A country up for grabs
Myanmar’s military toppled the civilian government. Now the country’s diverse population is banding together in protest
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Despite the 95-degree heat, Naw Thazin Hpway felt goosebumps as she saw thousands of mostly young protesters gathered outside the Hledan Center shopping mall in Yangon Feb. 6 to protest the military’s takeover of Myanmar.
That morning, the military had shut off the city’s internet, so the 25-year-old decided to come out with two friends to pass out water bottles and see what was happening. Soon she joined the peaceful demonstration.
“We demand democracy!” “Free Mother Suu!” they chanted, referring to arrested leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Some waved the red National League for Democracy flag emblazoned with a star and peacock, while others held up cardboard signs decrying the Feb. 1 military coup. Cars honked horns as they zoomed by, and drivers raised a three-finger salute in solidarity.
That was Hpway’s first protest but not her last. Since then, protests have spread across the country and grown in size even after police banned gatherings of more than five people. Day after day, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in streets in large cities like Yangon and Mandalay, in the military-designed capital of Naypyidaw, and in smaller townships across the country. The military sent troops to quell the protests, and three protesters had died as of late February.
Hpway had lived almost half her life under Myanmar’s quasi-democratic system. So she was shocked to wake up on Feb. 1 to a phone call from a friend telling her the military had arrested the elected civilian government and returned the country to military rule: “I didn’t think this would happen in 2021. We started to taste democracy 10 years ago.”
She then tried calling her parents in Karen state, but the call wouldn’t go through—the military had suddenly cut off phone service. Using her private internet network, she learned the military detained Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and other top elected leaders in a pre-dawn raid before the start of the new Parliament session. The military declared a state of emergency over alleged voter fraud in November’s election and placed Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing in charge for one year.
Tensions in the delicate, yearslong power-sharing arrangement between the military and Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party led the military to usurp power once again in Myanmar. But massive demonstrations around the country reveal the generals may have underestimated the resolve of a people who have tasted freedom and refuse to return to life under a military dictatorship. Minority ethnic groups that have suffered government persecution have joined too.
The military intended the coup as a way to wrest power from Suu Kyi, writes author and historian Thant Myint-U in Financial Times: “instead the generals may have inadvertently set off a revolution dynamic at a time of intense social and economic upheaval. The country’s future is now up for grabs.”
FOR NEARLY 50 YEARS a military junta ruled Myanmar, also known as Burma, with an iron fist. It kept the country impoverished, mired in ethnic conflicts, and isolated from the rest of the world. Pro-democracy protests in 1988 and 2007 led to bloody crackdowns and the imprisonment of activists. Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her efforts to resist the military, spent 15 years under house arrest.
But in 2011, Myanmar began opening up in ways once unimaginable—freeing political prisoners including Suu Kyi, allowing free speech, and giving people the right to vote. Old generals stepped down, paving the way for a government in which the military and mostly elected Parliament share power. Trade opened and companies poured in, bringing the isolated country into the 21st century. In the early 2000s, only a select few could afford cell phones. Today 80 percent of the population has a smartphone.
Still, the reforms were on the military’s terms: A constitution implemented in 2008 gave the military control of a quarter of the parliamentary seats—allowing them to veto any changes to the constitution—as well as the ministries of defense, border, and interior. The military also controls massive amounts of wealth: It owns two major conglomerates through which the generals wholly or partially oversee at least 133 companies in industries like beer, transportation, and tourism, according to a report by activist group Justice For Myanmar. It also controls most of the country’s lucrative jade and ruby trade.
Most importantly, the military had all the guns.
In 2015, NLD won a sweeping victory allowing it to take charge of day-to-day governance. Suu Kyi became the de facto leader as the newly created state counselor (she was barred from being president because her late husband and children were foreign citizens). The United States saw this as a historic success and lifted decades-old trade sanctions.
Yet the West failed to understand Suu Kyi’s ethnonationalist beliefs and balked when she supported the military’s attacks on stateless Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. After Rohingya militants targeted 30 security posts in 2017, government troops responded with “clearance operations”—they shot civilians, raped women, and burned down villages. Since then, more than 750,000 Rohingya have fled into neighboring Bangladesh.
In 2019, Suu Kyi defended the military’s actions at the International Court of Justice. She said some actions may have been disproportionate, but they didn’t amount to genocide. While international groups rescinded her human rights awards in disgust, the country’s Buddhist majority regaled her as the defender of their people. Her popularity continued to grow.
THE UNEASY POWER BALANCE between the NLD and the military threatened to topple as the civilian government sought to wrest control from the military’s hands. In 2020, the NLD drafted an amendment that would gradually decrease the proportion of the military’s seats in Parliament from 25 percent to 5 percent, allowing other groups to amend the constitution. It didn’t pass, but it signaled growing defiance.
Before the coup, Suu Kyi and Gen. Hlaing hadn’t spoken in months. Hlaing, who faced mandatory retirement in July, wanted to be president, but Suu Kyi refused to discuss it with him, according to The New York Times. Others noted the general feared the bad blood between the two top leaders meant he’d lose the massive wealth he had accumulated over the years.
Then came last November’s election, an even more decisive victory for the NLD than the 2015 election. The party won 83 percent of the seats up for grabs, including some in areas that typically voted for the military’s proxy party. The defeat led to an “existential crisis in the senior military,” said George Duncan, an American teacher and researcher in Yangon. (WORLD is using a pseudonym for Duncan’s safety.) “These guys spent their entire lives in the military, so they grew up admiring the rise and power of other generals. I think with the results of the election, there was a real concern that the NLD had the mandate to change the constitution.”
The defeated military spun a narrative of election fraud, claiming evidence of 8.6 million voter irregularities. But multiple international observers dispute the claim. Safeguards such as indelible ink pressed onto voters’ fingers and strict COVID-19 restrictions made it difficult for voters to vote twice.
The military pressed the Supreme Court to hear the fraud claims and whether the NLD-appointed election committee carried out its duties. The election committee said it was investigating less than 300 complaints—not enough to overturn election results.
Days before the new Parliament session was set to open with the newly elected leaders, representatives of Hlaing demanded representatives of Suu Kyi reschedule Parliament’s Feb. 1 start date, disband the election committee, and reexamine the election results, insiders told Reuters. But Suu Kyi’s side refused. “You people are going too far, rude and insolent,” replied the military representative.
On Jan. 26, the military spokesman refused to rule out a coup. A day later, Hlaing said the constitution should be revoked if not observed. Pundits and citizens thought the threats were military posturing until they woke up Feb. 1 to armored vehicles rolling into the capital.
SINCE THE COUP, the military has arrested at least 680 people, including human rights activists, lawmakers, journalists, and protesters, according to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Police abducted members of the election committee and protesters under the cover of night. The military promised new elections in a year, but most citizens didn’t believe it: The past two military coups in 1962 and 1988 led to junta control for more than two decades.
In the first few days after the coup, the streets remained empty except for pro-army supporters blasting celebratory music from their trucks. But every night at 8 p.m., people all over the country poured out their anger by banging pots and pans, honking car horns, and drumming on metal banisters. Medical doctors began to strike—causing concerns as the country had been hit hard by COVID-19—followed by teachers, civil servants, bank employees, railway workers, and other industries seeking to bring the country to a standstill.
To disrupt communication, the military intermittently shut off or slowed internet and cell phone services. It blocked Facebook—the main reason people in Myanmar access the internet—as well as WhatsApp and Twitter. Still, young people used VPNs to circumvent the ban and openly expressed their anger at the military coup and their support for the NLD. Through social media, they organized protests, planned strikes, and shared protest safety tips.
Charles Petrie, a former UN humanitarian and resident coordinator in Myanmar, pointed out that Hlaing “must have thought that he could go back to the 1990 playbook,” he told King’s College London. “He is wrong. The Myanmar of today no longer has much in common with the closed and isolated Myanmar of the 1990s. … [The youth] have been inspired by the other peaceful revolts around the world.”
Photos of the Myanmar protests are reminiscent of recent democracy movements in other Asian countries—young people donning yellow hard hats like in the 2019 Hong Kong protests and lifting up the three-finger salute (which the Hunger Games movies popularized) like in Thailand’s protest movement. They also flocked to Twitter to get the hashtag #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar trending to attract international attention. Myanmar youth joined the “Milk Tea Alliance,” an online solidarity movement composed of netizens from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and India fighting oppression and China-backed trolls.
On Feb. 6, the day of the first major demonstrations, the entire nation experienced an internet blackout. After returning from protests at the Hledan Center, Naw Thazin Hpway saw in the yard of her apartment complex people clapping and singing at rumors that Suu Kyi had been freed. But others claimed the news was fake. “I was not able to know what was real,” she said. “This was the worst day of my life. I feel like I stayed in the dark even though there was electricity.”
In reality, Suu Kyi remained under house arrest. Authorities charged her with illegal possession of walkie-talkies and breaking coronavirus restrictions.
Authorities continued internet shutdowns each day from 1 to 9 a.m., coinciding with midnight raids on dissidents.
Each crackdown brought more people protesting. When the military banned gatherings of more than five people and set a curfew in 36 townships on Feb. 8, Hpway feared no one would show up to protest the next day, but she returned to Hledan to support the movement. Her fears were wrong: Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated across the country. Police used tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, and in some cases even live rounds against protesters. In Naypyidaw, police shot a 20-year-old woman in the head, leaving her braindead, and injured a 23-year-old man with a shot to his chest.
Violence again escalated on Feb. 20 when police and soldiers opened fire at striking shipyard employees in Mandalay, killing two and injuring at least 30. The 33rd Light Infantry Division—responsible for attacks on the Rohingya—was involved.
Ethnic groups also joined, even though they had been deeply disappointed by the NLD and Suu Kyi. In the past five years, ethnic minorities continued to suffer as the peace process stalled and the new leadership refused to grant the groups autonomy. In some areas fighting has continued as the military broke cease-fire agreements and continued attacks. The NLD’s election committee also barred voting in several ethnic areas in November, disenfranchising more than 1 million people in Rakhine state. Yet now they’ve found common ground with the Buddhist majority in opposing the military.
At a park in Yangon, members of ethnic minority groups waved flags representing their various groups—Karen, Kachin, Ta’ang, Rakhine—some donning brightly colored woven longyis, a long fabric running to the feet, and traditional headdresses. In Shan state, thousands held a demonstration on traditional fishing boats on Insle Lake, while in Karen state, villagers in Papun District protested not just the coup but recent military shelling that caused 5,000 people to flee. Ethnic armed organizations joined the civil disobedience movement and said they would not tolerate a crackdown on protesters.
“What is happening right now is not about party politics,” Ke Jung, a youth leader from the Naga tribes by the Indian border, told Reuters. “It’s a fight for a system. We cannot compromise with the military, it will give us a black mark on our history.”
WHAT COMES NEXT? The international community condemned the coup, with U.S. President Joe Biden announcing sanctions against Hlaing, deputy Soe Win, as well as several generals and their families on Feb. 10. The sanctions prevent them from accessing more than $1 billion in Myanmar government funds held in the United States, but the measures’ effectiveness may be minimal: The military already faces sanctions for actions against the Rohingya.
Aware of the internet’s power, authorities drafted a cybersecurity bill that would require online service providers to store user data for three years and hand over information if the government decides users threatened “sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Critics say the law is so broad that authorities can arrest anyone who criticizes the government online, bringing the country under censorship.
People like Hpway recognize they have little power to change the military leaders’ minds. Yet she sees the protests as a continuation of past democracy activists’ work, while hoping for a better outcome: “We feel we need to finish this, not pass it on to the next generation.”
—WORLD has updated this story since its original posting.
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