After three months of unyielding opposition to the military’s Feb. 1 coup, Myanmar is now a country in revolt.
The country, which has experienced more than its share of uprisings and revolutions—including the “’88 Pro-Democracy Uprising” in 1988 and the “Saffron Revolution” led by Buddhist monks in 2007, not to mention its century-long independence struggle ending in 1948—is now witnessing a “Spring Revolution”. These uprisings have occurred periodically in reaction to oppressive military dictatorships and the military-created authoritarianism that has taken root in the country over the past 60 years.
The “Spring Revolution” wouldn’t have happened had coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing not decided to seize power with his bogus accusation of “electoral fraud” in the 2020 election, which the democratically elected National League for Democracy won in a landslide victory.
Since the military seized power, not a day has gone by without anti-coup protests.
We can discern three stages in this anti-military dictatorship movement: peaceful, creative protests displaying energetic commitment and discipline across the country in the early stage; blood-soaked streets and dead bodies of innocent young protesters killed by the regime’s forces in the second stage; and following that, local people taking up rudimentary weapons against the regime’s brutal forces and seeking military training in ethnic armed groups’ territories in border areas.
In that respect, it resembles previous uprisings and revolutions and it sometimes seems that history is repeating itself.
In the years following the coup staged by the late dictator General Ne Win in 1962, many dissidents went to the border areas to set up their own armies or join existing ethnic armed groups fighting the military regime for autonomy. After the 1988 pro-democracy uprising in the cities was crushed by the then military regime, up to 10,000 protesters, mostly students, went to border areas to form their own student army, known as the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF).
The decades-long armed struggle has yet to achieve its political goal of removing the dictatorship, though it has managed to maintain resistance in its territories.
Their inability to secure final victories in their armed struggles has led most armed groups to deal with the powerful military and its previous regimes and enter ceasefire agreements.
But while its main goals are the same—to restore democracy in order to secure a brighter future for the country and its diverse peoples—the current Spring Revolution is different from previous revolts. The people of Myanmar have come to the radical conclusion that the only acceptable response to this coup—which seems somehow even less possible to justify, from the Tatmadaw’s perspective, than its predecessors—is to uproot the military dictatorship through revolution.
‘Reconciliation’ era is over
The implication is that “reconciliation” with the military through dialog can no longer be viewed as a viable political objective. The era, dating back to 1988, in which reconciliation was central to the political positions of pro-democracy groups, ethnic groups and the international community led by the United Nations and the United States, is over.
Dialog became a key domestic and international demand after the nationwide pro-democracy uprising in 1988 and especially in the lead-up to the 1990 election, which the then opposition National League for Democracy won by a landslide. The dialog was meant to take place between the powerful military, which seized power in 1988, and pro-democracy groups led by the elected NLD, as well as ethnic groups.
The concept of “reconciliation” has been bandied about in the decades since then as the solution to the country’s political problems, especially between the military leadership and its main adversaries, the pro-democracy groups and ethnic groups.
However, the then military regime led by Senior General Saw Maung and later Senior General Than Shwe never showed any interest in the idea, and never held a genuine dialog with leaders of political groups over more than three decades. In fact, the generals’ rigid political mindset was never to deal in any genuine way with civilian politicians or any other groups throughout their long years of rule after 1962.
But most pro-democracy groups, including the NLD and prominent activists and ethnic leaders, idealistically continued to call for dialog aimed at reconciliation even before the latest coup. “National reconciliation” was at the top of the election manifestos of the democratically elected, ruling National League for Democracy in the 2015 and 2020 elections. It was also among the top items on its political agenda when the party governed from 2016 right up until 2021, just before the coup. The goal of this “national reconciliation” process was to gradually reduce the military’s privileged position in the political arena.
But it never worked. Obviously, the military leadership never showed the slightest political will to genuinely reconcile with any civilian political groups. The latest coup merely provided further proof, if any was needed.
After 60 years of first-hand experience of military dictatorship, the people of Myanmar have finally lost faith in the idea of dialog.
This is a significant change, one that has driven most people—whether or not they see it as such—to revolt. This revolt takes different forms, but no one seeks reconciliation any longer.
Many protesters have come to realize that the only way to restore democracy is to completely uproot the military dictatorship. Otherwise, the military will always return to kill democracy.
This is a different course from the ones taken by previous uprisings and revolutions. It is the essential aspect of this Spring Revolution—and one that the international community and many individual outside observers do not appear to fully grasp.
Some foreign leaders, especially Asian leaders, still believe that without the involvement of the military leadership, Myanmar’s political problems can’t be solved. But as far as the people of Myanmar are concerned—not least those young protesters who are already undergoing military training on the country’s borders—the idea that the military can play any future role in the country’s politics is no longer acceptable.
Naing Khit is a commentator on political affairs.
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