A Study of Myanmar’s Totalitarianism and People’s Resistance

By Mon Mon Myat 3 October 2020

What puts Myanmar in the world’s news headlines?

The brutal military crackdown on the pro-democracy uprising 32 years ago? The Saffron Revolution led by Buddhist monks in 2007? Or the latest Rohingya exodus in 2017?

In one sense, numbers are important for news headlines, but what lies hidden behind the numbers and what occurs after visible moments of mass movement cannot keep the news media’s attention for long. While reporters pay attention mostly to the numbers or prominent figures, many voices behind the immediate facts are rarely heard.

“The recent four- volume set of books by Alan Clements and Fergus Harlow, Burma’s Voices of Freedom (World Dharma Publications, $28.95, to be distributed in Myanmar by, fills that gap of missing voices from Myanmar. Clements’ rich knowledge about Myanmar’s plight under authoritarian rule, his study and practice of the Buddhist tenets, and his dialogues with the country’s different communities make his books invaluable.”

Clements calls his books, “a study of totalitarianism and the moral and spiritual greatness to fight it.” Most of his conversations in the books reflect the long struggles of different people in Myanmar. His books consist of 32 conversations all together.

During his study of totalitarianism and acts of defiance, Clements tried to talk to Myanmar’s most famous revolutionary figures, prominent monks and religious leaders, journalists and filmmakers, and social activists. Many of his conversations reflect not only the era when “we were prisoners of our own country” but also the rough road ahead for Myanmar’s transition to democracy.

Not long ago we were living under conditions like those George Orwell described in his classic novel, 1984. Orwell wrote: “You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”

The late veteran journalist and writer U Win Tin, one of the interviewees in Clements’ books, was sentenced to 19 years in solitary confinement in prison for being a co-founder of the strongest opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). He saw life in prison as a living hell and wrote a book, What’s That? A Human Hell, based on his own experience.

Min Ko Naing, the student leader and well-respected pro-democracy activist, spent 20 years in prison, and he has a similar story. In a conversation with Clements, Min Ko Naing described his life in prison: “There was no human contact. No conversation. No reading. No writing. I had to face extreme loneliness. I was starved of human contact. I had no human contact at all for 16 years. The loneliness was so pervasive that for the first 10 years I didn’t even know what was missing.”

Min Ko Naing realized what was missing after 10 years when he was transferred to Sittwe Prison in Rakhine State. He said, “On the way, I heard the sound of a child crying. Then I realized, suddenly, what was missing—everything. I missed the whole world.”

Like Min Ko Naing and many other political prisoners, Myanmar itself missed the whole world for decades.

The stories of U Win Tin and Min Ko Naing are among the many soul-touching accounts of political prisoners. There were more than 2,000 political prisoners in Myanmar before 2010, and many of them experienced severe torture and long imprisonment for their political defiance against the military regime.

Min Ko Naing said he survived in prison because of three things. “The first was the Dhamma teachings of Buddha. The second was a firm belief in our cause. The third was a sense of humor!”

U Win Tin also survived, though he faced severe mental and physical torture during his prison term. From his lifetime experience in the prison, U Win Tin gave “a message of firmness” to the people who are still working for democracy. U Win Tin foresaw the challenges of freedom, and of liberty and of sustaining the fight for freedom for long.

Burma’s Voices of Freedom expands upon Myanmar’s struggle for democracy and human rights and brings them up to date, addressing the most important issues facing the people of Burma and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party in light of the NLD’s fledgling quasi-civilian government.

Since 2010, the world seems to have been forgetting Myanmar’s troublesome past.  Many people assume that Myanmar has found a happy ending and that the people of Myanmar have been upholding human rights and practicing democratic values just like citizens in democratic countries in the West.

However, Myanmar’s political landscape is not that simple. The political honeymoon period in the country ended very quickly.

Because Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not a magician and democracy is not a magic wand, Myanmar faces realpolitik after all. There remains a group of people who do not believe in democracy and do not want to change from authoritarian rule. In the conversation with Clements, Ma Thida (San Chaung), a distinguished writer and former political prisoner, highlighted the reality people are facing in Myanmar today.

Ma Thida said, “Authoritarian legacies are still going strong in Burma, not only among the army community but also among civilians. Sub-nationalism is also popular among all non-Bamar ethnic communities. So, we truly need education-based awareness promotion about basic human rights and democratic values and practices.”

Clements collected different voices that represent over 200 years of collective imprisonment. “These voices describe in vivid detail the courage and conviction required to non-violently confront injustice, whether on a stage, in a demonstration or in solitary confinement”, he wrote.

A decades-old bureaucratic apparatus has placed Myanmar on a volcano that is about to erupt at any time now. The world’s longest armed conflicts, rising militant nationalism and racial and religious conflicts represent the drainage of pus around Myanmar’s festering wound.

It would be a tragedy if Myanmar lost momentum in its long struggle for freedom. A young rights activist like Moe Thway, co-founder of Generation Wave, lost confidence in the transition and the civilian leaders. He expressed his despair in a conversation with Clements: “Myanmar’s so-called transition to democracy is dead. It’s turning into yet another authoritarian, semi-civilian dictatorship from a military led one. The main obstacle is the lack of true democratically intelligent leaders, with true leadership qualities.”

Young people losing faith in the country’s democratic transition is not a good sign. U Win Tin predicted that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would be too old to play a leading role when she is 75 in 2020. He clearly pointed out that Myanmar needs a new generation of leaders, as its nonviolent struggle has not yet ended. Nonetheless she has sowed the seeds of nonviolent principles among millions of her followers in the nation. New nonviolent visionaries must come from within.

Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of The Irrawaddy English Edition, described the current political landscape as “re-civilianizing the militarized nation” in his conversation with Clements. He said, “Our struggle for democracy is unfinished. The process is to gradually reduce the power of the military from the political arena.”

It would truly be a travesty if the fallen heroes and their voices of freedom saw their unfinished movement destroyed by people instilled with the evil spirit inherited from authoritarian rule. Leaders of the democracy movement in Myanmar set good examples of moral courage, firmness and Dhamma, or righteousness, to fight on.

Clements’ Burma’s Voices of Freedom portrays a revolution of the people’s spirit throughout the nation’s journey to freedom. After all, this is the story of the nation, the history of the people of Myanmar and told at their own risk and in their own words.

Mon Mon Myat is an author and a PhD Candidate in the Peacebuilding Program at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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