratic uprisings. With the coup came a curfew and erratic internet shutdowns. The military was up to its old tricks – controlling the flow of information to seal people off from the world. But in this new era it was impossible to keep everyone offline.
The next evening the streets erupted with the sound of clanging pots as residents beat out their defiance. It was an early glimpse of the creativity protesters would harness. Six hundred kilometres north, in the second-largest city of Mandalay, doctors prepared to walk out. A youth activist network in Yangon did the same. So began, by day three of the coup, Myanmar’s staggering Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). Millions of garment workers, civil servants, teachers, truck drivers, shopkeepers, professors, railway operators, bank clerks and port workers have refused to do their jobs.
Support has also come from unexpected quarters: hundreds of police officers have broken rank in solidarity, high-profile ambassadors have refused to represent the junta and even some soldiers have dared to defect publicly on social media from a military where desertion means death.
The impact has been unprecedented. At the time of writing, most public hospitals, schools, universities and banks were closed. Ninety per cent of national government activity had ceased. People were refusing to pay taxes. In 2016 Myanmar’s economy was the fastest-growing in Asia. A conservative estimate this year is a 20-per-cent contraction. The junta had deposed a democratically elected government but it was nowhere near winning control.
The nonviolent resistance was slower to spill onto Myanmar’s streets. It took some deliberation, said activists, because they knew too well the junta’s brutal record from the 1988 student-led uprising and the movement started by monks in 2007. By the first weekend, though, people’s anger was uncontainable, and tens of thousands marched in towns and cities nationwide.
It was reminiscent of protests in Bangkok last year: crowds led by young people raising three fingers in the air, a symbol of resistance that Thai anti-coup activists had adopted from The Hunger Games films in 2014. ‘You messed with the wrong generation,’ was the rallying cry.
The movement was multi-generational but Gen Z stood out. Myanmar was now part of the Milk Tea Alliance, a collective uniting Asia’s pro-democracy activists. They spoke the same visual language. Women marched in wedding dresses and ball-gowns. Bodybuilders rallied without their shirts. In this way humour and a sense almost of festivity was channelled into the early protests.
New and old tactics
Myanmar’s new activists, unlike their predecessors, could make their message go viral. This took on added significance as the crackdown intensified. Within weeks it became clear the junta was willing to exert far greater force than that seen 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 sit on her father’s lap. More than 800 peaceful protesters have been killed since the coup. Footage of the atrocities has flooded social media, often in real time. ‘Myanmar people can finally see the real brutality of the military, so at least that’s a silver lining,’ one human rights defender told me.
The movement’s success, though, has been built on more than access to new technology; crucially it draws on decades of earlier activism. The civil society networks that arose from the 1988 uprising are helping activists who mobilize today. They also support the thousands who have been forced into hiding as the junta hunts for dissenters. At the time of writing, around 4,300 people had been detained, including MPs, journalists and actors.
The people of Myanmar have shown extraordinary courage in the face of terror. Many protesters came of age in a nation with freedoms their parents had never known, and were willing to take deep risks to retain them. Peaceful rallies persist, though smaller, even as global media coverage fades. The violent crackdowns have also pushed some in another direction: hundreds of young people have joined ethnic armed groups in the borderlands – just like a wave of activists in 1988 – as they now see armed resistance as part of the solution. Still others are banding into newly created small militias in different parts of the country to defend themselves against lethal army force.
In between the daily strikes and protests, as atrocities against unarmed civilians grew, a deeper shift was taking place. Calls for the junta to step down and the elected government to take office had evolved: this time the people were calling for a revolution.
For the first time Myanmar’s democracy movement feels bigger than Suu Kyi, though she remains central for many. Labour unions – notably female garment workers – have been at the forefront of the post-coup strikes. Ethnic minorities have joined in protest from remote regions. The junta’s onslaught has unified different groups. It also triggered new awareness among the Bamar Buddhist majority about the terror the army has long waged against persecuted communities like the Rohingya.
It is yet another reminder of the importance of looking back to look ahead. Myanmar never had a proper discussion about the colonial roots of the ethnic conflicts it confronts today. Spurious British colonialist thinking on race cemented a notion of fixed ethnicities, sowing the seeds of divisions that were then used to decide who belonged. While these categories are now part of the minority struggle for representation, race and ethnicity need to be unlinked from citizenship. By calling for a federal democracy, Myanmar’s new wave of activists are imagining an entirely different future.
In mid-April a new National Unity Government (NUG) was announced by opponents of the coup as the legitimate government of Myanmar. In a reflection of the changing democracy movement it brought together ousted MPs with ethnic minority and protest leaders. Suu Kyi remained as State Counsellor but the new cabinet was more ethnically and gender diverse than any before.
The NUG has vowed to abolish the junta-drafted charter that thwarted democratic change and has formed a ‘people’s defence force’ to protect its supporters from military violence, a precursor to a federal army it plans to create with Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups. Speaking from hiding, wearing a suit and tie, the new minister of international co-operation emphasized the NUG’s commitment to establishing a federal democracy. ‘Until we replace this military institution as a whole, there will never be democracy,’ said Sasa, who uses only one name.
The key goal for the NUG right now is international recognition: countries should rightfully engage with it and not the State Administrative Council, the name the unlawful military regime goes by. But to secure international support the NUG should first commit to human rights for all. A glaring omission in its cabinet is the absence of any Rohingya representatives. Individual members, such as Sasa, have been vocal about delivering justice for them. But there are also members who have previously contributed to their exclusion. The NUG must put forward a clear policy about restoring equal and full citizenship for the Rohingya, while also mainstreaming other groups that have been sidelined for too long.
Few will forget the desperate early calls across Myanmar for R2P – spray-painted on streets, sometimes lit up by candles – urging international intervention under the UN’s Responsibility to Protect. Several people have pointed out the dangers of bringing in external force – as Afghanistan and Iraq showed. But there is much else the UN can do despite the inadequacies of the Security Council, as explored in our interview with former Myanmar human rights envoy Yanghee Lee. Crucially, it should impose a global arms embargo on Myanmar, to cut the flow of weapons to the army. It must also ensure the generals are tried in the International Criminal Court.
Targeted 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 firms must follow. There are further sectors to target too, not least Myanmar’s state-run oil and gas company.
International diplomacy must intensify. China holds the most sway over the junta and has an opportunity to influence change. Beijing prefers stability over chaos, especially as it shares a border with Myanmar, but is highly unlikely to intervene publicly in the crisis. While it may have worked well with Suu Kyi’s government, historically it has had no compunction in cutting deals with Myanmar’s generals.
Enter the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whom both China and the US have encouraged to play a lead role in diplomatic efforts. The bloc known for avoiding mediation has been more pro-active than some ever hoped, particularly members like Indonesia and Malaysia amid predictable silence from others like Vietnam. But by inviting Min Aung Hlaing to its recent summit, and excluding the NUG, it sent entirely the wrong signal. A five-point plan was swiftly rejected by the general and has shown the futility of negotiations with the regime. But ASEAN’s role will be crucial for the humanitarian aid that will be needed in Myanmar in coming months – particularly in the border regions where new army attacks have displaced thousands more.
The move to reverse the coup – the return-to-status-quo approach – that is being put forward by parts of the international community is no longer a viable solution. The takeover has exposed the fragility of the previous civilian-army system and the scale of the Civil Disobedience Movement has made it clear that the desire for a Spring Revolution cuts across society.
Which road ahead?
This leads us to the question of where Myanmar is going. Neoliberalism guided the NLD as much as it did the generals post-2011. No-one in the last government made the case for the redistribution of wealth or the creation of a welfare state to reduce yawning inequality. Myanmar’s people have never had a state to rely on. But the poorest are now further from a safety net than ever before: the pandemic and coup combined could push nearly half of the population into extreme poverty by next year.
History shows us that Myanmar will survive an economic downturn, writes Thant Myint-U. China won’t retract and we know the junta is developing closer ties to Russia. Illicit trade will likely proliferate. The future of democracy itself, argues the historian, will rest on remaking the economy through precisely the radical measures that no government has ever taken.
The resilience shown each day by Myanmar’s people must be matched by the world’s support. They will need resources and partnerships in their journey to a new and inclusive future – free from the military. The final words are from an activist forced to flee her home: ‘We hope countries will rise up for real democracy in Myanmar’.
Preeti Jha is a freelance journalist based in Singapore and reporting across Asia. She was previously a Southeast Asia correspondent for AFP.