Commentary

Amid This ‘Great Depression’, Myanmar’s People Will Never Give Up

By Naing Khit 26 June 2021

Myanmar has entered a Great Depression. It must be spelled with a capital G and D, reflecting the real mood of the people of this country.   

This Great Depression began with the coup staged by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing on Feb. 1, which in turn triggered political, social and economic upheavals that continue to this day. This Myanmar version of the Great Depression differs from the severe worldwide economic depression of the 1930s, though. 

The trauma of a coup d’état—or even the prospect of one—is familiar to the people of Myanmar, who suffered through three previous coups, and the total breakdowns in order that resulted, over the past six decades, in 1958, 1962 and 1988. 

However, the latest coup has been a particularly serious blow, not only politically, socially and economically, but also psychologically, for the whole population.   

Since the coup, all people in the country—rich and poor, educated and uneducated, employers and employees, civil servants and private company staff, parents and children, adults and kids, teachers and students, men and women, doctors and patients, villagers and city dwellers, farmers and traders, Buddhists and Christians, Hindus and Muslims, members of the ethnic majority and minorities, locals and foreigners—have been plunged into misery.

Almost everyone I meet and speak to these days has shared with me their deep despair, anger and fear, without even being asked. They all feel lost, and we can all relate to this feeling; there is no need to elaborate.  

I tend to express my own feelings back to them with this observation: “This is the era in which everyone in our country, from beggars to the president, are experiencing the worst kind of suffering.”  

Shattered expectations

One especially cruel aspect of this Great Depression was that it was thrust upon the country at a time when people had such great expectations. The people were in a delighted mood after November’s election, in which the National League for Democracy won a landslide victory, and were waiting to witness the rare spectacle of an elected government returning to power in order to entrench the country’s fledgling democracy, building on the freedoms, rights and economic opportunities that had been initiated over the previous decade. 

Actually, their great expectations were largely confined to practical improvements in their lives; they were not overly concerned with idealistic notions, given their country’s complex political situation, in which the military already enjoyed undemocratic privileges. 

But one man alone—an unprofessional general greedy for power—destroyed at a stroke their expectations and dreams of a brighter future. Because of his greed, the entire population now exists in this Great Depression. 

Since the coup, the country has endured four months of grief. Not a single day has passed without arbitrary killings, arrests or abductions in one place or another in Myanmar.    

So far, the regime’s forces have killed about 880 people, including many children, and have detained more than 5,000 protesters across the country. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs over the past few months. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) has warned that up to 3.4 million citizens could go hungry this year amid rising food prices and the loss of manufacturing, construction and service jobs. The coup has driven the economy into a state of rapid deterioration, and it is only expected to worsen in the near future.  

A third wave of COVID-19 infections has recently hit the country, but the regime’s response to the deadly virus has been to do almost nothing. Many people recall the systematic measures implemented by the previous civilian government to handle the first and second waves of COVID-19 last year.

These are just the tip of the iceberg of the problems we face in this depression era. The whole situation on the ground is an indescribable catastrophe created by the coup leader and his regime. Min Aung Hlaing’s persecution of hundreds of doctors, teachers and striking civil servants has resulted in family separations as those on the wanted list have either gone into hiding or fled the country. His soldiers’ indiscriminate response to civilian resistance fighters in some urban areas has taken a great toll on people there. In Kayah State, residents returned to their homes to see they had been burned to ashes. Parents mourn their children who have died from pneumonia in rain-soaked forests after being forced to flee heavy-handed raids on their villages by thuggish soldiers. 

But this is not the first time for Myanmar. In this country, every generation has its own dark memories. The generations of our fathers and grandfathers suffered similar feelings of despair under successive generals whose decisions destroyed their dreams and their lives too. The older generation felt this despair under the rule of the late dictator General Ne Win for 26 years from 1962 to 1988, while the younger generation felt it under Ne Win’s successors, senior generals Saw Maung and Than Shwe, for the next 23 years from 1988 to 2011. These periods under military dictatorship were an ordeal—earlier examples of the Great Depression endured by the people of Myanmar. 

Dragged into a dark past

In the past, however, when Ne Win staged a coup and introduced his autocratic rule to the country, authoritarianism was not peculiar to Myanmar. During the Cold War it was somewhat of a global political trend, existing in countries in Africa, Latin America, East Asia and the Middle East. Myanmar and its neighboring countries in Southeast Asia were not exceptional in this. 

In reality, it is not surprising that the rule of such great sinners should bring this kind of Great Depression. One only has to look at the world around us. 

Other countries have encountered worse experiences. Just look at the Holocaust, in which Nazi Germany and its collaborators systematically killed some 6 million Jews—two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe—during World War II. Think about the feelings of Jewish communities across the world; Myanmar people can’t compare their current situation to those Jewish victims. 

Cambodia, one of Myanmar’s neighboring countries, suffered such a Great Depression when the Khmer people endured the Khmer Rouge regime’s persecution of its perceived opponents, as well as minorities, causing up to 2 million deaths in the 1970s.   

They all suffered deeply, experiencing their own forms of Great Depression during such terrible periods. It is a phenomenon that has afflicted the whole world throughout human history with inexpressible suffering. But all those that experienced it had to overcome these ordeals. 

Nowadays, however, far fewer countries find themselves in this situation—for most nations, the most recent examples occurred decades ago. That’s why this latest coup in Myanmar feels so much worse to people than previous military takeovers.  

But it shall be overcome. How? One simple and fundamental quality is enough: simply, the will to never give up. In previous Great Depression eras, the people of Myanmar didn’t give up; each time, they continued to struggle until they were able to bounce back. That’s what they are doing now, and every single person needs to keep doing their part through their respective callings. That’s why we’re seeing so many people in Myanmar rejecting the coup in so many different ways, to restore the democracy they expected. 

Simply put, our motto must be: “Never give up!” 

Naing Khit is a commentator on political affairs.

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