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“This time the people are united”

TOPSHOT - Protesters gather to demonstrate against the February 1 military coup, in downtown in Yangon on February 8, 2021. (Photo by YE AUNG THU / AFP) (Photo by YE AUNG THU/AFP via Getty Images)


Protesters gather to demonstrate against the military coup in downtown Yangon, 8th February 2021

The first time I seriously considered the possibility of a coup was on 4th November 2020, four days before Myanmar’s general election. General Min Aung Hlaing, commander of the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, and the most powerful man in the country, had just made unfounded claims about election fraud. When it was announced that the National League of Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, had won by a landslide I talked to a journalist who told me there were bets in their newsroom about when, not if, a coup would happen. The military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) had been humiliated and everyone in Myanmar knows that things don’t tend to end well when the military feels humiliated.

On 1st February, the day the new members of parliament were supposed to take their seats in the capital Naypyidaw, the army made its move. The moment was captured by a YouTube fitness instructor whose livestream inadvertently screened the tanks rolling in behind her. A state of emergency was declared, elected officials were arrested and Aung San Suu Kyi was seized. The 76-year-old veteran politician had spent much of the past three decades in jail or under house arrest as she agitated for a transition from military to semi-civilian rule. Now, following five years of slow but steady democratisation under her NLD party, the Tatmadaw was fully back in charge.

People remembered the loss of life during bloody crackdowns in 1988 and 2008, so rather than take their anger to the streets, discussions began on social media about a smarter way to protest. The main comment heard during those first days was about not giving the military an excuse to turn violent. People stayed at home for the first 72 hours to signal their peaceful disapproval. Then they started to protest by hitting pots and pans at 8pm every evening, blocking traffic junctions, boycotting military-linked businesses and going on strike. The civil disobedience movement was started by healthcare workers and joined by a wide range of citizens including students, engineers, government employees and ethnic minorities. They adopted the three fingered salute, first seen in the Hunger Games trilogy of films, as a sign of solidarity in a dystopian world.

A protester makes a three-finger salute in front of a row of riot police holding roses given to them by demonstrators, 6th February 2021, Yangon

Protesters in Mandalay take part in a demonstration against the military, 22nd February 2021

Newly-released prisoners look out from a bus outside Insein prison in Yangon

It only took a few days before the military started shooting with live rounds. On 9th February, 19-year old Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing was shot in the head at a protest in Naypyidaw. She died ten days later in hospital having spent her 20th birthday in a coma, the first known casualty of the coup. On 12th February, the military suddenly released 23,000 prisoners, mostly inmates unconnected to the protests. Activists feared the mass release was an attempt to terrorise the population. That night, unverified pictures on social media sparked fears that former prisoners were roaming Yangon, burning buildings and poisoning water supplies. I was in downtown Yangon at that time and when a suspicious person was spotted people warned each other by banging on pots and pans. Young men from the neighbourhood would then rush out and try to stop the potential assailant. Real or imagined, it created a climate of terror. In the morning, people were exhausted, but they continued protesting.

Every night I could hear gunfire and explosions. Every morning, when the wifi was turned on after the nightly shutdowns, pictures of those arrested and killed were shared on social media. On 14th March, 58 protesters were killed in Hlaing Tharyar township, a blue-collar neighbourhood in Yangon. The next morning posters had been put up, allegedly by protesters, stating that for every killing by the military, a Chinese-owned factory would be set on fire. China has been Myanmar’s closest ally and one of its biggest foreign investors over the past two decades but protesters were angry that it had blocked any censure of the bloody crackdown at the UN, calling the coup an “internal affair”. In the days after the Hlaing Tharyar killings, 32 factories were destroyed.  After the loss of its factories, which caused an estimated $37 million worth of damage, China sent soldiers to its border with Myanmar and demanded the Tatmadaw protect its economic interests.

The potential for Myanmar’s unrest to entangle other countries was clearly illustrated on 27th March, Armed Forces Day. Representatives from China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand attended the traditional military parade, signalling their unwavering support for the Tatmadaw. Simultaneously, at least 90 protesters were killed around the country. A further 114 people were killed the following day, the deadliest of the coup so far. By early July, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), an NGO based in Thailand set up by political exiles, almost 900 people were dead, including 43 children. More than 6,500 alleged protesters have been arrested, charged or sentenced. As Marlar, an expert on women’s rights in Myanmar, told me, “anyone can be charged: activists, writers, academics, musicians, celebrities. They don’t need a reason to arrest anyone.”

Anti-coup protesters use slingshots to pelt stones at approaching security forces, 28th March 2021, Yangon

Over the past four years I have witnessed the tug of war between Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing. Suu Kyi’s NLD comfortably won the 2015 general election and she was given the title of ‘state councillor’ because the country’s constitution, drafted in 2008, bans anyone such as Suu Kyi with children with foreign citizenship from being president. The power struggle between the civilian and military parts of the government continued, with the civilian side hampered by the constitutionally-enshrined role of the army in governing the country.

Despite the tension, Myanmar has seen some successes in recent years. The post-2015 opening up of the country and subsequent increase in GDP – over six percent a year – made tremendous material improvements to people’s lives. Tourism increased, infrastructure projects were booming, foreign investors considered Myanmar Asia’s last frontier market and development aid poured in. There were more and better job opportunities. Mobile phone subscriptions skyrocketed and access to electricity grew.

But Aung San Suu Kyi received international criticism for not improving the plight of ethnic minorities, especially the Rohingya. In 2016 Myanmar’s army carried out what United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” with a crackdown against the Rohingya that created almost one million Muslim refugees. Aung San Suu Kyi’s defence of the military’s actions at the International Court of Justice in The Hague was widely criticised outside Myanmar, but domestically she was more likely to face voter pressure for the slow process of revamping public education and healthcare.

In 2017, U Ko Ni, Aung San Suu Kyi’s lawyer, was assassinated in broad daylight at Yangon International Airport while holding his grandson. U Ko Ni had been advising the Lady – as Aung San Suu Kyi is still known, an echo from a time when it was illegal to say her name in public – on abolishing the 2008 constitution. As one activist told me: “This was the moment I realised they [the military] were never going to give up power.

A soldier stands next to a detained man during a demonstration in Mandalay, 3rd March 2021

Armoured vehicles drive through Yangon, 14th February 2021

Commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, attends the Moscow Conference on International Security in Russia, 23rd June 2021

They could have assassinated him in his sleep but they wanted to send a message.” Although the military denied responsibility, three former military officials were accused by the police of having orchestrated the assassination. One was later jailed for destroying evidence, while another fled the country.

The battle between civilian and military rule continued and in March 2020, building on U Ko Ni’s ideas, Aung San Suu Kyi tried to change 30 percent of the articles of the 2008 constitution ahead of November’s general election. Despite the NLD’s overwhelming majority in the parliament, the military was still guaranteed a quarter of the seats, and was able to block the proposed reforms. Virtually every change was voted down.

According to Lin Htet Aung, a former Tatmadaw captain who defected in March, the bloodshed in Myanmar is only going to get worse. “They [the military] have a plan to kill more people,” he says. He says he resigned because the State Administrative Council, the body set up to rule Myanmar after the coup, “lied that the NLD committed election fraud and seized power. And they brutally cracked down, firing with grenade launchers and shooting at people’s heads, so I decided to leave this institution. It is lying to the people.” Lin Htet Aung fears a repeat of the 1988 crackdown, when as many as 3,000 people were killed. But there are, he believes, vital differences between now and then. “This time the people are united and they are more educated. They know how to avoid danger,” he says. “In the past, there was no social media, we knew nothing about the news. The information flow was nothing. People from Mandalay didn’t know what was happening in Yangon.

“They [the military] have a plan to kill more people… so I decided to leave this institution”

In the months following the February coup, explosions from homemade bombs have become a daily occurrence all over Myanmar at government offices, police stations, military-linked businesses and government schools.

Aung San Suu Kyi appeared in court on 24th May declaring the NLD would continue because it has the support of the people, even as the military moves to dissolve the political party. She will likely face prolonged detention whilst being kept mostly incommunicado.

Difficult months lie ahead. I spoke with Richard Horsey, senior advisor for the International Crisis Group, who says that the civil disobedience movement “succeeded in grinding the economy down to a halt, but this didn’t have the intended outcome of forcing Min Aung Hlaing to back down. I think we’re looking at an extended deadlock, lasting months or even years.” The military, Horsey adds, needs very little to sustain itself – it is effectively a country inside a country, separate from the rest of society, with its own farms, banks, hospitals, mobile phone network, universities and television stations. The soldiers are insulated against the collapse of the country’s wider economy. “They even make their own bullets,” says Horsey.

Lin Htet Aung also believes the stalemate looks set to continue, with the national unity government, set up by ousted lawmakers, unlikely to accept any sort of power-sharing agreement. “The national unity government won’t agree to it,” he says. “Even if it did, the people will not accept the plan.” A decade after Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest caused a sense of relief and elation across the country, the dark days seem to have returned.

Rohingya refugees cross the Naf river from Myanmar into Bangladesh, 9th October 2017

Aung San Suu Kyi attends a hearing on the Rohingya genocide case before the UN’s International Court of Justice in The Hague, 11th December 2019

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