Earlier this year, on 1 February the Tatmadaw – the name of the Myanmar military in Burmese – threw the country into one of its darkest moments in history with yet another coup. For the third time, 33 years after the second coup in 1988, the Tatmadaw has sparked intense outrage from the public. This time it has led to the launch of a ‘Spring Revolution’ (as it is popularly called in Myanmar) that has spread to all corners of the country: from the snow-capped mountains in the north, to the dry plains in the centre and the vivid blue sea in the south, the torch of public resistance and revolution has been lit and continues to burn despite intensifying repression.
The impact of the coup in its most destructive power is extending deep into the roots of a diseased political system, breaking apart the old alignments that have long held it in place since it was originally forced onto the country as part of the colonial legacy.
The current crisis in Myanmar is not a black and white situation but requires a broader contextual understanding. It is not only a conflict between the National League of Democracy (NLD) and Tatmadaw. Myanmar is a country long infected with unresolved political grievances since gaining independence from the British in 1948 – a situation that has had a huge impact, including armed conflicts, on many parts of the country for over 70 years. Currently, there are over 200,000 internally displaced persons in the country and many more refugees abroad.
The so-called ‘democratic political transition’ in 2011 was tied to the 2008 constitution which ensured perpetuation and consolidation of military power within the country. The Aung San Suu Kyi-led government maintained the same power structure and failed to move towards building peace and delivering transitional justice. A very clear example was when Aung San Suu Kyi defended the military against charges of committing genocide against the Rohingyas made by Gambia at the International Court of Justice in 2020. Her government aligned with the interests of the elite class which has accumulated immense wealth by partnering with Myanmar military officials at the cost of dispossessing the rural population of their lands and livelihoods. Her popularity, however, did not wane and her party won a landslide victory in the November 2020 election, again under somewhat flawed conditions.
‘Myanmar is a country long infected with unresolved political grievances since gaining independence from the British in 1948…’
The 1 February military coup caused a great shock, especially to the people from the central regions, home to the Bamar, the largest ethnic group. The Bamar had never before directly experienced the savagery of the Tatmadaw, in contrast to those ethnic minority groups from the areas affected by armed conflict. Following the coup, the ethnic Bamars now fully realize that the Tatmadaw has no place in the country if Myanmar is to have any chance of progressing towards a better future. They can no longer ignore the fact that the reconciliation strategy used by Aung San Suu Kyi is futile. The ethnic minorities from the ongoing conflict-affected areas had to make an urgent decision about whether to join the Bamars in the movement against the military. For them, the recent coup did not bring much change to their reality as many of their customary territories had already been seized by the military and they lived in constant risk of a coup. For many years they have lived in isolation as the Myanmar military assaulted their villages and killed, raped and tortured their people with impunity. Despite this history, they reject the attempt by the Tatmadaw to view this recent coup as a fight merely between the NLD and Tatmadaw but to see it in its broader anti-democratic context.
Coup leader, Min Aung Hlaing ©Doi Ra
Generation Z youth are the driving force of the Spring Revolution. They come from different classes including rich, middle-income and poor families from both urban and rural areas who grew up during a relatively open political environment, unencumbered by a past fear imposed during the era of the military rule. It is these young people who are now sustaining the street protests despite ruthless crackdown by the military and police force. They defend themselves with self-made shields, dubious quality helmets, plastic eye goggles and worn-out face masks. Their weapons against the real guns and bombs used by the Tatmadaw are Molotov cocktails and slingshots. Although most of these young people can be described as NLD supporters, their dedication to the revolution transcends allegiance to a particular political party or a political figure: they simply cannot accept the country falling back into the hands of a dictator. They are continuing the street protests, knowing that they are risking their lives in order to prevent the military from crushing the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and to push forward the Spring Revolution as an urgent international theme. The CDM also includes public servants employed by the state and working in state institutions (schools, universities, hospitals), infrastructure (railways) and bureaucracies (ministries and administrative agencies), as well as workers from key private sectors such as banking, energy, transportation and manufacturing, who are refusing to go to work.
‘… young people … defend themselves with self-made shields, dubious quality helmets, plastic eye goggles and worn-out face masks.’
So far, a significant portion of the workforce from both public and private sectors have joined CDM. This movement represents an unprecedented collective political movement by government staff; from senior all the way to junior ranking. The public sector has barely survived the chronic underfunding, mismanagement and corruption that it suffered under the military regime in the 1980s and 1990s. During that era, senior positions were generally filled by those with connections to the Myanmar military but without any appropriate qualifications. The political transition from 2011 onwards led to a significant inflow of development funding from the international community, the largest portion of which went into the revitalization of the public sector. Doctors and nurses, who first initiated CDM, became the frontline fighters in the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 and while the exhaustion caused by the pandemic was bearable, the coup was not. These frontline workers are finding it impossible to maintain their commitment to public service under the dictatorship.
‘… the strongest civilian resistance can be seen in the peri-urban areas … and the central regions which have not previously been affected by armed conflicts.’
To date, the strongest civilian resistance can be seen in the peri-urban areas populated by migrant workers coming from impoverished parts of the country and the central regions which have not previously been affected by armed conflict. Indeed, in the past the people living in these regions had few demands. When the terms of the political transition were determined by the military in 2010, people in these regions did not strongly protest because they took the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and many other key political figures as the first move towards a positive future. They also did not strongly object when the Aung San Suu Kyi-led government chose to reconcile with the army generals and their cronies. Poor peasants, on the other hand, waited impatiently as they demanded the return of their lands which had been grabbed by the military in the past; and the struggling rural and urban working people waited for the trickle-down benefits of the economic reforms. This is why the recent coup has angered the people so much: despite the colossal level of wealth expropriated from the country, the military and its cronies still want more.
Multi-ethnic demonstration ©Doi Ra
Rage against the military can be seen in the civil disobedience movement, the boycott against military-owned products, calls to build a new army and the call for ‘social punishment’ to be imposed on the immediate family and close relatives of the new illegitimate, military-installed government. So far over 700 people have lost their lives and more than 2,000 people have been arrested, yet there is no sign on the horizon that the revolution will end anytime soon.
’The last fight’, as it is called, has become a solidarity fight against the military with the force of resistance anchored in the young from various social classes and in the formidable Civil Disobedience Movement. All the ethnic groups, including those from both conflict and non-conflict affected areas, have now converged with one aim. The darkest moment unleashed by the coup has given birth to a revolution which cuts across social identities, social classes and generation. And because of that, we must win and we will win.
Header image: Mass demonstrations in Yangon ©Doi Ra
Doi Ra is a PhD researcher at ISS