Guest Column

Myanmar’s Revolution: Never Cold Blooded

By Matthew B. Arnold 27 September 2022

Myanmar is in a state of revolution. It is a society in an existential fight against a single institution: a military that has brutalized generations of Myanmar’s people. In the early months after the junta’s February 2021 coup, peaceful protests emerged across the country. Predictably, the Myanmar military responded, as it has done for decades, with widespread, barbarous violence to crush the protests by unarmed civilians. Subsequently, and understandably, armed resistance to military rule emerged.

Amid all of this, the phrase thway-ma-aye, which translates as ‘Never Cold Blooded’, began to be used by protesters, whether the flash mobs in the cities or the demonstrators in rural areas. The phrase first emerged in Sagaing Region, notably in Monywa, Kalay and Yinmabin townships, and is most associated with a village named Shwe Nwal Thway in Yinmabin known for its strident, ongoing anti-regime protests. Now it is used across Myanmar.

Villagers from Shwe Nwal Thway stage an anti-regime protest in early September 2022. The banner reads ‘Shwe Nwal Thway villagers keep their hearts in the fight against the junta’. / Facebook

In English, the term ‘cold blooded’ is generally used to describe actions done with intent but without emotion. Often, it connotes particularly cruel violence. If someone kills in cold blood, they kill in a way that seems especially cruel because the perpetrator displays no emotion. If one wishes to understand the ethos, or spirit, of Myanmar’s revolution, it is useful to peel away the layers of what ‘Never Cold Blooded’ means and why the term has become so important to the country’s revolutionaries.

Subtly distinct from the English meaning, the use of the term ‘Never Cold Blooded’ by Myanmar’s protesters has important nuances; it is more akin to being ‘warm blooded’ by continuing to strive and persevere and to keep one’s heart in the fight. But whether in Burmese or English, the phrase and its multiple meanings captures the essence of so much of what Myanmar’s revolution is about and stands in stark contrast to the junta’s tactics and objectives.

To make better sense of Myanmar’s revolution – its intents, actors, and prospects – it is useful to explore the works of one of the 20th Century’s most brilliant political theorists, Hannah Arendt. Her 1963 book On Revolution is justifiably considered one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful detailings of what revolution means and how and why it emerged as a driving political phenomenon of modern history. Core to Arendt’s conceptualization of revolution is the “idea that freedom and the experience of a new beginning should coincide.” Her use of the term freedom connotes “participation in public affairs, or admission to the public realm.” Critically, her emphasis on freedom is additional to liberation or liberty, namely “to be free of oppression” in one’s personal life. This basic dialectic still defines the political tensions between the world’s liberal democracies, which speak of freedom, and authoritarian regimes that seek legitimacy through economic growth and domestic stability.

As Arendt so eloquently summarized, revolution fundamentally “aimed at freedom and that the birth of freedom spelled the beginning of an entirely new story.” Echoing the acting President of the National Unity Government Duwa Lashi La’s statement that this revolution is a “second war for independence”, it seeks not a return to anything but rather a new beginning. This is what defines the country’s events since February 2021 in simplest terms as a revolution. It is to be the break from the past. When protesters proclaim ‘Never Cold Blooded’, what they affirm is the conviction to persevere towards that new beginning, whatever the cost. This is why, despite all the horrors and atrocities thrown at them by the junta, they persist, and will continue doing so. Juxtaposed against this determination is the military regime’s archaic desire for the restoration of a mythologized past of Bamar nationalism. Who but a senior general of the Myanmar military could now sit in that ridiculous throne hall in Naypyitaw and not be ashamed of such backwardness?

Moreover, the intent of Myanmar’s revolutionaries contrasts with the toxic phrase thrown around by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with international backing, that the bloc supports a “return to normalcy” for Myanmar requiring dialogue and mediation with the military. This is not a new beginning, but simply an attempt at restoring a flawed process. ASEAN and the rest of the world delude themselves by believing that the decade of ‘transition’ represented some type of ‘normal’ leading to a more permanent, more democratic order. The country was effectively held hostage by the military and its self-serving 2008 Constitution, meaning it was always able and willing to stage a coup.

The rage of the Myanmar public since the putsch is that they nonetheless peacefully engaged in the military’s process for ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’ and were then cheated via the coup, with thousands of people subsequently murdered. Moreover, what can ever be ‘normal’ about expecting a ‘peaceful transition’ back to [quasi/coerced] democracy when that requires engagement with a regime that is genocidal. Exactly how many genocides and massacres must a regime commit before they are no longer to be engaged with but simply ended? ‘Never Cold Blooded’ means ending a toxic disgrace of a military that has denied the Myanmar people both liberty and freedom for over six decades.

Another key insight of Arendt’s framing of revolution is the notion of a “point of no return”, namely when enough of a society feel that they are “agents in a process which spells the definite end of an old order and brings about the birth of a new world.” One outcome of the preceding decade of ‘transition’ which was actually positive was that it socialized the Myanmar public, and particularly its youth, to the notion that a different future was in fact possible except for one thing. Arendt summarized this nicely when she notes that what is sought by revolution is a “citizen’s right of access to the public realm, in his share in public power.”

As Arendt notes, the concept of rage is central to revolutions, particularly “the rage of naked misfortune pitted against the rage of unmasked corruption.” These emotive, competing forces compel a society, like Myanmar’s, to rise in revolution after experiencing, at least partially, a better future. One where, at least conceivably, the military did not wrap the country’s people around its own greed, coerced through unending violence and division. As such, Myanmar’s military laid the foundation for the revolution through the decade of quasi-democracy and economic growth and then lit the flame for it through the 2021 coup.

This in turn builds upon Arendt’s emphasis on “revolutionary spirit”, which is the “the most impressive facet of modern revolutions.” Key to Arendt’s emphasis on revolutionary spirit are themes that link more closely with the English language connotations of ‘Never Cold Blooded’ but inherently sync with the ethos of Myanmar’s revolution. Uniting revolutionaries is the “notion of novelty and newness” of the endeavor. Moreover, key to this is the awareness of the agency of collective action for common good. As Arendt explained, successful revolutions only occur when a sufficient number of citizens are willing to act knowing that they may fail, but nonetheless are “eager to organize and to act together for a common purpose.” This stands in contrast to societies that prioritize personal well-being, most often in terms of affluence, at the price of public good, namely democracy and basic liberties. It is telling that Myanmar’s revolution is driven by its youth, who have risen in massive numbers to say that they want a different country for theirs and future generations.

‘Never Cold Blooded’ is in effect a declaration that indifference to the sufferings of others has been one of the country’s ‘original sins,’ most recently by widespread indifference to the Rohingya genocide. While there is still much to do, there has been more societal reckoning and reconciliation in the 20 months since the coup than in the preceding decades. That Bamar heartland regions, specifically Sagaing and Magwe, are core areas of armed resistance and are actively supported by partner ethnic armed organizations is but one example of the shifting parameters of how and who to define what is Myanmar.

Another important dynamic in this regard is the oft-stated declaration by the country’s youth that they wish to participate in the revolution precisely because it is a responsibility they must bear so that future generations do not. This is surely one of the purest meanings of ‘Never Cold Blooded’. Ending the military’s dominance is the most immediate goal of the revolution and creating a federal democracy the clear political outcome sought, but there are other major societal shifts being driven along by the churning forces raging across the country.

Revolution is a process. It is a societal reckoning. What is sought in Myanmar, to quote Arendt on modern revolutions, is “the foundation of freedom and the establishment of lasting institutions.” In simplest terms, this means a new beginning. ‘Never Cold Blooded’ is the fitting ethos of a society attempting to start anew. The revolution must be won and then a new, stable political settlement enacted around federal democracy. At its core will be a basic but fundamental notion that so exemplifies what is sought during these turbulent, violent months of revolution. As Arendt wisely summarized, we must be able “to grasp the enormous difference in power and authority between a constitution imposed by a government upon a people and the constitution by which a people constitutes its own government.”

This awareness seems self-evident to Myanmar’s revolutionaries but sorely missing amongst the international community. Outsiders who wish to support the Myanmar people in their revolution should support it as a sprawling, dynamic process rather than nitpick or over-generalize inevitable failings and challenges. It will never be as clean or obvious as anybody would want, but the international community, and especially its democracies, owes the Myanmar people real support in their just endeavor to secure a new future free of military dictatorship. To do otherwise is simply cold blooded.