From the May-June 2021 issue of News & Letters
by Bob McGuire
The day after the military staged a coup in Myanmar (Burma) on Feb. 1, mass marches crisscrossing the country displayed utter rejection of military rule. The rage of demonstrators, the numbers of actions and shows of resistance have only deepened in the three months since. Not even the rising numbers of martyrs killed by soldiers, more than 800, have muted the unarmed demonstrations of the opposition. Massacres by the military in Yangon and elsewhere have driven protest underground for brief periods or forced quicker unannounced actions.
Demonstrations against the coup were not confined to major cities like Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw, the capital. Far from it. Participants by the millions have marched on a nearly daily basis in hundreds of cities, towns and villages, raising banners and flashing the three-finger symbol of defiance against the coup.
The marches are multi-generational. Students and young workers are prominent, as is the generation that rose in rebellion in 1988 and endured bloody repression at the hands of a previous military dictatorship, the SLORC. Other, even older participants, remember the 1962 military coup that crushed a civilian government.
Women have been at the center of this resistance. Women were pivotal in staging walkouts at textile mills in the first few days, and in starting and maintaining a general strike beginning Feb. 22. Women are sometimes, literally, the vanguard of mass marches, forming lines at the front despite the fact that soldiers confronting them have spared neither women nor children.
The military has repeatedly blocked telephone and internet access, with the intent of disrupting communications within the country and impeding information getting out to the world. Soldiers firing on crowds, especially targeting reporters and medical workers—800 lives is probably a drastic undercounting of casualties. Predominantly unarmed marches and vigils armed with, at most, slingshots, bricks and street barricades are matched against machine guns. Insurgents have employed creative tactics like silent strikes and unannounced flash mobs to minimize effects of escalating military repression.
ETHNIC MINORITIES KEEP FIGHTING
Ethnic minorities in areas bordering Thailand, Laos, China and India, who have asserted claims to self-determination, have been targeted by all political forces in the capital in the years since independence. They have now joined in resistance against the coup—from Myitkina and villages in Kachin State in the north to Kawthaung more than 1,400 miles south.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing led the coup on Feb. 1, making baseless claims of voter fraud in the November elections. Despite the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy, winning more than 80% of the votes over the pro-military parties, Hlaing succeeded in doing what Trump tried to do in the U.S.: he declared the elections null and void. The army, known as Tatmadaw, arrested Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), and President U Win Myint on petty, transparently concocted charges of violating the rules of distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, and then blocked them and the rest of the elected legislators from being sworn in for their five-year terms.
Because the nation has been ruled by a series of military governments, followed by a civilian government that acted only under the thumb of the Tatmadaw, Hlaing might have expected a fatalistic acceptance from the population. Instead, he discovered a people, many peoples, whose opposition continues to deepen.
The elected NLD legislators, stopped by the Tatmadaw from being sworn in, quickly formed the underground Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH)—the lawmaking body of Myanmar. They claim to be the new legitimate government, and CRPH banners abounded in marches. But, after months of daily marching and being shot down in the streets resisting the military coup, no one is going to settle for what had passed for normal political life before the coup, nor uncritically follow the NLD.
FREEDOM STRUGGLE WIDENS
The focus of many rebels’ efforts is now to reappraise their previous government and envision what a post-coup Myanmar would be. They are concluding that a new Burma would have to include autonomy for peoples like the Karen, Chin, Kachin and other ethnic and language groups who live in more than a third of the country. Many expressions of regret were raised, even among democracy activists in the Burmese-speaking Bamar majority who had displayed indifference or even hostility toward minority peoples’ grievances against Tatmadaw attacks and who were fighting for equal rights and, above all, self-determination.
Some said they most regretted not speaking out during the military campaign of genocide and expulsion of 700,000 Rohingya Muslims. Now they comprehend their silence as enabling military atrocities and making impossible a national unity of anti-regime forces. That mistake came from the top. San Suu Kyi had not only failed to speak out, she had defended the genocidal conduct of the military in international forums.
SAN SUU KYI MISLEADS
It is all the more surprising because her father Aung San, respected as “Father of the Nation,” promised autonomy for ethnic groups in 1947 in the Panglong Union Agreement on the eve of independence from the UK. When he was assassinated months later, those promises remained only on paper.
It was partly because of her position as Aung San’s daughter that San Suu Kyi became the face of resistance after the counter-revolution of 1988, even paying the price of family separation and house arrest, for which she deservedly won the Nobel Peace Prize. As his daughter she would have been the perfect one to revive the Panglong Union Agreement. In 2016, when she became civilian leader, she did visit the Panglong Monument in Shan State at the site of the 1947 signing. But the very next year she was defending the army’s genocide of Rohingya Muslims, for which she rightly heard calls for her Nobel Peace Prize to be revoked.
But leave it to the military after the coup to help promote unity across ethnic lines that had been so glaringly missing. As the body count of the opposition has grown, some have compared attacks against protesters now to what ethnic areas faced for decades.
At the end of March, the military carried out airstrikes targeting the Karen population, killing and injuring children and driving thousands across the Thai border. That same weekend, soldiers killed over 100 more marchers. At that point most of the ethnic armed rebels in their home areas had taken sides with the pro-democracy opposition against the coup.
On April 1, CRPH issued a proposed Federal Democracy Charter making equality and self-determination a principle of toppling the regime and creating a new constitution. But guarantees of equality and self-determination promise to be of no value to Rohingya Muslims still in Rakhine State or anxious to return from exile to reclaim their homes if it ever becomes safe enough. That is because enforcement would be left to the individual States, and the Arakan Army of Rakhine State is the one ethnic armed unit that has not explicitly joined the opposition to military rule.
On April 16, CRPH formed a National Unity Government (NUG) from its elected officials together with representatives from ethnic groups still demanding self-determination after decades of resistance to the central government. Some groups like the Kachin Independence Organization, formed 60 years ago, had never accepted the 2008 Constitution that provided the basis for the NLD to take “power” with no control over the Tatmadaw, police or border troops.
Voices of resistance from within the country have demanded that the nations trading with Myanmar impose sanctions on coup leaders. The U.S. has imposed sanctions against 10 individuals in the military kleptocracy and two of their entities. Retailers like H&M have canceled orders from textile plants within the country after the coup, resulting in layoffs of more than 200,000 textile workers.
BIG OIL PROPS UP FASCIST TATMADAW
The Tatmadaw is the dominant oligarchy in Myanmar, accumulating wealth from oil, gas and mineral resources. The wealth that did not stick to the fingers of the generals at the top of the military hierarchy was used to elevate living conditions for soldiers and their families high above what the civilian population could afford. It has made Tatmadaw soldiers regard themselves above and apart from the civilian population.
Thus, international sanctions remain symbolic unless the generals’ biggest cash cow, the Yadana gas field, is included. France’s Total and the U.S.’s Chevron funnel nearly $600 million in hard currency to the Tatmadaw each year. In 2007 Chevron successfully lobbied to be excluded from a round of U.S. sanctions on Myanmar.
Chevron now has an army of lobbyists at work in D.C. expecting that they can once again deflect sanctions that would reduce its profits but cripple the finances of the Tatmadaw. Chevron is claiming that Myanmar’s power needs depend on its continued production. Opposition figures have proposed that production continue, but that Chevron and Total pay their fees into an escrow account available to the next legitimate government.
International solidarity has included protests in the U.S. against Chevron and in France against Total. (See “No funding to Tatmadaw.”) Solidarity vigils took place all across Germany and Ireland, often led by Burmese emigres including Rohingya. Banners in Myanmar marches thanked supporters from Taiwan.
But Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the coup, just as they had prevented UN diplomatic intervention in the first days of the Syrian Revolution when Bashar al-Assad’s troops fired on unarmed peaceful protesters. Likewise, China has kept arms and ammunition flowing in, and oil flowing out. There was reason for protesters in many cities to display pictures condemning Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping and to burn Chinese and Russian flags. Another sign simply read: “WE HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT OUR CHAINS”—after Karl Marx, a revolutionary that Xi and the rest of the Communist Party of China have not heeded for over 70 years.
Closer to home, coup leaders, despite their absence of support, have been propped up by neighboring governments. The regional association ASEAN at its summit meeting on April 23 overstepped its stated policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of member nations, offering legitimacy to the military junta by inviting Gen. Hlaing and allowing him to endorse empty platitudes on non-violent treatment of protesters and release of prisoners. ASEAN ignored the demand of NUG that a representative of the opposition also be invited.
Three months of defying the coup has provided time for the forces of old revolutionaries, youth, workers and women to work out what they are fighting for, beyond deposing the military caste that has ruled them. Mutual hatred of Tatmadaw seems to be an opportunity to bridge long-time divisions between the Burmese-speaking majority and the peoples long fighting for self-determination, who have drawn blood when Tatmadaw forces attacked minority strongholds. The politicians of NLD have taken the lead in the National Unity Government. Will they be tainted by the compromises they have made with the military? We owe millions of freedom fighters in Myanmar our solidarity, and watchful attention to their next developments in thoughts and action.