A chance to rebuild?
When the dam of people’s anger at the military coup of 1 February 2021 burst, one image – among the thousands taken of courageous protesters – electrified me.
Leading the marches in Yangon, the nation’s largest city, were two young women: Ei Thinzar Maung and Esther Ze Naw, both 26 and dressed in almost identical outfits. With a red cloth tied around their wrists, they raised their hands in the three-finger salute inspired by The Hunger Games that has become an emblem of resistance across Asia. They were wearing red-and-white cotton tops, synonymous with the Karen ethnic minority. Behind them stood a young man holding the Karen national flag.
To the outside world, this might simply illustrate a young generation rising up against injustice. But to me, born and raised in Yangon, it meant so much more. For one, Myanmar society is deeply conservative and male-dominated, with age automatically conferring respect. For another, ours is a nation long beset by ethnic and religious strife. Minority groups, who make up about 35 per cent of the population, have long been the target of gross human rights violations, even after the election of a civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).
Their main abuser is the military, the Tatmadaw, whose leaders, like myself, are from the Bamar Buddhist majority. It is an institution that has systematically used rape and other sexual violence against ethnic minority women and embodies everything these two activists are fighting – authoritarianism, nationalism and patriarchy.
For me their image was a harbinger that this Spring Revolution was different from the monk-led Saffron Revolution of 2007 or the 1988 student protests.
A thump on the head
In an interview a few days later, Esther Ze Naw, an ethnic Kachin who has spent the past decade working with people displaced by war in her northern home state, told me of the fear that gripped her as soon as she learned of the coup.
‘Things were already quite bad (for minorities) under the civilian government. If the whole country was under direct military rule, there wouldn’t be any room for us to breathe. I felt suffocated,’ she said.
Her concerns proved prescient. In the three months since they seized power, the junta’s violence has been vicious, senseless and widespread. Apart from the mounting toll of the dead, often shot in the head while taking part in peaceful demonstrations, there are public beatings, arson attacks and forced labour. As a clear threat, state television broadcasts before and after images of detained youths, barely recognizable after torture.
In other words, the military is bringing the same brutal tactics it has long deployed against communities in the country’s periphery to central Myanmar. It has been a wake-up call for many ordinary Bamar Buddhists, who have lived in ignorance, sometimes willfully, of the atrocities in the hinterlands.
‘You know the stories of Zen masters slapping you in the face or thumping you on the head to bring about sudden realizations? That’s exactly it for the Bamar Buddhist majority,’ Yangon-based political analyst Khin Zaw Win told me.
A growing number are publicly apologizing to minority groups, including Rohingya Muslims, for their failure to speak out. They have vowed to do better in the future, sentiments few dared to utter in public just a few months ago. Many are learning about the wish of the ethnic minorities (who identify as distinct nations) for federalism and coming out in support of their armed groups that have been fighting the Tatmadaw for decades.
‘Before, federalism was seen as the disintegration of the Union… People in Burma proper perceived that federalism was not related to them,’ Tayzar San, a key protest leader in Bamar Buddhist-stronghold Mandalay, told Foreign Policy in March.
‘Now, we have experienced arbitrary arrest, torture, killing and beating under the military dictatorship. We came to understand and develop more compassion for ethnic people’s feelings.’
This change has been reflected in the protesters’ demands. Calls to reinstate the NLD’s landslide electoral win in 2020 and release Suu Kyi and NLD leaders have evolved to include abolishing the 2008 constitution that cemented the military’s role in Myanmar politics and forming a federal union with equal rights and representations for all ethnic minorities.
As horrific as the Tatmadaw’s violence is, this massive transformation taking place in Myanmar society presents an unprecedented opportunity to finally build a genuinely inclusive democracy. It is a ray of hope amid a reign of terror.
Divide and rule
For centuries, Myanmar was a collection of fragmented and warring kingdoms. Then a succession of Burmese warrior-kings annexed rivals in the south and west in the 18th century but lost three successive wars to the British in the 19th century. The entire territory then identified as Burma fell under British rule in 1886, the first time a single political authority had commanded it.
They governed using a divide-and-rule strategy, leaving a lasting distrust between the Bamars, who keenly felt the loss of independence, and other groups who had differing experiences of colonial rule.
Since gaining independence in 1948, Myanmar – a country the size of France and Britain combined – has been at war with itself.
It has the dubious honour of hosting the world’s longest-running conflicts and around 20 ethnic armed groups have been sporadically fighting the Tatmadaw over grievances around a lack of equality and autonomy.
For decades, a ruling elite of Bamar Buddhists forced ‘Burmanization’, a government policy centred around the Bamar language, culture and religion, on the country’s ethnically diverse population.
At the same time, the Tatmadaw – in power in various guises from 1962 to 2016 – consistently portrayed minorities and ethnic armed groups, particularly non-Buddhist ones, as terrorists intent on breaking up Myanmar.
The widespread support for the military during the mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims in 2017, for which the UN said top commanders should face genocide charges, is perhaps the most egregious example of how effective such propaganda is, even among a population that has vociferously expressed its dislike of military dictatorships.
Hopes were high when the NLD was elected, but it largely failed to keep the Tatmadaw in check and did not build alliances with political parties representing minorities. In fact, Suu Kyi publicly expressed her affection for the military, which was founded by her father Aung San, considered a hero of independence from colonial rule. At times, they seemed to be in lockstep, like when she travelled to The Hague to defend the Tatmadaw against charges of genocide of the Rohingya at the International Court of Justice.
But now, the shift in consciousness has produced a National Unity Government (NUG) more diverse than any Myanmar has seen in decades.
A united future?
On 16 April, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a body made up of ousted lawmakers, unveiled a parallel government with 26 cabinet members, half of whom belong to ethnic minorities. Eight are women.
The interim prime minister is an NLD politician from the Karen minority and the vice-president is a Kachin political leader.
Ei Thinzar Maung, one of the activists in the picture that inspired me, has been named Deputy Minister of Women, Youth and Children’s Affairs. With a heritage that is a mix of ethnicities including Shan, she is the youngest cabinet member and already a household name in Myanmar for her role in the anti-coup movement. She is also one of the few activists to openly and consistently criticize both the military and the NLD for their treatment of the Rohingya.
Supporters say this new line-up, the ongoing discussions between the CRPH and ethnic armed groups, and the outpouring of concern for Wai Moe Naing – a prominent Muslim protest leader recently detained in central Myanmar – show that both citizens and politicians have changed their ways.
But many activists I spoke to are cautious, if hopeful, warning it will take years to rebuild trust.
‘There has been fighting in Kachin since I was a kid. Churches were burned. Houses were burned. Young women, pregnant women were raped. My relatives were also victims,’ said one Kachin protester. ‘Our voices weren’t heard or listened to.’
Others worry that the sudden support for ethnic armed groups and calls to form a federal army are mainly about defeating the Tatmadaw, and that few Bamar Buddhists have undergone a genuine change.
Besides, there are currently no Rakhine or Rohingya representatives in the NUG, while at least two of its members have downplayed or defended the Rohingya crisis.
There is also the question of where Suu Kyi – who has not been able to address the public since she was detained on 1 February – stands and her role in a truly united Myanmar. She may have fallen from grace internationally, but she is still incredibly popular among Bamar Buddhists.
It will be a big challenge to undo the decades of propaganda and negative stereotyping of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, but the country has demographics on its side.
The 2014 census showed more than half of its 51.5 million people are under 30 and young people have been at the forefront of the change we are witnessing. Here, then, is a chance to rebuild Myanmar. We just need to put the Tatmadaw back in the barracks.
Thin Lei Win is a freelance journalist who founded the Myanmar Now News Agency and co-founded the Kite Tales Storytelling Project.