Guest Column

In Myanmar, It’s Back to the Future … but Not Quite

By Christopher Gunness 13 February 2021

The image of the crumpled body of Ma Mya Thwet Thwet Khine, a 20-year-old student shot in the head by the Myanmar army in Naypyitaw in the aftermath of this month’s military coup, brought to mind another emblematic killing.

In September 1988, Win Maw Oo, a 16-year-old schoolgirl, was gunned down in the streets of Yangon, along with hundreds of unarmed protesters. Her sacrifice became an icon of the “88 movement”; a symbol of man’s inhumanity to man.

In some ways, history is repeating itself, as it has done since 1962 when the army under General Ne Win killed dozens of students, peacefully protesting against his overthrow of a democratically elected government.

As it did in ’62 and ’88, army brutality today has united the country against the military. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is more popular now than in November when her National League for Democracy (NLD) won by a landslide.

As in 1988, her role is defining the national agenda, in a country where millions still revere General Aung San, their founding father, and are grateful for his daughter’s single-minded courage.

As in ’88, international reaction to the military crackdown has been hopelessly divided. Now as then, Western sanctions will be undermined by China and ASEAN. Myanmar’s neighbors are interested in stable markets, not democracy or human rights. And the Chinese need access to the Indian Ocean for their exports.

As in 1988, far from establishing order and unity, the army’s action coupled with its financial incompetence is wreaking havoc on the economy, which has already been battered by COVID-19.

As in 1990 when elections were similarly overturned, the army is moving to destroy the NLD and may hold elections, while Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is serving her sentence on trumped-up charges. The military will be praying that a decapitated NLD boycotts the election as it did in 2010.

As in the 1990s, with an ongoing crisis to contain at the center, the army may pursue a more conciliatory strategy in the wars with the ethnic insurgents. In places like Kachin State, where villages are regularly bombarded from the air, this will be welcome respite.

But things are very different this time round. Myanmar’s Generation Z and “the 88 Generation” are worlds apart.

This time round, millions of apps have been downloaded to circumvent social media restrictions.

This time round, Myanmar’s youth, particularly the urban middle-classes, have tasted freedoms as the 88 generation never did. They have seen one free(ish) election and relative political liberalization and prosperity. For many there’s no going back.

Hearteningly, the young have united with the rest in demanding a new political order in which military participation in government is massively reduced or removed once and for all.

Whatever the outcome of the current turmoil, the people of Myanmar have passed the point of no return. The debate has shifted. Putting the democratic genie back in the bottle will not be as easy as it was in 1988 when the army arrested, tortured and killed. Brutality worked back then. Now it doesn’t.

Today’s protesters are in this for the long haul and digital demos are not just lengthy, they are persistent. And they deploy weapons the army is ill equipped to counter—such as humor.

One placard which went viral read “I will fight for democracy until Arsenal wins the Champions League”.  The struggle could indeed be lengthy!

Generation Z is nimble, organizing demos on their mobiles. Confrontation lines are now on-line. Arresting anonymous internet group leaders is problematic.

To make matters worse for the army, digitization ensures instant transparency. A massacre in Mandalay can be livestreamed in London. The army may not care, but unlike in ’88, recording their atrocities has never been easier.

Though these new tools are powerful drivers for civil disobedience and economically disempowering a kleptocratic military, much more is needed. And here the outside world must play a role.

Old approaches by the international community should be scrapped. Governments should not get fixated on civilian-military relations, elections or even democracy. History has shown the outside world has almost no influence over this in Myanmar—except to make things worse.

Focussing pre-eminently on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has its limitations. She came to power on the back of oppressed people in 1988, but once in power, failed to speak out against oppression, even during the genocide against the Rohingya.

Important as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will be in any future political dispensation, there are 55 million people in Myanmar, each with a dignity and destiny that must be respected and nurtured.

There must be a focus on poverty and economic rights. The number of people making less than US$2 a day (2,820 kyats) was at 63 per cent at the end of last year—an international disgrace.

Social justice must be the objective of all diplomatic and humanitarian interventions, particularly in the periphery where the ethnic minorities have been deprived of peace in its fullest sense for far too long.

On that basis Myanmar might begin to build the foundations of a new political dispensation instead of being trapped in the ruinous cycles of over half a century.

Chris Gunness was a reporter at the BBC for 23 years and covered the 8888 uprising. In 2005, following the death of his partner he moved to the Middle East and worked as a Director of Communications for the United Nations for 15 years. He is now a podcaster and lives with his husband in London.

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