Commentary

At the Heart of Myanmar’s New Uprising, a Simple Demand

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 9 February 2021

Once again, the people of Myanmar have taken a historic stand and poured onto the streets, taking huge risks in an effort to topple the country’s latest military regime which, on Feb. 1, seized power from the elected government without a shred of justification. Like its predecessors, this mass uprising is a righteous one. A vital question is how it will end; innocent citizens are peacefully defying a powerful military that has repeatedly shown its willingness to resort to brutality.

Unquestionably, a military coup is the worst way in which an institution can take power, and military rule is the worst form of governance. For the people of Myanmar, this is not political theorizing—it’s a historical reality. This is the fourth time they have endured this bitter experience. Previous military dictatorships ruled for a combined 51 years. A week ago, the country again fell under the military boot.

Anti-coup protesters in downtown Yangon on Feb. 6, 2021. / Hein Htet / The Irrawaddy

This coup was avoidable. But it was what the coup leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s powerful military, wanted. Why? It’s obvious that he wanted to erase the indisputable result of the Nov. 8 election—the ruling National League for Democracy’s landslide victory—by manufacturing a baseless dispute over “electoral fraud”. Why? He wanted to overthrow the government. Why? He doesn’t care for basic democratic norms. Why? Because, many believe, he wants absolute power as head of state in order to make himself president in the future.

The only way to see this new uprising is as another stage in the unfinished struggle between right vs. wrong; elected government vs. military dictatorship; voters vs. power-grabbers; people power vs. “might makes right”; justice vs. injustice.

I make note of all of those because some people—observers, analysts and journalists—around the world have failed to grasp what is at the heart and soul of this new uprising by Myanmar’s people, who have been unfairly oppressed for so long at the point of a gun. Incorrectly, those people see this genuine and righteous movement as the result of a rivalry between the military chief, Min Aung Hlaing, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the ruling party. Completely overlooking the fundamental facts—including the facts behind the military coup itself—they characterize the takeover as stemming from a “personal rivalry”. They have no sense of the real movement that has emerged here among the people of Myanmar. It’s an insult to the hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets in recent days and to the millions of voters who cast their ballots last November.

“Down with the military dictatorship!” is the most common slogan I have heard from the protesters as I have walked around Yangon’s streets over the past two days. Peaceful protesters—of all ages and of every economic status—were shouting that slogan together with others: “Good health to Mother Suu!” (referring to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi), and “We don’t want Min Aung Hlaing!” they yelled. They held placards reading, “We want our leader [Daw Aung San Suu Kyi]”, “We voted for the NLD; Respect our votes!” and “Free Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint!”

These slogans are reverberating in townships across the country. Today as well, we heard them from endless columns of protesters in Yangon. In this city alone, it is believed that the number of protesters reached into the hundreds of thousands.

Government school teachers stage an anti-coup sit-in on Feb. 9 in Yangon. / Hein Htet / The Irrawaddy

Even in Naypyitaw, which was built by the previous military junta and is still the capital of the current military leadership, those slogans were heard from peaceful protesters—even as riot police cracked down on them with water cannons on Monday morning. Thanks to mobile phones and the internet, we are hearing the slogans and seeing the placards almost everywhere in the country, from north to south and from east to west. I hear the slogans being chanted in the distance even now, as I sit at my desk and write this article.

The handful of slogans are heartfelt and voiced with strong feeling. The demands they express constitute the real “soul” of this new people’s uprising. The people are asking for nothing more than what was stolen from them.

This uprising is a continuation of the unfinished struggle between dictatorship and democratic forces that began when the military staged its first coup five decades ago.

In the days following the coup on Feb. 1, it was heartening to see an ever-growing number of responsible and brave citizens take to the streets to oppose the powerful military leadership, who command a force of 400,000 but harbor unkind and insensitive hearts.

Nothing can obscure the basic facts and the gross violation of fundamental democratic norms that has occurred: The majority of Myanmar’s people chose the NLD in the Nov. 8 election; less than three months later, the military leadership erased the result with a military coup; the military abolished the Parliament just hours before it was due to convene; and it rounded up the elected lawmakers, overthrew the legitimate government and arrested its leaders, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Win Myint and many more. There is nothing ambiguous about this. The above recounting of events is not based on personal politics—all of these developments represent clear violations of the principles of democracy.

Now, after days of protests attended by countless numbers of people peacefully and righteously taking to the streets across the country, the primary concern for all of us is shifting away from the military’s ridiculous justification for its coup, and turning to the very real possibility—knowing as we do the military’s history of shocking brutality against its own people—that this new regime will crack down hard on those who are demonstrating peacefully.

Anti-coup protesters in Mandalay on Feb. 8, 2021. / Zaw Zaw / The Irrawaddy

Thirty-three years ago, in 1988, the predecessors of the current military regime indiscriminately gunned down about 3,000 peaceful demonstrators, including young high-school students who took to the streets in a similar nationwide uprising against a military dictatorship. They arrested thousands of dissidents. Nothing—including pleas from the international community led by the United Nations—could halt the brutality.

In 2007, the same military leaders crushed the “Saffron Revolution”, in which demonstrators again took to the streets of Yangon and other cities, this time led by peacefully protesting monks. Again, no one—including the most powerful leaders around the world—could save those innocent freedom fighters.

These are just two of the better known examples among the countless episodes of brutality inflicted over the decades by Myanmar’s various military dictatorships, not only in cities but also in remote ethnic areas, since 1962.

The military coup on Feb. 1 marked yet another seizure of power from the people’s elected representatives, yet another defiance of the people’s will. I think many people now fear that crackdowns in various forms are imminent, as the uprising gains momentum and finds support across all sectors of society, from students, activists and politicians to civil servants and ordinary people.

There is now an urgent need for every single person, every single nation—the entire world and its global organizations—to give serious thought to how they can support and protect the defenseless people of Myanmar from a recurrence, in the coming days, of the bloodshed that has stained the country’s history. It’s time to think about how to end the military dictatorship and secure democracy’s return.

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