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What's next for Myanmar's pro-democracy movement?

May 04, 2022
topics: Peace and Reconciliation
by: Robert Bociaga
located in: Myanmar
tags: activism, Aung San Suu Kyi, junta, military coup, Myanmar

Following the military coup in Myanmar in February 2021, the nation's pro-democracy movement has transformed itself from a peaceful and leaderless camp into a quasi-military structure. Many protesters have taken up arms to defend the civilian population against the atrocities of the regime. Where is the standoff between the junta and pro-democracy fighters headed?

When Myanmar's democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi could not be located and the military announced the state of emergency back in February 2021, many people were confused about what to do next. Yet it did not take long for a wave of colourful protests to cascade across the country. Hundreds of thousands are believed to have walked through the streets of Myanmar's cities, towns and villages, often displaying their creativity as a way of defying the coup leaders. 

Some dressed as ghosts, grooms and brides, wizards or bodybuilders - they were all carrying posters with conveying two important messages: restore democracy and release the country's detained political leaders. The revolutionary songs chanted by the crowd united them in their demands before the junta decided to violently crack down on protesters.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a non-profit human rights organisation, the death toll among protesters has recently surpassed 1,600, while over 10,000 people were charged or arrested for being the part of the pro-democracy movement.   

"Peaceful activism is not a way to topple the junta," argued Phyo Wai from the northwestern town of Homalin. "That’s why we chose the armed resistance. The junta is too strong to be toppled by peaceful activism."

"PLEASE HELP US!"

Myanmar protesters appealed to the international community to help them restore democracy. Some envisioned a military intervention, looking back at the UN-led coalition overthrowing the repressive Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011. Although it is highly disputable that this intervention achieved its humanitarian objectives and was legally conducted, many Myanmar protesters believed that the international community is obliged to help them on the basis of the concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). 

This UN principle, which is highly controversial in some circles, is supposed to be utilised when the government of a country fails to protect its own people from any large-scale crimes, particularly war crimes, ethnic cleansing, genocide and crimes against humanity. Theoretically, in these situations, the UN can take action to protect civilians, even if the government does not consent and the action violates the country's sovereignty. 

However, as months went on and the number of civilian deaths at the hand of soldiers rose with no one held accountable, many young Myanmar people concluded that they "can’t just wait to get help until [they] die," said Gum Tun, previously a very active street protester, living in the country’s biggest city, Yangon. 

"Armed resistance and peaceful activism such as diplomatic pressure must be integrated," added Phyo Wai, who turned himself into a pro-democracy fighter. 

Against this backdrop, many countries rolled out sanctions against the regime. Some businesses withdrew from the country, while others either found themselves tethered to Myanmar due to legal constrains or opted to stay, believing that there are still the ways to conduct responsible business in Myanmar. This can be true in the garment sector, where companies such as H&M created jobs mostly for women.

PUTTING DOWN THE PLACARDS

Many protesters fled to the borderlands to get trained by ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) that also fight against the Myanmar junta. They subsequently formed defense groups aimed at conducting assaults against the regime's soldiers. 

While the resistance movement still reports that it lacks proper military equipment, it nonetheless boasts success in killing soldiers, convincing some to desert, sabotaging important infrastructure, and - controversially - targeting civilians working for the military administration. 

Shortly after the coup was launched, the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) was established as a form of boycott against the military junta. En masse, people abandoned their job posts that in public administration, schools, railways and the private banking sector, screeching the local economy to a halt. 

As a result of these attempts to paralyse the junta, the Myanmar currency depreciated, which drove up prices and led to widespread food insecurity

"Protests changed from going out on the streets to playing a supporting role to the movement," Omo Ra, a resident of Nyaung Shwe, a small town on the Inle Lake shore in Shan State, told FairPlanet.  

"Since we realised that being in a frontline without having backup cannot be good in the long run, many tried to collect money for the movement," he said. "But as for the CDM, the purpose is the same like with the protests." The aim, according to him, is "to stop the administrative machinery." 

In total, some 440,000 people have been newly displaced following indiscriminate attacks by the junta's soldiers who burned down private houses and places of worship serving as hideouts. 

"No matter how many times we have evolved, we still share the same dream which is to restore our rights and freedom," Oma Ra stated. 

QUO VADIS?

The pro-democracy movement now has its own government in exile, which despite being unrecognised is in frequent contact with foreign partners such as the EU. 

Amid the Russia-Ukraine war, many activists lament that their cause receives significantly less attention and support. Phyo Wai maintains that Myanmar people "should be provided with the arms and ammunition to win the people’s defensive war against the military junta."

The European Union has, however, hinted many times at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a motor to bring peace in Myanmar, but the regional organisation has so far turned out to be ineffective

Myanmar protesters have also rejected any form of brokering peace with the junta, which grabbed power by force. On the other hand, the junta classifies all members of the resistance as terrorists, and has stripped the movement's most prominent members of their citizenship.

As both the junta and pro-democracy fighters are at a crossroads in the struggle for power, no imminent winner is expected to emerge in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, it appears that continued inaction by the international community would only further provoke criminal acts and violence. 

Image by Pyae Sone Htun

Article written by:
Robert-Bociaga__cropWzAsMTMsNDU4LDQ1OF0_FillWzI4OSwyODld
Robert Bociaga
Author
Myanmar
One of many Myanmar protesters calling on the international community to take action. February 2021, Taunggyi Town, Myanmar.
One of many Myanmar protesters calling on the international community to take action. February 2021, Taunggyi Town, Myanmar.
© Robert Bociaga
A protester makes a three-finger salute in front of a row of riot police officers, who are holding roses given to them by protesters in Yangon, Myanmar.
© Getty Images
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