Myanmar is in a struggle for its life

Police officers during protests in Yangon (Myanmar) / Getty images

Myanmar (Burma) has lived under military dictatorship for six decades since the coup led by Ne Win in 1962. Even during the NLD (National League for Democracy), the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, which had five years to 2020, and the transition government (headed by former general Thein Sein) for five years before that, the generals retained ultimate control. Both these governments existed under a constitution written by the military.

On the first of February 2021, the day that a new democratically elected, NLD majority government was to enter into power following an 83 per cent election victory, the generals attempted a coup d’état. ‘Attempted’, because until now, they have not fully succeeded in exerting authority over the people or the territory. On that day the President, Win Myint, was imprisoned and remains in prison. The State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi was also taken into custody and remains there, wearing prison garb. She is serving a 27-year sentence on trumped-up charges including breaching COVID safety regulations, illegally importing walkie talkies, inappropriately hiring a helicopter, violating the official secrets act and electoral fraud.

Millions came onto the streets in popular, peaceful protest during February, March and into April of 2021. They met with a violent and murderous response. The order to the soldiers, published for all to know, was ‘shoot in the head or the chest.’  As a result, a civil disobedience movement (CDM) started in which hundreds of thousands of nurses, doctors, civil servants and teachers refused to work for the junta. Then by April 2021, a guerilla warfare movement began in reaction to the military putsch. Perhaps over 100,000, mostly young people, now form revolutionary bands, often called People’s Defence Forces (PDFs). These are often trained and armed by ethnic armies. There are around 20 ethnic armed organisations, mostly they are fighting for greater autonomy in their ethnic areas, some since independence in 1948, or at least since the first coup of 1962. They are the Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Tang, Kokang and Arakan Army, to name just a few of them.

Imagination may be dangerous for an individual if not disciplined. For a regime that seeks to control, nothing is more dangerous than imagination. They fear the pen more than the gun. Ideas are dangerous. Poets are dangerous because they imagine alternatives. On May 8, 2021, the junta sent 100 soldiers to arrest the poet Khet Thi in his hometown of Monywa, central Myanmar. The next day he was dead. He was the third poet to be killed in Monywa in those terrible first months of the Spring Revolution. Khet Thi had been an engineer but retired from that to be a poet and supported himself making cakes so that he could write poetry. 100 soldiers were sent because they were afraid of a cake maker and poet! His most dangerous line was: ‘They shoot in heads / Never do they know / Revolution lies in hearts.’

The civil war has left the country devastated. Three years since a military coup, Myanmar is a humanitarian, human rights, political and economic catastrophe. At least 61 townships are under martial law. Apart from the 1 million Rohingya in Bangladesh (700,000 of whom were driven out in 2017), hundreds of thousands have crossed borders to Thailand and India. Over 2.7 million are now internally displaced. About 5 million people have been absorbed into Thailand, at least half of them illegally. Recently the United Nations reported (OCHA report of March 2024) that 18.6 million people need humanitarian aid, 6 million of whom are children. Education is disrupted, many schools are closed. Many children in Myanmar cannot access basic learning due to the conflict. Children run with their families from one place to another.

The army is now struggling to maintain control. It attempts ‘totalitarianism’, which Hanna Arendt says, ‘differs from other forms of political oppression known to us such as despotism, tyranny and dictatorship in that it applies terror to subjugate mass populations rather than just political adversaries.’

‘Myanmar is in a struggle for its life. The needs are stark and evident. Many Myanmar people are showing by their actions that whatever it takes, they will not accept endless military rule. A revolution is in process. Its leadership is quite decentralised, although there is already an alternative government with a reasonable claim to validity.’

The Australian recently reported a claim that Myanmar has the highest levels of organised criminal activity in the world. The 2021 coup d’état by the military has enabled transnational drug, cybercrime and people-smuggling networks to flourish, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. Myanmar ranked first out of 191 countries in the latest index on organised crime, given the surge of human trafficking for cyber scam factories, synthetic drug manufacturing centres and illegal rare earth mining since the coup three years ago.

Myanmar is a country of many distinct ethnic groups. The largest, comprising some 60 per cent of the population, is the Bamar people who live mostly in the central plains, especially Magwe and Sagaing. Until now the army recruited only from the Bamar people, but now for the first time the rejection of this regime by Bamar people is also strong. The rebellion is fierce, and by consequence the retaliation, savagery and forced displacement is greatest there too.

Since its infantry is constantly being defeated, the junta relies on airpower (jet bombers and helicopters) and artillery, weapons purchased from Russia. Since guerilla forces are difficult to locate, the main targets are civilian persons and properties, with massive destruction of whole villages, houses, monasteries, schools and churches. As a strategy, the army has kept control by playing off one ethnic group against the other, a technique learnt from the British.  They speak of 135 different ethnic groups, but this has more to do with a ‘divide and conquer’ principle than with an anthropological distinction.

In 1947, when the country was on the eve of independence from the British Empire, Bogyoke (Great General) Aung San the leader of the independence movement and father of Aung San Suu Kyi, led a consultation among the ethnic minorities of the Shan, Chin and Kachin in the town of Panglong. The historic Panglong Agreement established an equal position of minorities that has never been honoured. Principally because Aung San and six other members of the transitional cabinet were assassinated by a political rival soon after this agreement was drafted. Moreover, it was too vague and lacked detail about demarcation of states and control of resources.  Further, many other minorities were absent or were present only as observers. When General Ne Win seized power in 1962 in the first military coup, he made short work of plans for a federal state. For Ne Win and his successors, economic motives featured large: the wealth of minerals, jade, gemstones, tropical hardwoods and reservoirs. For Ne Win, the ethnic areas were very much outer wings of the nation.

In the last weeks a new crisis has arisen, causing shock and panic among the youth. The junta has resurrected a 2010 law requiring forced conscription into the armed forces of young men between the ages of 18 and 35 and women between 18 and 27. 5,000 are to be enlisted by April this year and 60,000 in the first year. 6.3 million men and 7.3 million women are eligible for military service. Failing to report or feigning an excuse will be punishable with imprisonment. Thousands of young people are seeking ways to leave the country, and those unable to leave are weighing options, such as joining the resistance.

Myanmar is in a struggle for its life. The needs are stark and evident. Many Myanmar people are showing by their actions that whatever it takes, they will not accept endless military rule. A revolution is in process. Its leadership is quite decentralised, although there is already an alternative government with a reasonable claim to validity. Yet the ethnic organisations have fought long and hard for their own autonomy and interests. Every effort must now be made by the many friends of Myanmar to encourage solidarity, mutual respect and trust, qualities markedly absent under decades of totalitarian military dominance. 

Originally published on the website Eureka Street on March 20th, 2024

The name of the author is known to the editors, but has been left anonymous to protect the author’s identity and safety.

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