The struggle for democracy in Burma/Myanmar
By Ananeza Aban
At the break of the military coup in Burma/Myanmar in February 2021, residents in many parts of the country would bang their pots and pans in their respective homes every eight o’clock in the evening. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has restrained social mobility, this signaled the beginning of a widespread protest movement against authoritarian rule. For the locals, the resounding noise produced from the clanging of these metals is traditionally believed to drive away evil spirits. In this contemporary setting, the military junta’s seizure of power is understood as both a violent act and a diabolical undertaking.
The Tatmadaw (military junta) staged a coup to reject the result of the 2020 general elections which for them was fraudulent. The outcome of the votes, however, was a historic moment that confirmed the civilian candidates as winners in a landslide electoral victory. The Tatmadaw immediately detained national leaders and lawmakers, and seized government power by transferring legislative, executive, and judicial powers to its commander-in-chief.
People flooded the streets of major cities to express dissent to this draconian military regime through sustained peaceful protests under the loose coalition Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). The coalition effectively united and galvanized support for this anti-coup campaign, with young leaders also assuming crucial roles.
Nonetheless, while the protest was rapidly gaining traction, such defiance was met with tyranny through vicious military assault to civilians. Grassroots leaders, duly-elected government officials, pro-democracy activists and journalists became targets of the military crackdown, deliberately and effectively eliminating the shrinking democratic space in the country. As streets became the arena for public demonstrations, the Tatmadaw retorted by transforming the thoroughfares into their shooting range and combat zone. Thousands have now been killed, tortured, arrested or remain in unlawful detention, while civilians’ properties were illegally confiscated or their houses torched. Citizens believe that such brutalities are military strategies to instigate fear and intimidation among the population.
The uprising brought to light the lingering issues in the country as the peoples’ struggle for liberation from military dictatorship has perdured for the past 70 years. They have actually endured regimes of atrocities under successive military rule. Prior to this period, the historical oppression entwined with the volatile period of British colonization that subjugated different ethnic groups also deserves further reflection considering that the colonizers left the country to the dominant Bamar (also known as Burmese) elites and its military arm, consequently marginalizing the other ethnic groups.
Amidst a globalizing Southeast Asian region where the intersectionality of neoliberalism and authoritarianism requires critical investigation, a discourse from the perspective and collective experience of activists, progressive scholars, and community workers from Burma/Myanmar is but timely in order to critically inform international solidarity work.
Therefore, an online gathering was organized to amplify peoples’ voices and provide a space for people-to-people interaction and support. Under such precarious conditions, entailing surveillance and telecommunications restrictions, participants inside the country and border communities still managed to attend. Their stories revealed how resistance to authoritarian rule in various ways and forms are waged, establishing an inextricable connection between those in the cities, people in the countryside, and residents in diaspora.
A border-based community health care worker disclosed that government hospitals and clinics shut their operations down as medical professionals joined the anti-coup protest. When the violent crackdown intensified in the cities, thousands fled to the Thai-Burma border to seek refuge in the region’s rough and jungle-like terrain. Their increasing number added complexity to the 3,000 population of internally displaced persons already in Northern Karen state as a result of previous sporadic fighting between the military and the ethnic armed group.
As the COVID-19 infection remained a threat, grassroots-based healthcare workers prepared their clinics for the surge of patients needing healthcare access, particularly maternal and child healthcare. They readied contingency medicines, supplies and equipment; they dispensed primary care and intermediate secondary care; they employed a system for COVID-19 quarantine and isolation; last but not least, they coordinated with local authorities and international humanitarian organizations based in Thailand for the peoples’ evacuation plan.
Interestingly, not losing sight of the central role of the labor movement in Burma/Myanmar, women played a major function. The women factory workers were pioneers in mobilizing the street protests in the city of Yangon, whichprovided courage for peoples across the country to launch the massive demonstrations. The military crackdown was more violent in these demonstrations and residential areas of the workers. As most of these workers are urban migrants, many were eventually forced to return to their rural homes.
The rural population, therefore, deserves equal attention because while farming communities remain the food production base, they also provide cheap labor to the industrial zones established in the urban areas. On the other hand, the rural landscape for the past decades is the site of armed insurgencies and a refuge for many political activists whenever there is heavy repression in the cities as the Tatmadaw holds not just political, but also economic power. The military and their respective families control the country’s key businesses from telecommunications to mining and petroleum. Correspondingly, the rural areas as well suffered severely.
A scholar-activist clearly elaborated the important role of the countryside in the social reproduction of conflict and dictatorship in Burma/Myanmar. What remains imperative is to understand how geopolitics play a significant part in the ongoing conflict. The rural population in the mountainous regions, the central area, and the lower part have their differences, but also interconnections in terms of the crops they produce, their political economy: their politics. Corporate investments from countries like China and Australia also shape the country’s economic and geopolitical interests which are heavily controlled by the military junta.
The full report can be downloaded here
Ananeza Aban is a Senior Research Analyst of the University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies Program on Alternative Development (UP CIDS AltDev)