Guest Column

Call It What It Is: A Revolution

By Matthew B. Arnold 23 May 2022

Pushes by the international community, most notably via ASEAN, to mediate between “both sides” of the conflict in Myanmar belie a gross misunderstanding of what is happening in the country. Myanmar’s conflict is not a binary civil war with both sides enjoying support from swathes of the population. What Myanmar is going through now is a revolution. A civil war in simple terms is a war between organized groups within the same state. Certainly, this applies in a general sense to Myanmar, as it has for decades now. However, it misses the greater significance of what is unfolding since the February 2021 coup. A revolution is a “forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favor of a new system.” Moreover, it is a “change in political power and political organization which occurs when the population revolts.”

Myanmar’s public has long called the events since the February 2021 coup the “Spring Revolution”. The significance of this terminology has generally been lost on the international community. The Myanmar population is waging a revolution against a very specific social order in the form of the murderous dominance of one institution, the military, over the country’s politics, economy, and social life. Existing as a state-within-a-state and driven by a toxic ethos of supremacy, the military and its hold over the country is the “system” that unleashed the revolutionary dynamics now unfolding. Overturning a fair election and mass atrocities meant the population reached its breaking point with the military after the coup. A new system – federal and democratic – is sought that fundamentally doesn’t involve a military perpetually strangling a people for its own gain.

This is where the emphasis on mediation and negotiations with the junta is so misplaced. Negotiations require compromise and ultimately accommodation. The population can no longer accept a military that commits mass atrocities as standard operating procedure; this institution has no right to exist. Arguments that the military enjoys at least some popular support are facile at this point. The depth of resistance across the country is clear enough. From the tens of millions of people who protested in the first months after the coup to the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) that saw hundreds of thousands of civil servants go on strike as well as repeated nationwide silent protests, Myanmar is a country in revolt against the military. On top of all of this are the hundreds of local armed resistance groups that have emerged across the length and breadth of the country. The atrocities committed since the coup have turned the population that had, to at least some extent, been supportive of the military in the past, namely the Burmese majority, universally against it. This is starkly seen by the fact that “heartland” Burmese regions like Sagaing and Magwe are now the hotspots of armed resistance.

The inability of diplomats and analysts to call a spade a spade has negative policy ramifications. Most obviously, the notion that the military in its current form has any role in the country’s future is both a moral and practical dead end. Let us be clear – when the military negotiates, they are only negotiating for themselves. The negotiations carry no wider significance. This, fundamentally, is why the Myanmar people reject negotiations with the military. Any negotiations inherently require compromise and at the end that simply means accommodating a toxic institution that has destroyed the country for generations. The failure to grasp the significance of what is happening, i.e., this is a revolution, also explains the widespread criticism of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) participating in “peace talks” with the junta. The underlying premise of such talks is, again, that this military is an actor that somehow must be accommodated in the country’s future political settlement.

Moreover, the nitpicking of actions by individual actors, such as the National Unity Government, by Western governments misses the point: the revolution is a mass movement of Myanmar society at large. The urgency and agency of revolution stems from the commitment of individuals and communities on up. This is conspicuous in places where there is sustained, escalating armed resistance but also by the mass movements that have encompassed the whole country, such as the CDM, boycotts of government taxes and nationwide silent strikes. If the world wants to understand Myanmar, it needs to take a step back and see the massive shifts across a society that wants a better future and is willing to fight for it.

Moreover, the world should see the revolution as an opportunity to support a better future for the Myanmar people. This means going with the grain of supporting what is being organically produced through the revolution. The process of revolution will do more to define Myanmar’s future politics and governance than anything else. There will be future negotiations to agree, or legitimate, a long-term political settlement, but the revolution in itself is the driving force for change. And, let us be a clear, in a world increasingly full of autocrats, Myanmar’s revolution is a force for good given its ubiquitous goal of federal democracy. The revolution is a massive process churning over the country’s political and social fabric, all away from the dominance of a toxic military that sees itself as a guardian but in essence is nothing but a predator. New leaders are emerging, new political realities on the ground being established, and social relationships reimagined. Moreover, there is an awakened sense of agency for communities across the country that they can play a direct role in determining the country’s future. Most importantly, new generations of youth are asserting themselves to define the country’s future. They are more worldly, more engaged, and more willing to compromise across social divisions.

At its core, the revolution is a political project being put into effect. It started from democratic elections that were denied and intends to rectify that by returning the country to a democratic path. Moreover, federalism is not a hypothetical to be crafted later. It is very much a product being created through revolution. In the form of consultative councils and interim administration bodies, it is being crafted now, not just left to be negotiated in the future. Indeed, the process of waging revolution across the country will do more to establish federalism than a toxic peace process like the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement ever could. This reality is what so many of the fence sitters miss – such as EAOs currently engaging with the junta.

Widely circulated videos of villagers giving flowers to young People’s Defense Force fighters after they return from operations highlight a simple point. Myanmar’s public are all revolutionaries. They are not passive observers hoping that whomever, however, can sort out whatever is bothering them. Junta atrocities, which are so common that it is near impossible to find instances where the military undertakes actions that don’t involve war crimes, mean that much of the population must remain underground in their political actions. But this shouldn’t hide the reality that Myanmar’s people are overturning a toxic order built on military supremacy since 1960. It is crystal clear to the public that the problem is the military and it will never be part of the solution. The sooner outsiders understand this the sooner they might actually be supportive of the Myanmar people rather than facilitating and legitimizing a toxic institution that needs to be ended once and for all.

Matthew B. Arnold is an independent policy analyst. He has been researching Myanmar’s politics and governance since 2012.

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