Change has come to stay in Burma, but the question is whether a transfer of power will come through peaceful elections or by violence…Either way, the general consensus in Burma in the spring of 1990 is that the movement towards democracy which began exactly two years ago is irreversible.
—Bertil Lintner, “Outrage” (1990)
One morning in Rangoon during the Fall of 2013, as heavy sheets of monsoon rain pelted the corrugated metal rooftops of Tamwe, a government truck came rolling down the muddy street where my spouse I were living to herald the distribution of dengue fever vaccine in our neighbourhood. From the primitive, cone-shaped loudspeaker attached to its roof, we learned that Ministry of Health staff following the truck would shortly be visiting every building on our street to deliver the pills in person. I wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on without the benefit of simultaneous translation by my other half: Lune, a native of Karen State, told me he’d encountered this sort of thing all the time while growing up in Hpa-an.
The use of loudspeakers on moving vehicles had long been the go-to public broadcasting tool in poor countries—especially those with histories of military dictatorship. Burma had begun its transition from authoritarian rule two years before we got there. As far as we knew, elected politicians were now in charge of the Ministry of Health. But here was Big Brother, showing up on our street to patrol our self-care while warning us of an insidious tropical threat. They likely weren’t expecting to find foreigners in the townships they had targeted for this campaign: most expats, living in the pricier downtown housing of apartment blocks in Kamaryut or Myaynigone, were excluded from such intrusions. But Lune and I, wary of Rangoon’s notorious traffic, had chosen to live in hardscrabble, working class Tamwe so I could be within walking distance of the office where I worked for a local non-state newspaper. That choice had exposed us to local customs—weekly Buddhist fundraising parades, with their colourful processions of drummers and musicians, come to mind—of which many expats were deprived.
We had already been vaccinated before coming to Burma, but that’s beside the point. Always supportive of public health initiatives back home, I ought to have been charmed by this one: in the midst of a seasonal downpour, a local official earning a fraction of my income was willing to visit our apartment to help protect us from mosquitoes (which, in our exposed, non-airconditioned living quarters, were sure to find their way through the canopy of mesh netting that Lune had so carefully wrapped around our bed). But instead of being grateful, I was creeped out that this government worker—having climbed all seven flights of the barely lit staircase in our aging cement building, his passageway littered with long-discarded cigarette butts and crimson expulsions of betel nut juice—knocked loudly and insistently on our heavily fortified double doors, expecting to find us both at home and prepared to accept our allotted pills. Perhaps it was the idea of government coming to us rather than the other way around; or maybe it was the assumption that we should simply obey and ingest whatever drug The State was pushing, clinical trials be damned. Whatever the reason, I was gripped by a sudden, irrational attack of paranoia that Lune did nothing to discourage. We looked at each other and didn’t make a sound until the knocking stopped and our unsolicited donor moved on to another apartment. We never got a second visit, which was just fine by us.
Lune and I enjoyed most of the half year we spent in his native land. But the vaccine delivery was just one of many aspects of life in Burma that carried a strange whiff of lingering dictatorship. Despite the fact we had paid a full year’s rent in advance for our apartment, we had to report to the district office every month to register as foreign residents. City records were still kept on paper, and the state bureaucracy—crawling toward computerization after half a century cut off from the rest of the world—took forever to get things done. I was grateful to Lune for carrying out this dreary task on our behalf. But the amount he had to pay for a stamped receipt depended on the government officials working that day and what mood they were in: if they didn’t like Lune for being “Kayin”—or for the fact he was shacked up with a white Western male—they would tease him and demand more money. (Another oddity: at local bank branches, stacked mounds of bank notes three feet tall and six feet wide were openly displayed on tables behind the tellers. “Shouldn’t they at least cover it?!” I mused.)
Then there was “press freedom.” At the non-state newspaper where I worked as a sub editor, the principle of journalistic objectivity—well applied in stories about judicial corruption, government land grabs impoverishing local farmers, or ceasefire talks with the ethnic rebel armies—went out the window when it came to Rakhine State. Editorial policy about Rohingya Muslims followed in lock step with government policy which, in turn, was consistent with army policy: the word “Rohingya” was never to be used (only “Bengali”), and members of that minority were to be vilified as the alien, non-citizen Other. I refused to work on those stories.
In the streets of Rangoon there wasn’t much evidence of military presence. But every now and then we came across a faded billboard from the early days of the State Law and Order Restoration Council, a dated piece of SLORC propaganda that for some reason had been left standing in the post-dictatorship era. This was “The People’s Desires,” a short list of the junta’s wishes for a compliant citizenry, presented in English:
Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, or holding negative views.
Oppose those trying to jeopardize the stability of the State and progress of the nation.
Oppose foreign nations interfering in the internal affairs of the State.
Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy were first elected to government the year after we left Burma. How long would it take, I wondered, for the generals to lose patience with this force of human nature they had unleashed, this thing called parliamentary democracy?
When news first broke of the February 1 coup that prevented Suu Kyi and her re-elected NLD government from beginning their second term, my initial response—apart from growing fear for the well-being of people we knew—was grimly cynical: based on my reading of history, the coup seemed to confirm what has been a more or less permanent state of military rule since the generals’ first grab for power in 1962. Yes, there had been elections. Yes, there had been civilians running ministries and passing laws. And yes, political prisoners had been released and the country had opened up to tourism and foreign investment, with more opportunities than ever before to raise the standard of living for many. But if you scratched beneath the surface, it wasn’t hard to see that ‘quasi-civilian rule’ was a misleading euphemism; that the real power in the land also known as Myanmar was, and always had been, the national Army. The Tatmadaw.
No one knew this more than Suu Kyi, whose life since 1988 had been defined by an awkward dance with military generals who repeatedly tried but failed to stamp out her influence. In 1991, she received the Nobel Prize for promoting democracy through non-violence. She paid for it with two decades of on-again, off-again house arrest in which her every release was soon followed by another detention. In 2003, the dictators tried to kill her without taking the blame, sending a bunch of hired thugs to attack her motorcade during a rally in Depayin. (She barely escaped with her life, but several NLD supporters were slaughtered.) In November 2010, a week after the army-dominated Union Solidarity and Development Party was safely voted into office after the first elections, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest apparently for the last time.
Within months of her own election to Parliament two years later, the first round of violent attacks on Rohingya Muslims began in Rakhine State, setting the stage for genocide. Everyone wondered what The Lady would do, what she would say, in response to these attacks, which from the beginning bore all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing. As Opposition leader in the new Myanmar, Suu Kyi had every right and opportunity to call out the army-led USDP government of President Thein Sein, a former general, for permitting these Tatmadaw atrocities. But she didn’t. At first she said very little about the issue, condemning “communal violence” on both sides as if to imply equivalence between Rakhine Buddhist attacks that torched entire Rohingya villages and Rohingya violence in self-defence or retaliation. By early 2014 she was saying almost nothing about the issue—a curious non-commitment I wrote about while we were in Burma.
Locals told me that there was little Suu Kyi could have done to challenge the Tatmadaw’s authority on military matters. Some international observers assumed she was holding out for the 2015 elections, which the NLD would surely win in a landslide, so that she could take on the Rohingya issue from a position of strength. Such thinking was naïve. For one thing, it assumed that high office would give her more power to challenge the Tatmadaw than Opposition status had done. It also implied that the Nobel laureate shared Western revulsion toward anti-Rohingya atrocities and prioritized the universality of human rights in setting domestic policy. Such thinking did not allow for the possibility that Suu Kyi—a religious conservative whose martyred father, Aung San, was a founder of the Tatmadaw—might share the ethno-nationalist perspective of the Bamar Buddhist right that had driven the army’s operations in Rakhine State. Whatever the case, her stance did nothing to damage her fortunes at the ballot box in 2015 or 2020: the vast majority of Burmese voters, who are mostly Buddhist and worship the ground she walks on, supported her every decision. Any lingering doubts about this all but vanished with her appearance at the International Court of Justice in December 2019, where she defended the Tatmadaw by rejecting claims of genocide in Rakhine State. She returned home to a hero’s welcome.
No doubt there’s an element of Sisyphean tragedy in Suu Kyi’s arrest and detention this month. Since 2010, it seemed all but certain that she had finally ended her long and repeated stints of state-imposed isolation. So the fact she now finds herself, at age seventy-five, once again under the Tatmadaw’s boot heels—and so soon after doing the generals such a big favour at the Hague—seems a total defeat of her life mission since she arrived in the spotlight. Back down the hill that giant rock of democracy rolls yet again! For some Western observers, appalled by Suu Kyi’s fall from grace as an exemplar of human rights, there’s an awkward feeling about joining the cause this time. It’s as if, in picking up where the student protests of ’88 and the “Saffron Revolution” of 2007 left off, we’re supposed to pretend that the Nobel laureate didn’t just throw Rohingya Muslims under the bus. For such observers, the notion of carrying placards calling for her release, or tweeting #FreeAungSanSuuKyi, is something of a shit sandwich.
Such a reaction is understandable, if wrongheaded. The current crisis in Burma, after all, is not about Suu Kyi. It’s about a threat to representative government and civilian rule of which she is merely a symbol. Civil disobedience this time is about defending the future of an entire country’s youth, kids who now face the prospect of living the nightmare their parents, grandparents and great grandparents endured. As bad as Suu Kyi’s position on the Rohingya issue has been—and it’s been reprehensible—abandoning her now would only make things worse in Rakhine State. An army whose commanders are appointed by government and whose actions are subject to civilian oversight would be far less likely to trample on human rights to the extent that the Tatmadaw, operating with total impunity, has done since 1962. Suu Kyi also deserves criticism for clinging to the NLD leadership rather than grooming the next generation to replace her. But since she remains the standard bearer for parliamentary democracy, part of the response in calling for an end to the coup means holding one’s nose and, yes, demanding her release once again, along with that of President Win Myint and other detainees.
Meet the new junta: same as the old junta
The 2008 Constitution is entirely the product of the Tatmadaw’s desire to protect its own powers and ensure immunity from prosecution for any of its officers accused of human rights abuses. The outgoing dictatorship passed it into law following a bogus referendum in May 2008, a plebiscite that was held on schedule despite a catastrophic event days earlier that had killed nearly 140,000 people in the Irrawaddy Delta. Senior General Than Shwe, loath to acknowledge the need for foreign assistance, reportedly refused international aid for several days after Cyclone Nargis, no doubt boosting its death toll. (He was too busy making sure the referendum was held and that its vote-yes-or-else strategy prevailed, the Tatmadaw’s institutional infallibility being a higher priority than the nutritional, medical or housing needs of traumatized flood survivors.) Ostensibly designed for the new “quasi-civilian” democracy, that same new Constitution included a provision that allowed the army to seize power in order to prevent any situation that “may disintegrate the Union or disintegrate national solidarity or that may cause the loss of sovereignty.” Ten years after relinquishing total power, they finally found their pretext to get it back.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the key defendant on international charges of genocide for his command in Rakhine State, has always wanted to run the country. In 2015, he considered a possible run for president as a civilian but abandoned the idea of campaigning as the USDP candidate, perhaps knowing he would be trounced by Suu Kyi. By this summer, he will turn sixty-five and would have been due for retirement from the army. Having no path to power by legitimate means, he thus pre-empted such a fate by leading the coup and making himself chair of the junta. His stated reason for overthrowing the government is, of course, a lie: he did not seize power because of voter fraud or irregularities in the November election, but because the NLD won 83 per cent of its contested seats. He took power because the pro-democracy party was in a position to outvote the bloc of military MPs and enact constitutional amendments that could have threatened the army’s vice-grip on the country and removed the generals’ cherished immunity from prosecution. For this reason, the possibility of a coup was always in the cards.
But perhaps my use of “permanent” to describe military rule in Burma, while an objectively fair assessment, was the cruel diagnosis of an armchair critic from a distance; a slap in the face to the people who actually have to live through the nightmare. The millions of Burmese citizens who have turned out in the streets for mass demonstrations certainly don’t think dictatorship is permanent; nor do they have any intention of just lying down and letting their votes be treated with such contempt. But they also know their history, and the ominous signs of crackdown are always plain to see. As of this writing, demonstrations have been met with water cannons and tear gas; in Naypyidaw, a young woman named Mya Thweh Thweh Khine remains in critical condition after being shot in the head. The coup leaders have also checked off another time-honoured strategy in their playbook by raiding NLD offices. What the Tatmadaw does next is anyone’s guess, but historical precedent has given them good reason to be confident. Economic sanctions by Western nations have never stopped them, and they don’t seem all that worried by the prospect of international companies pulling out, either. But the new U.S. government of President Joe Biden is hoping that targeting the generals’ assets will make a bigger difference than imposing blanket sanctions, which only hurt the economy and the Burmese people.
Messing with the wrong generation
There are big differences between the anti-coup demonstrations of 2021 and those of 1988 and 1962, the public protests of the 2007 “Saffron Revolution,” and the 1974 riots surrounding U Thant’s public funeral. During the first two military takeovers, and in the tug-of-war to decide the burial location for the late United Nations secretary-general, there was no Internet to reveal army atrocities; international phone connections were spotty and unreliable. In those cases, the Tatmadaw opened fire on protesters and brutalized the population at will, consequence-free. In 2007, Twitter did not exist and Facebook had yet to take hold in a country where few people had computers or cell phones. So when demonstrations got too large, the generals simply shut down the Internet and began the slaughter, even killing Buddhist monks.
When this year began, the Tatmadaw was facing a citizenry that had been living for ten years in an open society with more freedoms, more consumer goods, and more access to information than ever. According to the last census taken in 2014, fifty-six per cent of Burma’s population was under the age of thirty. For a large portion of the young adult population, the November elections were the first time they’d ever voted: in choosing to re-elect the NLD, they acted with a much greater sense of entitlement than the beaten-down citizenry who had cast their votes in 1990 after twenty-eight years of dictatorship and two years of SLORC brutality. With access to computers, I- phones, and social media accounts, today’s young people, Generation ‘Z’, are tech-savvy and know how to circumvent government censorship. When the junta responded to the first acts of civil disobedience by shutting down mobile Internet and broadband services, the people simply turned to virtual private networks and international SIM cards. And so, even as Suu Kyi and her fellow detainees remain in the dark, cut off from the outside world, the Burmese people remain in the light, defying the coup and keeping the information flowing.
Another big difference is in the composition and strategy of the demonstrations. In the old days, single rallies were held in prominent locations of every city or village, their predictable format and route maps making them easy targets for government crackdown. This year’s demonstrations have been held in multiple locations in every community, with large numbers of participants in each place, their broad distribution and diffuse energy making the protests harder for state authorities to contain. Rotating strikes have been held by doctors, lawyers, engineers and other public servants, and when demonstrators aren’t fighting back against police, they’re asking them to drop their weapons and join the movement—which forty police officers in Kayah State just did.
There’s a sense of joyful exuberance, a playfulness in these demonstrations, that seems different from 2007. This year’s defiance of the Tatmadaw progressed quickly from rattling pots and pans on private balconies to showing up in the streets in huge numbers, everyone flashing the three-fingered “Hunger Games” salute of opposition to tyranny. The spirit of resistance seems to have been captured from day one when a video of a young woman in Naypyidaw performing a dance routine, just as military trucks were arriving at Parliament to begin the coup, went viral. (Was she oblivious, or was this merely a bit of staged surrealism? Did it matter?) Scenes of joyful defiance were posted from virtually every major city in the country—from the young newlyweds who left their wedding ceremony to join the demonstrations, and the giant flotilla of protest at Inle Lake in Shan State, to the group of shirtless gym hunks in Rangoon who became instant click bait around the world. The fact that mass demonstrations and civil disobedience have taken place at all in Naypyidaw, the capital city and heavily fortified Tatmadaw nerve centre, is extraordinary: Than Shwe, the eighty-eight-year-old former dictator who thought he’d retired to a quiet life in the world’s most boring capital, must be pissing himself with rage right about now.
Even the Rohingya are part of the conversation. Since the coup, social media—which once disseminated anti-Rohingya hatred like wildfire—is becoming a place for some Bamar Buddhists to express remorse over their treatment of Muslims. One exiled Rohingya activist living in Germany told Time magazine that he gained 3,000 new Twitter followers in a single day last week, thanks to a growing number of Buddhists tweeting to apologize for their bigotry. “They are now realizing the common enemy is the military,” he said. Yes, for all of Suu Kyi’s public support at home among the majority, it is not apparent that Bamar Buddhist ethno-nationalism is as virulent or widespread as the fascist monks would have us believe. If one result of this coup is increased empathy and cooperation between Muslims and Bamar Buddhists, that would be a victory in itself.
Saying a prayer for Burma, again
Following the news about Burma in 2021 feels more personal than it did in 2007. This time, Lune and I both know people who live there. His family will probably be okay, but some of our friends in Rangoon might end up putting their lives at risk the longer they participate in acts of civil disobedience. So it’s hard not to follow their Facebook posts and tweets with increasing anxiety, even as we share their excitement over the movement’s building momentum. Knowing the situation, I tend to regard any lack of news—any gap in communication longer than eighteen hours—as a bad sign. Prone to paranoia at such times, my mind goes to dark places. (Has China moved in to help the Tatmadaw shut down the whole country?)
One of our friends, a Millennial, assured me during a Messenger call on Monday that he wouldn’t attend the next day’s demonstrations because he didn’t want to get shot. “I want to live,” he said. “There’s nothing heroic about getting killed. You’re just dead, like so many others before you. You can’t do anything anymore.” But there he was again on Facebook the next day, attending another mass demo and appearing to love every minute of it. Yesterday he assured me that he’s just fine.
May the force be with him, and all the people of Burma.
*EDIT, February 12: Just after posting this essay, I learned that the military junta has drafted a new cyber-security law, to come into effect on February 15, that would organize online censorship and force social media platforms to share private information about their users when requested by the authorities. Meanwhile, according to Reporters Without Borders—who have seen the leaked draft law—the proposed law coincides with the arrival in Burma of “many Chinese technicians tasked with setting up an Internet barrier and cybersurveillance system of the kind operating in China, which is an expert in this domain…”
“The Myanmar Internet providers (Telenor and Ooredo etc.) will likely follow their public engagement policy and consult with their mother companies,” the Victoria-based Burmese contact who shared this information tells me, “but if it is law they will have no recourse but to comply.”